Jun 192009

Libertarians take as axiomatic that every person has a natural right to be secure in his life, liberty, and property. Necessary to respect and protect these rights is the non-agression principle, which states that all interpersonal exchanges must be voluntary and coercion is immoral. Briefly, to take one’s life is to take one’s future, to take one’s liberty is to take one’s present, and to take one’s property (the product of one’s life and liberty) is to take the part of one’s past that produced or acquired that property. A lengthier explanation can be found in the “Philosophy of Liberty”.

This ethos is good so far as it goes, and I find it far more appealing than the interventionism (imperialistic paternalism abroad and socialist paternalism at home) I see taking over American government, but I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that it’s missing something. Libertarianism seems to me to be vulnerable to accusations of being the philosophy of the selfish. While objectivists might not object to such an accusation, I suspect most other libertarians would. Collectivists of various stripes argue that man, self-centered and self-serving as he is, cannot be trusted to adhere to non-aggression for very long without a least a little – and perhaps a great deal of – governance.

Rebuttals I’ve seen have generally relied upon the non-aggression principle as sufficient to keep people from allowing their selfishness to harm others. However, I suspect such an apologia is ultimately derived from the negative form of the Golden Rule, i.e., “do not do to others as you would not have them do to you”. As I see it, it only guards against blatant and explicit acts of coercion or force and offers little incentive for generosity or simple kindness. It only prohibits aggression. The positive form of the Golden Rule demands more, instructing us to “do to others as you would have them to you”. While this guideline encourages us to afford others at least as much good will as we desire for ourselves, by itself it does not provide an incentive for altruism. Without an incentive for voluntary service of others, I believe libertarianism (especially in its purist form, anarchism) is as impossible an ideal to realize sustainably as communism. Surely some will respond that the profit motive gives such an incentive. However, I contend that the profit motive will only encourage the minimum offering of good will necessary to not lose business.

Due to a number of accidents of history and cultural, conceptual groupings of three are attractive to most people. Nevertheless, I propose that a fourth right be regarded as essential to libertarianism if it is to be truly feasible on large scales. I posit that in addition to life, liberty, and property, all persons have the inherent right to be secure in their dignity. This right is defensible according to the personalistic norm laid out by Karol Wojtyla (aka Pope John Paul II) in Love and Responsibility.

“This norm, in its negative aspect, states that the person is a kind of good which does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as the such the means to an end. In its positive form the personalistic norm confirms this: the person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love.”


“This norm, as a commandment, defines and recommends a certain way of relating to God and to people, a certain attitude towards them. This way of relating, this attitude, is in agreement with what the person is, with the value which the person represents, and therefore it is fair. Fairness takes precedence of mere utility (which is all the utilitarian principle has eyes for) – although it does not cancel it but only subordinates it: in dealings with another person everything that is at once of use oneself and fair to that person falls within the limits set by the commandment to love.”

Since this norm is derived from Catholic doctrines, in particular man’s dignity as a creation made in the the image and likeness of God, I wonder if secular libertarianism would be inimical to it. The negative form of the personalistic norm can be partially defended as an extension of the non-aggression principle. Surely to use a person as a means to an end without his voluntary participation is coercive. However, implied by the norm is the injunction that because no person may be used as a means to an end, we musn’t allow even ourselves to be used as means to ends. This would seem to contradict the principle of self-ownership. I can only easily resolve the conflict by replacing self-ownership with self-stewardship. That is, we are stewards of our lives, which God alone owns. Obviously, this would be unacceptable to atheist libertarians. If anyone has a more general resolution, please share it in a comment.

The norm also forbids using others as means to ends (objects) even with their consent. Rather, other persons should be voluntary cooperative participants (subjects) in joint efforts. While one cannot coerce others into participating in society as active subjects, one can and must take reasonable pains to avoid treating others as mere objects. Libertarianism only demands that interactions between persons be consensual. I’m not confident that most libertarians would consider the objectification of others with their consent (e.g., prostitution) to be unethical. The only way out of this I can currently see is to argue that since “the person is a kind of good which does not admit of use and cannot be treated as an object of use and as the such the means to an end”, no person can meaningfully say that he consents to being objectified. This reasoning is a bit circular, though, as it uses an aspect of the personalistic norm to defend against an apparent contradiction with general libertarian principles that is a logical consequence of it. Perhaps one of my enlightened readers can find a better argument.

These are not mature thoughts. I’ve only just begun to wrap my mind around weaknesses in libertarianism I perceive and contemplate possible solutions. I invite my readers to engage in a discussion with me and each other about these thoughts.