Actual Ethics

Article excerpt

Actual Ethics by James R. Otteson Cambridge University Press * 2006 * 349 pages * $75.00 hardcover; $25.99 paperback

Reviewed by Tibor R. Machan

More and more books sympathetic to classical liberalism and libertarianism are coming on the market from publishers that haven't offered such works until recently. Cambridge University Press has started to take on such works regularly.

This is important because in the contest of ideas, it matters where the ideas are published. It influences their use in classrooms, the promotion of the authors, and so forth, so when a certain line of thinking gains a forum at the more prestigious publishing houses, that can be identified as an advance. Thus James Otteson's Actual Ethics is a triumph, and all those who value individual liberty should rejoice.

Having said this, I should also note a small quibble, namely, with the idea that classical liberalism and libertarianism are ethical rather than political stances. It is not new, of course, to believe this. Murray Rothbard and quite a few of those who discuss the constitution of a free society suggest that this is a matter of ethics proper, not only of political theory. Yet prominent classical liberals, such as Milton Friedman and F. A. Hayek, have held that no commitment to any kind of ethics is involved in championing the free society. (I myself have argued that there is but a minimal ethical substance in such a political position.) This is supported by the idea that ethics addresses the question of how we ought to live our lives, day in and out, while politics is about how human communities are best organized.

Otteson, who has been teaching philosophy at the University of Alabama but is moving to Yeshiva University, contends that ethics is directly relevant to the politics of classical liberalism. In his own words, he is advancing "the simple and . . . inspiring vision of free and independent individuals who take no and brook no violation of personhood, who thus meet each others as equals in personhood, and who seek to provide for themselves and for those they care about a good and happy life." For him this is an ethical claim, not so much one concerned with politics or law.

Actual Ethics is a work with a unique approach, one that reminds me of John Hospers's way of philosophizing-common-sense philosophy. Otteson says he is concerned with "how you should live," yet the book is more often than not about how you should not live, as well as about the important notion that one needs to figure out for oneself the details of how one should live. …