Here’s a question for you – should libertarians reject moral degeneracy? 

(For now, let’s just table the object-level discussion about what specifically constitutes degeneracy, and focus on the meta-level discussion instead. Bob may think homosexuality constitutes moral degeneracy and should be rejected, but alcohol use is fine, while Bill may think alcohol use is morally degenerate and should be rejected, but homosexuality is fine. For the purposes of this discussion, Bill and Bob agree on the meta-level question that moral degeneracy should be rejected, even though they disagree at the object level about what behaviors are morally degenerate.)

I ask this because out there on the wild world of Twitter, a fellow libertarian Tweeted out the following:

“Libertarians shouldn’t accept degeneracy!” If you truly believe this you don’t know what libertarianism is. Libertarianism is a philosophy regarding the political/legal order, nothing more. Moral degeneracy is not an issue of the political/legal order, unless you believe that the state exists to make us moral. And if you believe that, you are categorically NOT a libertarian.

Certainly there are some thinkers out there who believe there is a role for the state to make us moral, and I share this person’s distrust for that idea. But I still don’t think his Tweet quite works, for a few reasons. 

Let’s accept that libertarianism has nothing to say beyond the political/legal order, and thus it offers no prescriptions about what people ought to believe or how they ought to act beyond that specific realm. Even so, it doesn’t follow from this that there is nothing else libertarians ought to believe, accept, or reject. For example, I would say that “libertarians shouldn’t accept Holocaust denial.” Note that in making this statement, I am not calling for government-imposed censorship to silence people who deny the Holocaust. To say, “you shouldn’t accept X” is not the logical equivalent of “X should be banned by the state.” Also, remember not to equivocate between accepting something, and merely tolerating it – while I do believe libertarians should tolerate Holocaust denial on free speech grounds, you can disapprove of something while still tolerating it. 

Holocaust denial is not strictly speaking an issue of the political/legal order, but libertarians should still reject it, because it’s not true. That is, the reasons that exist to reject Holocaust denial still obtain independently of libertarian political philosophy. Everyone should reject Holocaust denial for those reasons – including libertarians. Libertarians should also reject the geocentric model of the solar system. Geocentrism doesn’t run afoul of libertarian arguments regarding the political/legal order, but nonetheless libertarians shouldn’t accept it – because there are sound arguments against it. 

Similarly, I know Christian libertarians who believe the state should have no role in mandating or compelling religion. Yet, they also believe that libertarians (and everyone else) should accept Christianity – because they believe Christianity is, in fact, true. And while I disagree with them at the object-level, I agree with them at the meta-level – if Christianity is true, then libertarians should accept it, as should non-libertarians. To say “libertarians shouldn’t accept Christianity because libertarianism is simply about the political order, nothing more” seems, well, obviously wrong.

And for the same reason, if there are sound arguments that moral degeneracy is a real phenomenon, and is bad, and ought not be accepted, then it seems almost trivially true that libertarians should reject moral degeneracy. One can believe this without believing the state is therefore mandated to make us moral.

So, the Tweet above contains a few confusions, as I see it. It seemingly conflates whether or not one ought to accept or reject certain beliefs or modes of behavior as implying that the state should mandate or forbid those beliefs or modes of behavior. It also seems to imply that the sole reason libertarians have for accepting or rejecting anything must come from libertarian arguments about the political order – and if libertarian arguments about the political order don’t touch on moral degeneracy, then libertarians have no reason to reject moral degeneracy. But who says the arguments of libertarian political philosophy are the sole basis on which we ought to evaluate ideas, or decide what we should accept or reject? 

I prefer the more holistic approach reflected by Adam Smith, particularly in his The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith does say that a person who simply keeps his hands to himself has done pretty much all that he can justly be compelled to do – “We may often fulfil all the rules of justice by sitting still and doing nothing.” (That is, simply refraining from violating the negative rights of others.) But Smith’s vision was broader than this. He still believed there were ways we ought to behave, and behaviors we ought to reject, over and above the merest requirements of what can be justly forced. Fulfilling all the rules of justice was a necessary condition for a civilization to grow and thrive and flourish – but by no means was it the sole and sufficient condition. Smith spoke extensively about the desire not just to be praised but to be praiseworthy, and the desire to avoid not just being blamed but to be blameworthy. This entails that there are modes of behavior that in fact deserve to be praised, and other modes of behavior deserving of blame, and that we ought to engage in the former and avoid the latter. How is this meant to work if we speak as though the sole criteria for what we ought to accept or reject is simply what is established by the political order? 

There is a danger of sliding from “even though we should reject X there shouldn’t be a law against it” to thinking “since there shouldn’t be a law against X, we shouldn’t reject it.” Theodore Dalrymple worried about this in his book In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas, where he argued the latter view, in practice, “ends up increasing the  power of government over individuals” by “destroying all moral authority that intervenes between individual human will and governmental power. Everything that is not forbidden by law is, ipso facto, permissible. What is legally permissible is morally permissible…This, of course, makes the law, and therefore those who make the law, the moral arbiters of society. It is they who, by definition, decide what is permissible and what is not.” 

I worry that the above Tweeter, and many other libertarians, sometimes fall into this mode of thinking. In the Tweet that inspired this post, it was suggested that there were apparently only two options – either you think the state must be mandated to become the moral arbiter of society, or you must accept moral degeneracy. This is accepted with delight by many social conservatives before throwing down the reverse-card – while the libertarian above suggests that since the state shouldn’t be a moral arbiter libertarians shouldn’t reject moral degeneracy, some conservatives argue that since we shouldn’t accept moral degeneracy, we need to make the state a moral arbiter. 

I reject both side of that coin. In my view, we don’t want the state to be a moral arbiter and this makes it all the more important that we recognize there are behaviors we ought to accept and reject independently of what the political order requires. Edmund Burke was right when he said, “Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.” And if libertarians are keen to ensure as little control as possible comes from without, it’s all the more important to cultivate it from within. 

Or at least that’s how it seems to me. If you disagree (or even if you agree, I suppose), do by all means say so in the comments! I’d love to hear your thoughts, dear readers!