What I mean by "libertarian theory of moral responsibility"
- The libertarianism I have in mind is not metaphysical libertarianism (a
view in the free will/determinism debate according to which human beings
are free only because determinism is metaphysically false and
indeterminism is true); nor is it the civil libertarian philosophy,
according to which civil liberties are vitally important political
conditions that should be promoted and defended (in relation to which
the American Civil Liberties Union is perhaps the best known group, at
least in the U.S.). It is the political philosophy according to which
ethics is a matter of respecting rights and the only rights that exist
are the noninterference rights of individuals. The problem is that in
practice libertarians tend to focus on property rights, which are
regarded as near-absolutes; they tend to assume that persons who are not
popularly known as criminals and have property came by it in a
legitimate way; so that in practice libertarianism becomes a kind of
ideology of the propertied class for holding on to what it already has.
They tend also to assume that one deserves whatever one has; that the
person who is without resources was probably lazy or negligent and
therefore lost out in the competitive marketplace. This goes along with
their opposition to government programs to increase the resources
available to the least materially advantaged sections of the population;
which programs the libertarians regard as invasions of the property
rights of propertyholders.
There is a "family resemblance" (similarity but not identity) between
the Stoic view that goods and evils are up to us and this last
view/attitude of the libertarians. It would be erroneous were we to
slide from the one to the other.
- Hi folks:
Quite a lot of interesting issues have been raised here over the past
little while. Two I'd like to pick up. This is in haste so please forgive
the typos. First:
Jan raised a couple of points about libertarianism. Political
libertarianism certainly does as he says focus on property rights; but that
is only one aspect of that ideology. libertarians are also committed to
three other views.
The first is the nature of explanation of social phenomena. For
libertarians "society" does not really exist as some distinct entity or as
a source of explanation for a person's actions. What exists are a whole lot
of interacting individuals. And the only morally acceptable form of
interaction, according to a libertarian, is contract and agreement, that
sets out the rights of each party. Libertarians then see other people as
right holders and their moral theory is a rights based moral outlook.
Individuals can either trade rights or forfeit them [if, for example, they
steal from another.] Hence they champion workplace contracts and actively
work to destroy labor unions. [the fact that this is often just a front for
protecting the property of the politically and socially powerful against
the legisimate claims of the less well off, need not concern us at this
So when we try to explain what goes on in a community such explanations
must ultimately be reduced to the "choices" and volitions, rights and so on
of individual people. This reductionism leads to the second key element of
The third view they are committed to is that individuals are unencumbered.
They exist before society or community or the group. So individuals, both
in fact and in personality, are prior to "society" ie structured groups of
individuals. This is a thesis about the nature of a person's identity and
personality. Humans do not, according to this view, have an innate social
One way to see the relationship between libertarianism and individualism -
and it is only one way - between libertarianism and individualism is like
this. Individualism is a view about the basic moral element in a collection
of people: the individual person; and the fact that they exist prior to any
social group. Their identity arises not from living in a community but
"prior" to the community. Libertarianism is a view about the way these
individuals ought to interact.
I think we can see why stoics would reject libertarianism and
individualism. For stoics, humans are social creatures. They do derive a
portion of their identity from livinig in community with others. As well,
we flourish and can flourish as individuals and as people only in
community. Moreover, we explain actions not merely by reference to a
person's own individual choices but by looking at how their social
circumstances have influenced those choices. [cf Seneca De Clem] While the
stoa accepts individuality it rejects individualism. We are not
unemcumbered, according to the stoa.
Moreover, the stoa would not accept that virtuous interaction is carried on
only by way of trading rights, contract and so on. Ethical interaction is
much richer than that, and involves right choice, at the appropriate time
for the right reason, exemplifying as it should those traits of character
with exemplify a person flourishing as a member of a community.
The fundimental difference is that the stoa is socially orientated, as
Seneca makes clear again and again, while libertarians are essentially
individually minded; the former taking altruism, co-operation and other
concern as the foundation of their stance was they move through the world;
the latter, the libertarians, taking selfishness, competition and rational
selfinterest as the basic elements of their stance.
There are enormous implications for sotics in this fundimental difference,
especially those stoics who work in government. Eg. stoicism does allow
that one person may know another best interest better than that other
person may know themselves; thus is licences a sort of parentalism under
certain circumstances; libertarianism does not really allow parentalism
since it claims that one person may not really know another's best interest
better than they do. Hence, libertarians champion the greatest range of
choice in economic markets, since this represents freedom [more choice is
better than less] and the basic moral view that one person should not
intrude upon another person's choice of goods or services as that other
perosn does not and cannot know what is good for the other person. So the
libertarian is committed to using the invisible hand as a distribution
mechanism for goods and servides; stoics would use is only where it
actually worked and did not harm people. So for stoics in areas devising
puublic policy and writing laws, or formulating economic policy, the
paradigm current in the world - that of libertarianism and individualism
is not only philosophically wrong, but also bad public policy. People
simply are not as libertarians[and individualism] assumed them to be.
A few weeks ago there was an exchange about whether stoics can love and
experience emotion. I have not got into my shed to get out my primary
source books. But I remain unconvinced by Larry and Keith.
Amongst academic writers here there are two views. One view, which Keith
and Larry share is that stoics muct be committed to the extirpation of the
passions. This is also shared, I understand by Brad Hooker. Another view,
which is the one I take, is that the stoics are committed not to the
extirpation of all passions but the management of those which foster our
social beings, eg love and friendship, but control and avoidance and
ultimate extirpation of those which do not, such as anger. William O
Stephens (Oxf Stud in anc Phil) discusses this in relation to Epictetus, I
recall. Julia annas discusses this in The morality of Happiness. And it is
how I read Seneca De Ira and De Clementia.
The two issues are: do all passions necessarily affect the capacity for
accurate judgement? Some do; some don't; all can, if not properly
controlled. This is the answer to the old problem of how the stoa would be
capable of accommodating friendship.
Second, emotional states such as love and friendship indifferent from the
point of view of eudaimonia? again, the answer is no. They are necessary
elements of it. Again, it is a matter of control.
I suspect that the early stoa differed from later stoics on these points.
Unfortunately I do not have my primary sources at hand or the secondary
sources, such as Annas and my comments are based on my recollection and
also an email exchange i had with William O. Stephens.
It is certainly an issue worthy of detailed study, since the capacity of
stoicism to accommodate friendship was a problem that bedeviled the ancient
stoa. See Pakulak.