The justification of libertarian political institutions follows logically from relatively uncontroversial moral intuitions held by a broad range of reasonable people.
I am an advocate of two controversial philosophical views: ethical intuitionism and libertarianism. Ethical intuitionism is a general theory about the nature of values and our knowledge thereof. The theory is logically consistent with almost any moral or political views. Nevertheless, certain ethical views are especially natural ones for an intuitionist to hold. Furthermore, those ethical views fit naturally with libertarian political philosophy. So, although I don’t claim that libertarianism can be derived from ethical intuitionism, I do think that libertarian intuitionism is a very natural and coherent position. In what follows, I aim to explain why.
Major Tenets of Ethical Intuitionism
I have written about intuitionism at length elsewhere. 1 Here, I will just offer a sketch of the view. Two main ideas are central to any ethical intuitionist position.
The first tenet of intuitionism is moral realism. This is the view that there are objective values (or objective evaluative properties, objective evaluative facts, objectively true value statements). That is, there are at least some true statements of the form “x is good,” “x is bad,” or “x should (or shouldn’t) do y,” such that those statements do not depend for their truth on observers’ attitudes toward x or y.
Who would disagree with moral realism? A number of people do. Some believe that what is right or wrong is determined entirely by what society approves or disapproves of. Thus, the truth of any “should” statement always depends on one’s culture. Others believe that what is good, bad, right, or wrong depends on the attitudes of the individual. Others believe that evaluative statements, in general, are neither true nor false. Finally, some believe that all (positive) evaluative statements are false, because in reality, nothing has any evaluative properties. 2 Those views are known, respectively, as relativism, subjectivism, noncognitivism, and nihilism. The intuitionist rejects all four of those views.
What would be an example of an objective evaluative truth? During the 1970s, Ted Bundy, one of history’s most notorious psychopaths, murdered a series of more than 30 women, apparently for entertainment purposes. (He was finally executed in Florida in 1989.) Bundy’s behavior was, to say the least, extremely bad and wrong. That is not an indeterminate statement (neither true nor false), and it certainly isn’t a false statement; it’s true. And it’s not true because society says so. Rather, if our society somehow accepted Bundy’s behavior, our society would just be horribly misguided. Nor is it true because I said so. If I somehow approved of Bundy, I would just be horribly misguided. In general, “Bundy’s actions were bad” is true independent of observers’ attitudes. There are many similar examples.
Intuition and Moral Knowledge
The second main tenet of intuitionism is that ethical intuition enables us to gain knowledge of at least some of the objective evaluative truths. There is more than one understanding of “ethical intuition”; here, I will just sketch my own understanding. In my view, an ethical intuition is a type of appearance. An appearance is a type of mental state, in which something seems to one to be the case. This appearance differs from belief, because it is possible to either believe or disbelieve what seems to one to be the case. Appearances typically cause beliefs.
There are several species of appearances, including sensory, mnemonic, and intellectual. For example, when I see a squirrel outside my window, I have a sensory appearance in which it seems that a squirrel is outside the window. When I think back to this morning, I have a mnemonic appearance in which I seem to remember having a delicious tofu scramble for breakfast. When I think about geometry, I have an intellectual appearance in which it seems to me that the shortest path between any two points must be a straight line.
That last is an example of an “intuition” (in the philosophers’ technical sense). An intuition is an initial, intellectual appearance. That is, it is a mental state in which something seems to one to be the case upon intellectual reflection, where this appearance does not depend on entertaining an inference to that conclusion. When I think about what is the shortest path between two points, I do not entertain an argument that it must be a straight line; rather, it just seems immediately obvious that it must be a straight line.
An “ethical intuition” is simply an intuition of some evaluative proposition. It is an initial, intellectual appearance that something is good, bad, right, or wrong. For example, when I reflect, it just seems obvious that pleasure is intrinsically good (good for its own sake).
All rational beliefs are based on appearances. With few exceptions, when you believe that P, you believe it because it seems to you that P, or perhaps because it seems to you that Q, and it seems to you that Q supports P (or it seems to you that R, and it seems to you that R supports Q, and it seems to you that Q supports P, etc.). Your belief is thus caused by and based on one or more appearances.
The exceptions are cases in which you form beliefs based on emotions, desires, leaps of faith, or some such obviously nonrational source. No other alternatives exist. (There is not, for example, the alternative of a belief based on an infinite series of other beliefs or a belief based on a fact that is never presented in any appearances.)
A belief is justified, in my view, provided that the belief is based on an appearance that one has no reason to doubt. If P seems true to you, and there are no reasons to doubt P or to doubt the reliability of the appearance, then it makes sense to believe P. 3 Ethical beliefs are sometimes justified, because sometimes one has the intuition that x is good (or bad, or right, or wrong), and one has no reason to doubt it.
There is more to say about knowledge, but the preceding is the most important part. When we ask, “How do we know x?” the main thing we want to know is how we are justified in believing x (this being a crucial necessary condition on knowing). The preceding explains how we are sometimes justified in believing evaluative truths.
In addition to the above two essential points, there is a third important aspect of the approach taken by many intuitionists (myself included): intuitionists tend to be antitheoretical. That is, we tend to think that relatively specific, concrete judgments take precedence over general, theoretical judgments. 4 What does this “taking precedence” amount to? Four closely related things can be said to explain it.
First, the way human cognition normally works is that we come to know concrete, specific things first, and general, abstract things later—if at all. In fact, the justification for a general theory usually depends on our first having justified beliefs about specific cases. For instance, to be justified in accepting some general account of what justice is, one must first know in many individual cases what is a just or unjust action.
Second, specific judgments are usually more reliable and better justified than general, theoretical judgments. Consider beliefs about the physical world to start with. Almost every theory about the physical world that was ever accepted was wrong (Aristotle’s physics, Ptolemaic astronomy, the theory of the four elements, etc.). Conversely, of the beliefs about specific physical objects (“that cat is furry,” “the apples are on the counter,” “a river is at the base of the hill,” etc.), probably almost all have been correct. I think much the same is true in almost every field: most abstract theories are false, whereas most concrete judgments are true. The record for philosophical theories, by the way, is especially bad.
Third, as a corollary to the preceding two points, if you have a general theory that turns out to conflict with the judgment you would be inclined to accept about some particular case, then, almost always, the theory is wrong. For instance, let’s say you initially accept the theory that no person should ever violate another person’s rights (including property rights). Then you consider a case in which a person trespasses on another person’s land because that trespass is necessary to take someone to the hospital during a medical emergency. On its face, the trespass seems OK, though a violation of the landowner’s property right. You could revise your theory so as to accept that violating someone’s rights is sometimes permissible, or you could stick to your guns and insist that the trespass was wrong. The former choice is the correct one.
Fourth, suppose you are interested in the answer to some relatively specific question (say, what is the right immigration policy?). You should usually try to answer the question using the most concrete premises that will provide an answer (and that are also highly plausible). You typically should not take a detour through some very general theory (say, a general theory of when coercion is justified). As a rule, such detours will make you much less likely to arrive at the truth. 5 Another way of putting the methodological point is, don’t answer more than you have to. When asked whether immigration restrictions are justified, you don’t have to answer when in general a coercive act is justified, what in general is the good, or what is the nature of justice. So don’t.
Why, then, have I been addressing abstract, theoretical questions throughout this section? Do we really need to address such questions to figure out what is the best political ideology?
No, we don’t. You could follow my argument for libertarianism without knowing about intuitionism. My book on political philosophy never mentions intuitionism. But for this chapter, I was specifically asked to address the relationship between intuitionism and libertarianism. And it is true that my views on those two subjects cohere. But I think you should be a libertarian whether or not ethical intuitionism is true, and I think you should be an intuitionist whether or not libertarianism is true.
Why Libertarianism? The Argument from Skepticism about Authority
I have discussed the case for libertarianism at length elsewhere. 6 Here, I will briefly sketch my reasons for endorsing a libertarian political philosophy, with special attention to how these reasons cohere with an intuitionist account of ethics.
The Role of Commonsense Morality in Political Philosophy
I believe that political philosophy ought to start from ethics: to figure out how the government should behave in some situation, we should first reflect on how we think people should behave in analogous situations, because the government is just a certain group of people. Furthermore, ethics, as I’ve suggested earlier, ought to start from our ethical intuitions, that is, the ethical propositions that seem obvious on reflection.
Sometimes, an individual’s ethical intuitions conflict with the intuitions of other people. That conflict is particularly common when it comes to intuitions that bear on controversial political issues. Of particular import, those of differing political ideologies will often have conflicting ethical intuitions. For instance, those on the left and those on the right of the political spectrum tend to have different intuitions about the value of equality: leftwing thinkers find wealth inequalities intuitively, intrinsically problematic, whereas rightwing thinkers are much less likely to see any intuitive problem with it.
Given moral realism, someone’s intuitions must be mistaken. However, we have no good reason to assume that other people are much more likely to have mistaken intuitions than we ourselves are. Therefore, pending further argument, we should withhold judgment on controversial issues where people’s intuitions diverge radically, especially when intuitions diverge along ideological lines.
On what, then, should we base our ethical beliefs? A natural methodological approach is this: one should look for the least controversial ethical intuitions and try to build other normative beliefs upon those. In the realm of politics, it is especially important to seek evaluative premises that would seem correct to reasonable people of different ideological inclinations, whether they be leftwing, rightwing, libertarian, or something else. No premises are accepted by everyone, but if some ethical premise seems obvious to the great majority of people regardless of their political orientation, then that premise should be assumed correct unless and until we have good reasons for thinking otherwise. In addition, the ideas presented earlier suggest that these should mainly be intuitive ethical judgments about specific cases. If we have a widespread, specific intuition, that is a reasonable starting point; no further theory or argument is needed. 7
Some Commonsense Ethical Intuitions
Here is an example. Imagine that I live in a village that has some poor people who are not being adequately cared for. Suppose I go around the village demanding contributions for a charity that I run to aid the poor. If anyone refuses to contribute, I kidnap them at gunpoint and lock them in a cage for an extended period. What is the moral status of my behavior?
Most people intuit that this behavior would be wrong. It is of course laudable to run a charity to aid the poor; what is not permissible is to collect contributions by force and to imprison noncontributors. One need not give a theory of why this is wrong nor argue that it is wrong, because it just seems wrong to nearly everyone, regardless of whether one is leftwing, rightwing, libertarian, or other, and this appearance suffices for justified belief, in the absence of specific grounds for doubt.
On its face, my behavior in that scenario seems analogous to that of a government collecting funds for social welfare programs through taxation, where those who refuse to pay the taxes will be arrested and jailed. From here, it becomes the burden of those who support such government actions to explain why those actions are morally permissible, either by showing how the government’s actions are really different from the actions in my example (in a way that makes the government’s behavior much better) or by showing how the actions in my example are really justified (though that would be very difficult). If the defenders of government social welfare programs cannot discharge this burden, then we should conclude that government social welfare programs are impermissible.
Note how this argument differs from the sort of arguments traditionally advanced by libertarian absolute rights theorists, such as Murray Rothbard, Ayn Rand, and (perhaps) Robert Nozick. 8 They argue, roughly, that because it is always wrong to initiate coercion and because taxation requires the initiation of coercion, taxation must be wrong. By contrast, I argue that because taxation for the purpose of supporting social welfare programs is on its face analogous to behavior that would seem wrong if it were done by anyone other than the government, there is a presumption that such taxation is wrong. It is the burden of those who support social welfare programs to rebut this presumption.
My argument, I think, has a more reliable ethical starting point. Of course, this also makes the rest of the argument more difficult, because we must listen to what the defenders of social welfare programs have to say in their defense and because we can never be sure that they will not devise some new argument for why government social welfare programs are really disanalogous to the seemingly wrongful behavior in my example.
This kind of argument can be made on behalf of any of the standard libertarian political positions. The policies that libertarians advocate for the government are just the policies that almost anyone would advocate for any private agent; it is thus easy to argue that there should be a presumption in favor of libertarian policies. Consider three more examples: 9
Imagine that I declare to everyone in my village that no one may consume certain substances that I have determined to be unhealthful. I then go around kidnapping people who consume those substances and locking them in cages for years at a time. This behavior on my part would seem unacceptable. But on its face, the behavior is analogous to the government’s policy of drug prohibition. So this establishes a presumption that drug prohibition is also impermissible. Notice that my kidnappings would not be rendered permissible by my showing that the unhealthful substances are really bad for my neighbors’ health. Nor would they be rendered permissible by my showing that some of my neighbors have lost their jobs and become losers in life because they loved those unhealthful substances so much. Because those sorts of reasons would not be enough to give me the right to kidnap my neighbors and hold them prisoner, prima facie, they don’t give the government the right to do so either.
Imagine that I declare that I am forbidding any of my neighbors to own certain kinds of guns (though I myself own some of these weapons). I then learn that my nextdoor neighbor has one of the proscribed weapons. So I kidnap him at gunpoint and, again, lock him in a cage. This action seems wrong on my part. It also seems analogous to the government’s behavior in enacting and enforcing its gun control laws. Plausibly, my kidnapping would be permissible if I had strong evidence that my nextdoor neighbor in particular was planning to shoot an innocent person, and taking him captive was my only way to prevent the shooting. But I can’t kidnap and imprison him merely because some other people in the country (a tiny proportion of all those who own such weapons) have used the kinds of weapons in question to commit crimes. So, prima facie, the government also is not justified in imprisoning people merely because they own weapons that some other people have used to commit crimes.
Imagine that I learn that a hungry person, Marvin, is planning to travel to a local marketplace to buy some food. I know that some merchants in the marketplace are willing to trade with Marvin, enabling him to satisfy his needs. I, however, accost Marvin on the road, forcibly barring him from the marketplace. As a result, Marvin goes hungry. This behavior on my part would be seriously wrong; I would then be responsible for Marvin’s starvation. This example is analogous to the government’s immigration restrictions. Potential immigrants would like to come into the country, where there are people who are willing to trade with them and thereby help them satisfy their needs. The U.S. government hires armed guards to forcibly prevent these individuals from entering the country to work. Notice that my treatment of Marvin would not be rendered permissible by any of the following considerations: (a) I wanted to prevent some of the people already at the marketplace from having to compete with Marvin economically, (b) I was afraid that Marvin might influence the culture of the marketplace in ways that I wouldn’t like, and (c) I was worried that if Marvin got to the marketplace, I myself would give him some free food because of a charity program I run to aid the poor. All of those considerations would be absurd justifications for my coercively interfering with Marvin. But they are analogous to the most common justifications offered for immigration restrictions (immigrants compete with lowskill American workers, immigrants might change our culture, immigrants consume government benefits). So prima facie, those reasons do not justify the government’s coercive intervention either.
It appears, then, that the essential difference between libertarians and nonlibertarians is that libertarians apply the same ethical standards to the government’s behavior that they apply to the behavior of nongovernmental agents, whereas nonlibertarians believe the government is special in a way that exempts it from some of the moral constraints that apply to other agents.
This special moral status that the government is thought to have has a name: “authority”—more specifically, “political authority.” The government can take your money, and you’re obligated to hand it over, because the government has authority. I can’t take your money, and you have no obligation to hand it over to me, because I don’t have any authority. Note that those who believe in authority think that we are obligated to obey the law, and the government is entitled to enforce the law, even when the law is misguided (within limits). 10 It’s not just that you should follow the laws that are actually beneficial, wise, or just; you’re supposed to be obligated to follow the law just because it is the law.
So another way of describing the core motivation of libertarianism is this: libertarians are skeptical of authority. My defense of libertarianism starts from the presumption that this skepticism is justified, unless and until someone can articulate a satisfactory account of the basis for the government’s authority. As a matter of fact, I claim, no one can: all attempts to explain why the government is special, such that it may do things that no other agent may do, have failed.
Obviously, I cannot discuss every possible such attempt, though I have discussed the most important attempts elsewhere. 11 Here, I’ll briefly sketch three such attempts and how they fail.
The implicit social contract theory. Some argue that the government may coerce us in a wide variety of ways, because we have all agreed to grant the government this right, in exchange for the government’s protecting us. This is the social contract theory. Usually, it is said that we accepted this contract “implicitly,” perhaps by using government services or by living in the geographical area that the government controls, or merely by refraining from explicitly protesting.
In standard contract doctrine as it applies in any other context, there are at least three important principles about valid contracts:
Both parties must have a reasonable way of opting out, where this does not include one party being compelled to undertake enormous costs that the other party has no independent right to impose on him. For example, I cannot make you an employment offer and then declare that if you don’t agree to work for me, you must signal this nonagreement by cutting off your left arm; that is not a reasonable way of opting out.
If one party explicitly states that he does not agree, then one cannot claim that he implicitly agreed anyway.
Both parties must undertake obligations to each other, and if one party explicitly repudiates his obligations under the contract, then the other party is no longer bound to do his own part.
The putative social contract violates all three principles. First, because governments have taken control of every habitable land mass on the planet, there is no way of opting out. Second, even if you explicitly state that you don’t agree, the government will still impose its conditions on you. Third, the government recognizes no obligation to do anything for you. This position has been established in a number of court cases in which plaintiffs have sued the government for negligently failing to protect them; in each case, the court summarily dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that the government isn’t obligated to protect any specific individual. 12
The hypothetical contract theory. This theory is perhaps the most popular view among contemporary political philosophers, mainly because of the work of John Rawls. In this theory, the government has authority because we would have agreed to the social contract, in a hypothetical scenario in which we were all perfectly reasonable and deciding on the fundamental principles of our society. This matters because the fact that we would agree to some arrangement shows that the arrangement is fair and reasonable.
Imagine that I make you an employment offer. My offer is so fair and reasonable that any reasonable person would accept it. Nevertheless, you decline. Is it now permissible for me to force you to accept my offer (that is, enslave you), in virtue of the fact that it was a fair and reasonable offer, which you would have agreed to in a certain hypothetical scenario? If not, then of what moral relevance is a hypothetical contract?
The authority of democracy. Some claim that we are obligated to obey the laws because they were made democratically and therefore reflect the will of the majority of people. Now, that last claim is naive; many laws actually fail to reflect the will of the majority for a variety of reasons. 13 But suppose we set that aside and assume that some particular law reflects the will of the majority. So what?
Imagine that I am out with a group of nine friends at a bar. We’ve racked up a goodsized bill, and the question arises as to how the bill shall be divided: Should it be divided equally, or should each person pay for what that individual ordered? One of my friends proposes that I should pay 70 percent of the bill, with the rest being divided among the others. I decline. (I didn’t order anything close to 70 percent of the drinks.) They take a vote. It turns out that everyone at the table except me wants me to pay most of the bill. Am I now obligated to pay the 70 percent? Are the others entitled to force me to do so? If not, then of what relevance is the will of the majority? 14
Of course, there is more to say about each of these theories, and there are more theories to consider. But things go much the same with all the arguments in defense of authority: they rely on claims that would not for a moment be deemed plausible in any other context.
The upshot of the failure of all accounts of authority is that the libertarian presumption stands. That is, because no one can satisfactorily explain why the government should be exempt from the moral rules that apply to everyone else, we should, in fact, judge the government according to the same rules we apply to others. Because libertarian policies would seem obviously correct for any nongovernmental agent, the government, too, should adopt libertarian policies.
Minimal State or Anarchy?
Some libertarians are minimal statists: they believe that we should have a government limited to enforcing people’s negative rights to be free from force and fraud. Other libertarians, myself included, are anarchists: we believe that the ideal society is one in which the functions of the minimal state have been privatized.
Presenting the arguments on either side of that debate is beyond the scope of this chapter. Here I will just comment on the central locus of dispute and what it has to do with ethical intuitionism. The answer to that question is “very little”—the dispute between anarchists and minimal statists turns mainly on empirical questions of social science, not on any differing beliefs (intuitive or otherwise) about ethics.
Most minimal statists believe that government is needed to prevent a complete breakdown of social order. Most anarchists believe that a peaceful and orderly society is possible without government, because the functions of providing security and resolving disputes can be privatized. Reasonable anarchists agree that if government were necessary to provide order and security, then society ought to have government. And reasonable minimal statists agree that if government were not needed to provide order and security, then society ought not to have government.
Commonsense morality suffices to justify libertarianism—that is, to show that at most a minimal state is justified—or so I claim. Commonsense morality does not, however, suffice to justify anarchism. To justify anarchism, one must, in addition, support the empirical belief that private provision of order and security is feasible. The latter is a complicated task, in which ethical intuitions have essentially no role to play. On this, then, I shall say no more.
The Argument from Moral Progress
One important argument for moral realism is based on the observed phenomenon of moral progress.
The Phenomenon of Moral Progress
Over the span of human history—whether we look on the scale of decades, centuries, or millennia—we see significant changes in values and practices. Those changes are not random; they appear to be moving us consistently in a specific direction, and they are consistent across societies all over the world. 15
The direction of moral change can be described broadly as a liberalization of values and practices. “Liberalism,” as I use the term herein, refers to a certain broad ethical orientation (not to be confused with “liberalism” in contemporary American politics), characterized by three main values: (a) a commitment to the moral equality of persons, (b) a respect for the dignity and rights of individuals, and (c) a reluctance to resort to force or violence.
The liberalization of values is consistent across many different issues. For example, slavery was widespread throughout human history, yet in the past two centuries, it was abolished in every nation in the world. Wars of conquest were common throughout history and often regarded (at least when successful) as glorious and manly; yet war has become steadily rarer over the past century and especially the past few decades, and virtually no one any longer regards a war of conquest as honorable.
Some of the world’s greatest empires (notably the British Empire and the French Empire) were relinquished in the past century. Prejudice on the basis of race, sex, religion, and other traits has dramatically declined in the past few decades, especially following the civil rights movement.
Gladiatorial combat was a common and accepted form of entertainment in ancient Rome, and it didn’t seem to occur to anyone at the time that forcing men to fight to the death was wrong. Two hundred years ago, men fought duels to settle points of honor, and a great many things were seen as sufficient reasons for initiating such mortal combat. Today, only a crazy person would endorse gladiatorial combat or dueling. Throughout history, almost all governments were dictatorships; today, democracy has taken over about half the world and continues to expand.
Some of those changes have occurred in recent decades, some in recent centuries, and some over millennia. But virtually every major shift in values is in the direction of liberalism, and this trend is worldwide. It may be the most important and interesting trend in all of human history.
The Explanation of Moral Progress
What explains the trend? I cannot address every explanation that someone might offer. Instead, I will just state what I think is the best explanation: human values and practices have become progressively more liberal, because liberalism is the objectively correct moral stance. Over the span of history, human beings have made dramatic progress in almost all areas of intellectual endeavor. In all of the sciences, mathematics, the study of history, and philosophy, human thought has become dramatically more sophisticated. In most areas, we now know that the theories that were once accepted were almost completely wrong. So if there are ethical facts, we might reasonably expect that in ethics, too, human beings would gradually progress from theories that were almost completely wrong to theories that are more sophisticated and accurate.
Here is a more detailed account of how moral progress occurs. Human values are influenced by a variety of factors in addition to purely rational intuitions. Those other factors include instincts, emotions, cultural traditions, and selfinterest. The other factors act as biases, which led primitive humans to have ethical views that were badly misguided. However, because human beings also possess a capacity for rational ethical intuitions based on intellectual reflection, and because some individuals are more rational than others, there will periodically be individuals who see something wrong with the values of their society. Those individuals do not see the whole moral truth; they are still influenced by various biases, and they will find it psychologically difficult to adopt a position too far from the prevailing norms in their society. They merely get closer to the moral truth than the rest of their society, because they are, by definition, less biased than the average member of their society. Those individuals then initiate movements to reform their society. That is what occurred in the case of the abolitionist movement, the women’s suffrage movement, and the civil rights movement, for example. The moral reformers will have a tendency to move their society at least some distance in the direction of justice.
Once this movement has taken place, a new cultural norm is established, one closer to the moral truth than the old one. At that point, a new generation of moral reformers may arise, again seeing some of what is wrong with their society, and again adopting a position slightly closer to the moral truth than what the rest of their society has embraced.
By this sort of process, society moves progressively closer to the correct moral stance over time. Add to this the supposition that liberalism is, in fact, the moral truth, and we have an explanation for why societies around the world have been liberalizing over the decades and centuries.
This explanation depends on the assumption that there is such a thing as objective (or at least universal) moral truth, which we can access through ethical intuition. If, as I claim, no better explanations are available for the historical trend, then we have reason to embrace that assumption. In general, it is reasonable to postulate those things that are necessary for explaining (well) the observed facts.
Libertarianism as a Coherent Liberalism
So one of my main arguments for moral realism is also an argument for liberalism as the correct moral stance. Now, what is the relationship between liberalism and libertarianism? The answer is that, as I use the terms, libertarianism is a species of liberalism. Furthermore, it is the most coherent form of liberalism, or so I shall maintain. Therefore, if liberalism is correct, then probably libertarianism is correct.
Recall that I ascribed to the “liberal” three major, interconnected attitudes:
Commitment to the moral equality of persons
Respect for the dignity of the individual
Aversion to coercion
All of those values stand in tension with the concept of political authority. I do not mean that a liberal cannot believe in authority, but that the rejection of authority fits better with liberalism. Given that the core motivation of libertarianism, as I understand it, is skepticism about authority, libertarianism is to that extent a more coherent form of liberalism than any form that embraces authority.
Now, why is the notion of authority in tension with liberalism? The doctrine of political authority is fundamentally inegalitarian. To ascribe political authority to some agent is explicitly to place that agent above others, in such a way that the agent is entitled to order everyone else around, and other people have to do what that agent says just because that agent says so. This doctrine seems on its face to impugn the dignity of everyone who is “under” the authority, insofar as they are supposed to follow the authority figure’s directions regardless of their own judgment and regardless of whether the authority figure’s directions are actually correct.
Is this true of all kinds of “authority”? I don’t think so; I think the criticism applies only to forms of authority that, like political authority, are forcibly imposed on one. By contrast, for instance, a manager’s authority over an employee is normally not objectionably inegalitarian, because the employee’s autonomy is respected in the form of his choice as to whether to undertake the employeeemployer relationship, as well as his freedom to terminate the relationship at will.
The doctrine of political authority supports widespread coercion, because the use or threat of violence is essential to the enforcement of government commands. To ascribe authority to the state is, among other things, to grant the state an entitlement to force obedience. For those individuals who do not obey, the state will send armed guards to take them captive. All of this, it seems to me, is blatantly and extremely illiberal.
One might say that there are nonetheless good arguments for the existence of political authority, or that there are good reasons for acting as if there were such a thing even if in fact authority is an illusion. This argument doesn’t change the fact that there is a tension inherent in any position that claims to value equality, to respect individual dignity, and to oppose unnecessary coercion, while simultaneously positing a special organization that is entitled to force everyone else to obey its commands, regardless of whether those commands are actually wise or beneficial, even though no other agent would be entitled to use force in similar circumstances. And this is no small tension; the idea of political authority is, it seems to me, a very large illiberal aspect of any political philosophy that includes it. We therefore have reason to suspect that, as values and practices liberalize further, the libertarian’s skepticism of authority will become ever more widespread.
Libertarianism vs. Egalitarianism
Critics might contend that, although skepticism of authority may be a liberal attitude, other important aspects of libertarianism are illiberal. Most notably, libertarians typically reject government social welfare programs as going beyond the legitimate functions of the state.
Relatedly, although libertarians certainly embrace equality in one sense—that every person has equal rights and equal moral status—they tend to reject any ideal in the vicinity of equality of wealth or welfare. Thus, a libertarian society would most likely be one in which there was a large gap between the rich and the poor. By contrast, (leftwing) egalitarians believe not only that individuals have equal rights and equal moral status, but also that inequalities in wealth are bad and should be reduced or eliminated by government programs. On this front, society has been moving away from libertarianism and toward egalitarianism over the past century, as governments have dramatically expanded social welfare programs and wealth redistribution. If, therefore, one takes to heart the argument for moral realism based on moral progress, one might conclude that the objectively correct values are liberal egalitarian values, rather than libertarian values.
This argument is important. On the question of the extent to which the argument from moral progress supports egalitarianism, I have three observations. First, leftwing egalitarianism has hardly enjoyed unmitigated successes in the past century. The most extreme form of egalitarianism has suffered decisive defeats, as communist regimes around the world have collapsed in the past 30 years, and very few people advocate communism any longer. 16 Obviously, this does not show that some more moderate form of egalitarianism won’t ultimately triumph. But it does show that one cannot read the triumph of egalitarianism from the events of the past century in any simple and straightforward way.
Second, the kind of equality that libertarianism supports is more fundamental and important than the kind that leftwing egalitarianism supports. Libertarianism allows some to possess much more property than others, so in that sense, it supports (or at least tolerates) inequality. The doctrine of political authority, however, allows some to literally rule over others, to force others to obey their commands, whether or not those commands are wise and beneficial. It exempts the agents of the state from the moral constraints that apply to everyone else. This seems to me a much starker and more offensive kind of inequality than an inequality in the quantity of wealth different individuals possess. And it is just this offensive sort of inequality that is demanded by leftwing egalitarianism. If egalitarians were content to advocate for private charity efforts, no libertarian would object.
The dispute between libertarians and egalitarians centers on the egalitarians’ advocacy of government coercion to support social welfare programs. 17 Most egalitarians would not support similar coercion if carried out by a private individual or organization. Egalitarians are therefore committed to an inequality of moral status between the state and private agents.
Third, I want to explain how the trend of expanding social welfare programs may constitute moral progress, even if libertarianism is correct. The key point is that most people have taken the authority of the state for granted. That has been true for about as long as states have existed, and it remains true today (even if today the support for authority is at its nadir). Now, given the assumption that the state has authority and thus has a legitimate claim on whatever amount of money it chooses to take from its citizens (in accordance with its laws), the state ought to use some of its money to help the least fortunate members of society. This would be the compassionate thing to do and perhaps the only course of action consistent with an appropriate level of concern for the interests of everyone. The reason the state should not in fact do this, in my view, is that the state has no legitimate authority. But that view (i.e., skepticism about authority) has nothing to do with why the state did not run large social welfare programs before the 20th century. Rather, in earlier centuries the state did not run large social welfare programs because the government did not care about the poor. The shift to a government that cares (or at least pretends to care) about the poor constitutes moral progress.
In other words, we need to consider two distinct dimensions along which moral attitudes may vary: (A) deference to authority and (B) concern for the poor. For most of human history, the dominant combination of attitudes has been A 1 ~B (deference to authority combined with indifference to the poor). The correct combination of attitudes is the diametrical opposite: ~A 1 B (skepticism of authority combined with concern for the poor). Over the past century, our society has moved, roughly, from A 1 ~B to A 1 B. This is progress, albeit on only one dimension. It just so happens that in this case, making progress on just one of two dimensions leads one away from the policies that would be adopted if one made progress on both dimensions.
Questions and Objections
In this section, I address commonly raised questions and objections concerning intuitionism and/or my appeal to common sense morality.
Most objections to ethical intuitionism appear to rest on misunderstandings. Perhaps the most common type of objection is this: “I can think of a few examples of false intuitions,” or even, “I can think of a few examples of false beliefs that were once widely held.” How is that supposed to be an objection to ethical intuitionism?
On one way of reading it, the former version of the objection rests on the mistaken assumption that ethical intuitionism is or entails the claim “all intuitions are true.” The latter version of the objection appears to rest on the same assumption, in addition to another mistaken assumption, that “intuition” means “widely shared belief.”
To the best of my knowledge, no serious thinker in the history of philosophy has ever held the view that all intuitions are true. (Also, no intuitionist has defined “intuition” as “widely shared belief.”) This is analogous to the fact that no thinker has held that all sensory appearances are veridical, or that all apparent memories are correct, or that all inferences are sound.
Ethical intuitionism does involve the claim that it is rational to assume that intuitions are correct unless and until there are grounds for doubting those intuitions. This is analogous to the fact that it is rational to assume that one’s sensory experiences are veridical or that one’s memories are accurate—unless and until there are specific grounds for doubting them. Those theses are not refuted or even called into question by the observation that sometimes there are grounds for doubt.
Another way of reading the objection is that it seeks to provide inductive evidence that intuitions in general are unreliable, thus giving us grounds for doubting all intuitions, and thereby perhaps calling all moral knowledge into question. Philosophical skeptics, similarly, cite examples of a variety of sensory illusions to which human beings are subject, in the attempt to show that the senses are unreliable.
But if that is the idea, then one would have to take a large, random sample of intuitions in order to assess how reliable they are in general. One cannot simply selectively search through one’s memory for a handful of cases of false intuitions. If we are counting such intuitions as “pain is bad,” “murder is wrong,” and “theft is wrong,” it is easy to think of many examples of intuitions that we have no reason for doubting.
Another very common objection is along the lines of “sometimes, people have conflicting intuitions.” This may simply be a variant of the preceding objection and may be based on the assumption that intuitionism holds that all intuitions are true. If all intuitions were true, then indeed there could be no conflicting intuitions. But once we understand that intuitionism does not in fact include that absurd thesis, it is unclear how the existence of disagreement poses an objection.
Sometimes, it appears that the objection is that intuitionists have failed to provide a method for resolving all disagreements. Although this objection might be a real practical problem, it is unclear how it is supposed to provide evidence that intuitionism is not in fact true. The inference would seemingly have to be something like this:
Intuitionism fails to provide a way of resolving all ethical disagreements.
If a metaethical theory fails to provide a way of resolving all ethical disagreements, then the theory is false.
So intuitionism is false.
But it is mysterious why one would believe the second premise. Indeed, no metaethical theory has ever provided a way of resolving all ethical disagreements (that is why there are still ethical disagreements), but presumably it is not the case that all metaethical theories are false.
Sometimes, people who take themselves to be objecting to ethical intuitionism point to biases that can affect people’s ethical intuitions or judgments. What is a bias? A bias is simply an influence that tends to be unreliable or to lead one away from the truth. For instance, people might be influenced by religious teachings (which the objector takes to be unreliable) or by the teachings of their parents, or they might want to adopt the beliefs that serve their own interests.
This, however, really is not an objection to intuitionism. Again, intuitionism is not the view that all intuitions are true (still less is it the view that all ethical beliefs are true). If one takes certain intuitions to be biased, then all that follows is that one should withhold assent from those intuitions.
However, the ethical intuitions on which I rely to defend libertarianism are not plausibly regarded as biases. For instance, the idea that I should not kidnap people who eat certain unhealthful substances and imprison them for several years does not appear to be a bias caused by religion or upbringing or selfinterest. If someone thinks that is a product of bias, they would have to explain how they think that is so. It is not enough to say that ethical biases exist in general, or that some other ethical beliefs are biased.
Nor is it our burden to show in general that it isn’t the product of a bias (when given no specific account of how it would be). In general, we do not come to know things by first having an appearance, then proving that there aren’t any factors influencing that appearance that would make it unreliable, and then finally accepting the content of the appearance. (Among other things, notice that that would involve an infinite regress, since establishing the absence of biases would require us to have some other knowledge, which would start the process over again.) Rather, we start by believing what seems to be the case, and we stand ready to revise that belief if (but only if!) we acquire reasons for doubting that the appearance is reliable. That is how perceptual knowledge, memory knowledge, scientific knowledge, moral knowledge, and all other forms of knowledge work.
Many philosophical objectors are hypocritical, selfrefuting, or both, in the sense that the objectors are doing the very thing that they say one should not do, or are relying on the very sort of belief they say one should not rely on. This is particularly common when the topic is ethical intuitionism. Here, I want to call attention to this category of objection and to recommend against its use. Here are some examples:
“Any objection to the idea that we should rely on what seems true to us unless we have grounds for doubt.” Essentially all such objections are hypocritical and selfrefuting in the sense that the objections themselves rest on how things seem to the person making the objection; thus, if the objection is correct, then the objector is not justified in making it. A special (extremely common) case is the intuitionbased objection to relying on intuitions.
“Intuitionists fail to provide a method for resolving all ethical disagreements.” This objection would be hypocritical in the sense that the objector himself is invariably someone who has not provided a method for resolving all ethical disagreements. (No one has provided such a method, that is, not one that actually works. If they had, philosophers would have used that method, and all ethical disagreements would now be resolved.)
“We aren’t justified in holding to our ethical beliefs, because some people disagree with them.” But then, some people also disagree with the idea that we aren’t justified in holding to our ethical beliefs, so that idea must also be unjustified.
“We shouldn’t trust intuition, because sometimes intuitions have led us astray.” If that’s true, then we presumably shouldn’t trust any means of belief formation that sometimes goes wrong. If so, then we should not rely on philosophical arguments, including the very argument just quoted, because sometimes (almost always, actually) philosophical arguments lead us astray.
“Your method of arriving at political conclusions is not sufficiently reliable, because our ethical beliefs could be prejudices.” If the objector is actually a skeptic with no moral or political views, then that person’s position may be coherent. Otherwise, it is hypocritical, because no method of forming ethical or political beliefs eliminates all possibility of being influenced by the prejudices of the day. My method is, in fact, the least prone to bias, because I start from ethical premises that are very widely shared regardless of ideology. The alternatives would be (a) to accept no starting premises (and thus to be a skeptic) or (b) to start from premises that are controversial or ideologically biased (how could that be better?).
My general recommendation: don’t object to my approach to supporting libertarianism, unless (a) you have somehow discovered some evaluative premises that are more plausible and less controversial than, for example, the premise “I shouldn’t kidnap people at gunpoint and imprison them just for consuming substances I deem unhealthful,” and (b) your premises somehow show that mine are untrue, for example, that it actually is permissible for me to kidnap and imprison people for consuming unhealthful substances.
Virtually all nonintuitionists are hypocritical: they adopt and retain ethical beliefs in precisely the way that intuitionists do—namely, they believe what seems right to them, until they have grounds for doubting it—with the sole difference being that they are less selfaware, that is, they don’t say that this is what they are doing. Then they hold forth about how bad it is to do that.
What about Political Intuitions?
The preceding objections are all confused. This one is not: most people intuit that the government (or at least some governments) has authority; that is, the government just seems somehow morally special. When the government kills people, it seems less bad than when private parties commit murder; when the government conscripts people, it seems less bad than private slavery; when the government taxes people, it seems less bad than private extortion. Why wouldn’t this be good enough, given my own views about intuition, to defend unlibertarian policies? Why shouldn’t a nonlibertarian say, “There is no need to give a theory of why the government has authority, nor an argument that the government has authority, because it just seems that it does”?
That would be an unsatisfactory stance to take for several reasons. First, the notion of political authority is really not nearly as uncontroversial as the intuitive ethical judgments referred to in the earlier section titled “Some Commonsense Ethical Intuitions.” Attitudes toward authority vary greatly with political ideology, with all or most libertarians intuitively rejecting the notion of political authority (indeed, to some of us, the idea seems bizarre and obviously false).
Even among nonlibertarians, it is not so much that most people have the intuition that the government has authority or that most people believe that the government has authority, as that they are habitually disposed to presuppose the government’s authority. Most people, I suspect, have never actually thought about whether or why the government has legitimate authority. When explicitly confronted with the fact that the government performs many actions that would be considered wrongful for any other agent, very few people say: “Yeah, so what? It’s the government, so obviously it’s OK.” Rather, most people can very easily be brought to feel that there is a philosophical problem here.
When I present the issue to students, for example, it is very easy to motivate the problem, and no one ever suggests that no reason is needed for why the government is special. By contrast, for instance, when you point out that although it is wrong to destroy a human being, it is not considered similarly wrong to destroy a clod of dirt, no one gets puzzled.
Second, most people—even if they think it intuitive that the state has some sort of authority—will also have the intuition that this cannot be a brute fact—that there must be a grounding for this authority or an answer to what gives the state its authority. And hardly anyone thinks the explanation could just be “Well, it’s the government.” (By contrast, for instance, plenty of people think it’s a brute fact that pain is bad, or that the answer to what’s bad about pain is just “Well, it hurts.”) This being so, the failure of every explanation we can think of for what gives the state its authority ought to make one suspect that the state in fact has no such authority.
Third and most interesting, not all intuitions are equally trustworthy. Some intuitions and beliefs are the product of psychological biases. When we have specific reasons for believing that an intuition is the product of bias, we should distrust that intuition. In particular, a good deal of evidence, both from experimental psychology and from history, shows that most people have strong proauthority biases. 18
For example, the famous Milgram experiment shows that most people are willing to electrocute another (innocent) person, if ordered to do so by an authority figure. 19 Milgram explicitly draws the parallel to the willingness of ordinary Germans to participate in the persecution of Jews during World War II.
American soldiers, too, have participated in atrocities, such as the infamous My Lai massacre, in response to orders from an authority figure. Now, the point here is not merely that institutions of authority are dangerous. The point is that those who are subject to an authority figure will very often feel a sense of that person’s authority, even if that alleged authority is completely illegitimate, or the person is clearly overstepping whatever legitimate authority he might have.
Notice that there is no need here to argue about what constitutes legitimate authority or how we determine its bounds, because those cases are uncontroversial. No one thinks the scientist in Milgram’s experiment had the right to order the electrocution of the subjects, or that the officers at My Lai had the right to order the massacre. But the people in those situations felt a need to obey. Because of this, it is likely that we would all feel a sense of our government’s authority, even if that alleged authority were illegitimate, or the government were grossly overstepping its bounds.
Notice that in this third point, I am not merely saying that political intuitions in general can be biased. I am citing evidence of a bias in a specific direction, on a specific issue. Much more evidence of this proauthority bias is discussed in Chapter 6 of The Problem of Political Authority.
The distinction here is like the distinction between saying in general that sensory illusions are possible, and saying that you have evidence of a specific sensory illusion in the circumstances that you are, in fact, presently in. The general knowledge that sensory illusions exist does not cast doubt, for example, on my present perception of the table in front of me. However, my knowledge that light rays are bent when going from air into water does cast doubt on my perception in the specific case where I am looking at a stick half submerged in water. Similarly, the general knowledge that intuitions can be mistaken does not cast doubt on my intuition that I shouldn’t extort money from other people. But the existence of widespread proauthority biases (together with some mechanisms that would tend to generate them) does cast doubt on the specific belief that government has a special sort of authority, particularly when no one can give a plausible account of why it has that authority.
I doubt that many readers would be converted to either intuitionism or libertarianism by the preceding discussion. At minimum, a persuasive case for intuitionism would have to address the main alternative theories about the nature of ethics, in addition to responding in greater detail to a greater variety of the objections to intuitionism. A persuasive case for libertarianism would have to address more accounts of authority, and to do so in greater detail. Either of those cases would be a booklength project (which is why I have in fact devoted books to each).
My aims in this chapter have been more modest. I hope to have shown how an intuitionist theory of ethics fits together in a natural way with a libertarian political philosophy. I hope to have said enough to show that this combination of views forms an interesting position, and perhaps to stimulate the reader to do further reading on the subject.
A final comment: How does my defense of libertarianism relate to other popular approaches, such as those based on natural rights or utilitarianism? I think that my arguments are compatible with natural rights and utilitarian premises, but they do not require either. Both the utilitarian and the natural rights libertarian reject political authority. Utilitarians reject authority because they hold that everyone is subject to exactly the same moral principle, namely, that one should always maximize utility; there is thus no special moral status for the state. Natural rights libertarians must also reject authority, if their argument for libertarianism is to succeed, for unless the idea of authority is rejected, the possibility would remain that the state is entitled to do what would be a rights violation if it were done by a private party. Natural rights theorists and utilitarians are also generally liberals (though they will have different reasons for endorsing liberalism); thus, virtually all the examples of moral progress over the past several centuries could have been defended either on natural rights grounds or on utilitarian grounds.
So I think either a utilitarian or a natural rights theorist should accept my main premises. From there, it is not necessary to further attempt to specify the correct moral theory, because as long as we have this much (the truth of liberalism, the illusoriness of authority), we should arrive at libertarian political conclusions. 20
1. Michael Huemer, Ethical Intuitionism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
2. A positive statement says that something has some property, whereas a negative statement denies that something has some property.
3. See Michael Huemer, Skepticism and the Veil of Perception (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001), pp. 98–115; and Michael Huemer, “Compassionate Phenomenal Conservatism,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 74 (2007): 30–55.
5. Note: none of those things is a universal, necessary truth. There are undoubtedly some cases in which a theoretical judgment takes precedence over concrete judgments, in each of the four senses mentioned here.
6. Michael Huemer, The Problem of Political Authority (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
7. At this point, you might wonder about these questions: Why not say the same thing about political premises? Why not start our political theorizing from the consensus political views? We’ll discuss this later in the section titled “What about Political Intuitions?”
8. See Murray Rothbard, For a New Liberty (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1978); Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Signet, 1957); and Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974).
9. I have discussed each of those issues at much greater length elsewhere. For a fuller statement of the arguments concerning drug prohibition, see Michael Huemer, “America’s Unjust Drug War,” in The New Prohibition, ed. Bill Masters (St. Louis, MO: Accurate Press, 2004), pp. 133–44. On gun control, see Michael Huemer, “Is There a Right to Own a Gun?” Social Theory and Practice 29 (2003): 297–324. On immigration, see Michael Huemer, “Is There a Right to Immigrate?” Social Theory and Practice 36 (2010): 429–61.
10. Perhaps if the error in the law becomes too extreme—for example, if you are ordered to participate in genocide—you won’t have to follow the law any longer. But the doctrine of authority means that the government has substantial leeway, some wide range within which it can make errors and we still have to obey it.
11. Huemer, Problem of Political Authority, chaps. 2–5.
12. I invite the reader to read these amazing court decisions: Warren v. District of Columbia, 444 A. 2d 1, D.C. Ct. of Ap. (1981); Hartzler v. City of San Jose, 46 Cal. App. 3d 6 (1975); DeShaney v. Winnebago County, 489 U.S. 189 (1989); and Riss v. New York, 22 N.Y. 2d 579, 293 (1968).
13. For some of those reasons, see Huemer, Problem of Political Authority, pp. 72–73, 209–21.
15. See Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York: Viking, 2011); and Huemer, Problem of Political Authority, pp. 321–24. For a more detailed version of the argument sketched in this section, see Michael Huemer, “A Liberal Realist Answer to Debunking Skeptics: The Empirical Case for Realism,” Philosophical Studies 173 (2016): 1983–2010.
16. Some people deny that the experience of the 20th century refutes communism, because regimes like those of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe before the 1990s were not true communism. I think this is a deep mistake. Be that as it may, the point here is not to argue directly about the merits of communism. The point here is that ideologically, egalitarianism suffered major setbacks in the 20th century, connected with the events that most people call “the collapse of communism.”
17. Some people dispute whether taxation is really a violation of taxpayers’ property rights, because they question whether we really own our pretax incomes. See Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel, The Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002); Stephen Holmes and Cass Sunstein, The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999). I address this sort of view briefly in Problem of Political Authority, pp. 145–48, and at greater length in “Is Wealth Redistribution a Rights Violation?” in The Routledge Handbook of Libertarianism, ed. Jason Brennan, David Schmidtz, and Bas van der Vossen (New York: Routledge, forthcoming).
18. I discuss this at length in Problem of Political Authority, chap. 6 (which I’m told is the most interesting chapter of the book), where I also cite a variety of potential sources for this proauthority bias.
19. Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (New York: Harper, 2009).
20. My thanks to Aaron Powell and Grant Babcock for numerous helpful comments on an earlier version of this chapter.