Libertarianism as Moral Overlearning
By Bryan Caplan
“Overlearning” is a key idea in educational psychology. One good explanation:
In experiments, researchers often test the effects of overlearning by (a) making subjects practice until they reach 100% accuracy, then (b) practicing some more. Intuitively, though, the idea is simply to make perfection routine. Subtleties aside, overlearning has two big benefits.
First, overlearning is one of the best ways to attain lifelong competence. Most people who study algebra soon forget what they learned. Who doesn’t? People who go on to study calculus – a more advanced subject that requires the routine, error-free use of algebra.
Second, overlearning is one of the best ways to attain true Transfer of Learning. When you’re a novice driver, you can easily get into trouble if you have to drive an unfamiliar car. But once you have so much driving experience that you no longer need to think about driving, your competence generalizes to almost any automobile.
As far as Google knows, no psychologist has extended the idea of overlearning to moral reasoning. But it’s a natural extension. A small child may grasp that “It’s wrong to hit other kids unless they hit you first.” But he often forgets this moral knowledge – or fails to apply it in unfamiliar situations. As he grows up, however, the child typically practices this principle to perfection. The moral principle pops into his head whenever and wherever he feels the slightest urge to start a fistfight.
All too often, of course, people learn but fail to overlearn. As a result, their knowledge is “inert.” If you explicitly test them, they can spit out the right answer. But they frequently forget or ignore their knowledge in relevant situations. For example, a person may know the moral principle, “Everyone has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” yet support slavery.
If you have a conscience, you should care about moral overlearning. What good is moral “knowledge” if people fail to use it? But the concept is especially pressing for libertarians. Libertarians often argue that they are merely holding governments to ordinary moral standards. It’s wrong for a private individual to physically attack other people who are behaving peacefully. It’s wrong for a private individual to take other people’s property without their consent. So why is it OK for government to do these things? Yet non-libertarians usually find these observations unconvincing.
My claim: The fundamental difference between libertarians and non-libertarians is that libertarians have overlearned common-sense morality. Non-libertarians only reliably apply basic morality when society encourages them to do so. Libertarians, in contrast, deeply internalize basic morality. As a result, they apply it automatically in the absence of social pressure – and even when society discourages common decency.
For example, non-libertarians routinely say, “A woman has a right to use her own body as she likes.” But it never even occurs to them that this implies that prostitution should be legal. Why? Because non-libertarians only apply this principle in the exact situations where their society encourages them to do so. They learn the principle without overlearning it. Libertarians, in contrast, can’t help but see the logical connection between a woman’s right to use her own body and the right to have sex for money.
To take a far larger issue, people across the political spectrum would agree that, “Accepting a job offer is not a crime.” (What’s the moral equivalent of “Duh”?) But most non-libertarians see no conflict between this principle and immigration restrictions. Once you overlearn the principle, however, the whole moral landscape transforms. You suddenly see that our immigration status quo is morally comparable to the reviled Jim Crow laws. The fact that other people frown on the comparison doesn’t change the moral facts.
The “libertarianism as moral overlearning” framing is self-congratulatory. I freely admit it. Perhaps the real story is that libertarians stupidly generalize narrow moral principles to situations where they’re entirely inappropriate.* Either way, though, the concept of moral overlearning deserves your attention. If you only apply moral principles when other people encourage you to do so, how much about right and wrong do you really know?
* If that’s what you think, I highly recommend Mike Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority, which explores these questions forwards and backwards.