Ethics are the rules of living together

By Troy Camplin – Contributor –

Ethics are the rules of living together. That means that ethics are necessarily communitarian in nature. If we accept that libertarianism means radical individualism, then libertarian ethics appears to be an oxymoron. Indeed, this understanding of libertarianism is probably why so many reject it.

But is libertarianism necessarily “radical individualism”? It is certainly individualistic, but what do we mean by “radical individualism,” and does libertarianism necessarily have to be “radical” in its libertarianism?

In his essay “Individualism: True and False,” F.A. Hayek argues that there are two kinds of individualism: one based on the philosophy of Descartes and developed through much of Continental European philosophy, and the other based on Scottish Enlightenment philosophy. When people think of “individualism,” all too many think of the Cartesian version, which gave rise to “radical individualism.” Under this idea of individualism, people are naturally radically isolated individuals – in the pessimistic version, those individuals’ lives were “nasty, brutish, and short,” while in the optimistic version, those individuals’ lives were lives of “noble savages; society in the first case improved everyone’s lives, while in the latter case, it ruined everything. Both views – the Hobbesian and the Rousseauean – have been used to argue for dictatorships of the right and the left, respectively, since a strong central government is necessary in each case to socialize radically individual humans.

The alternative was presented by the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers – people like Locke, Smith, and Hume. They argued that humans are fundamentally social, and that we are individuated through our social interactions. Thus, our society was emergent from our interactions, and society in turned helped to individuate us.

In the Cartesian version of individualism, each person is a radical individual who defines himself, preferably apart from society. In the Scottish version, the person is an individual imbedded in a nested set of scale-free networks of communities, including hierarchical networks like nuclear and extended families, churches, workplaces, and schools, and scale free networks like neighborhoods and communities, towns and cities, counties, states, and nations, economies and cultures, etc. We are defined in various ways by each of these things, and we are different people in each of these different situations. Thus is our individuality defined within our social situations. Recent studies in anthropology, ethology, and primatology have shown that the Scottish philosophical tradition is much more accurate than is the Cartesian tradition.

Within different kinds and scales of networks, we should expect different kinds and scales of communitarianism. The rules of your household or business could not and should not be extended to the rules of the economy or neighborhood. Those levels wherein we can have the most information about the members within the level can and should be the most communitarian – and should therefore have the strongest moral rules. The family is a good example of this. No one in their right mind would want to run their household according to libertarian principles – this would be a recipe for disaster in raising children. As Walter Williams once said in a talk I saw him give: Marxism works, it’s how one should run one’s household. You should expect more from your spouse, and give more to your children. At this level, it is easy, as it is easy to keep up with the names. But when you cannot keep up with the names, when you can no longer recognize what is best for each individual (which you cannot do for someone whose name you do not know), then you have to ease the communitarian principles.

Churches, workplaces, and schools – and, to some extent, neighborhoods, communities, and towns – are places we voluntarily become members of. By joining these groups, we agree to their set of rules. Here we have a level of voluntary communitarianism – and if you are not a child, all communitarianism should be voluntary. And that is why all communitarianism should also be highly local: if we do not like the rules of the group we have joined, we can always vote with our feet. The problem with having communitarian states and nations is precisely that when we are talking about the size of a state or a nation, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to vote with one’s feet. Also, at these more populous and more complex levels, it becomes increasingly difficult for the leaders to know the names of those they rule – and as such, they become increasingly ignorant of what is actually best for the citizens. Of course, as every parent eventually learns, you do not in fact always know what is best for your children. They have to discover what is best for them on their own. This is even more so when it comes to adults interacting with adults.

As we include more and more people (and territory) included in the social system, as we have in a state or nation – or even in a large city – the ignorance of the leaders increases, and the only ethical approach to governance is precisely libertarianism. It is here where individualism should be taken into consideration, as it is the individual who is most affected by the laws passed at this level, even though they are farthest away from the leaders. At this level, one cannot make ethical choices for others, as you do not know the people well enough to know everything about them, to understand their overall circumstances.

This is not to say that we should not have any ethical laws: what else are laws against the use of force or fraud, the only laws libertarians think governments should have? But these are laws that make sense to apply to everyone, across the board, regardless of race, religion, economic situation, etc. These are laws that are laws in every society, throughout human history and pre-history. But those ethical issues for which there is any debate should be avoided by states and nations. Those are values that can and should be taken into consideration closer to home. They are the communitarian values.



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