Philosophy 1 On 1 – The Principles of Classical Liberalism Are Intuitive

by James Otteson

James Otteson teaches in the department of philosophy at the University of Alabama.

It is no secret that classical liberalism receives little attention in American academic philosophy, and then generally only as a historical artifact. What one hears is something like this: “No serious philosopher today believes that people can get on without substantial, organized help from the government. The only issues are in what way the government should help and to what extent; the issue of whether the government should help can no longer be seriously entertained.”

There are of course exceptions—Robert Nozick, David Schmidtz, and Eric Mack come to mind—but they are a decided minority and, in my experience at least, are often not considered to be within the philosophical mainstream. I have thus faced considerable difficulty convincing my colleagues that classical liberalism is worth thinking about at all, let alone worth careful examination. But a free society is worth the effort, and so I have explored many methods of opening the closed intellectual doors I have encountered, believing that if I can get others to think about classical liberalism for just a few minutes, I will find some place where it matches up with—or, if I am lucky, accounts for—a deep moral or political intuition they already have. When that happens, I have found that classical liberalism suddenly gains a footing as a position that has at least the possibility of plausibility. And that is a start.

Connecting to Intuition

In my experience arguments for classical liberalism rarely get off the ground unless they can first make this connection to intuition. Hence the method I have settled on for extending liberty’s cause in my discipline of philosophy is one that, first, seizes on a few of the adversary’s deeply held intuitions and then uses those intuitions as bases on which arguments can be built. I think three intuitions in particular combine to make an initial case for the free society that almost any person, regardless of his political position, will find formidable.

Here’s how I propose going about it.

Begin by asking whether there is anything wrong with rape. Now of course such a question may well shock its hearer, but a shock is sometimes necessary to get people to think hard about a different way of looking at the world. Ask your adversary to answer the question seriously. So: yes, there is something wrong with rape. Well, what is it exactly? It does not suffice to say that rape is self-evidently wrong because it might not be self-evidently wrong to everyone. The rapist, for example, might not think so.

To bring the matter into sharper focus, ask this next: Is rape always wrong—or might there be occasions when it is acceptable? What if raping a person would lead to some greater good? For example, should we consider whether the rapist might not receive such a degree of pleasure from the rape that it effectively cancels out the pain and suffering the victim experiences? On that ground, then, should we judge each rape on a case-by-case basis, asking in each instance whether the act in question led to a net increase or decrease in welfare? This question is typically met with horror: of course rape is always wrong and of course its wrongness is not subject to any utilitarian calculation. It is wrong absolutely and simply so. The following suggestion will now seem quite apt and will almost always meet with approval: rape is wrong always and everywhere because a person’s body is inviolable; a person has an absolute right to his (or her) body, and anyone who breaches that right is acting immorally regardless of his reasons. A person is, as it were, the owner of his own body, and as such he has absolute say over what gets done to it.

At this point the case for a free society has already begun to be built, though one’s adversary probably does not see it. It is time to call up the second intuition, again by asking a question whose answer will seem obvious. Is there anything wrong with slavery? Well, what exactly? Again we must not allow “self-evidence” to justify our belief that slavery is wrong because many people evidently have believed and continue to believe that slavery is at least in some circumstances acceptable. Might slavery be wrong because it violates the dignity of the enslaved by treating him as a means to someone else’s end? Might it be wrong because it dehumanizes the enslaved, treats him as if he were the moral equivalent of a pack animal?

Yes, that is it: slavery is wrong because it treats a man as if he were not a man; it fails to respect his inherent dignity, his inherent worth as a human being. But suppose that Congress—and congressmen, note, are popularly elected—passed legislation requiring the enslavement of some minority of the population. Suppose that to supply vital industries with much-needed cheap labor, the majority of us decided to enslave all, let us say, Irishmen. This would be democracy in action; the whole process would be strictly according to protocol in a democratic country. That would be acceptable, would it not?

Of course not! the reply will come. Slavery can never be justified, no matter how many people voted for it. And now one’s adversary will believe what has already been said with almost unshakable conviction: slavery disrespects the inherent dignity in a human being and is therefore always wrong. A person may not in any way be used against his will for the sake of another person, and his sovereignty over his own life is immune from democratic (or any other) lawmaking.

Is Theft Wrong?

Now the foundations of the free society are almost entirely laid. Only one more element is required. Is there anything wrong with stealing? This matter can be a bit tricky, because there will be those who think that stealing is justified in the case of a poor man stealing from a rich man. Put that possibility off for a moment and ask the hearer to answer whether theft as a general practice is acceptable. Is it all right for anyone who wants something simply to take it regardless of who owns the thing in question? To this question the answer will be “no.” But once again, why is it not all right?

Although the intuition that stealing is wrong is strong, people are often not quite sure what to say about why it is wrong. Proceed, then, with this question. Suppose Congress took a vote, and the majority, which carried the day, passed legislation licensing local police authorities to take anyone’s property whenever in their judgment, and in their judgment alone, they saw fit to do so. Would there be anything wrong with that? Would the fact that such a practice had been signed into law thereby make the practice morally acceptable? Odds are that the answer to this will be “no” as well.

Make, then, this suggestion. People have a right to what they own—that is, to what they have legitimately acquired (through labor, trade, or gift); stealing violates that right and for that reason is wrong. To return to the case of the poor man stealing from the rich man: how wealthy a person is does not seem relevant to our explanation of why theft is wrong. Theft violates a right, and hence it is wrong regardless of whose right is in question. If one’s adversary wavers on this point, remind him that there is always someone poorer than oneself, and thus everyone is a “rich man” relative to someone else—so if he is willing to allow an exception for a “poor man” to steal from a “rich man,” he is effectively licensing not only everyone else but also himself to be robbed. Is he still willing to make this exception?

Government Violates Rights

One can now move in for the coup de grâce: one’s adversary, whether he realizes it or not, is a classical liberal. Everything the state does beyond protecting these basic, negative rights of individuals is a violation of these same rights. Conscription, for example, is a use of your body to which you did not assent. The income tax and the staggering national debt are nothing but obligations on you to labor for the benefit of someone else. Wealth transfers to the poor, subsidies to farmers, support for the arts, and Social Security are all the forcible seizure of some people’s property in order to give it to others. And however noble the cause, however good the intentions, however many people voted in favor—rape, slavery, and theft are still wrong. And hence all the government programs that are merely particular instances of the principles underlying the immorality of rape, slavery, and theft are wrong as well.

One concrete example will show that the strong language of rape, slavery, and theft is justified in the case of government action. Estimated projections are that an average American born in 1999 will face an effective income tax rate of one hundred percent of his lifetime earnings simply to pay off the financial obligations that the American federal government will have incurred—and that is assuming that no more government programs are created. One hundred percent of lifetime earnings to make good on debts that these people played no part in creating and from which they will receive no benefit. How do you define slavery?

My genuine suspicion is that virtually all people are libertarians in their personal, everyday lives. In practice they regard anything that violates the sanctity of a person acting privately to be wrong. Certainly among my colleagues in philosophy I have met no one who would bodily assault another person (except perhaps in self-defense), who would enslave another person, or who would steal from another person. The challenge for the supporter of a free society, then, is threefold. First, he must get his adversaries to see that these three principles—the right to one’s body, the right to one’s labor, and the right to one’s belongings—are the fundamental organizing principles of classical liberalism. Second, he must show his adversaries that they already subscribe to these principles, a fact demonstrated by their reaction to the series of questions raised above. And, finally, he must bring his adversaries to understand that these principles are binding on everyone, including those who work for the government.

This last point is especially difficult since many people are inclined to believe that the government has an authority all its own. That is, they think that if the government says something, it must be right; and if the government tells one to do something, one’s sole duty is to obey. But one can summon a strong impulse to reconsider this thinking by pointing out that the government is nothing more than other people. If one would expect one’s neighbors to live by the three principles of respecting others’ lives, liberty, and property, then one should expect government employees to live by them as well. A person gains no special knowledge and earns no exemption from the requirements of morality merely by becoming an employee of the government.

Now I have not demonstrated that the free society is the only morally acceptable society (though I believe that it is). A philosophically sophisticated person will demand further argument for the principles underlying each of these intuitions, even if he shares them. It does not follow from the fact that one has a certain intuition about a moral matter, or even from the fact that many people have the same intuitions, that the matter is thereby settled. One’s intuitions might after all be wrong.

Moreover, I have not yet shown that the moral principles that I have suggested underlie these intuitions are in fact the principles that underlie them. It is possible to construct moral condemnations of rape, slavery, and theft—and thus justifications for the respect of life, liberty, and property—without appeal to natural rights. It might be possible, for example, to give a utilitarian or consequentialist rationale for these principles, although the sense that these principles deserve absolute recognition will be difficult to preserve within a utilitarian moral framework. It is also quite possible that one either has these intuitions or embraces these principles because one subscribes to Austrian economic thought. A follower of Ludwig von Mises or F.A. Hayek may well adhere to the sanctity of these moral principles without thereby thinking that they are made sacred because of their reliance on natural rights. Mises himself thought that the notion of natural rights was an intellectual fiction. Or one might subscribe to these principles because one is a Christian who believes that each of us, as a child of God, is sacred. A follower of Father Robert Sirico will believe that it is a violation of God’s will to treat another human being as anything other than inherently valuable and inviolable, and that one cannot fulfill one’s Christian duty to others unless one is radically free to choose to do so. Or, finally, one might think that man’s rational autonomy presupposes allegiance to certain universal rules, among which are the principles under consideration here. A Kantian will believe he is categorically commanded to treat others as ends in themselves and never merely as means, and he might for that reason believe that the free, classical liberal society is just the Kantian “kingdom of ends.”

I would not presume to resolve here which of these foundations for believing in the principles of the free society, if any, is correct. But that is not my intent. My belief is that substantially all of us share the intuitions that suggest these principles, regardless of the specific set of background beliefs we hold that lead us to accept them. My purpose rather is to galvanize adherents to a wide array of beliefs to fight for the free society by showing them that anything beyond the minimal, libertarian state violates moral principles they already hold—whatever the basis on which they hold them.

The Virtue of Consistency

All that would remain is to remind one’s adversaries of the importance of consistency in applying these principles generally. The classical liberal society is not alien or extreme or licentious or bizarre or naïve. It is simply our own moral principles writ large; it is the manifestation and reflection of the person of dignity each of us believes himself to be.

Many years ago Hayek called on classical liberals to “make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage” and to develop a program that would at once inspire us and serve as a blueprint for us to realize freedom under law. I think that such a program must begin by appealing to our deeply held intuitions, our pre-theoretical sense of right and wrong.

It is frequently remarked in America today that voters have a deep distrust for politicians and for politics; they are cynical about the whole political system, a fact that is regularly evinced by their exceedingly low interest in finding anything out about the people running for office. One will probably not understand this distrust and cynicism until one sees the constitutional, if perhaps unconscious, libertarianism that runs through many Americans. I suspect they distrust politicians and dislike politics because they are aware on some level that almost everything that goes on in politics is a violation of moral propriety. When the government bestows largess on them, they are by and large happy to receive it; but I suspect that most of them nevertheless harbor the perhaps vague sense that there is something wrong with this state of affairs.

Even if they think that they cannot but take advantage of the government’s “free money” before someone else does, they would, if they were candid and forced themselves to reflect on the matter, admit that these are dishonorable actions. This, in part, is what stands behind Americans’ general belief that politics is a sordid affair (and that politicians are little better than moral reprobates). What is required, then, is to bring into the open exactly what makes these actions sordid and dishonorable, and to discover explicitly the close connection between people’s notions of impropriety and the libertarian principles that give rise to them.

One way to begin this process of discovery is to get people who spend their time thinking about moral and political issues on a philosophical level—like philosophy professors—to begin to focus their mental energy on the philosophical underpinnings of the free society. The hope is that more and more of them will come to see the classical liberal conception of society as a compelling manifestation of some of their own fundamental moral beliefs, and, further, that they will then teach it to their students. In this way one might get people who are already prone to intellectual investigations to become intrigued with the strong intellectual appeal of the free society and to replace their perhaps present desire for a socialist utopia with a desire for a classical liberal utopia.

The free society is worth fighting for, and even a person in a tiny corner of human life—a person in academic philosophy, for example—can take up the cause of liberty and make a difference. The strategy I have outlined here can be an effective way to make people within academic philosophy open to the power of classical liberalism, but it can also, I believe, bear fruit with people outside philosophy. It can thus be a first step toward answering Hayek’s call. I commend it to you.

This article has been published with FEE‘s permission and has been originally published at The Freeman March 1999 • Volume: 49 • Issue: 3.

About the author

CIEL wrote 62 articles on this blog.