Edward Feser on the Errors of Libertarianism

Lessons in Political Philosophy

“Philosophically speaking, then, libertarianism is a mess. Its rhetorical power lies precisely in its purported hyper-neutrality, the conceit that libertarianism alone allows everyone – egalitarian hippies and entrepreneurs, evangelicals and atheists, ascetics and libertines, feminists and male chauvinists – to “do their own thing,” as Nozick put it. But when one tries to put philosophical muscle onto these bare bones, the whole thing falls apart. Like Rawlsian liberalism, libertarianism inevitably embodies a substantive vision of the good which crowds out every other under the pretense of doing precisely the opposite. Given the indeterminacy of its key concepts, that vision may end up being either more or less “left-wing” or more or less “right-wing” when those concepts are given a more substantive elaboration. But the idea of a political order which is “neutral” in some interesting way – a way which might resolve the festering cultural and political tensions characterizing modern pluralistic societies, by means of an appeal to a shared sense of justice rather than a mere modus vivendi – vanishes upon analysis like the mirage it is. That, in any event, is the position defended in the articles I have mentioned, and that is worked out most thoroughly in “Self-Ownership, Libertarianism, and Impartiality.”

Finally, I want to emphasize that the aim of that particular paper is only to refute the claim that libertarianism is or can be “neutral” in the sense in question. I know from bitter experience that writing on this subject seems to test certain libertarians’ reading skills, and I will no doubt be accused of seeking to impose Roman Catholicism, an Aristotelian-Scholastic curriculum, Steely Dan T-shirts, and who knows what else upon the freedom-loving citizens of these United States. But the argument has nothing whatsoever to do with my seeking to “impose” my “personal tastes,” or anything else, on anyone. It has to do, again, solely with the question of whether libertarianism is “neutral” in the relevant sense. So, if you want to comment on the argument of the paper, please stick to the subject.”

Edward Feser, Libertarian Neutrality So-Called –


– Lucas G. Westman

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