Moralism and Contemporary Politics

People have asked me why I seem so focused on moralism.  There are multiple reasons, including having too much personal experience with people who operate as moralists, but what it really comes down to is that if we take moralism broadly to be a view that we should use the machinery of law to impose a moral view on the jurisdiction, most people in politics today are moralists.  (So, not just a justification of a specific law, but of the whole system of law.  A loss of viewpoint neutrality.)

On the right, we we have what are called “common good constitutionalists” or “common good conservatives” who basically say we should interpret the Constitution of the United States of America in such a way that will get us the common good of society.  Of course, what they mean by “the common good” follows from their conservative beliefs (see Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermuele).  

On the left, you see basically the same thing without the claim made explicit. You have people pushing a particular view about how to guarantee equality and freedom in society, meaning a particular view about how society should be set up—and of course, that is a way meant to attain their view of the common good.

Of course those on the left and those on the right disagree about what the common good is.  This is what “culture clashes” are. So, for an obvious example, the two camps here would take opposing sides with regard to today’s SCOTUS decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization.  One side (or at least some on that side) thinks all human life is deserving of the same basic respect as all other human life; the other thinks women deserve the respect that would enable them to control their own lives.

Both sides seem to believe that the machinery of the state—the law—should be used to make society moral, given their own (competing) views about what that entails.   (And we are likely to see this play out from SCOTUS fairly quickly.)

Importantly, libertarians are different.  We believe that people should be free to live their lives as they see fit subject only to the restriction that they don’t wrongfully harm others.  Some might say that this is a form of moralism as well—one wherein the view of morality is simply thinner than those of the other two views.  Perhaps that is right, but consider how it plays out.  Those on the left would want to force people to recognize and work for equal rights for women and to pay for programs meant to help with that.  Those on the right want to force women to carry pregnancies to term.  Meanwhile, libertarians want to force people not to force people to do anything.  That last seems obviously better.

8 thoughts on “Moralism and Contemporary Politics

  1. “Importantly, libertarians are different. We believe that people should be free to live their lives as they see fit subject only to the restriction that they don’t wrongfully harm others. Some might say that this is a form of moralism as well—one wherein the view of morality is simply thinner than those of the other two views.”

    Within libertarianism, there is a debate between “thick” and “thin” libertarians. Should libertarians only concern themselves with whether someone is causing physical harm to other people or should there be a wider moral agenda? A practical example of this is the question of racism. Can someone be an open white supremacist and still be a good libertarian as long as they simply live peacefully on their compound and do not try to hurt anyone. Recently, the leadership of the Libertarian party was taken over by the Mises Caucus. They watered down language in the party platform that denounced racism. Part of the concern about the Mises Caucus is that they intend to make a Libertarian party that is ok with actual racists. This would be bad public relations. If I am going to try to convince my Jamaican mother-in-law to vote libertarian, it probably does help if the Libertarian party is not officially against racism. At a more principled level, one can argue that, at the end of the day, a world in which racism is ok is not going to be one that is friendly to libertarian ideals.


    1. My apologies for the comment as this point should be well known to readers. I wrote this after reading the post in my email feed and thinking that it came from a different site where readers would be less likely to know these things.


      1. No problem at all! Thanks for reading! I have somewhat mixed views about how to go with the thin vs thick libertarianism. I tend to go thin, though I have fairly definite views about what a thicker morality requires. (I don’t think libertarian political morality must adopt that thicker view.)


  2. I don’t find your equation of the Right and the Left persuasive. The Right wants to force women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term. The Left wants to tax people to pay for health care to benefit those who can’t afford it. Both things involve forcing someone to do something, but the degree of force involved and the aims for which they’re deployed are not remotely comparable. Your post treats them as though they were morally on a par. They’re not.

    Like it or not, if you live in a contemporary polity, and want to solve large-scale problems, like abortion or health care more generally, you have to deal with and propose policies through, the state. If you do, you have to wield force in some way, however attenuated or unintended. The only way to avoid doing this is to forswear all involvement in social policy, condemn oneself to irrelevance, and take refuge in empty rhetoric.

    Consider a relevant example. Right now, women who were already in desperate straits, and had scheduled abortions in states like Oklahoma, North Dakota, MIssissippi, etc. have to make alternative plans ASAP. They have to go to places where abortion remains legal, get abortions done, and find a way to foot the expenses involved–transport, lodging, food, and the medical procedures themselves (including follow-up). According to thin libertarianism, no one should force these people to do anything, or force anyone else to do anything for them. In one sense, that’s unobjectionable, but how does it solve the problem at hand, or even propose to? Libertarians might offer private assistance to those in need, but how far does that go toward satisfying the relevant needs? Not far.

    Now consider the contrast between Right and Left you drew. The Right wants these women to stay put, and bring their pregnancies to term, wanted or not. The Left wants to help pay their bills. An uncharitable but perfectly accurate way of describing the libertarian position is that it half-agrees with the Right, but on financial rather than moral grounds. It divides these women into two mutually exclusive categories: those who can afford to solve their problem, and those who can’t. It leaves the first group free to solve their problem, and tells the second group to feel free to drop dead. Some undoubtedly will.

    If you lack the money or coverage to travel to another state and get an abortion, how is the libertarian position “obviously” better than the position taken by the Left? That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m genuinely interested to know how a person in the situation I’ve described is benefited, all in, by the libertarian prohibition on first-uses of force.

    Libertarians like to brag about their knowledge of economics. Here are a few incontrovertible facts about the economics of health care. There is no economy on the planet in which first-world medical outcomes can be purchased via out-of-pocket payment of medical costs. If you think you can find me an exception to this generalization, I invite you to do so. But I think the facts are clear: Either you have a system of third party payment of medical costs, or you can expect high rates of morbidity and mortality in your health care system. There is no viable way to self-pay your way to good health–not with HSAs, or MSAs, or any combination of related free-market “individual responsibility” gimmicks.

    So third-party payment is necessary. Third party payers are either fully private or partly or fully public. The latter two are impermissible under libertarianism. So what we’re left with as far as libertarianism is concerned is a regime of fully private third-party payment. How plausible is it to think that reliance on this can solve the problem at hand? If anyone find it plausible, I’d be happy to consider their claims, but personally, I find it pretty implausible. It certainly isn’t plausible in the short run–i.e., when that influx of patients from red states will be going to blue states to have abortions done. Half of the third party payment tab in the US is currently borne by public payers. Get rid of them, and who exactly pays those bills? And how? Is some consortium of private health insurance companies going to do the work of Medicare and Medicaid? That seems more like science fiction than economics.

    I’m not asking here for a just-so story about some future imagined state of affairs. The relevant people will not survive that long. I’m asking: what is it that libertarians propose to do right now? Do they really think that women needing abortions should forswear publicly funding? If not, libertarians concede what non-libertarian pro-choicers would say: that such women should make use of the available funds. But if the need is there, why shouldn’t funding be increased to meet it? Once you accept the principle that public funds can legitimately be taken, why balk at making the relevant programs effective at solving the problem they’re meant to solve? If libertarianism has no answers to these questions, what practical contribution does it make to the problem we actually face? None that I can discern. It tells affluent people what they already know, and tells indigent people that it has no solution to their problems.

    The world in which everyone goes unharmed because no one is coerced is a utopian ideal. It’s not the reality we face. The reality we face requires either making use of the state to help those in need, or allowing them to perish as we tell them that their deaths are an unfortunate implication of the libertarian prohibition on using force to wrongfully harm others. This prohibition, which has never actually received a full-dress philosophical justification anywhere in print, requires libertarians to remain indifferent to life-and-death outcomes while telling the victims that libertarianism is “obviously” the best social ideal. I doubt that a single one of the victims of Dobbs would find the claim “obviously” true.

    I’ve read thousands of pages of libertarian theory over thirty years, and have had hundreds of conversations with dozens of libertarian theorists. So far, I haven’t encountered a single one with a credible answer to the preceding problem. A general way of putting it: Every rational agent has good reason to want an optimal health care system, but it isn’t at all obvious that libertarian norms yield one, or are even compatible with one. It certainly isn’t obvious that adoption of those norms right now yields optimal health care outcomes. Far from it. And it’s far from obvious that anyone making a choice behind a plausibly-characterized veil of ignorance would choose them if she knew she might go bankrupt from medical expenses by choosing them. (Incidentally, it’s not even clear to me that thin libertarianism yields the equivalent of bankruptcy protection under situations of duress, but let that go.)

    So it isn’t obvious to me that the libertarian ideal is “obviously better” than any other. And I doubt it’s obvious to 99% of the population. What’s far more obvious is that libertarianism has yet to solve some of the most basic normative problems it faces. It’s obvious it hasn’t–but not obvious it will.


    1. There is a lot in there; I won’t respond to it all.

      My main point in the post was that moralism permeates American politics today in extremely problematic ways. I ended by recognizing that some might say libertarians are also committed to a form of moralism, so I wanted to make clear it was a “thinner” form if it was a form of it at all. That was the main point. As I read your comment, you have 2 concerns (please correct me if I am mistaken).

      First, that I am mistaken to equate the left’s moralism with the right’s. I actually didn’t mean to suggest they were equivalent; I actually struggled to make them sound more similar than I think they are. So, it may be that I should have been clearer about that, but otherwise I’ll just agree with you. I think the moralism of the current right is significantly more worrisome than that of the current left (which is not to say I don’t think the left’s version is innocuous–I do not).

      Your second, and I think bigger, concern is that political libertarianism doesn’t have an answer to large social issues like abortion. Here I partly agree and partly disagree. My view, in a nutshell, would be similar to Chandran Kukathas’s in *The Liberal Archipelago* ( I think different jurisdictions can set rules in different ways and some jurisdictions may well have rules that leave some people in worse situations than they have to be in (and worse situations than I think they should be in). The issue then moves to what makes those jurisdictions legitimate. Obviously, that is a huge question and I can’t provide an answer here but I will say that so long as the jurisdiction is legitimate, those of us looking in from the outside may have to accept that some inside will be worse off than we think they should be. For somewhat related discussion, you might be interested in this paper:

      Thanks for reading and for pressing these issues!


  3. Fair enough, then, we end up agreeing on the first point.

    On the second point: I haven’t read Kukathas’s book or the paper of your own that you cite. So that’s on my to-do list. What I say below is based on the summary of Kukathas’s book, the abstract of your paper, and what you say in the comment above.

    I don’t see the relevance of your CRISP paper. The paper is about what liberals should tolerate internationally, but the issue under discussion is how to deal with the effects of a Supreme Court decision in a single country. The paper’s thesis only has relevance if you treat the borders of US states as functionally equivalent, in practice, to international borders. But they aren’t. Even if you wanted to say that, as a matter of ideal theory, the two things ought to be equated, they certainly can’t be equated as a matter of current political or legal practice. So what one says in the one context is of very limited relevance to the other.

    Kukathas’s book is described as defending the idea of “an archipelago of
    competing and overlapping jurisdictions.” This coheres with what you say in your comment about different jurisdictions (presumably in the same country). But the plausibility of this thesis varies with at least two things: (1) whether the different jurisdictions are in some sense parts of an overarching and super-ordinate federal structure, and (2) the degree of harm involved, or seriousness of the rights being violated. Where either of the two are missing, the thesis may be tolerable. But where both obtain, it’s just a form of apartheid–worse even than Jim Crow, because there isn’t even the pretense of claiming that the affected parties are separate but equal. There is just the forthright admission that some members of a given federal structure live under jurisdictions that egregiously violate their rights, while others live under others that don’t, and there’s nothing to be done about it but to tolerate the discrepancy.

    In the case of abortion, what we’re talking about is gender apartheid fully on par with (I would say) what we had during slavery. Women who are forced to bring pregnancies to term are being forced to engage in an arduous form of labor, not just for the nine months of pregnancy and childbirth, but for the next 18 years of the life of the child-to-be. This isn’t happening in another country, but under a single federal structure–ours. The Right’s response is to work hard to make this happen and solidify it when it does. The Left’s response is to ameliorate its effects, and if possible, reverse them. The libertarian response you describe sounds like Stephen Douglas’s position vis-a-vis Lincoln in the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

    Some of the amelioration urged by the Left is a matter of using state funds to defray the costs of those affected, i.e., redistribution. I think we could legitimately see the Left’s redistributions as a form of reparations to women-affected-by-the-reversal-of-Roe, but whether we do or we don’t, appropriating funds in this way doesn’t seem morally wrong to me. Libertarians who find it wrong will have an uphill battle to face in arguing against it, at least on pro-choice grounds. The intrusion involved in funding abortions and related expenses is minimal as compared with that involved in criminalizing them. But the failure to “intrude” has apartheid-like consequences for women.

    It’s worth noting that the effects of Dobbs can’t cleanly be confined to states that criminalize abortion. The “archipelago” of a single federal system doesn’t work that way. There is, for one, a looming inter-state battle to be fought over extradition. There’s also an even bigger looming battle over personal health information. PHI is protected by HIPAA, a federal law. But HiPAA allows for law enforcement exceptions, which generally operate at the state level. Those are undoubtedly in the offing. Meanwhile, medical data is hard to localize. It can exist “in” your own state, in any number of other states, or offshore. And the data is owned by a long list of service providers, not just the patient and the primary health care provider (by hospitals, hospital systems, insurance companies, clearinghouses, government agencies, revenue management companies, etc etc)

    So what we’re facing is the splintering of constitutional criminal procedure (often a matter of federal law) into 50+ jurisdictional fights involving access to huge amounts of data, much of which can be used in criminal prosecutions. And the prosecutions can potentially involve not just patients and providers, but any party who “enables’ them. That means that there is no way for people in pro-choice states to ignore the plight of those in anti-abortion states. Their plight is connected with ours.Their states are coming after all of us, or many of us. Given the rise of Big Data, state borders don’t mean as much as they once did. Libertarians committed to views like Kukathas’s (within a given country) will have to catch up with that reality.

    All of this ties back to the underlying theme of your post, moralism. I think it’s clear from the preceding that we disagree as much about moralism as about libertarianism, and that the two disagreements are connected. I’m an unapologetic moralist. As you say, the key concept of moralism is “the common good.” I agree. I would argue that rights can’t effectively be respected or protected without a moralized commitment to the common good. Without it, we’re left with an incremental form of apartheid that ends up undermining everyone’s rights. That, as I see it, is the real significance of Dobbs, which has implications well beyond abortion per se. What that decision underscores is the need for a politics of the common good, even if that common good is confined the good of rights-protection. Either we make common cause with the victims of Dobbs across the country, or we’re next in line for the next assault on rights. I don’t regard myself as a leftist, but on this issue, I think the Left is right.

    The one indirectly relevant thing I’ve written, p. 139 of the manuscript pagination, p. 152 of the PDF, on Fourth Amendment jurisprudence as the basis for a politics of the common good.

    Click to access 2012-ACTC-PROCEEDINGS.pdf


    1. Sorry for the long delay in responding. Had to deal with a variety of things and then went away for a few days. I think you are missing the way the CRisPP paper is relevant, but am now planning a post about abortion, so will hold on off on saying more here. Thanks for pushing me though; your points are clearly important and need addressing. (I don’t anticipate that what I will say will actually satisfy you, but I’ll try a bit.)


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