The Bleeding-Heart Absolutist Strikes Back

Let me start eirenically by noting what we all seem to agree on: that consequences (including consequences for the poor) matter for the justification of libertarianism; that they are not all that matters, since non-consequentialist considerations are also relevant; and that libertarianism of some sort meets both consequentialist and non-consequentialist criteria pretty well.

Among the points where I think we disagree are the relative weight to be put on consequentialist versus non-consequentialist considerations (here David is, I think, more consequentialist than Matt and John are, while they in turn are more consequentialist than I am; I’m not sure where Alexander stands on this), the extent to which the former are conceptually independent of the latter (much less for me than for my fellow symposiasts, as far as I can tell), and the theoretic level(s) at which consequentialist considerations should most come into play (fairly high, for me). But there are still areas where I need clarification.

Absoluteness, Monism, and Trumps

Matt and John counsel against treating property rights “in absolutist terms as necessarily trumping in all circumstances any potentially competing considerations,” and express agreement with David’s preference for a form of libertarianism in which “respecting rights is seen as a good thing, a value in itself as well as a means to other values, but not as a value that trumps all others.”

I’m a bit puzzled by this. Ordinarily, to call something a right (at least a full-fledged as opposed to a prima facie right) just is to say, inter alia, that it trumps other considerations; in Ronald Dworkin’s memorable phrase, rights are trumps – and so claims that do not trump are not rights. To say that S has a right to be treated in manner M is to say that a) others ought to treat S in manner M, and b) it is permissible for S, or S’s agent, to compel said others to do so. So once it’s agreed that S has the right, there’s no further question as to whether the right ought to be respected; or, to put the matter the other way around, once it’s agreed that a claim should be overridden, such a claim is no longer regarded as a right (again, except prima facie). (Admittedly the matter is a bit more complicated; if the permissibility of compelling compliance is qualified or delayed owing to, say, proportionality requirements, yet not eliminated, we might still want to say that the right stands.)

On a closely related issue, although I used the term “absolute” (and its cousins “absolutism” and “absolutist”) in my previous post, I did so with trepidation, for it’s a term I find confusing and usually try to avoid (except where it’s just the negation of relativism). For one thing, it’s often unclear whether it’s supposed to be a comparative term or not. Are some rights absolute and all others non-absolute, making absoluteness all or nothing, or does absoluteness come in degrees? For another, it’s unclear how to distinguish the case of rights’ differing with regard to absoluteness from the case of rights’ differing with regard to their objects.

Suppose that according to theory A I’m entitled to hit anything I choose, while according to theory B I’m entitled to hit anything I choose except other people. Should we say that theory A grants me an absolute, and theory B a non-absolute, right of hitting? Or that theory A grants me a more absolute right than theory B? Or should we simply say that here we have two equally absolute rights, but one is an absolute right to hit anything, and the other is an absolute right to hit non-people? Once we’ve determined the object of the right – what it is a right to do – what more is there to say about its absoluteness or lack thereof?

In addition to the issue of absolutism, Matt and John now introduce the monism/pluralism distinction; but this runs the danger of being equally obscure, since it’s not clear whether it applies to the content of principles or to their justification. Can one have a pluralistic justification of a monistic principle?

Perhaps so. In explaining why Nozick isn’t included in the “Unholy Trinity” of Mises, Rand, and Rothbard, Matt and John note that for Nozick considerations of need, and indeed a “whole host of moral considerations,” fail to be a “separate limiting factor on property rights” simply because they have “already been built into the theory of property rights.” Well, sure; but how is that any less true for Mises, Rand, and Rothbard? For Rand and Rothbard, principles of justice rest on the conditions required for each human being to flourish as a rational agent, which seems a fairly pluralistic basis. (In particular, for anyone who is tempted to interpret Rand’s theory as monistic, I recommend Chris Sciabarra’s analysis of Rand as a dialectical, multidimensionally integrative thinker in Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical.) And for Mises, the justification of libertarianism is its giving the widest scope for everybody to achieve whatever ends they may happen to have. If that’s not pluralism, what could be?

The closest thing to a monistic libertarian theorist that I can come up with would be someone like Hans-Hermann Hoppe, who bases self-ownership on the purported impossibility of rejecting it without self-contradiction – an argument which, if it worked,[1] would make property rights independent of any other value. But this approach is hardly typical of most libertarian thinkers; and even Hoppe makes much of the fact that respect for property rights would bring about various social outcomes he regards as valuable, even if this fact is not part of his “official” justification for such rights.[2]

More broadly, there are a variety of ways in which libertarianism can be pluralistic. There are values with which it might be aligned because these values are part of its justification; or because these values follow from values that are part of its justification; or because these values are necessary for its implementation; or because these values are made (more) possible by its implementation; or because these values are necessary for the proper application of its principles.[3] Libertarianism can be social-justice-oriented in all these ways too; we might call a version of libertarianism social-justice-oriented if concern for the poor is part of the justification for its principles; or if it highlights the ways in which applying those principles (however justified) addresses that concern; or if it appeals to that concern in determining how to apply its principles; or if it shows that concern to be worthy of our attention for the same reason that libertarian principles are, and so forth. Note that none of these ways necessarily requires thinking of libertarian rights as overridable (whether easily or at all) by social-justice concerns.

Matt and John also say that they find “nothing objectionable” in the view that “individuals own themselves and should not be coerced, as long as this statement is recognized as a kind of moral rule of thumb that must give way when moral considerations of sufficient weight are brought up against it.”

But first, calling this a “rule of thumb” seems to go beyond saying merely that exceptions may be called for in extreme circumstances; the language naturally suggests that self-ownership may be fairly easily and casually overridden. I don’t think Matt and John intended this reading, but their wording invites it.

Moreover, it seems like a violation of human dignity to treat self-ownership as something easily overridden; and since, for those who accept self-ownership, property rights must either be grounded in self-ownership or rejected entirely,[4] that means property rights will have to be fairly robust. Nozick’s (well, Rand’s originally) demonstration that taxation is on a par with forced labour is not something that bleeding-heart libertarians, of all people, should be losing sight of; compassion should be concerned with more than distributional effects alone. (Yet that doesn’t mean that libertarianism must be insensitive to distributional effects, since such considerations can (and typically do) enter into the justification of self-ownership in the first place.)

I incidentally welcome Alexander’s distinctions among justification, principles, and policy. (I’m not inclined, though, to agree with his inference that these distinctions render pointless the debate over whether one form of libertarianism is more thoroughgoingly libertarian than another. After all, any given theory is more than just a collection of its author’s opinions; it’s a structure in the space of reasons, with its own internal dynamic, its natural tendencies of development, its stresses and strains, its “objective tendency of the problematic.”) One upshot of these distinctions is that consequence-sensitivity and social-justice-sensitivity can come in at different levels. Suppose theorist A uses entirely or almost entirely deontological considerations to justify her principles, but then allows the principles in their application to be fairly easily overridden by concern for consequences (whether for the poor or for everyone), while theorist B allows such consequentialist considerations (whether largely or entirely) to shape her justification of her principles, but once her principles are in place, she permits few if any exceptions to them. Is theorist B more “absolutist” than theorist A? Maybe. But is one of these theorists more consequence-sensitive and/or more social-justice-sensitive than the other? That’s far from obvious.

Another question for Matt and John: suppose that a given libertarian denies that e) “the moral justification of free market institutions is logically independent from any claims about the effects of those institutions on the material holdings of the poor,” but affirms that d) the concept of social justice is to be rejected. (Hayek might conceivably fit that description.) Would such a libertarian count as social-justice-oriented? If so (perhaps on the grounds that substance trumps terminology), then the extent to which prominent 20th-century libertarians were genuinely anti-social-justice may need to be reconsidered.

I continue to think, though, that its focus on merely distributional concerns renders the Rawlsian version of social justice rather tepid, leaving out such issues as exploitation, expropriation, class rule, and social control – to say nothing of patriarchy and white supremacy – that have been crucial not only to the radical left (as conventionally conceived) but also to 19th-century libertarians and their 21st-century admirers. (One way to describe the difference between the branch of bleeding-heart libertarianism to which Matt and John belong and the branch to which I belong is to say that they’re trying to show that libertarianism can satisfy Rawlsians while we’re trying to show that libertarianism can satisfy Chomskyans.)

Utilitarianism versus Social Justice and Natural Rights

David wonders why social justice, particularly in its Rawlsian form, should be thought preferable to utilitarianism. One reason, I think, is that the Rawlsian concern with mutual advantage rather than overall advantage forbids sacrificing the few to the many, something utilitarianism allows in principle even though it generally counsels against it in practice. And allowing it even in principle, and thus treating a harm to A as something that could conceivably be made up for by a benefit to B, ignores the separateness of persons – in ways that both Rawls and Nozick identify.

David objects that the mutual-advantage approach implausibly forbids even slight reductions of one person’s welfare for the sake of others; but this is so only if one takes welfare as an independent variable, which strikes me as a mistake – one of the many reasons I’m an Aristotelean rather than a Rawlsian. If the relation between justice and benefit is a two-way street, so that considerations of justice can play a role in shaping what counts as a benefit instead of solely vice versa,[5] then David’s counterexample becomes impossible.

There are other problems with the Rawlsian approach, of course, including the arbitrariness of the baseline; after all, the Pareto criterion and the Rawlsian difference principle both favour mutual rather than overall advantage, but disagree over what to take as the baseline, Pareto privileging actuality and Rawls privileging equality – both dubious baselines for historical-entitlement reasons that Nozick explained well. (Hayek’s version of the veil of ignorance seems vulnerable to similar objections.) But the focus on mutual advantage at least allows Rawlsian considerations some claim to play a role in the justification process, whereas utilitarianism lacks any such status.

David prefers utilitarianism not only over Rawlsian social justice but also over traditional self-ownership theory; one reason for this preference is that “the version of libertarianism exemplified by Rand, Rothbard, and their followers” lacks a “logical foundation sufficient to persuade the unbeliever of its strong claims.”

But isn’t this just as much a problem for the utilitarian as for Rand and Rothbard (or Rawls, or any of us)? It’s a mistake to think that by appealing to utilitarian considerations one avoids reliance on controversial value-judgments. After all, utilitarianism is a controversial theory too; even David himself doesn’t believe it![6]

Another of David’s criticisms of self-ownership theory is the purported absurdity of applying it consistently:

I cannot turn on the lights in my house without prior permission from every landowner whose ability to see them demonstrates that my photons are trespassing on his property, and if I fall out my apartment window and end up clinging to a projecting flagpole a floor lower, I must let go and fall to my death when ordered to do so by its owner.

But one need not turn to utilitarianism to solve such problems; one may merely note, first, that forms of physical interaction that are part of the background conditions of the very existence of human society cannot fall within the scope of actions to be prohibited by its laws, and second, that purely deontological issues of proportionality forbid removing involuntary trespassers from one’s flagpole in such a way as to kill them. (Given Rand’s dialectical insistence on context-keeping, it’s particularly odd to saddle her with these implications. To be sure, there are versions of self-ownership theory that might be vulnerable to these examples – namely versions, such as Hoppe’s, that make the justification of self-ownership completely independent of all other moral values – but most forms of self-ownership theory do not follow that lonely alpine path.)

Another Note on Spencer

It’s certainly true that Spencer said many things that make him sound like a heartless bastard. But he also said many things that make him sound like a bleeding-heart lefty, such as his condemnation of wage labour as a form of slavery, and endorsement of workers’ cooperatives as a way of freeing labourers from the tyranny of employers[7] – or this from Social Statics:

It is very easy for you, O respectable citizen, seated in your easy chair, with your feet on the fender, to hold forth on the misconduct of the people – very easy for you to censure their extravagant and vicious habits …. It is no honor to you that you do not spend your savings in sensual gratification; you have pleasures enough without. But what would you do if placed in the position of the laborer? How would these virtues of yours stand the wear and tear of poverty? Where would your prudence and self-denial be if you were deprived of all the hopes that now stimulate you …? Let us see you tied to an irksome employment from dawn till dusk; fed on meager food, and scarcely enough of that …. Suppose your savings had to be made, not, as now, out of surplus income, but out of wages already insufficient for necessaries; and then consider whether to be provident would be as easy as you at present find it. Conceive yourself one of a despised class contemptuously termed “the great unwashed”; stigmatized as brutish, stolid, vicious … and then say whether the desire to be respectable would be as practically operative on you as now. … How offensive it is to hear some pert, self-approving personage, who thanks God that he is not as other men are, passing harsh sentence on his poor, hard-worked, heavily burdened fellow countrymen ….[8]

Scrooge-sounding statements and bleeding-heart-sounding statements both permeate Spencer’s writings, often in quick succession; that’s one of the oddities of reading him. But the fact that it is nearly always the Scroogey statements that get quoted, and hardly ever the bleeding-heart ones, suggests to me that it is the readers themselves, and not Spencer alone, who bear the responsibility for finding “every excuse … not make the effort” at interpretive charity.

As for Spencer’s views on charity in the literal sense, I think Matt and John underestimate the moral importance Spencer places on helping the unfortunate when they summarise him as holding that “if people feel inclined to save the stupid and idle from dying then, well, that’s OK too” – as though Spencer thinks it is a morally neutral matter whether such assistance is offered. On the contrary, Spencer writes:

[T]he highest form of life, individual and social, is not achievable under a reign of justice only; but … there must be joined with it a reign of beneficence. … A society is conceivable formed of men leading perfectly inoffensive lives, scrupulously fulfilling their contracts, and efficiently rearing their offspring, who yet, yielding to one another no advantages beyond those agreed upon, fall short of that highest degree of life which the gratuitous rendering of services makes possible. Daily experiences prove that every one would suffer many evils and lose many goods, did none give him unpaid assistance. The life of each would be more or less damaged had he to meet all contingencies single-handed. Further if no one did for his fellows anything more than was required by strict performance of contract, private interests would suffer from the absence of attention to public interests. The limit of evolution of conduct is consequently not reached, until, beyond avoidance of direct and indirect injuries to others, there are spontaneous efforts to further the welfare of others. …

We have seen that cooperation and the benefits which it brings to each and all, become high in proportion as the altruistic, that is the sympathetic, interests extend. The actions prompted by fellow feeling are thus to be counted among those demanded by social conditions. They are actions which maintenance and further development of social organization tend ever to increase; and therefore actions with which there will be joined an increasing pleasure. From the laws of life it must be concluded that unceasing social discipline will so mold human nature, that eventually sympathetic pleasures will be spontaneously pursued to the fullest extent advantageous to each and all. [9]

Moreover, not only does Spencer hold that “in so far as the severity of this process [of natural selection] is mitigated by the spontaneous sympathy of men for each other, it is proper that it should be mitigated,” but he goes on to add that although “there is unquestionably harm done when sympathy is shown, without any regard to ultimate results,” even in that case “the drawbacks hence arising are nothing like commensurate with the benefits otherwise conferred.”[10] In other words, not only is prudent charity better than no charity, but imprudent charity is also better than no charity.

I would also want to resist Matt and John’s suggestion that the “main point” of Spencer’s case against government welfare is that the state “should allow suffering because in a lot of cases it’s good for people – including the ones who suffer.” Spencer’s “main point” in opposition to government welfare is that forcible redistribution violates the Law of Equal Freedom. And Spencer’s case for the Law of Equal Freedom is that “man’s happiness can be obtained only by the exercise of his faculties,” and “to exercise his faculties he must have liberty to do all that his faculties naturally impel him to do” – a derivation that makes no reference to salutary suffering.[11]

Finally, I think Matt and John are mistaken to seize on Spencer as an alternative to the property-absolutism of 20th-century libertarianism; for Spencer surely has to count as (what they call) a property absolutist too. Spencer shows this most clearly, ironically enough, in his arguments for rejecting private property in land: if property rights were applied to land, Spencer tells us, such rights would have to be unlimited, as all property rights are – and in the case of land this would lead to absurd consequences. As Spencer sees it, the choice is between an unlimited right and no right; and those who would plead instead for a limited right to land he derides for thinking that “Truth must always be spiced with a little Error,” and insists instead that any principle governing property must be “pure, definite, entire, and unlimited.”[12] Hence for Spencer we get no private property in land, and unrestricted private property in everything else.


[1] For what it’s worth, I don’t think it does; see my “The Hoppriori Argument.”

[2] I have serious disagreements with Hoppe as to which social outcomes are valuable; happily, these are also areas where I disagree with him as to which outcomes are likely results of respect for property rights.

[3] For some of the relevant distinctions here, see Charles Johnson, “Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin.”

[4] For an argument to this effect, see my “The Paradox of Property.”

[5] For details see my “Eudaimonist Libertarianism” and “Twelve Theses on Libertarian Eudaimonism.

[6] David invites us to consult the index to his book The Machinery of Freedom for his criticisms of utilitarianism – but directs us, alas, to a PDF copy that does not include the index.

[7] Principles of Sociology VIII.20.

[8] Social Statics, Chapter XX.

[9] Principles of Ethics I.8, 14; V.1.

[10] Social Statics, Chapter XXVIII.

[11] Social Statics, Chapter IV.

[12] Social Statics, Chapter IX.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi propose to refocus the libertarian movement. Although they agree that individual property rights are important, they propose to return libertarianism to its nineteenth-century intellectual roots. They argue that the classical liberals valued property rights for different reasons, perhaps, than we in the movement value them now: Property rights were intended to protect the least well-off workers in society. A “neoclassical liberal” would not advocate a welfare state, but would certainly value social justice; his means of attaining it would be through the institutions of property and contract.

Response Essays

  • Roderick T. Long criticizes the sharp distinctions drawn by Zwolinski and Tomasi between nineteenth-century classical liberals and the “Unholy Trinity” of Mises, Rand, and Rothbard. He suggests many areas in which the earlier thinkers were not as Zwolinski and Tomasi characterize them, as well as several where Mises, Rand, and Rothbard don’t conform either. Long stresses the importance of class analysis in the thought of nineteenth-century classical liberals and points to its resurrection as a key aspect of Rothbard’s thought in particular. This, he suggests, points the way toward a “bleeding-heart absolutism” – an ideology critical of every form of state power, yet also prioritizing the moral claims of the poorest in society.

  • David Friedman argues that the pre-twentieth century classical liberals were motivated not by a concern for the poor per se, but by utilitarian reasoning. The “working poor” were a large majority of society in their time, and authors like Adam Smith must be read in their historical context. Doing so reveals Smith to be a progenitor of Jeremy Bentham, not John Rawls. Utilitarianism brings problems of its own, of course, but it should not be confused with social justice.

  • Alexander McCobin argues that libertarians often engage in unproductive debates about who or what is “more” libertarian. One thing lost in these debates is that, across the wide sweep of intellectual history, significant libertarian figures have usually felt free to draw from a wide array of justifications and policy approaches. Each was a product of a particular historical era, and there is no reason to find fault with any of them simply on that account. To advance liberty, we should think and write about libertarian principles in terms that unbiased observers will find persuasive today.