essays

Jan 3, 2017

A Virtue Ethical Case for Libertarianism

Libertarian political institutions are most conducive to virtuous living, and virtuous people will be inclined to uphold libertarian principles.

The task of this chapter is to argue that a moral foundation for libertarianism can be found in virtue ethics. To do so, I must sort out the kind of virtue ethics that most lends itself to this sort of justificatory relation, because many different kinds exist. And I must make clear what I mean by “libertarianism,” because here too there is a plurality of understandings, and some of them will make this justificatory relationship more plausible than others.

Virtue Ethics

What is typically thought to differentiate a virtue ethic from other forms of ethics is that it focuses moral concern on the character of the agent, rather than on his or her actions. Even less is it concerned with the states of the world that those actions produce, as on most consequentialist accounts. Virtues are thought to be relatively stable traits of character: the ways we are and others come to know us to be. Vices too are stable traits of character. What differentiates them from virtues is that virtuous traits are those we value—those we judge positively, we might say—whereas vices are those traits repugnant to us. On the virtue ethical way of understanding morality, these stable character traits are the primary focus of moral evaluation.

It would be a mistake to infer that actions, or the states of the world that follow from them, don’t matter to virtue ethics. Certainly they do. But their place in a virtue ethical theory is determined by the role they play in understanding the dispositions or traits that are, potentially, virtuous or vicious. They do not have moral weight independent of the role they play in understanding the moral value of those traits. Though we certainly care about good events and catastrophes, what matters morally is what we do in the face of such states of the world, as persons with the characters we have made for ourselves.

Because we obviously care about people’s characters, we’d expect most plausible moral theories to make some substantial theoretical place for them. And most such theories do. On a consequentialist theory such as John Stuart Mill’s, for example, virtue is a propensity to produce good outcomes—outcomes that can be assessed as morally valuable by the basic tenets of the theory, independent of the actions or character that produced them.1 Thus, though Mill has a theory of virtue, in it, virtue logically depends on the prior criteria he has established for evaluating states of the world and the actions that have produced them. Something similar could be said of Kant (though of course his theory is not consequentialist) in the kind of place he makes for virtue. What is distinctive of virtue ethics is the reversal of priorities. It is character that matters first, and we explicate the moral significance of actions and states of affairs consequentially.

So described, there are many forms of virtue ethics. And although there might be convergence on what traits go on the lists of virtues and vices, there are also lots of differences, and even deeper differences, on the reasons some traits go on the virtue list and others on the vice list. Not all offer the same degree of support for libertarianism. So I need to be specific about the form of virtue ethic I have in mind.

Eudaimonist Virtue Ethics

One venerable form of virtue ethics—a form going back to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—gives primary theoretical place to eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is more or less happiness, but care is required here. We use happiness to mean many things, from the mood of the moment to a quality of life. What the Greeks have in mind with eudaimonia is much less like the former and much more like the latter. You might be happy in the sense of having a good life, even if just now you are not in a very good mood at all. It is that quality of life the Greeks call eudaimonia. When we wish a newly married couple every happiness, we are deploying the idea the Greeks intend with eudaimonia.

How does eudaimonia shape a virtue ethic? It provides the criterion by which we determine which dispositions or traits count as virtues. Those traits that contribute positively and significantly to our living happy lives count as virtues; vices are just those that do not. That does not mean that virtuous action is undertaken only for the sake of those happy lives; virtuous action has its own aims (on Aristotle’s view, always the “fine and noble”). Instead, the work of eudaimonia is criterial. We should not suppose such a criterion is easy to come by, or simple, or uncontested. An adequate account of virtues on such a view is a hard-won fruit of life and reflection. However, two members of any plausible such account—virtues that are invariably recognized as traits that contribute to a good human life—deserve discussion here, because they are crucial to what follows. They are practical wisdom (Greek: phronesis) and justice (Greek: dikaiosune). What needs explaining is how each contributes to a good life, and what specifically it requires.

Aristotle thinks of practical wisdom as the capacity to deliberate and act well about “what sorts of thing conduce to the good life in general.”2 His argument for the centrality of practical wisdom to the good life starts with the kind of beings we are. We are, he argues, creatures who live our lives by deploying practical rationality.3 We can, of course, deploy practical rationality in ways that do not conduce to good lives; only when we succeed in living well does what we do count as wisdom.

Other creatures live their lives in different ways. Giraffes live by grazing foliage that other herbivores cannot reach. Gazelles live by grazing grasses and by sprinting away from predators. Lions live by catching unwary or weak gazelles. Those forms of life are distinct and recognizable, the sorts of things we learn about in natural history museums. In the same vein, humans live by deploying capabilities that only we seem to have. We reason to plan and set ends, as well as to forge cooperative relationships with others of our kind. Aristotle’s fairly straightforward reasoning, then, is that if this is how we live, living well is a matter of deploying those capabilities well. It is excellence in practical reason, or practical wisdom. And excellence in practical wisdom, in turn, is understood as what successfully aims at living well. The two ideas must be understood in tandem.

The significance for us of practical rationality—and, when successful, practical wisdom—is reflected in the networks of ends that shape our lives. Ends are goals, and we can and do have innumerable ends. The resources necessary to realize them are scarce, so the enterprise of living a life of end seeking is one requiring continual and incessant judgment of tradeoffs. Some of the ends may be indeterminate, so that judgment is required even to know what successful pursuit of such an end would consist of. (When we marry, for example, we begin with only a hazy idea of what the end of a good marriage looks like. We find out what it means in detail only through being married—and through the course of innumerable judgments and experience.) Making those judgments well—in such a way as to live the kind of life we aspire to live—is what constitutes practical wisdom as a virtue. It is not easy, and it cannot be realized except by the application of practical rationality, with virtue of character, to our lives.

Practical wisdom has another important feature. Aristotle believes that we develop and maintain the virtues (or, sadly, the vices) by force of habit. Of course, we start with a moral education from our parents and teachers. None of us starts from ground zero, which is why it matters so much that we have a good start. We have passions and appetites, but—precisely because we have the capacity for practical rationality—as that capacity develops we can choose what we will do. And, importantly, there is a feedback loop here: the choices we make shape our passions and appetites. That is why habit is so important: as adults, this is how we shape who we become. So what we do makes us into what we are. What we become reflects the exercise of choice on our part; once more, the work of practical reason. We exercise choice not only in determining what to do but also in deciding what to be.

That we live by exercising practical rationality is obvious and important, but it is equally obvious and important that we live socially. Humans neither live nor thrive independently. We live with others of our kind. How we manage our relations with those others, then, is also centrally important to our living well. Many of the virtues of character bear on these relations, but none does so with greater import than justice.

The best understanding of the nature of the virtue of justice has, I believe, shifted somewhat since the early Greek theorists. Plato conceived of justice as “having and doing one’s own.”4 Justice in the city (or polis) meant each kind of citizen performing his or her own task. Justice in the individual meant the rational, passionate, and appetitive parts of the psyche each playing its appropriate role. Aristotle saw justice as being more directly connected with action: he thought that the “narrow” sense of justice (that is, the sense in which justice is something more specific than just doing the right thing) could be understood in two ways. First, as a matter of proportionality: equals, he argued, deserve equal treatment, and unequals deserve unequal treatment.5 Second, there is rectification: if I steal $100 from you, or make you $100 worse off, justice requires that my benefit be negated and that you be made whole. That is, justice requires that I give up $100, and you get it back.

It is hard to argue with those insights, but moral philosophy outside of virtue ethics has made progress in understanding what is due us in ways that, I believe, we should read into the virtue of justice. Consider slavery, a practice the ancients at least tolerated, if not (as in Aristotle’s case) outright endorsed. Slavery is manifestly unjust (however long it took humankind to come to that realization), and it seems that no just person would engage in slaveholding or tolerate its institutionalization. However (as Aristotle’s own case demonstrates), it is not clear how the justice of the ancient Greeks could show this. There would seem to be more to what the virtue of justice requires than Plato’s or Aristotle’s conceptions succeeded in capturing.

One way of putting what is missing is to say that the just person recognizes the moral standing of others in ways that rule out slavery. What exactly this moral standing might come to will be somewhat controversial, but there are core elements recognizable in our everyday practice.

One of those elements is rights and their recognition. Of course, people have legal rights, but those rights depend on the legal regimes they live under. We also have moral rights and entitlements. We have the standing to demand that others not do certain things to us—to enslave us, to harm us, in many cases to lie to us, to break faith with us, and so on. As Aristotle indicated, we have the standing to demand proportionality of various sorts in how we are treated (to be treated as we are due) and to complain if others treat us badly in various ways. To say that someone has rights is to say that he or she has a kind of standing that the just person ought to recognize.

A second (and not unrelated) element is accountability. Suppose you harm me; you strike me in the face. Now, the law might or might not have something to say about such an event, but we ordinarily think morality certainly does. A utilitarian might say that the problem with your doing so is that you fail to maximize the greatest utility. A divine command theorist might say that in doing so, you violate God’s law. But just left at that, even if either of those statements is true, it cannot be the whole truth. You have done something to me: you have wronged me. Crucially, you are accountable to me for the wrong you have done me. Any moral theory that leaves out the kinds of relations between us in which we are accountable to one another for the way we treat each other is inadequate. This kind of accountability is also a reflection of the standing that a just person should recognize others as having.

Finally, part of our moral standing is our capacity to change our moral relations with others in ways that reflect rights, obligations, and accountability. Consider, for example, our capacity to promise or to contract. If we make a deal that I will pick you up at the airport for $50, then each of us has conveyed rights to the other that we did not earlier have. I have a right against you that you pay me $50, while you have a right against me that I be there to pick you up when you arrive. Each of us is accountable to the other for doing what he or she has agreed to do. Each of us has those rights because (and just because) the other has given it. An important part of our moral standing, part of what the just person recognizes, is this capacity to change our moral relations with others in these ways.

All those elements and more are part of what we might call the “operational” aspect of being a just person. Many of its elements have been recognized since people first began theorizing about what it meant to be virtuous. Others have been more recently acknowledged. But at the core, there is more to being a just person than just these operational components, though it is certainly tied to those components. The just person sees others in a different way than the unjust person does. Consider the attitude of a human predator (perhaps a psychopath). To that person, humans are prey. To be sure, humans are importantly different from other possible prey: they have advanced rational capacities. They are (perhaps) better at detecting the kind of threat that a predator poses to them and are certainly capable of defending themselves against and perhaps retaliating against such a predator, with more force than any other potential prey. So the predator is wary of their capacities for reason and action. Their capacities figure into the predator’s reasoning only tactically or strategically as potential ways in which they might impinge on his efforts to get what he wants.

The just person whom we will call Socrates, conversely, sees others as having advanced rational capacities and more. But his regard for others is not merely tactical or strategic, as it is for the predator. Socrates sees others as sources of reasons and obligations, in the ways we have just surveyed and more, because of the kind of beings they are. Others matter to Socrates, we might say, for their sake, rather than for his sake. In Aristotle’s terms, the reasons Socrates has for regarding them are final—they are ends—rather than being merely instrumental to his own purposes.6

I have claimed that practical wisdom and justice count as central and important virtues in the view we are exploring here, but also that what counts as a virtue is a matter of what contributes to our happiness. The importance of practical wisdom for happiness is evident: it consists in the capacity to use practical rationality effectively in living a good life. But what about justice? After all, many have understood the requirements of morality (and especially of justice) to amount to constraints on our pursuit of happiness. Why think that it is an important part of an account of the kind of virtue that contributes to happiness?

The heart of the response to this question lies with our essential sociality. We are not atomistic individuals; as Aristotle recognized, we thrive in the company of others of our kind. The relations we have with others not only concern how we provide for our material needs (as Marx focused upon) but also concern our relations with others as rational, planning agents, as beings who apprehend and act on reasons. Our relations with others include and occur within the “field” of those rational capacities. We have interests in the reasons that others provide us and that we provide them (we might call them “normative interests”). All of those dimensions of our social life have to go well for us to be happy, and they are the province of the virtue of justice. For us to thrive, we need to live in a network of recognition of others as having the kind of standing that constrains us from enslaving them, harming or lying to them, and so on. In other words, we need to see others in the way I have argued the just person sees others.

Consider an example (from philosopher T. M. Scanlon). Suppose you have a friend, someone you have until now considered a very good friend. But now (let us assume) you have some grave liver disorder, incurable, and you are in need of a transplant. And your friend tells you: “You and your friendship are so important to me that I will do anything to get you the liver you need. If I can’t find a donor, I will kill someone to get you that liver.” Something is clearly wrong with such a friend; indeed, you are likely not to consider him or her a friend, let alone a close friend, much longer.

The toxicity of that sort of injustice is incompatible with friendship. The wrongness of the way your erstwhile friend is willing to act will kill off the vital connections that we enjoy with others, connections that sustain our friendships and make our lives worth living. A bit of reflection will reveal that these sorts of sensibilities and forms of responsiveness underwrite every relation we have with other human beings. Unless we are living the kind of deformed human life that hermits live, justice is essential to happiness.

In summary, then, the kind of virtue ethic I have sketched—a eudaimonist virtue theory—maintains that we should aspire to be virtuous people. We should do so in order to live good lives, but the point is that the virtues are the keys to such lives. And although the list of virtues may itself be a matter of some contention, there is no plausible contention that among the most important elements of that list are practical wisdom and justice. So now, the question is, if that is all true, what is the connection to libertarian political theory? Why think that our political lives should be ordered as libertarians believe, if in fact such a virtue ethic is the right account of morality?

Libertarianism

That story depends, obviously, on what libertarians believe, so we must start there. And, indeed, my conception of what is at the heart of libertarianism differs a bit from the standard story. If we start with what is distinctive about that conception, the connections with virtue will be more apparent.

Frequently (perhaps generally), libertarianism is understood as a view based on the nonaggression principle: the use of force or violence against people or their property is never to be initiated and is permitted only in response to the aggression of others. That principle is, so far as I know, true; its limitations do not stem from its falsehood. The problem is that it cannot be foundational: it can be informative only against the backdrop of a further theory identifying for us what counts as aggression and what does not. Examples of this point are simple and obvious.

May I wrest from you the book that you are carrying? Likely not; that would appear to be aggression. But that is not so if you have just wrested the book from me, in which case I am not initiating force but responding to it. That is, of course, unless I had previously stolen the book from you, in which case you were responding to aggression, and I am now aggravating my initial aggression against you. Whether or not I am aggressing against you depends entirely on the background conditions of our encounter. In particular, it depends on our entitlements: whether I am aggressing against you in a way the nonaggression principle forbids really depends on whether I am entitled to use force against you. The nonaggression principle can’t answer the question of whether or not I am so entitled, so it cannot be foundational. Although this feature of the nonaggression principle is often acknowledged in passing by authors deploying it, I believe it indicates that we should look elsewhere for what normative principles actually can be foundational for libertarian theory.

I find that foundation in the idea of equality of authority to obligate (or equality of authority for short). If I can obligate you in some way, you must likewise be able to obligate me in that way. That none of us has any authority to lay obligations on others in a way that they cannot reciprocate has been a core principle in liberal thought since John Locke, and it provides the right sort of underwriting to the nonaggression principle. Of course, this principle applies (as liberals since Locke have observed) only to those who have the capacity to live and act rationally. We do not accord this authority to those in the grips of insanity, nor to children until they are of age to join the community of full moral agents. Those reservations aside, if we begin with the capacity to obligate each other equally, either we both have the liberty of aggressing against each other in the way the nonaggression principle focuses upon, or neither of us does. I will not pause here to make the case for the latter of those interpretations. Cases of the initiation of force are wrong or unjust in all and only those cases in which the forcing person has an obligation not to use force, and the person being forced has a claim or right not to be so forced. We want the network of obligations within which we move, act, and relate to others to be predicated on an equality of those obligations.

Libertarian complaints about the unjust imposition of force or coercion by the state are always grounded on violations of the equality of authority. Consider for example drug prohibition. One way we could frame the libertarian complaint against drug prohibition is to say that in its enforcement, it allows for aggression: it permits coercive force to be applied to those who would choose to use drugs that others disapprove of. And that is a valid complaint. However, as I have indicated, it cannot be the root of the matter. The root of the complaint lies in a violation of the equality of authority. Those who write and execute laws prohibiting the use of drugs claim the authority to obligate us to abide by those laws. Law carries the supposition of moral force: that is, it is not just the threat of penalties that bids us comply with them, but the idea that we are morally obligated to do so. So legislation imposes obligations on us that we would not otherwise have (or so the story goes) not to buy drugs, sell them, use them, and so on.

But those who claim this authority would not agree that it is equal and reciprocal. That is, they would not accept the authority of others to impose obligations on them as to what they can put in their bodies. Nobody wants to be subject to the arbitrary authority of others (that is, authority grounded in reasons that are accepted only by the authority, not by those on whom the authority is to be imposed) to impose obligations on them as to how they are to treat their own bodies. So those prohibiting the use of drugs claim an unequal authority. The exercise of that putative authority reflects an inequality in the capacity to obligate others, and libertarians reject it.

Or consider libertarian moral complaints about minimum wage laws. (There are, of course, economic complaints that I leave aside here.) Those who would impose such laws claim the authority to impose obligations on others not to engage in agreements (labor contracts, specifically) that in their judgment ought not to be engaged in. But they cannot possibly grant reciprocal authority to others to constrain the agreements they themselves may engage in just by an exercise of judgment. Such a moral framework would be one in which none of us would be treated as—or be capable of acting as—mature moral agents.

In fact, once the general structure of the problem is appreciated, it is easy to see that the basic source of the moral complaint libertarians make lies in the nature of the state itself, insofar as we understand the state to be an institution that claims for itself a monopoly on the rightful use of force in a given territory. Such a monopoly is incompatible with equality of authority to obligate: it is premised on the assumption that some among us have an authority to obligate (that is, to obligate to abide by its laws or to submit to its use of force) that is not reciprocated. So construed, the libertarian moral challenge is to the authority of the state itself. That is a radical challenge. Any justification for state authority must show either how it is compatible with equality of authority or how it carries sufficient moral force to subordinate a commitment to equality of authority. Both are quite demanding requirements, which is as it should be for those who seek to use force on others and who claim that those others have an obligation to submit.

From Virtue to Liberty

So construed, libertarianism readily finds support from virtue ethics. That support comes from two directions. First, the kind of freedom that libertarianism insists on for each individual is a necessary and appropriate social framework for the development and exercise of the virtues, including but not limited to practical wisdom and justice. Second, and perhaps more urgently, the virtue of justice requires that we treat others as having the sort of standing that is institutionalized in a society mediated by libertarian principles. Let’s take these points in order.

First, the development of virtue and its realization in a good life require freedom from the imposition of constraints of others, including the exercise of unequal authority. We must be free to set and pursue our own ends, rather than having them imposed on us or having the tradeoffs among them dictated to us. We are, of course, bound to give others scope of action as we require it ourselves, so this isn’t a matter of needing a world without limits. Such a world is quite irrelevant, not to say impossible, for creatures who live socially, such as ourselves. But the lives we lead need, within those parameters, to be free of others unilaterally imposing their judgment on how we should live, the ends we should value and pursue, and so on.

It is through choice and action that we become virtuous, and it is in virtuous agency that we are happy. Having our practical agency and authority over our own lives usurped by the (putative) authority of others is incompatible with that scope of action. So there is, at most, very little room for state interference in the ways individuals choose to live their lives.

It is perhaps worth echoing here as well a eudaimonist version of the observation that others usually don’t know as well as we how we can best live our lives. This observation yields two kinds of objections to the intervention in the exercise of practical agency that virtue requires. One is epistemic: nobody else can know what you do about your life or the way its elements fit together to make it your life. F. A. Hayek made much of the economic costs of usurping the knowledge individuals have of the “particulars of time and place” in which they act.7 Nothing I say here undermines Hayek’s point, but it is only part of the problem. Apart from the concern about the knowledge lost to the production of social good of concern to Hayek, there is the loss to your good when your authority to exercise your own judgment is usurped.

The other objection is moral. The kind of interference with exercise of practical judgment that coercive command involves represents an exercise of just the sort of unequal, nonreciprocal authority that the just person will not engage in or abide. As we have seen, our lives are lived by finding, choosing, acting on, and making tradeoffs between ends. The choices we make about such tradeoffs make us, literally, the individuals we are, and because those lives are our own, the choices about those tradeoffs must be our own as well. That is what respect for ourselves and others requires, and it is what a just person will be unwilling to abridge.

But concern for the development of virtue by itself doesn’t necessarily yield a commitment to a libertarian political structure. What does so, I believe, are the requirements of the virtue of justice. Those take a bit more unpacking. We can start with what Plato thought it required, which is (to a rough approximation) taking care of one’s own business and giving others their due. It’s hard to argue with that as being central to being a just person. Of course, it is somewhat vague on crucial details, which is part of what makes it uncontroversial as far as it goes.

That is a point that Aristotle noticed, and he attempted to both augment and sharpen it, in useful ways. His version of “giving others their due” is what he frames as a matter of justice in distribution, and it consists (he says) in treating equals equally and unequals unequally.8 That requirement amounts to a kind of “proportionate” thinking: the idea is that when people deserve more of something (or when there is some basis for thinking they are entitled to more), they get more, and similarly when they deserve less or are entitled to less. Aristotle himself notes the contentions he papers over with this idea, because we can agree with the recipe while disagreeing on the kinds of things that make us deserve more or be entitled to more. Still, this too seems a plausible part of what the just and virtuous person does.

But as I have argued, our conception of how the just person will see others has been enriched to include a kind of respect for others, for their agency, for their standing as moral equals. The just person sees that kind of respect as due to others in virtue of the kind of beings they are. Respect and equality of authority are their share. Those points together would seem to bar the virtuous person from doing a significant amount of what modern governments require their agents to do.

Consider what is required to conduct a war on drugs. Agents of the government invade the property and lives (and sometimes bodies) of others who have done neither them nor anyone else harm. They intervene in consensual transactions between other people. Prohibition in the case of minors can be even more draconian. And, of course, in the course of enforcing the various laws enjoining the use of drugs, they undertake the standard coercive measures of imprisoning others, taking their property (in fining them), and so on. None of those actions would seem to fall within the purview of the just person in the absence of the apparatus of the state lending putative legitimacy to them.

Can the fact that the state is licensing such conduct make it somehow consistent with the judgments a just person would make? If we take seriously the constraints of equality of authority to obligate (which, I am suggesting, is part of a modern augmentation to the ancient conception of what it meant to be just), it is hard to see how the judgments of some (though vested with the trappings of the state) could have the authority to obligate (or release from obligation) those responding to the demands of virtue in their treatment of others.9

To take another example (in some ways more mundane), consider that to be legally employed, each American must secure the permission of the U.S. government. This permission typically comes with the submission of a Form I-9 to the Department of Homeland Security. Thus, the U.S. government deems itself to have the authority to tell two people who intend to reach an employment agreement that they may not do so without its permission. In other words, their right to do what they will with their bodies and labor—without in any way harming others—is limited to what the U.S. government determines it may be.

That limitation, I submit, is something no virtuous person could endorse, accept, or practice. Consider the two dimensions of support I have indicated that connect virtue and libertarianism. One arises from the exercise of practical rationality and agency, which is the backbone of virtue itself. We cannot be virtuous nor can we live virtuous lives—the lives that are best for us to lead—without the exercise of practical reason and judgment. That exercise essentially involves determining how to promote our ends, and in the social world, that determination very often or generally means in combination with others. And to do so with others in ways that are effective and just requires that we reach mutually acceptable agreements on how to do so. The inhibition or constraint of those activities is itself inimical to the development of wisdom and virtue in those so constrained.

The other part of the story is the demands of justice and the recognition of an equality of authority. Put otherwise, the just person refuses to accept unequal or nonreciprocal relationships of authority. But that authority is precisely the form of authority being exerted in subordinating the judgment of another as to what contracts one may enter into to one’s own. The authority of those who would limit such contracts (to say nothing of other terms of contract that do not infringe on the moral standing of others) cannot possibly be reciprocated. The point of the authority being exerted is that it is supreme and thus unequal. No just person could engage in such a practice.

Now, there are, of course, occasions on which just persons will do things that would otherwise not be just, occasioned by other instances of unjust conduct. Rectificatory justice involves just this sort of action. If Betty has stolen $100 from Wilma, justice in rectification requires that $100 be taken from Betty and returned to Wilma, and this justice plausibly would license the just person to do so. So the virtuous person could justly take money from Betty to set things right, whereas normally such taking would be unjust. Some kinds of enforcement actions such as this not only are permitted by the requirements of justice but also are required by it. Can such an argument be given to license the undertakings by the state that libertarians object to? Two points are worth making here.

The first is that typically it cannot. There is nothing, for example, in the war on drugs that has any connection with rectification of injustice. For that matter, most of what is done in the name of the war on terror also lacks such justification, though arguably it could hold in some cases, as well perhaps in many exercises of police powers in defense of the peace and safety of other people.

However, second, notice that there is nothing special in such cases about the state’s role in performing these tasks. What makes such special actions permissible in such cases is not that the state is licensing them, but that the actions are warranted by the demands of justice. There are practical questions to be sure about whether private methods of answering to those demands can be as or more effective than state methods, but the crucial thing once again is that there is nothing special morally about the state undertaking such functions, and that is the best case, from the standpoint of justice, for the virtue of carrying out the state’s tasks.

Those considerations, however, are not in the end the deepest problems for state agency from the perspective of being just agents. The state, by nature, claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. To preserve this monopoly, the state reserves for itself the final determination as to what counts as legitimate. It reserves to itself the exclusive right to final judgment as to what the legal requirements on itself and its subject will be—and thus on the nature and extent of the moral framework in which citizens live with it and with each other. And that means the state, by nature, is committed to a nonreciprocal relation of authority with respect to its citizens. Its agents act under the color of this authority, so they too claim to stand in a relation of nonreciprocal, unequal, authority to obligate others. And this is a relation between moral agents that a just agent can neither accept nor tolerate.

A clear example may be seen in the structure of authority in the United States of America (the case with which I am most familiar, but only the details, not the substance, of the issue differ in other polities). Although nominally the authority of the state rests in “the people,” disputes as to how that authority is to be understood—its nature and extent—are determined in practice by the courts, including (for federal matters) the Supreme Court. It is those courts that decide grievances citizens have against the persons and undertaking of the state, and that authority is not reciprocal. For example, those courts decide whether or not citizens are entitled to challenge the operations of government in court by suing it. Their interpretation of the laws is final and dispositive, at least until they choose to revisit matters. Those in position to exercise legal authority are therefore committed to an unequal and nonreciprocal relation of authority with the subjects of the laws.

This kind of asymmetry or failure of reciprocity is not accidental or contingent, a feature that different institutional structures could correct. It is built into the claim of monopoly authority to use force legitimately. That claim can never be implemented reciprocally among moral agents; the very idea of monopoly is anti-reciprocal. So there is a fundamental problem with the authority structure that is essential to the state, to which the just agent must object. Perhaps, as an empirical matter, we cannot live without state provision of the coercive framework to secure the possibility of virtuous action and interaction. (More on this is in the next section. I doubt that this is the case, but the empirical evidence that it is not so is thin.) That, in sum, is the virtue ethical case for the minimal (in the limit, the nonexistent) state. That is the connection between virtue ethics and libertarianism.

Objections

Two general kinds of objections might be mounted to this strategy of grounding libertarian political theory in virtue ethics. One kind would be an “external” critique, rejecting the virtue ethics foundation I have outlined here. Because the topic of this chapter is how virtue ethics might provide a moral foundation for libertarianism, we can for present purposes set such objections aside.

More relevant are “internal” critiques, maintaining that, even if one accepts virtue ethics, it doesn’t follow that libertarianism merits support. How might such critiques be framed? I see four major possibilities. One has an obvious historical base: Plato and Aristotle (among others) were the earliest and are still among the best proponents of a virtue ethic, but neither advocates anything like a libertarian state. If they didn’t see the inference, why should we? The remaining three possibilities draw on more contemporary concerns. First, one might worry that the requirements of virtue ethics (and the virtue of justice in particular) as I have understood them are incompatible with a stable or peaceful society. Second, one might claim that other elements of virtue (other virtues) mitigate the libertarian force of those requirements. Finally, one might claim that the virtue of justice does not, despite my argument, carry with it the requirements I have cited as necessitating libertarian political arrangements. Let’s take these up in order.

Plato and Aristotle had their own differences when it comes to political philosophy, but those differences are swamped by the distance from either of them to contemporary political philosophy. Neither, for example, was liberal, in the way that modern Western societies are and in the way that we have compelling moral reason to endorse. (To take an obvious example, Aristotle’s politics not only tolerated but also justified slavery and the subordination of women.) Still, we can draw a challenge from their vision. For them, a good political constitution was one that played a material role in making citizens virtuous. We, like Aristotle, readily acknowledge the role of parents and teachers in this undertaking. If virtue is our priority, why not think we should endorse a state that overall has making us virtuous as its prime concern?

The answers to that question are both moral and practical. The basic moral concerns we have already surveyed. To undertake the role of forming virtuous citizens, the state and its agents must become people who, as a matter of institutional practice, must practice vice. They must, for example, see themselves as entitled to impose their conceptions of virtue and an appropriate pursuit of worthwhile ends on their political subordinates. They must establish institutions (in particular, educational institutions) that regiment the thought (especially what they take to be the nonvirtuous or vicious thought) of their subjects. (Of course, our existing system of public education does this regimentation already, but that fact does not make it congruent with the demands of justice.) Crucially, they must make a practice of substituting their own exercises of practical rationality for the judgments of others.

Notice the difference here between the case of parents and teachers and that of the state. Parents and teachers do impose their own judgment on that of their charges, but those charges are not adult humans with full moral capacities. But adults with those capacities are precisely those the state would need to claim authority over in order to accomplish this “tutorial” goal. And as we have seen, those authority relations are not something a virtuous person can do or endorse.10

Practically, the concerns are myriad. Socrates observed that few great Athenian statesmen were capable of improving the virtue of their fellow citizens,11 and nobody since has demonstrated that they can do any better. Institutions of state are, simply put, bad forms of human sociality. They substitute coercion for cooperation, force for intelligence, and in so doing are corrosive to moral virtue.12 They are among the last instrumentalities we should look to for making people virtuous. So we should not follow Plato and Aristotle in tracing through the political implications of virtue ethics.

What about the more contemporary concerns? The first is motivated by the thought that there are bad actors in the world—people who prey on others through theft or violence, in quite unvirtuous (even vicious) ways. We ought not pretend that all people are virtuous or just. Equally, however, we ought not to think that the just or virtuous person must simply “roll over” against injustice and vice. The organizing thought of the virtue of justice—that it is rendering to others what is due them—is compatible with forceful (and forcible) responses to wrongdoing. It may justify punishment, though it is uncertain what sorts of penal arrangements might be compatible with the full scope of the virtue of justice, including not subordinating the judgment of others to one’s own, but treating them as of reciprocal authority. Even if punishment cannot be justified for the just, however, justice allows (or requires) forcible resistance to injustice and restitution to its victims. “Rectificatory” justice, as Aristotle understood it, takes up exactly this idea.13 More generally: just people engage others in reciprocity and support that reciprocity in the institutions and social arrangements that govern their lives. Nothing in that picture requires that they tolerate victimization of themselves or others.

One motivation for the next objection would be that somehow the virtues can conflict, so that justice might come into conflict with some other virtue (say, generosity or compassion), in such a way that the demands of justice would be curtailed by the demands of the other virtue. Now, on the conception of virtue ethics I am considering, the virtues are thought to be not only incapable of conflict but also mutually entailing—as requiring one another in order to be fully realized.14 But one might hold that justice properly understood included within its scope restraint on the sorts of limitations of authority that (I have argued) support libertarianism.

At this point, this concern merges with the last of the critiques enumerated above. We ought not think, so it goes, that justice requires what I have said it does. It might not be hedged by other virtues, but might instead require other things of us. Perhaps being a just individual requires supporting a social system that provides a social safety net for the indigent. Or perhaps, more generally, a state is needed to provide laws, adjudication, and defense for all; and part of what the just person sees is that he must support that state financially and in other ways it demands of him, and that he must subordinate his own judgment to it.

I do not have a knockdown response to such concerns. What I have provided here is only a sketch of a conception of what justice requires of us as individuals, and there are assuredly other conceptions. However, three general points may be made to address such a possibility.

First, just because the virtues are mutually entailing, just people will not be immune to the claims upon them from those in exigent need. They themselves will be responsive to the claims and will support and engage in institutions that combat such a need. What they will not do is suppose that they are entitled to impose their judgment about what needs merit what attention—or what measures might best be taken to meet such needs—on others who do not agree with their judgment. Just people will not suppose that they have an authority to obligate others in light of such convictions, in a way that they cannot reciprocate. They will likely not suppose, that is, that the state is the right channel for exercising proper concern for the needs of others nor that it is appropriate to impose a legal obligation on others to be subject to the measures the just person thinks appropriate.

Second, most theories that would impose such an obligation on citizens (that is, some duty that just people might recognize as incumbent on them as part of what it is to be virtuous) begin with assumptions or claims about what the just state (or just society) might look like. Then, the claims about the obligations of citizens to support such institutions follow. If we take virtue ethics of the sort I have sketched here seriously, that is a tendentious way to proceed.

The requirements of the justice of virtue are predicated on what is necessary for us to live with others of our kind in relationships that allow us to be virtuous and to live well. A conception of citizenship or obligation to the state that conflicts with such requirements (that is, by beginning with the assumption that a state must be realized and satisfy certain demands of fairness or justice) lacks the theoretical authority to undermine what we know about living with one another in families, friendships, partnerships, community. Only if we do not take the claims of virtue seriously can we set aside such concerns.

Finally, the issue of authority of judgment remains. It is a staple—in fact, arguably the foundation—of liberal conceptions of political legitimacy that we are moral equals, that none of us has the authority to direct or subordinate others in ways that cannot be reciprocal, even on the basis of what seems to us to be right, to be commanded by God, and so on. To think otherwise, we know, is a recipe for conflict and warfare, and ultimately we get neither virtuous nor happy people in consequence. The demands of justice are grounded in part on that recognition. But that authority of command is what is required for the state to do its distinctive work. If some of us are to have the moral standing to have nonreciprocal authority over others, that story will require telling—and it will have to be some story. A eudaimonist virtue ethics makes space for us to understand how we can see ourselves and those around us as mutually engaged in living good lives, and in regulating our interactions accordingly through just conduct. If we take it seriously, we will see that libertarian limits on state authority are more than justified.


  1. John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, ed. George Sher (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 2001 [1861]), chap. 2.
  2. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, bk. VI, chap. 5, in The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, vol. 2, ed. Jonathan Barnes, trans. W. D. Ross with revision by J. O. Urmson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 1729–867.
  3. Ibid., bk. I, chap. 7.
  4. Plato, Republic, in Complete Works, ed. John Cooper, trans. G.M.A. Grube with revision by C.D.C. Reeve (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1997), pp. 971–1223.
  5. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, bk. V.
  6. This is famously Kant’s way of cashing out the way he believes we ought to regard others. Though that formulation is his, the framework of ends is naturally (and originally) Aristotle’s.
  7. F. A. Hayek, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” American Economic Review 35 (1945): 519–30.
  8. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, bk. V, chap. 3.
  9. Michael Huemer makes this case quite vividly in his argument for anarchism in The Problem of Political Authority (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
  10. An interesting complication to this story is Aristotle’s thought that justice requires that citizens rule and are ruled in turn (Politics, bk. III, chap. 16, in The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, vol. 2, ed. Jonathan Barnes, trans. B. Jowett, pp. 1986–2130.). This recipe can be, I believe, an expression of equality of authority. However, for it to be so, “rulership” must occur in adjudicating particular cases, not in other legislative or executive action, for it is in adjudication that the final obligations of individuals to the norms governing them are determined.
  11. Plato, Gorgias, in Complete Works, pp. 791–869.
  12. One of the clearest indictments of this tendency is one of the earliest. In Plato’s Gorgias, Plato has Socrates bring out the systematic bias against truth seeking among those who most valorize the capacity to persuade others, as politicians (among others) must do.
  13. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, bk. V, chap. 4.
  14. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, bk. VI, chap. 13.