TCS Daily

The Myth of Libertarian Neutrality

By Edward Feser - August 3, 2004 12:00 AM

Editor's note: This is the third and final article in a debate over the nature of libertarianism between Edward Feser and Will Wilkinson. Read Feser's first article here and Wilkinson's response here. Wilkinson will have more to say on this piece at his website here. For more on this debate from TCS contributor Julian Sanchez click here. Also see more from Boston University Law Professor Randy Barnett, here.

In my article "The Trouble with Libertarianism," I argued that there is no common core to the various theories usually classified as "libertarian," and that since these theories have very different moral and social implications, none can be said genuinely to be neutral between the various moral and religious worldviews prevalent in a modern pluralistic society. Will Wilkinson takes exception to my argument in his recent TCS piece. What follows is a brief reply.

"Political Libertarianism"

The egalitarian liberal philosopher John Rawls made a distinction in his book Political Liberalism between "comprehensive moral doctrines," which comprise detailed and controversial moral and metaphysical accounts of human nature and human society, and "political liberalism," which is intended to be neutral between such comprehensive doctrines and to provide a framework within which adherents of various doctrines can peacefully co-exist. His aim was to find a way of showing how liberalism can be defended without having to appeal to controversial moral and metaphysical claims.

Inspired by Rawls, Wilkinson draws a parallel distinction between comprehensive moral doctrines on the one hand, and "political libertarianism" on the other. He suggests that political libertarianism is a neutral framework that can be defended without having to appeal to any particular comprehensive moral and metaphysical theory, including any of the moral and metaphysical theories proffered by various libertarian thinkers. The problem with my article, according to Wilkinson, is that I fail to see this distinction.

My answer to Wilkinson is that I am well aware that many libertarians would try to make such a distinction, but I simply deny that they can do so successfully. Indeed, showing this was the whole point of my original article. Wilkinson's reply is thus little more than a prolonged exercise in begging the question. He says that:

"...libertarianism, construed as a practical political theory, does not require a 'deep' metaphysical justificatory theory. We needn't wait until the last libertarian utilitarian or natural rights theorist dies in the last ditch in order to say what libertarianism really is. The content of political libertarianism is to be found in the overlap between these different comprehensive libertarianisms. Something like: a relatively small state governed by a rule of law that protects rights to personal autonomy, contract, and private property from within the context of a robust and free market economy."

But there are two problems with this characterization that reflect Wilkinson's failure seriously to address my argument. First, his definition doesn't say anything that an egalitarian liberal or non-libertarian conservative couldn't agree with; indeed, many egalitarian liberals and non-libertarian conservatives do in fact endorse "a relatively small state governed by a rule of law that protects rights to personal autonomy, contract, and private property from within the context of a robust and free market economy." So Wilkinson's definition fails to capture anything distinctively libertarian. The second, related, problem is that what counts as e.g. "rights to personal autonomy, contract, and private property" and a "relatively small state" -- something Wilkinson would have to elaborate upon in order to make his definition informative -- is itself extremely controversial, and controversial not only between libertarians and non-libertarians, but even among libertarians themselves. It is therefore no good to point to a commitment to "rights," "the rule of law," and the like either as the common core of all libertarian theories or as the one thing that all members of a pluralistic modern society can agree on, because the content of these ideas is precisely what everyone disagrees about. Wilkinson might as well argue that libertarianism, egalitarian liberalism, socialism, and communism are all really varieties of the same doctrine, because they "overlap" in their commitment to "freedom." Finding some terminology that adherents of various positions all use hardly suffices to demonstrate that there is some substantive view they all have in common; what needs to be shown is that they use that terminology in more or less the same way.

To take two examples I appealed to in my original article, suppose we want to know whether Wilkinson's "political libertarianism" entails a right to abortion and/or same-sex marriage. One claim Wilkinson makes on behalf of "political libertarianism" (paralleling the claim Rawls makes on behalf of "political liberalism") is that it is a view that ought to appeal to a sense of justice shared by all the members of a pluralistic society. But either way one answers the question I just posed, it is blindingly obvious that "political libertarianism" does not have such an appeal. For many secularists and for the typical contractarian or utilitarian moral theorist (libertarian or otherwise), abortion and same-sex marriage are going to count as perfectly just, so that no prohibition of either of them can be justified. But for the pious Muslim, orthodox Jew, or traditional Christian, as well as for the typical natural law theorist (religious or secular), abortion and same-sex marriage are going to count as paradigms, not only of immorality, but of injustice: injustice in the first case because abortion is regarded by such people as murder, and injustice in the second case because the stability of the traditional family is regarded by them as the foundation of any just social order (libertarian or otherwise) and they typically regard same-sex marriage as a threat to such stability. So for one group, justice requires allowing abortion and/or same-sex marriage, and for the other, justice requires forbidding them. It follows that whether or not "political libertarianism" allows for abortion and same-sex marriage, it is inevitably going to be a conception which is far from neutral between competing comprehensive doctrines. And this becomes only more obvious when we consider that the reasons people differ over the justice or injustice of the practices in question are also going to entail differences over the justice or injustice of such practices as homosexual adoption, cloning, embryonic stem cell research, and so on and on.

Moreover, since libertarian theorists themselves are going to disagree on these issues, it is obvious that there is no interesting common core to all the theories usually classified as "libertarian." A libertarian motivated by contractarianism might plausibly regard the outlawing of abortion as unjust, while a libertarian motivated by natural law considerations might plausibly regard the permitting of abortion as unjust. A libertarian of a utilitarian bent might plausibly regard the legalization of same-sex marriage as legitimate, while a Hayekian libertarian might plausibly regard it as a dangerous and unjustifiable tampering with inherited institutions. Their disagreements are going to derive not only from the very different foundations they give for libertarian conceptions of "justice," "rights," and the like, but also from the very different conceptions they thereby arrive at of what "justice" and "rights" amount to in the first place. A libertarian whose creed is based on an Aristotelian-natural law conception of morality, for example, doesn't just differ from a utilitarian libertarian in what grounds rights and justice; he has a totally different conception of what rights and justice are.

As a result, the more socially and morally conservative sort of libertarian may well find that he is closer in theory and practice to the Burkean or natural law conservative than he is to "socially liberal" libertarians; while the more socially liberal libertarian might find that he is closer in theory and practice to the egalitarian liberal than he is to the morally conservative libertarian. This is why I suggested in my original article that when libertarians of various stripes "get clear about exactly what they believe and why... they might find that their particular version of libertarianism commits them -- or ought to commit them -- to regard as rivals those they might once have considered allies." (The standard three-way classification of the most prominent views in American political thinking as "conservative, libertarian, and egalitarian liberal" might accordingly be less helpful and less revealing than an alternative two-way classification, such as "libertarian and non-libertarian conservatives versus egalitarian and non-egalitarian liberals.") In any event, Wilkinson's characterization of "political libertarianism" doesn't reveal a substantial common core to these various versions of libertarianism, but merely papers over their very real differences by appealing to a conception of rights and justice that is too vague to be informative. There is just no way plausibly to disengage the content of libertarianism from its philosophical foundations in the manner Wilkinson recommends.

It helps not one whit for Wilkinson to suggest that the deep disagreements between comprehensive doctrines that exist in contemporary society can be mitigated within the context of "political libertarianism" by appealing to "evidence from psychology and the social sciences -- evidence not grounded in special, controversial, philosophical assumptions." For one thing, if Wilkinson really thinks that psychology and social science in general are free from "controversial philosophical assumptions," then he doesn't know much about either social science or philosophy. For another thing, even the harder sciences could surely do nothing to settle the deepest disagreements. Opponents of abortion would say that it is just a biological fact that the fetus is a human being from the point of conception, and then conclude, from this and from the moral premise that every human being has an inviolable right to life, that the fetus has a right to life. Defenders of abortion would claim either that the fetus is only "potentially human" or that while it might be human, it is not a "person"; and in either case, they would draw the inference that it has no right to life. At bottom, the dispute here is not scientific, but moral and metaphysical, and cannot be settled without addressing the underlying moral and metaphysical issues. The same thing is true of the debate over whether there is a right to same-sex marriage: what counts as "marriage," as a "right," and so forth, are issues that cannot even properly be understood, much less settled, outside the context of substantive moral theory. Social and natural science are in principle incapable of breaking the deadlock.

A dilemma

Now the point of all this (as I hasten to add for those readers about to bombard me with hysterical emails about abortion and same-sex marriage) isn't to decide here which view regarding abortion or same-sex marriage is correct. It is rather to note that both sets of views can be defended on grounds of justice by appealing to sophisticated comprehensive doctrines held by millions of people in contemporary pluralistic societies.

As I noted in my original article, Rawls's way of dealing with this sort of problem was to hold that "political liberalism" need be neutral only between "reasonable" comprehensive doctrines. The result is that Rawls seems faced with a dilemma: he must either give so little content to the key concepts of "reasonable" and "political liberalism" that his view amounts to a useless tautology -- "political liberalism" is just whatever is compatible with all "reasonable" comprehensive doctrines, where a doctrine is "reasonable" only if it is compatible with "political liberalism" -- or he must give so much content to them that he will end up having to dismiss as "unreasonable" and "illiberal" a great many views held by a great many members of contemporary pluralistic societies, thus undermining his claim to be presenting a view that will solve the problem of showing how adherents of the competing comprehensive doctrines prevalent in such societies can peacefully co-exist. That Rawls opts for the second horn of the dilemma is evidenced by his incorporation into "political liberalism" of the redistribution of wealth entailed by his famous "difference principle," and by his notorious suggestion that opponents of legalized first-trimester abortions ought not to be regarded as "reasonable." But this just shows how disingenuous is his claim to "neutrality": Rawls's view is "neutral" only between those doctrines whose adherents are willing to submit to the standard egalitarian liberal line on social and economic questions. It can thus have no rational appeal for those who did not already agree with Rawls before they read his book, and his claim to be showing a way to divide through the most contentious issues facing modern pluralistic societies is revealed to be bogus.

Wilkinson seems faced with the same dilemma. Now it might seem, from the vacuity of the definition he gives "political libertarianism," that he embraces the first horn. But given the tone of his piece -- especially the bizarre and unfounded accusation at the end of it that I want to force "Roman Catholicism and Aristotelian metaphysics" on everyone -- one suspects that Wilkinson is no fan of the conservative sort of morality often associated with natural law theory, and would probably like to formulate "political libertarianism" in such a way that a prohibition on abortion, say, is incompatible with it. (This is, I grant, just an educated guess, since Wilkinson is so extremely vague about what his position implies with respect to specific problem cases like abortion -- as he has to be if his view is to sound even remotely plausible.)

As with Rawls, then, the second horn of the dilemma is probably the one Wilkinson would embrace, given his apparent broader commitments. But once he embraces it, it is also clear that the "neutrality" he favors is as phony as Rawls's. For natural law opponents of abortion would hold that it is a requirement of justice that all human beings, including the unborn, have their right to life protected by the state; in their view, no just government can allow abortion, any more than it can allow slavery. And any view that insists that abortion be legalized will, from the point of view of the natural law theorist, thereby be imposing a particular moral view (and a false one at that) upon others -- in particular, upon the unborn -- just as the institution of slavery was an imposition of slaveholders' erroneous moral views upon slaves. Like Rawls's "political liberalism," Wilkinson's "political libertarianism" would have to define away the problem this poses for his alleged "neutrality" by simply stipulating that the opponent of legalized abortion is "unreasonable." Moreover, since there are many libertarians (including some motivated by natural law theory) who would hold that a libertarian state cannot allow abortion (since they take abortion to violate the rights of the unborn), Wilkinson will also have to stipulate that such people are just not "real" libertarians after all. Both Rawls and Wilkinson start out promising a great breakthrough in political thought, one which promises at long last to solve the problem of pluralism; but the "solution" ends up being little more than a proposal to define those who disagree with them out of legitimate political discussion.

When the semantic game-playing is put to one side, however, it is clear that, whatever one thinks of abortion, both pro-choice and pro-life advocates can be reasonable (in the everyday sense of "reasonable," rather than the ideologically loaded Rawlsian or Wilkinsonian sense); and it is also clear that any view (whether one chooses to call it "political libertarianism" or not) which requires either legalized abortion or a prohibition on abortion is not genuinely neutral between all reasonable worldviews. It is obvious too that a vast theoretical and practical gulf separates pro-life and pro-choice libertarians, just as a vast theoretical and practical gulf separated those believers in natural rights who held slavery to be legitimate from those who held it to be unjust. Differences this big cannot fail to reflect deep differences over the nature of justice, rights, and the bearers of rights. Both the claims of my original article are thereby confirmed: the differences between the various versions of libertarianism are more significant than the similarities; and once one gets clear about exactly which version of libertarianism one is talking about, one will see that it is not genuinely neutral between all reasonable comprehensive doctrines.

Wilkinson writes that "The mark of political maturity is waking up to the irremediable complexity and diversity of our social world. Feser appears not to have awakened." But it is Wilkinson who is asleep; indeed, he's living in a dreamworld. For he fails to take seriously just how irremediably complex and diverse our social world is. It is in fact so complex that only a fool could believe that the deep moral disagreements that divide it can be ignored for the purposes of politics, that all "reasonable" people will inevitably abide by the allegedly "neutral" rules of Wilkinson's conception of "political libertarianism" -- a conception that one suspects just happens to square perfectly with Wilkinson's own personal moral predilections, whatever they are (even as Rawls's "neutral" framework just happens -- what are the odds?! -- to reflect precisely the sensibilities of the typical Ivy League university professor).

Contrary to what some readers of my original piece suppose, I am not hostile to all versions of libertarianism; in fact I am partial to a version that combines elements drawn from the Aristotelian and the Hayekian traditions. But I would not for a moment pretend that this view is "neutral" between the comprehensive doctrines prevalent in modern pluralistic society. It is no more neutral than any other view is, least of all Wilkinson's. The Rawlsian quest to find some such neutral position is understandable given the depth and fierceness of the moral disagreements that plague contemporary political life, but it is a hopeless one. These disagreements and their inevitable political consequences cannot be wished away -- or defined away -- and libertarians do themselves no credit by pretending otherwise.

Edward Feser ( is the author of On Nozick (Wadsworth, 2003).

Editor's note: This is the third and final article in a debate over the nature of libertarianism between Edward Feser and Will Wilkinson. Read Feser's first article here and Wilkinson's response here. Wilkinson will have more to say on this piece at his website here. For more on this debate from TCS contributor Julian Sanchez click here. Also see more from Boston University Law Professor Randy Barnett, here.


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