A Pilgrim's Progress


The Libertarian Idea, by Jan Narveson, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 367 pages, $34.95

Jan Narveson's latest book, The Libertarian Idea, is the testimony of a philosophical emigré. Narveson is best known as an accomplished exponent of utilitarianism. Here he disowns that ethic and, in the process, develops a libertarian politics that is both theoretically rich and bristling with provocative real-world applications. A glance at where he came from and why he departed helps illumine this pilgrim's progress.

Ethical theorists more or less neatly arrange themselves into two camps. The first, whom I shall dub the Impersonalists, believe that sound moral appraisal issues from a detached perspective, a sort of god's-eye-view. (Contemporary moral philosophers, not a notably devout lot, tend to secularize this into talk about "ideal observers" or "impartial judges.")

This approach, like so much else in philosophy, can be traced back to Plato, who hypothesized a Form of the Good that serves as a universal standard of value owing nothing to the aspirations of individual human beings. Natural law ethics is essentially a variation on this Platonic theme as, with a twist, is John Rawls's strategy of arguing from an "original position" in which agents are methodologically dissociated from all personalizing knowledge and desires. Common to these otherwise opposed theories is the conviction that special attention to advancing the ends that happen to be one's own is antithetical to genuine morality. Morality has its reasons, but they are categorically distinct from those that direct our self-interested pursuits.

The other camp, the Personalists, finds this simply incomprehensible. Precisely because we are beings who passionately attach ourselves to our projects, an ethic sculpted by detached observers would not be fit for us. What rationale could there be to hold at arm's length that which we most care about and which provides direction, coherence, and meaning to our active lives? Plainly none. Morality, if it is not to be a mere chimera or an assortment of insupportable dogmas, must take people as they are, as beings who have reason to be partial to their own personal values.

According to these theorists, what we have reason to do is simply to act effectively to get more of whatever it is that we want. Thus morality is comprehensible as an enterprise for mutual benefit but not as an exercise in self-abnegation. The great classical exponent of this view is Thomas Hobbes, and David Gauthier's Morals by Agreement is an impressive recent rendering.

Narveson's 1967 book, Morality and Utility, was a subtle and inventive brief for utilitarianism, the theory declaring that actions are right if and only if they conduce to the "greatest happiness of the greatest number." If Narveson now finds utilitarianism lacking, it is not because of any lack of skill in the earlier presentation. Rather, he disavows it because of its inherent impersonalism. Utilitarianism takes its bearings entirely from aggregate measures. Only incidentally, if at all, is it able to admit the relevance of whose happiness is advanced by a course of action or the extent to which agents may be called upon to sacrifice all that they hold dear in order to maximize utility. Nor does utilitarianism have much use for rights. Because rights block off various avenues through which would-be reformers might pursue their pet designs for social melioration, utilitarians either follow Jeremy Bentham in declaring them "nonsense on stilts" or allow them a status purely derivative from impersonal considerations.

Narveson's initial dissatisfaction with utilitarian methodology was prompted by Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia. With unequaled verve and philosophical power, Nozick develops the appealing conception of a political order sharply limited by the right of individuals to be free from coercion. Nowhere, however, does he explain why individuals should be thought to enjoy just the particular package of rights he ascribes to them, or even why it is reasonable to admit the existence of any rights that constrain overall utility maximization. As one prominent critic put it, Nozick's is a "libertarianism without foundations."

Narveson believes that he has discovered the heretofore missing foundations of libertarianism in David Gauthier's contractarian methodology. Unlike utilitarianism, contractarianism does not look to a universal, disinterested benevolence as the source of rules of conduct. Rather it asks: What moral constraints is it reasonable for each person to accept so as better to advance that person's own ends?

The great virtue of contractarianism is that it demystifies morality by erecting it on explicitly personalist considerations. As Narveson puts it, "since morality comes fundamentally from the 'inside,' each person being in a position to decide what to do about it—there are no high priests of morals, no Central Committee, no legislature—no moral theory has much chance of getting a grip if it can't account for the motivation to participate in this institution." Contractarianism does not stipulate that rational people value aggregate well-being. They may, but they need not. However, insofar as individuals profess any goals that can be advanced by social cooperation, they have reason to accede to policies that enhance the prospects of their own personal success—and which, simultaneously, enhance the prospects of others. So understood, the principles of morality are merely an extension of the basic precept of market exchange: seek transactions that generate mutual benefit.

What form will generally acceptable principles of social cooperation take? Narveson, unlike Gauthier, argues that they will be restricted almost entirely to reciprocal noninterference, that "our sole basic duty is to refrain from utilizing the fundamental resources of others without their consent." The final third section of The Libertarian Idea is given over to a case-by-case justification of that libertarian claim.

It is Narveson's commitment to ethical personalism that dictates this approach. Unlike some alternative versions of libertarian theory, his precludes plucking from the heavens some convenient natural law canon of universal nonaggression. The heavens aren't so obliging. Rather, if we have reason over some range of activity to forgo encroachments on unwilling others, that will be because a policy of interference serves individuals' interests less well than does freedom.

In remarkably undoctrinaire and insightful fashion, Narveson patiently marshals support for the two-pronged thesis: "First, that practically everything done by modern governments violates someone or others' rights; and second, that likewise practically everything they do is inefficient."

The Libertarian Idea is one of the best expositions of libertarian theory we have and stands as a significant contribution to the underlying theory of morality. It is not, however, without flaws. Much of the first section in which Narveson introduces the basic concepts of ethical appraisal appears rushed and carelessly drafted. Three examples: First, Narveson's definition of "having a right" is, as presented, logically ill-formed. The discerning reader can make out what he really intends, but that should be the author's job. Second, Narveson writes, "coercion is a matter of bringing it about that the coerced person's alternatives are considerably worse than in the status quo ante." That won't do. On this account, if Fred opens a McDonald's franchise across the street from Leroy's Pretty Good Hamburger Emporium, or if Betty decides to stop dating Ernie because he bores her to tears, then Leroy and Ernie have been coerced. Third, Narveson declares, without argument, "There is no such action as allowing, permitting, or letting someone do something." This is clearly mistaken. I am not performing an action when I "allow" you to read your copy of The Libertarian Idea, but I do when I permit you to read my copy.

More ominous is Narveson's assertion, "If x is morally permissible, then those who do x are entitled to freedom from expressions of moral attitude to the contrary." I believe this to be a serious error because it implicitly undercuts a basic impulse of libertarianism. If people enjoy extensive rights of self-determination, then they are free to act quite badly provided only that they do not encroach on the similar rights of others to self-determination. One acting within his rights may nonetheless be imprudent, ungenerous, intemperate, cowardly, inconsiderate, and so on. Such action is permissible but surely not immune from moral rebuke.

If Narveson's claim were acceptable then, because morally mediocre actions are eminently criticizable, it would follow that they may properly be proscribed. Indeed, many opponents of liberalism on both the right and the left draw just this conclusion and duly assign to the state the task of policing morals. It is toxic to the prospects of the free society to confuse the Reign of Virtue with an order in which people are basically left alone.

Narveson's passage from utilitarianism to ethical personalism renders The Libertarian Idea notable. I believe, though, that he errs in identifying personalism with contractarianism. Although the strategy of viewing moral principles as the product of a contract has, in recent years, cycled back into philosophical fashion, it remains problematic. What sort of contract could succeed in justifying a set of moral principles? Not some alleged historical pact. As Narveson himself notes, "contractarianism can be made to seem arbitrary and silly: consider, for instance, the suggestion that long, long ago our remote ancestors made this deal, see, and from that day to this everyone has had to go along with it! Plainly, such a theory is not going to give us the rational motivation we need."

Narveson and other contractarians perforce turn to hypothetical contract: the agreements into which people would enter in some posited initial bargaining position. The results of such an exercise remain entirely indeterminate, however, until those initial conditions are specified, and there does not seem to be any nonarbitrary and morally neutral way to arrive at some one unique basis for contract. What people will agree to is a function, among other things, of what they have, what they want, what they believe, and how they view the process of reaching agreement itself. In particular, one's convictions about what is right or fair or just may have significant implications concerning what one will consent to and whether one will subsequently regard oneself as obliged to comply. Moreover, from the fact that Alma would have agreed to x under such and such stipulated conditions, nothing obviously follows concerning Alma's actual obligations. "But you would have agreed to sell me the stock for $20 a share yesterday before the takeover bid was launched!" is a singularly feeble plea.

Contract theorists have employed different strategies to address these problems. I am not persuaded that any has come close to obviating the difficulties. Narveson does not even try. Rather than counting this a defect, I attribute his abstinence to sound philosophical instincts. Contractarianism's value is, at most, as a useful heuristic device. It serves to inoculate the theorist from temptations to assume a detached, impersonalist perspective. "What reasons from their own perspective do agents have to accede to moral constraints?" then becomes the pivotal ethical question. Once that is achieved, the other accoutrements of contractarianism serve merely to distract.

Notwithstanding the preceding criticisms, I wish to emphasize that this is a book deserving a wide readership. Narveson displays the virtues one would expect from a thoroughly competent academic philosopher—clarity, attention to scholarly details, a nose for argument—but manages to combine them with an exuberant punchiness that entertains as it instructs. The Libertarian Idea is the eminently readable book of a man who knows what liberty is, knows what it isn't, and cares deeply about the difference.

Loren Lomasky teaches philosophy at the University of Minnesota, Duluth.