Libertarianism and Morality

I have come late to Jan Narveson‘s The Libertarian Idea, which is the subject of a series of posts at Libertarianism.org; thus far:

The Libertarian Idea: Setting the Scene (11/04/11)
The Libertarian Idea: Part One, part one (11/14/11)
Morality and Its Discontents (11/21/11)
Is Contractarianism Serious (Or Just Clever)? 11/21/11

So much libertarian theorizing, it seems to me, amounts to the search for an intellectual hook on which to hang an instinctive yearning to be left alone. The intellectualization of the yearning proceeds in stages. The first stage is an appeal to morality. But this cannot be the kind of morality that arises from social constructs (e.g. the Golden Rule); it must be a “higher morality.” This leads libertarian theorists — or most of them, in my reading — toward “natural rights” and “natural law.” But, as atheists (which most libertarian theorists seem to be), they cannot attribute “natural rights” or “natural law” to God, so they conjure super-human sources that lie somewhere between God and social convention. Narveson call this conjuring “intuitionism.”

One such source, which is no less supernatural than God, is Platonic in character: “natural rights” just are (and known, by some mysterious process, to the proponents of this view). The chief alternative to Platonism is evolution: “natural rights” as evolutionary adaptation (though how one knows which rights are “natural” remains a puzzle). I have said much about these intellectual misfires in several posts; for example:

“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
More about Consequentialism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Thoughts about Evolutionary Teleology

Narveson, by contrast with other libertarian philosophers, is refreshingly clear-minded about the roots of libertarianism. The following is taken from a version of The Libertarian Idea that is available online (here).


Libertarians in general support their views by appeals to intuitions, especially intuitions about our “natural rights”. This is a method that has very wide currency in contemporary philosophy; it is by no means confined to libertarians. Libertarians who base their convictions on intuition are thus in good company. This, as we shall see, is ironic, for the other members of that company have widely varying views about these matters. The burning issue thus becomes, whose intuitions are the right ones? But adoption of the intuitional method virtually precludes rational decision of that burning issue; it simply continues to burn. (from “The Options,” in Chapter 9)

*   *   *

By “Metaphysical” intuitionism I mean the view that there exist some sort of “ethical entities” which are denoted by such words as ‘good’ or ‘right’ or ‘just’ (as the case may be); and that ethical knowledge is acquired by the mind’s “apprehending” or, as we may say, “spotting” one or more of those at the appropriate points. On this view, when we say that an act is Right, we mean that it has one of these properties — namely “That one!”…

The shortcomings of this “metaphysical” type of intuitionism are legion, and it is not surprising that as an option it is virtually extinct among current philosophers. (I say ‘virtually’, because no theory I can think of is totally extinct among current philosophers….) (from “Metaphysical Intuitionism” in Chapter 10)

*   *   *

Especially in this scientifically-oriented era, the appeal to what seem mysterious entities and faculties is likely to elicit impatience, and perhaps a certain amount of irritation. To those of us who don’t seem to have one of the special faculties required for detecting these strange items, this explanation isn’t going to be much help… (from “Mysteriousness” in Chapter 10)

*   *   *

In the past few decades, long after Metaphysical intuitionism was relegated to the philosophical dust-bins, a presumably quite different use of “intuitions” in moral philosophy was elevated to the status of theoretical respectability — not a new one, to be sure, since philosophers have been doing it, to a greater or lesser extent, since Plato. In this version, we supposedly make no assumptions about the fundamental meanings of moral terms or the sort of things they may refer to. Rather, we employ intuitions as a sort of data, and construct a theory to “explain” them. The fact is that people have tendencies to affirm of certain things that they are right, others that they are wrong, and so on; and the moral philosopher’s job is to find the principles which will account for these tendencies. Of course, this is moral philosophy, and so the output of our theorizing will be moral statements and not just statements about morality….

Now, consider what philosophers wish to do with their appeals to intuitions. They are discussing some controversial topic, ordinarily — nobody writes articles advocating the view that murder is wrong! But in a controversial area, we are going to have some people sincerely maintaining that something or other is right, and others that that very same thing is wrong. Abortion, for example, or capital punishment of repeat-murderers. Of what use is it to point out to people holding some view on these matters that a great many people think otherwise than they — or the same as they? Suppose some small minority thinks that a certain popular practice is quite wrong. Are they going to be impressed to hear that many people don’t think so?

It is here that this new sort of appeals to intuition gets into some of the very same problems that its less-respectable Metaphysical version has. When people have contrary intuitions, appeals to intuition are not likely to do much — except maybe irritate the people we’re trying to persuade.

In fact, appeals to intuition can hardly constitute reasons for the very attitudes that those intuitions express. The best they might do is provide a rather weak sort of evidence. We might say, “well, surely 90% of the people are unlikely to be wrong, are they?” Perhaps that is true. But the trouble is, it is also true that 90% of the people plainly can be wrong, about all sorts of things: why not about this, then? Especially when the effect of their opinion is to cram something down the craws of the remaining 10%. (from “Methodological Intuitionism” in Chapter 10)

*   *   *

My objection to appeal to intuitions in moral theory is, in brief, that when (not merely ‘if’!) intuitions conflict, we are bereft of conceptual tools for reaching reasoned agreement. Indeed, one must say that under those conditions, “reasoned” agreement is impossible. Surely it would be better, at any rate, if we could have a theory that was persuasive without presupposing anything like moral intuitions.  (from “The Need for Clarity about Morality” in Chapter 11)

*   *   *

We have a habit of talking as though moral principles were simply “truths”, like those of science: as though they were just “out there”, to be discovered, found out. But it’s not quite like that. Either you act in certain ways or you don’t. No mere external truth could make you do that. There are, certainly, “external truths” to which we must conform, willy-nilly: the Law of Gravity, for example. But the “must” here is so literal that “conform” is out of place. The gunman makes me conform, by threatening to shoot me if I do not. In some sense I can refuse to go along; if so, and he shoots me, I shall then literally have no choice but to die, if he’s a competent shot. We “conform” to the Law of Gravity in the same sense that we die if shot; it simply isn’t a matter of choice at all.

Moral principles and rules are just that: principles and rules for behavior, to which we can voluntarily conform or no….(from “Personal vs. Social Morality” in Chapter 11)

*   *   *

One apparent aim of the Libertarian is to provide a schedule of rights that is “hard”, so that in any given case we will always be able to identify the area of permissible action, precisely bounded by the relevant set of rights. Moreover, these are to be wholly “nonteleological” in one sense of that rather obscure term. That is, they are not to be founded upon considerations of the general good or general interest…. (from “The Compleat Deontologist” in Chapter 11)

*   *   *

[W]e tend to identify morality with what is taught us in our childhoods, say, or with what the people around us will react to in certain ways. Any given society will have a number of rules which are enforced in the various ways mentioned above. The fact that they are thus enforced provides, and of course is intended to provide, some motivation for doing what the enforcers are trying to get us to do. But is that the end of the story? Are we to say, simply, that what is right is what people will praise and reward you for doing, or blame and punish you for not doing? It is not, and we are not. For we are capable of reflecting on these demands, and of questioning them….

…The de facto rules of morality may be accounted conventional — by definition, indeed. And this in particular means that they are, at least to a degree, changeable. They are certainly changeable in some way, since they do change. Whether they are changeable by intention, like the law, which is made and unmade by certain intentional acts of certain people, the legislators, is quite another matter. And one would certainly have to be naïve to think that writing a tract or two is enough to do the job! It wouldn’t even if everyone would read the tract; which, in a society of millions, they certainly won’t.

There is thus a question of what to do, as it were, with any “philosophical” or “critical” morality we might come up with…. But there is also an answer: one can act on it oneself. One can start criticizing people in the light of these possibly novel principles you have found to be more reasonable than the ones actually reinforced in your current society….

One of the historic projects of philosophy is to try to find some or other rational foundations for morality, or at any rate for some morality, some set of overriding general guides to behavior which, even if it is not entirely reflected in current practice, has the solidest reasons for being so…. I shall shortly describe, again very briefly, what seems to be the best answer currently available. Like all answers judged to be so by philosophers, the judgment is guided by a certain sense that no other view could be right. This is philosophical hübris at work, no doubt: history has a way of suggesting that we have overlooked something when we make such claims. That’s a risk one simply has to take. (from “Conventional vs. Critical Morality” in Chapter 11)

*   *   *

That theory, I think, is Contractarianism. The general idea of this theory is that the principles of morality are (or should be) those principles for directing everyone’s conduct which are reasonable for everyone to accept. They are the rules which everyone has good reason for wanting everyone to act on, and thus to internalize in himself or herself, and thus to reinforce in the case of everyone.

In so saying, I am presenting a slanted view, so to say. As with every important philosophical theory, this one has many different versions with their own specific shades and twists, and the shades and twists are not trivial. Contractarianism can be made to seem arbitrary and silly: consider, for instance, the suggestion that long, long ago, our remote ancestors made this deal, see, and from that day to this everyone has had to go along with it! Plainly such a theory is not going to give us the rational motivation we need.

On the other hand, any ordinary contract, made in the full light of day between consenting adults, supplies motivation in just the required sense. The “required sense”, as will shortly be seen, is not so simple. But few will dispute that any theory that could attain the same degree of rational “bite” as actual contracts would be doing very well indeed.

The problem is that morality is obviously not the result of a literal contract; and indeed, it cannot be, among other things for the very good reason pointed out by David Hume, namely that “the observance of promises is itself one of the most considerable parts of justice; and we are not surely bound to keep our word because we have given our word to keep it.” To account for the obligation to keep promises on the basis of a general promise to do so seems, shall we say, unpromising Clearly the sense in which morality is founded upon or due to or represents an “agreement” is going to have to be less straightforward than that. (from the introductory section of Chapter 12)

*   *   *

What the philosopher would really like is a universal “contract” in the sense of an agreement which literally everyone would find it reasonable to accept. It is not clear that this can be done. Perhaps people are too different, or have interests that are fundamentally, irresolvably antagonistic. If so, it’s put paid for our project. It is so because our interests are indeed what we have to appeal to as the basis of the “social contract”.

But it should not be thought that this possibility puts paid to the theory in question. There are at least two reasons why not. In the first place, the truth about morality could be that it cannot be quite as universal as all that. The insistence that it must be may be just a philosopher’s prejudice, comparable to the Aristotelian idea that of course the earth must be the centre of the physical Universe.
But secondly, and more hearteningly, the possible nonuniversality we are worrying about may be nothing to worry about….

Let us suppose that morality is a kind of club — the “morality club”. Anyone can join — no problem. Those who join have certain responsibilities and certain rights, and we, the people who run this club, offer a package that we think no remotely reasonable person could really refuse; but nevertheless, some might. All we are saying is that our package is such that it must appeal to the widest set of people any set of principles could appeal to. Anyone who doesn’t buy our package wouldn’t buy any package compatible with living among his fellows on terms that they could possibly accept. (from “Universality?” in Chapter 12)

*   *   *

All this has been quite abstract. Let us now see how it works in more nearly real-world terms. One of the contractarians’ favorite real-world types is the philosopher Thomas Hobbes5 In the Hobbesian picture, at least as understood by me, the place to begin is a wild and unruly sort of place known as the “state of nature”. In this state — a highly artificial one, in truth, but we’ll worry about that a little later — there is no morality at all. Nobody acknowledges any restrictions whatever on his or her behavior vis-a-vis others, nobody blames or praises anyone else’s conduct, and it is quite literally everyone for him-or-herself. And what happens there? All sorts of horrible things, in brief. Since there are no rules at all, there are of course no rules against violence, which is freely employed whenever the person employing it thinks it will get him what he wants….

What is important to the argument here is that the cause of this condition is the absence of rules, rules having precisely the character we have attributed to Morality: namely, rules that can override the individual inclinations of any person to the contrary, and rules that are the same for all….

It is important to appreciate just what Hobbes’ argument does and what it does not presuppose about people. It does not, to begin with, presuppose that people are nasty or evil by nature….

Nor does it actually require that their interests are selfish or even strongly self-directed, though Hobbes evidently believed that they would normally be. But what matters is that they have conflicting ends, however the conflict may be engendered….

We now need to bring out a further feature about the sort of conflicts Hobbes is concerned about. From the point of view of each party to the conflict, the “warlike” solution may seem preferable to the “peaceful” one…. [T]here is a problem with mutual arrangements of all sorts, since in such cases, each party gives up something in return for something he wants more; yet given the opportunity, he’d presumably prefer to have both the gains from the deal and also not to have to pay the costs he has undertaken by his promise to pay.
This situation is known as Prisoner’s Dilemma….

Hobbes’ own view is in line with modern theorists: the rational individual will rat in such situations. And Hobbes’ “solution”, as we know, is the Policeman, otherwise known as the “Sovereign”. Gauthier’s solution is to take what many theorists regard as the heroic course of identifying rationality with the disposition to take the cooperative option. The one recommended here may perhaps be classified as intermediate between the two…. (from “Hobbes” in Chapter 12)

*   *   *

The Hobbesian solution may seem all well and good, perhaps. But there are two crucial shortcomings. The first is: how do we get a suitable Enforcer appointed? In our hypothetical state of nature, nobody already has the kind of power needed; that power must be “handed over” by those concerned. But you don’t just “hand over” power: instead, you make an agreement which gives someone the power. Terrific — but that agreement would have to be, genuinely, an agreement – the very sort of thing which can’t be done in the state of nature on Hobbes’ own reasoning. The second is that enforcers are costly. For one thing, they cost money, or the equivalent (in his State of Nature there was, of course, no money), viz., whatever sacrifices A and B have to make in order to make it worth C’s while to be Guardian. (Once C somehow got the power in question, of course, there is the further point that C will surely be inclined to use it to feather his own nest — a small incidental concern, in one sense, but in another, of course, one that has been a or even the main problem with Government, historically as well as theoretically.) (from “The Sovereign” in Chapter 12)

*   *   *

Here enters David Gauthier with his intriguing new solution.7 Gauthier insists that the rational agent, when acquainting himself with the facts of life in the form of Prisoner’s Dilemma (and related problems), will see that he must modify, or perhaps reinterpret, his theory of rationality. The rational man will not Defect in the Prisoner’s Dilemma game. Instead, he will adopt a disposition to cooperate, though not an unconditional disposition to take the cooperative option: he takes that option, provided those with whom he interacts are similarly inclined. This he calls “constrained maximization”, as opposed to the disposition to take the money and run, which he calls “straight” maximization….

Constrained maximizers will do better than defectors, for they will do as well as defectors when interacting with defectors, since their rule is to cooperate only with fellow constrained maximizers, and they will do better than defectors when interacting with constrained maximizers, since the defector’s policy is to defect when interacting with anybody. Gauthier’s argument is that it is therefore rational to adopt the constrained maximization disposition….

Now in the classic, one-shot Prisoner’s Dilemma, it is not true that our move is a response to the other person’s move. We and the other player are moving simultaneously, for instance, or at any rate moving in such a way that neither can know what the other player’s move is until after we have made our own. Real-life models of Prisoner’s Dilemma may be characterized in just that way. To create any real-life Prisoner’s Dilemma, we must take steps, if necessary intentionally rigging the situation so as to ensure that this condition holds. This ensures that our move will not be literally a “response” to the other player’s move. If it is a “response” at all in this literal sense of the term, then what could it be a response to?

It is when we contemplate this question that the force of Gauthier’s position asserts itself. For it seems that the only thing there is to respond to here is the disposition of the other player…. Each can know something about the other, and what they know will be largely information about character, derived of course more or less inductively from observation of past performance in particular cases. (from “Gauthier’s View” in Chapter 12)

*   *   *

Now let’s go back to the State of Nature and ask what to do. There are as yet no rules, and without them, life is miserable for everyone….

What we will do, in fact, is whatever we can to set Morality in motion: a social institution of reinforcing behavior. And which behavior? Plainly, cooperative behavior: that is, behavior which it is advantageous from the point of view of each one of us to have everyone, including ourselves, engaging in. This is the rational thing to do in social situations for a simple reason: it doesn’t cost very much by comparison with having a Sovereign (and anyway, we don’t have one yet — remember? And we can’t until we have enough morality to enable the Agreement to establish the sovereign to be viable), and the advantages of general performance much outweigh the disadvantages imposed by the necessity of having to comply oneself.

Generally speaking, then, the foundation of morality is the interests of those party to it, given the facts of social life. Morality is a set of requirements which will make us all better off if they are met by everyone — and which, accordingly, are liable to the problem of defection by some who will try to take the money and run. For examples, the murderer and the thief, who have been cheerfully collecting the benefits of social cooperation all along, and yet at the judicious moment will take advantage of the good dispositions of those they interact with by depriving them of their lives or property without a by-your-leave. (from “Morality, the Real World, and Prisoner’s Dilemma” in Chapter 12)

*   *   *

Why accept the contractarian view of morals? Because there is no other view that can serve the requirements: namely, of providing reasons to everyone for accepting it, no matter what their personal values or philosophy of life may be, and thus motivating this informal, yet society-wide “institution”. Without resort to any obfuscating intuitions, e.g., of “self-evident rights” and the like, the contractarian view offers an intelligible account both of why it is rational to want a morality and of what, broadly speaking, the essentials of that morality will consist in: namely, those general rules which are universally advantageous to rational agents. We each need morality, first because we are vulnerable to the depredations of others, and second because we can all benefit from cooperation with others. So we need protection, in the form of the ability to rely on our fellows not to engage in activities harmful to us; and we need to be able to rely on those with whom we deal. We each need this regardless of what else we need or want or value. (the introductory paragraph of Chapter 13)

*   *   *

Many philosophers, such as Aquinas and John Locke, have held that there is a “Natural Law”. This idea was not clarified by these philosophers, although that they had fairly explicit ideas about its content. Aquinas, for example, held that natural law (like all law) had to be for the “common good”. And Locke in particular held that the natural law forbids all men to refrain from injuring others in their “life, health, liberty, and possessions”. Their lack of articulation of the concept of natural law, however, has left them short of adherents among contemporary philosophers trained in the analytic tradition. Insofar as they simply appeal to natural law without further explication or defense, they are liable to all of the charges I have laid above to the door of intuitionism in all its forms.

But perhaps further reflection on the Prisoner’s Dilemma and other decision-theoretic problems can assist understanding here. To say that a law is “natural”, to begin with, obviously cannot mean that it is like the law of gravity, governing us independently of our wills. Were the content of Locke’s natural law operative on us in that manner, there would be no need of ethics as we know it. However, this doesn’t preclude a different way in which a “law” could be “natural”. It could, namely, be natural in being acknowledged, recognized, or employed implicitly as a canon of interpersonal criticism of behavior, without articulation, in the normal dealings of people with each other.

Even as so characterized, it is not clear that there is a “natural law”. But we can inject one further element. Locke and Aquinas both insisted that the natural law was “rational”, “apprehended by reason”, or words to that effect. What we can forthrightly say is that there are reasons, reasons that are natural rather than being in their turn artificial constructs, favoring informal reinforcement of certain rules for interpersonal situations. Prisoner’s Dilemma, concentrated on above, gives a beautiful example. Wherever the structure of preferences of the different parties is clear to both parties (and it is not always), we have a basis for a rule of precisely that kind: a natural basis for a moral rule, in fact. The claim that natural morality calls upon us to refrain from the things Locke lists, and more generally that it bids us cooperate in what would otherwise be prisoner’s dilemmas, may be accepted if understood along the lines just explicated. We should expect any groups of persons who were clear about the options which would otherwise render the situation a prisoner’s dilemma situation, and who were capable of communicating effectively with each other, to recognize as an interpersonally authoritative rule that people refrain from the “Defect” strategy, and to recognize this by verbal and other sorts of reinforcement. So understood, we may accept the idea of Natural Law nearly enough. What its relation to political structures may be is, of course, another question, and the main question dealt with in this book.

But it is apropos to note here that the moral factor is potentially substantial. James Buchanan observes that “.. it is essential to incorporate some treatment of the role that ethical precepts play in maintaining social stability. First … if there is no conflict … there is no need for law, as such. By the same token, however, there is no need for ethics … When conflict does emerge, however, .. the value of order suggests either some social contract, some system of formal law, or some generally accepted set of ethical-moral precepts. It is important to recognize that these are alternative means of securing order. To the extent that ethical precepts are widely shared, and influence individual behavior, there is less need for the more formal restrictiveness of legally imposed standards.” (from “The Natural Law” in Chapter 13)


Narveson echoes much what I have said in the posts linked above. So, I find myself in close agreement with Narveson because I find him in close agreement with me. The kind of “contract” that Narveson describes is found in the Golden Rule. This is from “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’“:

The Golden Rule represents a social compromise that reconciles the various natural imperatives of human behavior (envy, combativeness, meddlesomeness, etc.). To the extent that negative rights prevail, it is as part and parcel of the “bargain” that is embedded in the Golden Rule; that is, they are honored not because of their innateness in humans but because of their beneficial consequences.

But is that all there is to it? Not at all. This is from “The Golden Rule and the State“:

I call the Golden Rule a natural law because it’s neither a logical construct … nor a state-imposed one. Its long history and widespread observance (if only vestigial) suggest that it embodies an understanding that arises from the similar experiences of human beings across time and place. The resulting behavioral convention, the ethic of reciprocity, arises from observations about the effects of one’s behavior on that of others and mutual agreement (tacit or otherwise) to reciprocate preferred behavior, in the service of self-interest and empathy. That is to say, the convention is a consequence of the observed and anticipated benefits of adhering to it.

The empathic source of the Golden Rule, which is just as important as the self-interested source, is (for me) the key point of Julian Sanchez’s critique of Narveson in “Morality and Its Discontents“:

In effect, [Narveson] wants to reduce morality to prudence, showing that people would have strictly self-interested reasons to constrain their own behavior even if they are not “reasonable” or concerned with the welfare and dignity of others except insofar as those others are able to aid or hinder their self interested pursuits….

…[A]ttempts to reduce morality to prudence generally assume that there’s something metaphysically unproblematic about the idea, not just that people do care about their long-term self-interest (as opposed to just their immediate short-term desires), but that they have reason to, whereas the claim that they have similar reasons to care about or respect the interests of others is some kind of “queer” claim standing in need of special explanation…. Theoretical, moral, and practical reasoning all ultimately depend on foundational axioms that can’t be established without circularity. In logic, it’s the familiar list of axioms and inference rules; in ethics, it’s the basic idea that other people are real, and that their happiness and suffering fundamentally matters in some way, just as much as your own. That all these forms of reasoning “hit bottom” at some point is, admittedly, intellectually unsatisfying. But it’s also a fact we’re stuck with, and trying to dismiss those foundational domain-specific axioms as mere intuition seems less like a road to progress than an attempt to change the subject.

Sanchez’s point — a good one — is that it matters not where empathy comes from. It may be a genetic quirk, or it may be a socialized habit of thought, or it may be both. But it is a fact of life, just as much as self-interest. And it takes both of them — in my view — to account for the morality of the Golden Rule.

That morality, however, leads to a different kind of libertarianism than the one to which most self-styled libertarians seem to subscribe. Returning to “The Golden Rule and the State“:

The Golden Rule can be expanded into two, complementary sub-rules:

  • Do no harm to others, lest they do harm to you.
  • Be kind and charitable to others, and they will be kind and charitable to you.

The first sub-rule — the negative one — is compatible with the idea of negative rights, but it doesn’t demand them. The second sub-rule — the positive one — doesn’t yield positive rights because it’s a counsel to kindness and charity, not a command….

An ardent individualist — particularly an anarcho-capitalist — might insist that social comity can be based on the negative sub-rule, which is represented by the first five items in the “core” list. I doubt it. There’s but a short psychological distance from mean-spiritedness — failing to be kind and charitable — to sociopathy, a preference for harmful acts. Ardent individualists will disagree with me because they view kindness and charity as their business, and no one else’s. They’re right about that, as far as I’m concerned, but I’m talking about proclivities, not rights. But kindness and charity are indispensable to the development of mutual trust among people who live in close proximity, without the protective cover of an external agency (e.g., the state). Without mutual trust, mutual restraint becomes problematic and co-existence becomes a matter of “getting the other guy before he gets you” — a convention that I hereby dub the Radioactive Rule.

Nevertheless, the positive sub-rule, which is represented by the final two items in the “core” list, can be optional for the occasional maverick. An extreme individualist (or introvert or grouch) could be a member in good standing of a society that lives by the Golden Rule. He would be a punctilious practitioner of the negative rule, and would not care that his unwillingness to offer kindness and charity resulted in coldness toward him. Coldness is all he would receive (and want) because, as a punctilious practitioner of the negative rule; his actions wouldn’t necessarily invite harm.

But too many extreme individualists would threaten the delicate balance of self-interested and voluntarily beneficial behavior that’s implied in the Golden Rule. Even if lives and livelihoods did not depend on acts of kindness and charity — and they probably would — mistrust would set it in. And from there, it would be a short distance to the Radioactive Rule.

This, of course, will not do for most libertarians, who want to manufacture a rigid list of negative rights from one of their mysterious sources. It even smacks of moral relativism. But I have answered both objections in “The Golden Rule and the State“:

I call the Golden Rule a natural law because it’s neither a logical construct … nor a state-imposed one. Its long history and widespread observance (if only vestigial) suggest that it embodies an understanding that arises from the similar experiences of human beings across time and place. The resulting behavioral convention, the ethic of reciprocity, arises from observations about the effects of one’s behavior on that of others and mutual agreement (tacit or otherwise) to reciprocate preferred behavior, in the service of self-interest and empathy. That is to say, the convention is a consequence of the observed and anticipated benefits of adhering to it….

Is the Golden Rule susceptible of varying interpretations across groups, and is it therefore a vehicle for moral relativism? I say “yes,” with qualifications. It’s true that groups vary in their conceptions of permissible behavior….

[But] [t]here is … a “core” Golden Rule that comes down to this:

  • Murder is wrong, except in self-defense. (Capital punishment is just that: punishment. It’s also a deterrent to murder. It isn’t “murder,” muddle-headed defenders of baby-murder to the contrary notwithstanding.)
  • Various kinds of unauthorized “taking” are wrong, including theft (outright and through deception). (This explains popular resistance to government “taking,” especially when it’s done on behalf of private parties. The view that it’s all right to borrow money from a bank and not repay it arises from the mistaken beliefs that (a) it’s not tantamount to theft and (b) it harms no one because banks can “afford it.”)
  • Libel and slander are wrong because they are “takings” by word instead of deed.
  • It is wrong to turn spouse against spouse, child against parent, or friend against friend. (And yet, such things are commonly portrayed in books, films, and plays as if they are normal occurrences, often desirable ones. And it seems to me that reality increasingly mimics “art.”)
  • It is right to be pleasant and kind to others, even under provocation, because “a mild answer breaks wrath: but a harsh word stirs up fury” (Proverbs 15:1).
  • Charity is a virtue, but it should begin at home, where the need is most certain and the good deed is most likely to have its intended effect.

But what I am talking about is true libertarianism, not the kind of “leave me alone” libertarianism that one usually encounters on the internet. As I say in “here,” true libertarianism

is really a kind of conservatism, which is why I call it Burkean libertarianism…. [T]he kind of “libertarianism” much in evidence on the internet … rests on the Nirvana fallacy and posits dangerously false ideals.

A “true” libertarian respects socially evolved norms because those norms evidence and sustain the mutual trust, respect, forbearance, and voluntary aid that — taken together — foster willing, peaceful coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior. And what is liberty but willing peaceful coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior?

Such are the fruits of morality — on the mortal plane, at least.

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