Libertarianism & Morality

This essay was originally posted in November 2004.
nebulaOn April 25th 1990, the long-awaited Hubble space telescope was launched. In the planning stages since 1967, delayed in deployment for 4 years by the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, scientists were ecstatic at its potential to view deep space as never before from above the atmosphere’s distorting optical envelope. Within days their excitement turned to dismay, as pictures from Hubble returned out of focus.

The giant mirror, 94 inches in diameter, had a spherical aberration. When the mirror was being polished to its correct shape, the device used to test its curvature–called a null corrector–had been made to the wrong specifications. Thus, when the null corrector indicated that the mirror was perfect, it was in fact slightly aspherical. The extremely faint light of distant celestial objects could not therefore be sharply directed to the focal point, resulting in a halo effect and a fuzzy image. Upon investigation, the problem was found to be due to the interchange of metric and English measurements when engineering the testing device. Subsequent space shuttle repairs rendered the optics perfect again, giving rise to the spectacular photographs which the Hubble telescope has since obtained.

In the case of Hubble’s mirror, an inadvertent change of standards, resulting in an aberration 1/50th the diameter of a human hair, nearly doomed a multi-million dollar space project. Consider the likelihood of success if each of the engineers on the project had been allowed to use their own set of standards. Yet in the realm of human behavior and morality, an idea preposterous to a scientist is widely accepted as legitimate, even desirable.

Dale Franks, writing in the excellent libertarian QandO blog, reviewing a recent Tom Wolfe book in his post on Morality and Society, poses the following question:

God, as Friederich Nietzsche famously said, is dead. But what is rarely appreciated is that Nietzsche wasn’t very happy about it. It wasn’t a statement of triumph over the stultifying hand of religion, but rather a complaint that caused him to question how we would, in the absence of a God-given standard, find our moral way in a world where a transcendent standard of right and wrong had been obliterated.

Of course, he went on from there to muse about the rise of a new superman, and his will to power, and a lot of other spectacularly silly stuff, but the initial question, the subject of his lament about the passing of God as a giver of moral standards, remains.

This question should be one of special concern to Libertarians. Most libertarians have the idea that the government should have no place in regulating morality. The government should confine itself to enforcing laws only against those that physically harm the person or property of another, non-consenting person. Under such a regime, a huge swathe of current law would be swept away. No more drug convictions, no more prostitution stings, you know the drill … The trouble with the argument that we should all be free to work out our individual morality as best pleases us is that we don?t all live alone on an island. We live in a society. We are social beings who are happiest when we have intercourse with others. And the type of society we build is directly related to the moral sense we create in it.

Our culture is increasingly drawn to the idea that the individual should be the final arbiter of his or her own morality. Behavior formerly judged to be aberrant or wrong is now by default tolerated and even celebrated under the umbrella of “diversity”. The only standard is that “no one gets hurt”–although the definition of “hurt”, and whom might be so affected, is similarly left up to the individual to determine–generally using the narrowest and most self-serving criteria.

There are two fundamental approaches to defining moral values. Moral behavior may evolve as consensual in a culture, arrived at by experience, whereby the needs of the many overrules the contrary tendencies and demands of the few, enforced over time by social pressure, ostracization, or overt punishment. Conversely, moral standards may proceed from a higher moral source, ideally one of pure goodness with the best interests of man at heart. Such moral standards are enforced by delegated authority–typically religion or government–much as a parent guides and disciplines a wayward child. At a higher and more sublime level, the moral code will be inculcated and infused from its higher Source into the heart and fiber of the individual, by instruction or spiritual transformation. Such is the ideal framework for a civil society, for moral restraint then lies within the individual, rather than being coerced. Government and the rule of law are thereby not the source of morality, but are delegated to the lesser role of admonition and correction of the remaining moral shortcomings and excursions of man from the transcendent ideal.

Morality derived from consensus of the many alone, without reference to a higher Source, can function reasonably well in a homogeneous society with strong cultural and family ties. Their self-referential standards, while functional at some level, may ultimately prove to be errant, however, in the light of cultural enlightenment or scientific progress. They may in fact bring considerable harm over time to the culture and its members, such as mores permitting cannibalism, polygamy, slavery, or predatory sexual behavior, for example.

In advanced cultures such as the West, the consensus approach is far less workable. Family and ethnic ties break down rapidly in cultures with rapid transportation and information exchange, as people move, travel, and exchange ideas far away from their moral center of gravity. As a result, cultural moral consensus becomes individual moral autonomy, with increasingly chaotic and disruptive effects.

The problem with individual moral autonomy is mankind’s inborn self-centric bias. Our formidable intellectual capabilities allow us to use advanced psychological tools such as denial, rationalization, and minimalization, yet are not advanced enough to perceive the wide-ranging personal and social implications–both short and long-term–of our moral decisions and behavior.

Consider the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, for example. Launched by the technological advance of readily-available and reliable birth control, nurtured by the anti-authoritarian environment of an unpopular war and a universal military draft, conventional wisdom evolved to the point where sexual activity between any two “consenting adults” was permissible and desirable–as long as “no one gets hurt”. The consequences of millions of individuals defining sexual morality in such constricted and self-referential terms is nothing short of staggering: spiraling rates of divorce and sexually transmitted diseases (including AIDS); exponential growth of children raised in single-parent homes or born to unwed mothers; breakdown of families with deteriorating educational systems and outcomes; increased rates of juvenile crime and drug use; epidemic levels of domestic and child abuse. Whatever benefits may have accrued from this moral earthquake in the areas of sexual repression and prudishness are swamped by the adverse consequences–consequences never even imagined by those making these individual moral choices.

This is one of my main objections to the libertarian idea of individual moral decision-making as the foundation for a free society: it ignores (or minimizes, at best) the profound effect that our individual moral choices have on on other individuals and society as a whole. When your airline pilot or surgeon smokes pot every night in the privacy of their own homes, the resultant long-term impairment of reflexes, judgment, and decision-making ability may have potentially disastrous consequences on lots of other people. When you choose to have a child as a single mother, the high likelihood of poverty and social disadvantage affects your child, his peers, the society he grows up in, and the child’s future children, in countless ways you cannot anticipate, and which are very likely negative.

The libertarian opposition to the government imposition of morality through regulation is one for which I have considerable sympathy, but which I believe is misdirected. I’m no cheerleader for excessive government regulation, by any means: as a physician, I am watching my profession crumple under its weight like a Datsun under Godzilla’s foot. Yet, as I pointed out in my earlier post on The Law of Rules, excessive government regulation is not the disease, but rather the symptom of a culture where individual moral restraint is deteriorating.

The resistance to the idea of God as the Source for universal moral standards comes from many directions: the projection of human failings on God, perceiving Him as vindictive, capricious, angry and judgmental; the resistance to constraint on our behavior which we justify as moral but know to be morally suspect; the confusion engendered by different religions and theologies. Yet if we posit a higher being who is morally pure and good, all light and no evil, with a love and caring for His highest creation in man, it should not be unreasonable to conclude that such a being would desire that this creation behave in ways which are beneficial rather than destructive, guiding them toward light rather than evil. The challenge for such a God would be to overcome our own limited sight and moral failings while respecting our freedom to reject such guidance–the very prerequisite for the love He desires returned from us.

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