I was recently asked on Twitter whether my libertarianism is of the consequentialist or deontological variety. For those not hip to the terminology, the question is about what sort of moral theory underpins my political theory. Those two—consequentialism and deontology—are, for many, the default choices when it comes to libertarianism. You can believe in political liberty because free markets of free people leads to the most wealth and happiness and so are valuable because of that—in which case you’re a consequentialist. Or you believe that there exist hard and fast, unavoidable moral rules—about obligations or prohibitions or rights—that we must respect, and doing so demands, at least in part, respecting the liberty of individuals. If that’s your line of thinking, you’re a deontologist.
My answer to the question as framed is “Neither.” I’m not a consequentialist, nor am I a deontologist. I believe, of course, that the consequences of actions and of political systems matter a great deal. But I don’t believe that consequences are all that matters in moral or political considerations. And I believe, of course, that we live with certain obligations towards others, among these a respect for rights. But I don’t believe that articulating a set of rules and then following them is the most fruitful or psychologically authentic way to think about morality.
Okay, then, so what do I call myself? The answer I gave on Twitter was “I’m a virtue ethicist of a roughly Aristotelian sort—though one with strong intuitionist tendencies.” Which is a lot of opaque terms. So here’s an adumbrated unpacking:
If a consequentialist believes that what matters when faced with a moral choice is which option creates the best consequences or results in the most overall happiness, and a deontologist believes that the correct action is the one that follows from a set of moral rules, a virtue ethicist says the right action is whatever a truly virtuous person would do when faced with a similar choice.
What, then, is a virtuous person? It’s a person who has cultivated and possesses the traits of virtuous character. She’s honest, benevolent, generous, courageous, has great integrity and wisdom, and so on. She is, in other words, the best person you can imagine, the kind of person you ought to strive to be yourself.
As such, virtue ethics is less focused on how to decide the right action at any given time—though of course it cares about that—and instead looks to what sort of traits a virtuous person possesses, and how we can develop those traits in ourselves. In a sense, once we are virtuous, the moral choices will take care of themselves. We’ll do what’s right, and we’ll do it naturally.
The Aristotelian portion of my answer speaks to the kind of virtue ethics I find most appealing, namely one grounded in the ideas of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, and having to do with the relationship between virtue and eudaimonia, or the sort of happiness and flourishing we imagine when we think of “a good life.” The intuitionist tendencies are about the fact that I think our moral intuitions are an important source of knowledge in filling out the content of the virtues and their application.
My libertarianism, with its virtue ethical foundations, thus boils down to a deep conviction that good people, acting out of virtue, will treat each other will kindness, benevolence, respect, and so on. They will seek to engage each other through our most human of faculties, namely conversation and persuasion, and will not seek to get their way as animals do, with violence and threats. A political system built on that will be one of liberty, not coercion. That’s the kind of libertarian I am.