Magazine article The American Conservative

Virtue Libertarianism

Magazine article The American Conservative

Virtue Libertarianism

Article excerpt

Libertarians value liberty because it respects the moral dignity of the individual, but there are other duties that advance the moral dignity of the individual as well. Plausibly, we have obligations to others and ourselves that go beyond merely respecting rights, in order to promote or recognize our moral natures. One kind of libertarianism embraces this view, and one does not--or at least is wildly inconsistent in the application of it.

The latter kind, which we'll call libertine libertarianism, is in its most consistent form radically indifferent to the choices that people make with their freedom. This line of thinking holds that so long as an act is consensual and respects at least one truth--the inviolability of the persons fundamental right to choose how to use his or her person and property--not only should the law not get involved, but there is also no ground for moral criticism of the act.

But nothing about political libertarianism implies libertinism. In fact, libertine libertarianism is generally incoherent. For instance, could a libertarian reasonably think it morally permissible to destroy one's own rational nature with heavy drug use? Such acts would corrode the very qualities that make a person worthy of having his rights respected to begin with.

What we call virtue libertarianism is the alternative to libertinism. Virtue libertarians recognize that we have a duty to respect our own moral nature and to promote its development in others in proportion to the responsibility we have for them. Heavy drug use that destroys ones own moral or rational faculties is inconsistent with that duty. Sexual license, gluttony, and the ancient vice of pleonexia--an excessive desire to acquire material and other goods--can overpower the virtue of self-command, which Adam Smith astutely recognized as the key to all the other virtues. To respect others, we must act beneficently and generously toward them, not just refrain from taking their freedom.

In some cases, this means providing approbation and disapproval of certain choices to foster a culture consistent with human flourishing and a free society. For example, we should applaud those who pursue excellence in education, the arts, and sport as well as those who give their time and money to help their local communities. We should also not be afraid to hold up life-long committed marriage as an ideal for those with children. Harder in our current age, but equally important for a good society, we should not shy away from expressing disapproval of rent-seekers (those who demand special government privileges), those who harm themselves and their families through habitual intoxication or gambling, and those who idle away their time and talents in frivolous pursuits. …

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