Is Morality Illiberal, Un-Libertarian?

In his book Getting What you Want: A Critique of Liberal Morality (Routledge, 1998), Robert Brecher chides classical liberals and libertarians--in a civil tone and with considerable respect--for their subjectivist theory of values. This is the idea we find often expressed by economists to the effect that whatever it is that's of value to a person achieves its status in virtue of the person's preferring--or choosing or selecting--it from various alternatives. It is, in short, subjects who establish what is of value to them.

The objective theory of values would have it that whatever is of value to persons is of value to them whether they actually prefer or choose or select it from various alternatives. How such values come to be objective is, of course, a complicated philosophical issue. The point is that they aren't values simply because of someone's valuing them but because of a factual relationship between them and the individual to whom they are of value.

The subjective theory takes all values to be akin to one's tastes. That some like vanilla ice cream does make such ice cream a value to them entirely in virtue of its being liked by them. One's favorite color, too, is thus a subjective value--it is of value to one because one favors it, period.

For the subjective value approach there are no other kinds of values but the subjective kind best exemplified by preferred tastes and colors. A well paying job, for example, is good for someone entirely in virtue of his or her liking such a job. Or a gall bladder operation is of value to the patient because that is what the patient chooses to obtain, nothing else. The same goes for virtues such as honesty, generosity, prudence--only if you like them are they right for you.

The objective value theory, in contrast, sees the liking of vanilla ice cream, for example, as indeed a purely subjective value, even if it becomes firmly entrenched but regards the good job and gall bladder operation differently. These are of value to someone even if the person fails to acknowledge them as being of value, fails to choose or select them when they are available. Others then can even criticize such failures, implore people to change their minds about the matter, debate the issue. It is not all a matter of whether they like it but often a matter of whether they ought to.

Brecher makes these points well and defends the objectivist approach--though not Ayn Rand's version, which is different from the intrinsic theory that sees values as innate in some things and actions--but then perpetrates what amounts to a serious and noteworthy error.

From the fact that there are objective values people ought to pursue and secure, Brecher takes it to follow that we may be forced to secure them or that others may be forced to provide them. This is a non-sequitur, plain and simple. It doesn't follow.

It needs to be shown, first, that what people ought to do--other than abstain from intruding on others--is something they may be made to do, and that what people ought to have is something others may be made to provide for them. That's a hurdle none has managed to jump except, as I hint above, when what they ought to do is to respect other's rights! That's because others may and often ought to repel them.

But Brecher makes another mistake. He assumes that objective values are 'illiberal.' That is to say, there must be a fundamental conflict between liberalism (or libertarianism) and the existence of objective values, ones that can be demonstrated to be right for people. Why? Well, because of the previous error, namely, that if there are objective values, they may be forced on people. If this were so, then, yes, it would be illiberal to embrace the objectivist stance because liberty would have to be rejected in favor of imposing objective values. But it isn't so. So, we need not bite the bullet, after all.

If I ought to work hard, or do any other right thing, it is not true that others may force me. Indeed, if they did, I would not be doing what I ought to do but what I am made to do. Zero moral credit is earned this way. What is right or good for me is something I have to choose to pursue and obtain for it all to amount to anything morally significant.

Now, if I ought to gain some values I am unable or unwilling to gain, this is not anything that others have signed up to remedy by means of coercion. They have their own tasks, involving themselves, their loved ones, their friends. Even if they ought to be generous, charitable, compassionate and such, that, too, isn't something they may be forced to do, since that also robs them of their moral agency, encroaches on their sovereignty.

Brecher might have figured this out with a bit of intellectual history, inasmuch as a good many classical liberals have also been moral objectivists'-early on John Locke, for example, and more recently Lord Acton, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard, to mention just a few figures.

Alas, Brecher's error is widespread and, unfortunately, encouraged by some liberals and libertarians who also hold that if we could tell what are values for people, we then would have reason to impose these in a variety of ways.

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Tibor R. Machan's picture
Columns on STR: 70

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and recent author of Neither Left Nor Right: Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).  He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.