Theory of Relativism?


The Susan Lee piece on libertarianism that Tim cites is welcome, but I think she pushes the moral relativism angle a little too hard. Libertarians may not want to impose their moral judgments on others (beyond enforcing the basic rules necessary for peaceful coexistence), but that does not mean they have none. The political philosophy is compatible with a wide range of moral views on matters such as marriage, sexuality, drugs, and popular culture. It just requires that force not be used to promote those views.

Lee's treatment of abortion is misleading as well. For those who count the fetus as a person (and there are libertarians who do), abortion cries out not just for moral condemnation but for government intervention to protect the rights of the unborn.

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  1. Joe, you’re right. Every libertarian kicks beggars and little old ladies in the teeth whenever we see them.

    And I wouldn’t ever marry a moral, so why be engaged?

    Meanwhile, go here: and scroll down 2/3 of the page to the “The Jhai Project” post….

  2. If men got pregnant there would be no discussion about abortion.

  3. Because women all agree on it huh?

  4. “If men got pregnant there would be no discussion about abortion.”

    True, there would be an abortion clinic on every corner.
    In response to Arthur Fischul’s post, I wouldn’t say that pro choice is the official libertarian stance. I have heard of a number of libertarian candidates who were pro-life, but felt that government prohibition of abortion was the wrong way to go about it. They advocated an easing of adoption laws and better education regarding safe sex and the consequences of having an abortion.

  5. If men “got pregnant,” they would be women.

  6. OK, you twisted my are so I will now enlighten you with The One True Libertarian Position on Abortion. Both sides of the abortion debate can be argued in good faith and from a founding principles perspective. The people are divided on this issue. The lack of consensus and the silence of the Constitution make it clear that there should be no federal policy with regard to abortion. This is a clear case of something which is “reserved to the states, or to the people”. Roe v Wade was when it all went bad. Prior to RvW each state was free to legislate as it saw fit. Some states were extreme Pro-Life (Texas) some were very Pro-Choice (New York), and many struggled to find middle ground (parental notification, waiting periods, etc.) Pro-Life states were sometimes forced to confront the issue when they bordered Pro-Choice states. On the whole the country was moving from a firmly conservative Pro-life policy towards a more liberal Pro-choice environment. Given time, I believe that trend would have continued, and safe, legal abortions would be generally available. But this would have come about by the will of the people and not via fiat of the anointed. What’s more, conservative states, and even regions within states, would be free to restrict or prohibit abortion as they saw fit. I believe the country would continually struggle and reform itself over abortion, but I think we would have been spared the extreme divisiveness, the violence, and angry/hate-filled confrontation which has characterized the debate since RvW.
    I don’t think there is a correct Libertarian policy to be codified in law with regards to abortion. I believe there is a correct policy as to where and how the law shall be written.

  7. Jabob has sparked an interesting discussion. There are some libertarians and anarchists who are moral relativists. Some of the former, and many of the latter, base their ethics on Stirner. Benjamin Tucker was a Stirnerite in ethics–he did not recognize any inherent human rights, but believed that operating on the principle of equal liberty was the course most likely to promote one’s own rational self-interest. Ken Macleod, in “The Cassini Division,” depicted an anarcho-communist society organized on the basis of Stirner’s egoism. Mind-blowing, huh?

    I prefer Josiah Warren’s (and Rand’s, for that matter) natural rights basis for human liberty.

  8. There are many moral foundations that libertarianism can take. Natural Rights is one. A Stirnerite non-moral position is another. I am sure there are others.

    I happen to prefer Hobbesian contractarianism as a basis myself:

  9. Many of you are missing the whole point of Libertarianism. The Libertarian philosophy is all about individualism. Libertarians believe that charity is a good thing, we just believe that charity should come from the goodness of one’s heart, not from a government-imposed wealth redistribution program (i.e. Welfare, Social Security). All of the Libertarians I know of (myself included) believe that abortion is a bad thing, in fact, I find it to be morally disgusting. But we believe that it is the individual’s responsibility to make the choices necessary to minimize the number of abortions that take place, i.e. it is NOT the government’s place to outlaw the practice of abortion. Libertarians recognize that there is a distinction to be made between personal morality and government-imposed morality, and there is also a distinction to be made between personal responsibility and government responsibility.

    I’m sick of these stereotypes about Libertarians as amoral and heartless. Most of us have strong morals, strong values, and good hearts. We simply believe these things to be virtues best suited to individuals and not to government bureacracies.

  10. Everyone’s made some really great comments here – I enjoyed reading them.

    Since there is more than one way to come to libertarianism, then I doubt there can ever be a unified “libertarian position” on certain things. And morals and abortion are certainly two of those issues.

  11. Brad,
    You make a solid argument, but it is completely inappropriate for the issue of abortion. Do you suggest there should be no law against murder? Or if you think that is an unfair comparison, how about retroactive abortion. Why should a woman’s rights stop with birth? Should we legalize infanticide? Perhaps only if it can be justified with a health pretext and performed in private.

  12. >>Since there is more than one way to come to libertarianism, then I doubt there can ever be a unified “libertarian position” on certain things. And morals and abortion are certainly two of those issues.

  13. Warren – the premise that abortion is murder, at least in any kind of pure sense of the word, is a logical leap. That argument could go on for a long time and could get quite messy – oh, wait a minute, it already has gone on for decades between the ardent pro-life and pro-choice camps, and it already has become messy.

    Infanticide is definitely a separate issue from abortion. Libertarians aren’t for the abolition of all laws. This is another misconception about Libertarians – the notion that we are nothing more than Anarchists by a different name. Libertarians advocate laws against behavior that directly affects another person. Clearly, murder falls into the category of “behaviors that directly affect another person”. Incidentally, infanticide falls into the category of “murder”.

  14. This is funny. Reminds me of the Catholic Church trying to figure out how many Hail Mary’s should be said for a venial sin.

  15. Why is that, Lefty? You consider ideas and principles irrelevant??

    I believe I read somewhere, maybe in Reason, that the point of principle is to discipline bias.

  16. Warren: I would say you are describing a federalist POV on abortion, that it should be to the states. Many libertarians are federalists, too, but I would say they are separate philosophies that address different spheres of interest.

    Personally I think Mr. Sullum hit it on the head in the first place when he said the libertarian position on abortion comes down to one’s view of the personhood of the embryo or fetus. I do agree with Warren’s critique of Brad S’s argument, though, and I would say that Brad S’s reply presupposes that a fetus is not a person.

    How many Hail Mary’s is that, Lefty?

  17. Jacob’s big point was against the moral relativism. But if the opposite of relativism is absolutism, then I would argue that relativism is all there is.

    There isn’t even any absolutism in murder, there are loads of exceptions where murder is acceptable.

  18. fyodor – I agree that Warren made some good counterpoints to my argument, but I think he pre-supposed that a fetus is a child before I pre-supposed that it is not.

    “Hail Mary…full of grace…the Lord is with thee…”

  19. Brad,
    Actually I’m not presupposing or proposing anything. My point is that if you deny personhood to a fetus, there is no reason to grant it to an infant. If you believe in a fundamental right to abortion, the same logic will grant you a right to infanticide. The difference between the two is only pretext.

    That said, my personal opinion is that a parent should be allowed to off their offspring till the bastard leaves the house and becomes self-sufficient. Or at least till they get a job and start making a financial contribution.

  20. Posted by, I know of no case in which murder, as it is commonly defined, is considered acceptable. All you can really mean, as far as I can tell, is that sometimes killing is considered acceptable, but few people consider all killing to be murder.

    There must be some such thing as a moral absolute. Otherwise we have no standard against which to judge whether an action is more or less moral, relatively speaking.

  21. I thought it was interesting that she said “..libertarians favor abortion..” not “libertarians are pro-choice.” Can’t one be a libertarian and even “pro-choice” without actually *favoring* abortion?

  22. “She” referring to the author of the WSJ article Sullum was discussing. Sorry for the lack of clarification.

  23. Re abortion, Jacob is correct that if a fetus is a legal human, then abortion is murder. The big question is, “At what point does the fertilized egg become a legal human?” Even Orin Hatch has recently changed hims mind — from conception to implantation.

    In the mid-80s, Reason ran a wonderful article arguing that legal status should be accorded to a developing fetus when cognitive function occurs (about 24 weeks).

    Think carefully before you say, “Abortion is murder.” Do you really mean that? Or do you mean, “I am sickened at the thought of aborting a fetus that looks like a human?”

    The question is not whether you would have an abortion (or continue in a relationship with a partner who had an abortion). The question is, “At what point in pregnancy should abortion be made illegal?” At what point should legal status be accorded? Conception? Implantation? At the point that the zygote has 8/16/32/64 cells? When the tail is absorbed? When the brain has developed to the point where pain can be felt? When the brain has developed to the point that cognition is possible?

  24. Warren: Dig them old fashioned family values!!!

  25. Sorry for the anonymous post back there.

    War is the classic example of murder being acceptable. One man’s murder is another man’s collateral damage. The end result of course is that a person who killed no one and did nothing to the killer is dead.

    To quote Milton Friedman: Moral responsibility is an individual matter, not a social matter.

    As soon as morality is discussed in terms other than the individual, there is relativism. Every “standard” is only a consensus, not an absolute. Nobody’s individual morality is absolute, people change their minds.

    Although he didn’t quote it, Jacob’s point of contention is probably this sentence: “Libertarian thought promotes relativism and inclusiveness–although, admittedly, this tolerance comes from indifference to moral questions, not from a greater inborn talent to live and let live.”

    I don’t like that sentence either, mostly because it plays moral relativism off against moral indifference which is incorrect IMO. But that’s not “playing moral relativism too hard”, it’s just bad writing. If anything, moral indifference is too high of a standard for me to achieve. If that makes me a bad libertarian in her eyes, so be it. But I really don’t think that was the intent.

  26. Speaking as a recovering conservative, I’ve come to be amused by the whole “relativism” vs. “absolutism” debate since Pat Buchanan’s infamous “culture war” speech a decade ago. First of all, I’ve come to believe that the debate has been horrendously mislabeled. The liberals/libertarians who were the target of arch-conservative moralist rancor have been portrayed as amoral pragmatists who turn a blind eye to all “immorality.” As a teenaged conservative catholic boy, I fell for this line easily, going as far as believing that drug use should be a felony, gays should be imprisoned, and calling anyone of my female classmates “sluts” to there face if they claimed to have had sex out of the blessed bounds of “wedlock.”

    However, after graduating actually experiencing life and meeting people, I actually began to question my previously held morals. Drugs may not be good for you, but WHY is their casual use no different than that of booze and tobacco? WHY is homosexuality immoral? WHY is premarital sex a sin if the couples are responsible enough to use protection and do love one another? (“Because God told you so” wasn’t working as an answer anymore.) In the end, I still believed that there was a standard of right and wrong, it’s just what I thought was right and wrong had changed. That’s what the culture war is truly about. Not amorality vs. morality, but the “new” morals vs. the “old” morals.

  27. “It just requires that force not be used to promote those views.”

    Very good point, Mr. Sullum. And because she misses this point, her good intentions may actually hurt by helping to perpetrate some unfortunate misconceptions. Like, if you’re against tax-supported bureaucrat-run welfare programs, then you must be against charity in general, and therefore want all poor people to starve to death. And it goes beyond that, as her own conflating of issues involving personal versus government-backed morality demonstrates.

  28. Yetis, fine. Loch Ness Monster, ok. Aliens, sure. But a morally engaged liberatarian? I’ll believe it when I see it.

  29. weak joe very weak

  30. Agreed. I’ve always wondered how pro-choice came to be the Official Libertarian Position with regard to abortion. Of course it all depends on whether you feel fetuses have personhood. Or something close enough to personhood to be “good enough for government work.”

    Abortion is violent.

  31. OK, OK! 29 comments, so far to this not very important question/subject. Holy Cowski!
    On the fuel mileage part of this nonsense (or is it feul?: we own the ‘gas’ we buy when we put it in our tanks and then pay for it. ‘Til then it is owned by someone else, ie. it is not OURS. It is not some ‘ours or other’, it is not the Nation’s or the Country’s, because you should see, that makes it the property of the politicians (however legally elected). That leads to bad stuff indeed (’73). Not to mention the fuel cost figures – which in most internal combustion vehicles amounts to about 10% of total operating costs. Every time I hear someone brag that they bought ‘this or that’ because it gets (somewhat) better gas mileage, I suspect that I’m dealing with a frontal lobe deficit.
    Let me list the down side of SUVs: they are tall vehicles, blocking forward vision. But let me remind you that all sorts of vehicles do that: pickups, panel vans, work trucks, semi-tractor trailors and all sorts of the inbetween. A tactical problem for anything smaller.
    Another, softer problem and harder to define, is the psychological problem. Do SUV and other large vehicle drivers actually have a somewhat increased sense of safety/invincibility?
    Probably so. Also does any group of drivers of ANY class of vehicle contain among their numbers, the careless, the amateur, the aggressive, the ‘pissed off’ (even about things other than the traffic)? Probably so. My own (entirely unscientific) survey of the worst behaving drivers is our very own Texas ‘Joe-six-pack’ large pickup truck drivers (not to mention just Joe, but Billie-Sue). Fairly large proportions of all vehicle class drivers do not seem to understand any sort of physics: mass, velocity, kinetic energy, relative velocity, reaction time, stopping distance. When at 70 MPH I can no longer see their headlights (daylight, their lenses), in my Camry’s rear view mirror. Now that’s really stupid. “I’m going to commit suicide and take you with me!!!”
    I’ve been so assaulted at high speeds by a semi-tractor (no trailer) and by a sub compact (both at 5 feet), and many others in recent memory. On city streets, forced over the curb twice by ‘no signal lane switchers’, brought to a panic braking by 2 or 3 ‘failed to yeild right of way’ mistakers. Ok, it was 3, all female. But then the sexes and driving are another petty matter.

  32. Wrong thread. Never mind.

  33. The question is not “when does the fetus become a human?” That leaves far too much room for subjectivity. More rightly, it should be “when does the state have a rightful interest in the life of the child?” The only rational answer in concordance with libertarian principles would be “when the child has the capacity for viability independent of the mother, without the use of ‘heroic’ or experimental medical procedures.”

    It’s conceivible that future medical advances wilol push that condition earlier and earlier in the gestation cycle. But, for now, it stands at the beginning of the third trimester.

  34. EMAIL:
    DATE: 01/19/2004 11:35:04
    Morality by consensus is frequently morality by convenience.

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