Libertarianism 7: Reflective Equilibrium–a sidebar on thinking about ethics

I began Christian Ethics Bites several years ago for practical reasons.  My professional life at my university had come to revolve around teaching and administration, work that while important  had come to crowd out my own research and writing.  I wanted to create something that would allow me to write regularly about the ideas that interest me.

Moreover, my vision for Christian Ethics Bites has always been to make my writing interesting and intelligible to people who do not spend their lives in academia.  The audience I envision here includes people like my wife, my mom and dad, and my undergraduate students–capable and intelligent people whose only disadvantage (and is it a disadvantage, really?) is that they have not spent as much time as me suffering through dense, poorly written academic texts. I tell my students that if they spend enough time at university they too can learn to write as poorly as their professors. I want everyday people to be able to read what I write here, and even if they don’t agree with my conclusions I want them to leave saying that they understand what I’ve said.  Some posts have hit this mark closer than others. Steven Pinker’s book The Sense of Style looms large for me as I think about what I aspire to in my writing.

Over the last few months I’ve been blogging about libertarianism. Looking back over my posts in this series, I think that some of my posts do a better job than others of conveying essential features of libertarian thought for everyday readers.  The first post in the series is pretty good in this regard. I now see that the post on John Locke is too dense. I know this is true; my wife’s eyes glazed over as I was reading it to her, a sure sign that my writing fell short. Writing well is a challenge.  It’s easier to write poorly.

Today I know that what I’m about to do runs the risk of losing some of my audience.  I began writing this post last week, fully intending to focus my attention digging more deeply into the anarcholibertarian theory I introduced in my previous blog post.  As I got further into writing, however, I couldn’t shake this feeling that this series would benefit if I would step back from the details of libertarian thought to focus more generally on methodology, how I think about ethics. A lot of what I’m about to say is going to sound completely disconnected from libertarianism, so bear with me. I promise there is a payoff in the conclusion.

Here it goes. At the risk of losing you, my reader, in paragraph 5, let me first identify the abstract concept I’m about to describe: reflective equilibrium. What is reflective equilibrium?  That’s the focus of today’s post. Popularized by the American philosopher John Rawls in his seminal work, A Theory of Justice, reflective equilibrium is a model that describes how to think about ethics. It’s not the only possible way to think about ethics, nor is it a model that every ethicist finds helpful.  Nonetheless, it is a model that I have found helpful in making sense of what I am striving for when I teach students in my ethics classroom.

To get at what reflective equilibrium is, I’m going to tell you a story.  It’s a short story.  I want you to read the story.  Pay careful attention to your reaction to the characters in the story.  Here it goes:

“Todd raped the 5 year old child repeatedly during the night.  As morning approached, Todd killed the child, mutilating the corpse before burying it in his backyard.”

The end.

This story is horrific, isn’t it? What happened to you when you first read it?  I was reluctant to even tell the story. Even without the details of Todd’s violence, the story seems grotesque and graphic. Todd’s actions are morally repugnant, or so I feel that they are.  What about you?  Doesn’t your gut tell you that what Todd has done is gravely wrong? You read the story and there is very little thought involved; something simply feels wrong about Todd’s action.

In ethics, these gut-level moral responses that we have are called moral intuitions.  These intuitive responses to moral situations  are a vital element of our moral identities. Sometimes these intuitions can be quite powerful.  My gut speaks very strongly to me that raping, killing, and mutilating a child is morally wrong.  Doesn’t yours? Moral intuitions are essential to our moral identity because very often–most of the time, in fact, if moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt is correct–our “gut” is what prompts our moral actions. Driven by our moral intuitions, we are like giant elephants making our way through the world. While we might believe that reason guides our moral lives, our heads are little more than a rider on the elephant.  The rider will try to steer the elephant, but in the end the elephant will do what the elephant does, at least most of the time.


But this begs a question: if moral intuitions are the primary forces guiding our moral action, why spend any time engaging in rational reflection about morality? What’s the point of thinking about ethics? Aren’t we just wasting our time studying rational, philosophical arguments? Why not simply accept the value of our intuitions and act accordingly? Why not simply go with our gut?

The problem with simply trusting our gut is that even a surface-level exploration of our own history points to examples of people whose intuitions led them to conclusions that most of us today recognize as immoral. Our own community is still coming to grips with the consequences of the moral intuitions that people long had about race, for example. The legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and anti-miscegenation loom over us, enough to suggest that we should be wary of simply trusting our intuitions. Reason is important.  While our moral actions might not be fundamentally guided by our heads, reason offers a critical check on our moral impulses.  By thinking about ethics we put ourselves in a position to assess whether our moral intuitions are pointing us in the right direction.

This is what reflective equilibrium is about. Reflective equilibrium is a methodology that strives to make rational sense of our moral intuitions. When thinking about ethics I am attempting to subject my moral intuitions to rational scrutiny.  Knowing that my intuitions are basic to my moral identity, but aware that I cannot simply trust my intuitions without question, what I am seeking when I think about ethics are rational arguments that can explain why my moral intuitions are, in fact, valid.  I find reflective equilibrium when my moral intuitions–for example, my intuition that raping and mutilating a young child is morally wrong–converge with a rational argument that explain why rape and mutilation are morally wrong. Feeling so strongly about the essential wrongness of rape, I might encounter Immanuel Kant’s argument that morality requires that we always respect the inherent dignity of every other person, never treating people as means to an end.  Kant’s argument helps me make rational sense of why Todd’s actions are morally wrong, and why my intuitive response is morally appropriate.  Or perhaps I’ll find myself quite drawn to a utilitarian argument about the horrendous social consequences that would occur were we to conclude that rape is morally right, the adverse effects on the victim, the fear and distrust that such a conclusion would cause in our society, the effects that such a conclusion would have on human relationships. Both arguments offer a rational basis for explaining why my moral intuitions are morally appropriate.

Ideally, it is possible for us to achieve reflective equilibrium for all of our intuitions, to make rational sense of why we should feel the way that we do about the range of moral issues we encounter.  However, this is the challenge: sometimes there are circumstances where our moral intuitions conflict with a rational argument that on its face seems quite persuasive. In these moments, we experience disequilibrium.  In my ethics classroom some of the most interesting and instructive moments for students happen when they first encounter a rational argument that calls one of their deeply held moral intuitions into question. A student might have a very strong feeling that abortion is a gravely immoral act, for example, but then they are required to read Judith Jarvis Thomson’s article “A Defense of Abortion.” Thomson’s thought experiment of the unconscious dying violinist troubles this intuition.  They find her argument compelling, and they are left wrestling with what they have long felt about abortion and what Thomson is suggesting is the rational thing to believe. Conversely, a student might have a very strong intuition that there is nothing morally problematic about terminating an early-term fetus, but then the student reads Don Marquis’s article, “Why Abortion is Immoral,” and the student begins to grapple with an argument that suggests they should feel very differently about the act of abortion.

So what do you do when you experience disequilibrium?  Here you are faced with several possibilities.  First, in the face of a conflict between your moral intuitions and a persuasive rational argument you might simply throw your hands up in the air, dismiss the argument and go with your gut.  This is a bad choice, in my view.  Remember, we are already aware that moral intuitions have led people to embrace beliefs and practices that we now recognize as immoral.  We can’t simply trust our moral guts.  Dismissing an argument because it conflicts with what you feel is intellectually lazy.  It’s a sign that you lack virtue.

Here is another possibility: the conflict between your moral intuition and a rational argument might force you to look at the rational argument more closely.  Digging more deeply into the details of the argument you might discover that what initially seems quite persuasive to you is flawed. The argument relies on a logical fallacy, or it neglects something critical to understanding the moral question. You search further for a better argument, perhaps revising the argument to address its weakness, or finally dismissing the argument altogether when a better argument comes along, one that offers a better basis for understanding why your moral intuitions have been correct all along. This rational argument helps you find reflective equilibrium once again.

Here is a final possibility.  Your gut is is speaking to you about a moral question, and you encounter a persuasive rational argument that calls your intuitions into question.  Digging more deeply into the argument, you keep looking for flaws, but you begin to realize that the real problem rests not in the argument itself, but in your intuitions.  This very strong feeling that you have is where the problem is.  To find reflective equilibrium what needs to change is not the argument, but your gut. Finding reflective equilibrium requires a change to your character.  You need to become a person who feels differently about things.

This is how I think about the work that I do in the ethics classroom. When we think about ethics we put ourselves in a position where we are better able to check these very powerful intuitions that drive our moral lives.  Moral intuitions are fallible, as are the rational judgments that we make about the right and the good.  Reflective equilibrium is a model that requires us to acknowledge this fallibility, to pursue moral arguments with others in a spirit of openness and humility, aware that our moral lives entail this back and forth between intuition and reason. When we come to see the task of ethics in this way we open ourselves to forging a different kind of community, one in which our moral disagreements with others are defined not by anxiety and fear but by generosity and mutual respect.

So what does this have to do with libertarianism?  Occasionally when discussing my current project with people I’ll have an interlocutor query why I’m spending time reading thinkers who have had minimal impact in the field of Christian ethics, let alone in the wider academy.  It’s a fair question. I’ve offered several answers to this question over the last year. I tell folks that I find libertarianism interesting. I point to colleagues and friends who identify as libertarian, people whom I respect whose ideas I want to understand better.  I remind people that while libertarianism is not front-and-center in contemporary American policies that the language and ideas that are foundational to libertarian thought–appeals to liberty, aggressive diatribes against the evils of socialism, and demands for a smaller state–are embraced by a substantial swath of the American public.

In the end when I explain to people why I’m studying libertarianism the most important answer for me is this: libertarian theorists are asking people like me to check our moral intuitions about some facets of our life together that we have taken for granted.  When Murray Rothbard tells me, for example, that states are nothing more than crime syndicates, that my commitment to liberty entails that I advocate for the abolition of all states, he is telling me that my gut needs to change, that I need to be a different person.  In reading libertarian thinkers like Nozick, Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, and Woods I experience disequilibrium. Libertarian thinkers force me to do what I want my students to do every semester, to remain open to the possibility that my intuitions are what really need to change.

This is a deeply unsettling conclusion for me, but it’s one I can’t help but embrace. That’s what reflective equilibrium requires.  That said, the other possibility is also the case. It could well be that given my deep intuitions about the legitimate role that states play in the world that these intuitions point to problems in the arguments that libertarians like Rothbard make.  This is where I find myself at this moment. Rothbard’s argument points us to some moral conclusions that on their face seem patently absurd, even grotesque. That’s what I want to talk about in my next post.

We’re going to talk about the problem of children.






Libertarianism 6: State? We Don’t Need No Stinking State.

This post is the latest in my ongoing series on libertarianism.  Previous posts are linked to here: Post 1, Post 2, Post 3, Post 4, Post 5

Over the last several posts I have focused attention on minarchism: a libertarian philosophy that asserts that only a minimal state can be justified.  In today’s blog post I turn my attention to anarchism: a libertarian approach that asserts that no state is morally justifiable.  I knew very little about anarchism prior to 2008 when one of my college friends, Jason Jewell, introduced me to Murray Rothbard.  Rothbard is not widely known in mainstream academia, but he has taken on something of a cult following in libertarian circles.  This semester I’ve read a fair portion of his book Man, Economy, and State (Rothbard’s primary economics text, foundational for understanding contemporary Austrian School economics), and the entirety of his libertarian ethics text, The Ethics of Liberty.  Rothbard is a good writer, so the reading has been a pleasure, though I remain unpersuaded by the brand of libertarianism he defends.  I’ll try to unpack the reasons for my discontent over the next few blog posts.


But first, my introduction to anarcho-libertarianism (note: my summary here draws heavily from Rothbard’s work.  All page references are from Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty (New York: New York University Press, 1998).  Rothbard’s book is available electronically at the Mises Institute website, here.).

We begin with a thought experiment.  Imagine for the moment that you are Robinson Crusoe, stranded on a remote island and afflicted with a horrible case of amnesia.  You are alone and desperate, but the island itself is lush, with fruit trees and ample fresh water for you to sustain yourself.  On the island, you are faced with a number of incontrovertible facts.  We can say, first of all, that you are a fully conscious being who has rational control of your own body.  Second you realize that you are faced with an abundance of ends that you might choose for yourself on the island.  You might choose to address your immediate need for food, for example, by fishing, or by plucking fresh coconuts or mangoes from the trees.  You might harvest palm branches to fashion for yourself a makeshift shelter.  Aware that a cold night is approaching, you might search for sticks and put your effort into creating a fire from them.  Or you might find yourself touched by the beauty of the sun rising over the ocean horizon and choose to spend your time admiring the scene as the tide rolls in.


But this is the key point: on this island you, Robinson Crusoe, are free to choose. Given your desperate circumstance, you likely will choose first to address your immediate needs: fire, food, and shelter.  Given enough time–and you have a lot of time on your hands; you are alone on an island–you begin transforming the island. You begin with fire.  It takes you hours to get that first spark, but you succeed, and before long you’ve got a fire that will keep you warm. You construct a temporary shelter to protect yourself from the elements. The coconuts you are able to find on the beach sustain you during the first week of your ordeal.  Over the next several months you live a trial-and-error existence. After days of failure you revel in your success when you kill your first fish with the wooden spear you created with your own hands. You practice for days to hone your fishing skills, and before long you discover that you are an excellent fisherman. Over the next several months your temporary shelter gives way to a sturdier house built from the logs you hewed.  You experience some setbacks.  Those mushrooms looked really tasty, but you discovered they were poisonous and spent the next two days confined to the latrine you created.  It took you days to recover from the injuries afflicted by that wild boar you were hunting.  For you, fishing is the name off the game. Over time, you labor, and through your labor you transform your camp into something that is a reflection of the choices that you yourself have made.

Now clearly the real world is more complex than Crusoe’s isolated island, so let’s complicate the thought experiment by bringing another person into the picture.  Imagine that a second person (let’s call him Friday) lands in another part of the island.  Like you, Friday works hard to create shelter, fire, and a stable supply of food.  However, Friday discovers that while he is not a very good fisherman he is uncommonly good at growing wheat. One day Friday observes smoke on the horizon.  Curious, Friday makes his way to your camp.  Pleased to discover that he is not alone, Friday strikes up a conversation with you:

Friday: “I’m so happy to find I’m not alone! I must confess, I’ve grown weary of striking up conversations with the coconut dolls I’ve created back at my camp.  How nice it will be to have a real person to talk to!”

Crusoe: “Yes, nice indeed.  How are things on your side of the island?”

Friday: “Not bad.  I’ve got plenty of food, and a decent shelter.  I must confess, however, I’m getting sick of mangoes, coconuts, and bread.”

Crusoe: “Wait, you have bread?”

Friday: “Sure I do.  I’ve got an entire field of wheat I’ve already harvested once, with more planted. Don’t you?”

Crusoe: “No, I didn’t even consider planting wheat.  I spend a lot of my time fishing.  You see those Mahi Mahi hanging in my smoker box out back?”

Friday: “You have fish?  Wow, I tried to fish but was having no luck.  Sure wish I had your skill.”

Crusoe: “I have an idea.  How about we agree to trade?  I’ll give you one fish for every two loaves of bread.”

Friday: “Right now I don’t have enough land planted to give you that much bread.  Can we make it a one for one trade?  If you agree I’ll plan on planting more wheat as soon as possible.  With the additional grain I should be able to supply more bread for both of us.”

Crusoe: “That sounds good.  Let’s trade!”

So you and Friday and trade.  Notice that your trade is itself another reflection of a choice that both of you have made, something that you both deem mutually beneficial.  Nobody coerced you or Friday to agree to the trade. When Friday brings his loaves of bread to you and receives your fish, this exchange transfers ownership of both goods.  The bread, formerly owned by Friday, now belongs to you, Crusoe.  The fish, formerly owned by you, now belong to Friday. And once again, the rights that both of you have to these goods are inalienable.

Let’s complicate things further still.  Let’s imagine now that you and Friday discover a handful of other individuals newly shipwrecked on the island, all of them carving out their own existence in this isolated world.  Quickly these individuals come to recognize the advantages of mutual exchange.  But a barter system is cumbersome (e.g. what if I want to trade bread for wood, but the person who has wood for trade doesn’t need bread?), so inevitably the island dwellers need to settle on some common medium of exchange, a money system. The island has a small, relatively uncommon but easily recognizable clam shell that the islanders agree to use as currency to ease their exchanges.

Over time, a market economy develops on the island, with each individual free to enter into any exchange that (s)he deems beneficial, and no individual coerced into exchanges that (s)he doesn’t desire. Some individuals on the island are shrewd negotiators and do very well, eventually accruing for themselves substantial quantities of money and natural resources. You are one.  You labored for weeks to weave your first fishing net, and before long you were unable to keep up with the island dwellers’ demand for your fish.  With growing demand, you create some new tools–fish traps!–but discovers that the islanders’ demand for fish is outstripping your ability to set traps, cast nets, and harvest fish.  You approach two new island settlers, Bligh and Cook, and offers to pay them a regular wage to catch fish using your tools.  For this regular wage, Bligh and Cook agree to give you the fish, which you then sell to the other islanders for a profit. Over time you develop a very successful fishing empire. Bligh and Cook also see the benefit of working for you, Crusoe, and they are always free to decline your offer if the wage is too low or if they decide to pursue some other end.

Some individuals fare less well.  Island dweller Jones spent a lot of time trying to convince the other islanders that the stench of death of his durian tree farm masked the richness of the fruit’s flavor.  Unable to overcome the islanders’ inhibitions, Jones failed to get his durian fruit business off the ground. Jones’s neighbor Smith was injured in a freak surfing accident that left him physically incapacitated and dependent on the kindness of the other island dwellers.  Over time the fortunes of the island inhabitants diverge. Some thrive. Others struggle. But the key point is this: these outcomes are all borne from the free choices that each individual makes.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and consider what all of this has to do with libertarianism. For Rothbard, Crusoe’s story is our story as well. Human nature is defined by our capacity to choose among the multiple ends available to us (or, in Rothbard’s words, freedom is found in a man’s ability “to choose the course of his life and his actions” (33)).  This freedom is inalienable. For someone to make these choices for me without my consent is a violation of my natural right. Furthermore, when Crusoe labors to transform the material world around him, Crusoe has “mixed his labor with the soil” (a phrase borrowed from John Locke).  In so doing, Crusoe can claim to own that which he has transformed. This principle holds in the real world as well.  When I take something previously not owned and labor to create something new, I can properly claim ownership of my creation. My claim to this property is also inalienable.  For someone to claim what I myself have created would be an act of theft.  Every person–male and female– possesses a natural right to his/her body, his/her choices, and his/her property. Hold on to this point. It’s important to understanding the thrust of Rothbard’s argument: every human possesses an inalienable right to body, choice among ends, and property. When any other persons threatens my body, coerces me to choose something wthout my consent, or steals my property from me I have a right to defend myself against this aggression.  

But to accept this truth as morally basic, argues Rothbard, entails that we also accept a most radical conclusion about the State.  States are nothing more than groups of individuals who claim for themselves a monopoly of coercive power within their geographic borders. States (i.e. these individuals who are claiming this monopoly for themselves) sustain their monopoly  by stealing resources. States have no metaphysical essence; they are simply facades for the unjust aggression of some individuals against others.

Back on Crusoe’s island, imagine for the moment that a small number of inhabitants decide that they alone are going to provide “protective services” to the other inhabitants, who will be forever barred from taking the law into their own hands. Furthermore, this “State” will also require the inhabitants barred from protecting themselves to pay for this protective service. Island inhabitants who refuse to pay will be subject to punishment by the individuals demanding payment. This sounds an awful lot like pizzo, the protective money that Italian business owners pay the Mafia, doesn’t it? But this is exactly what states do,  says Rothbard:

“If, then, taxation is compulsory, and is therefore indistinguishable from theft, it follows that the State, which subsists on taxation, is a vast criminal organization far more formidable and successful than any ‘private’ Mafia in history. Furthermore, it should be considered criminal not only according to the theory of crime and property rights as set forth in this book, but even according to the common apprehension of mankind, which always considers theft to be a crime” (166).

And if this is so, the moral to the story should be obvious.  If states are nothing more than criminal organizations, than what we need is not a minimal state (i.e. would we be okay with just a little criminal extortion?).  We need to abolish states altogether.  Anarcho-libertarians believe that a world built wholly on voluntary exchange is both possible and preferable to the world in which we currently live, a world in which so many are taken in by the false claims to legitimacy made by those states that intrude into every facet of our lives.


We might wonder, then, what a world organized around anarchist principles would look like. Here I’ll sketch the basic contours of what Rothbard envisions, a world built around voluntary exchange, not aggression:

(1) Police Protection: Individuals would retain the right to self-defense. Many individuals would choose to subscribe to protective services, so the police function of currently existing states would be turned over to voluntary protective organizations, each competing to provide services to consumers on an open market. There would be a similar market for fire services. Police and fire protection would come to resemble insurance markets that most of us are already familiar with.

(2) Education: Schools would be privately organized, funded through the tuition payments of individuals who pay for the privilege of sending their children to school. Compulsory attendance laws would be abolished. Parents would be free to home school.  Individuals would be free to establish charity-based schools or to organize low-cost community-based schools to provide education to the less well off, much as is already happening in impoverished communities around the world.

(3) Transportation: Roads would be privately owned and maintained, funded perhaps via a regular toll system paid by users.

(4) Criminal and Civil Justice: Every individual would be free to pursue retributive justice against any person who violates their property rights. Conflicting property claims would be adjudicated through a consensual system of arbitration. Compulsory jury duty would be abolished, and individuals would have no subpoena power to compel witnesses to testify.  Criminal punishment would aim at providing restitution to victims whose rights have been violated.

(5) Morality: Moral norms would not be legally enforceable. Individuals would be free to engage in illicit moral conduct as long as their actions do not interfere with the property rights of other individuals.  Prostitution, pornography and recreational drug consumption would be legally permissible, even if morally questionable.

(6) Money: No state or central bank would exist, so no single institution would have the power to control the supply of money used for mutual exchange. To avoid the risk of inflation (a trend that leads to the devaluation of money, and thus adversely impacts the property rights of lenders), the money supply would be tied to the supply of some relatively uncommon valuable good (e.g. gold), a standard that ensures the value of the money and limits the ability of any institution to devalue currency by creating money from scratch.

(7) Welfare: The physical needs of individuals unable to provide for themselves would be provided through a voluntary charitable system.

(8) Inequality: Income inequality would be inevitable and just as long as these inequalities are borne from the uncoerced exchanges of persons who seek the benefit of exchange.  Individuals would be free to reap the fruit, or suffer the consequences of the choices that they make. Debtors would be free to indenture themselves to creditors to pay off their debts.

There is a lot more that could be said to flesh out the anarcho-libertarian ideal that Rothbard points us toward, but this post is getting long.  I’ve got a lot to say about Rothbard’s argument, but for now I want to close by drawing attention to one of the revolutionary implications of the last point that may surprise individuals accustomed to dismissing libertarianism as little more than an ideology borne of upper-class, white privilege.  If income inequalities borne of uncoerced exchange are just, as Rothbard says, the flipside of this is also true: inequalities borne of coerced exchanges are not just and the violation of the rights of the coerced demand compensation.  Rothbard is unflinching in pointing to the historical significance of this conclusion:

“[T]here was only one possible moral solution for the slave question: immediate and unconditional abolition, with no compensation to the slavemasters.  Indeed, any compensation should have been the other way–to repay the oppressed slaves for their lifetime of slavery. A vital part of such necessary compensation would have been to grant the plantation lands not to the slavemaster, who scarcely had valid title to any property, but to the slaves themselves, whose labor, on our ‘homesteading’ principle, was mixed with the soil to develop the plantations. In short, at the very least, elementary libertarian justice required not only the immediate freeing of the slaves, but also the immediate turning over to the slaves, again without compensation to the masters, of the plantation lands on which they had worked and sweated” (75).

To the extent that slaves were deprived of property and were thus unable to gift this property generationally, one can make a very strong case for the justice of some form of reparations to the generational victims, and this on purely libertarian grounds. When inequalities abound, the key question is to what degree these realities are the byproduct of free exchange. Crusoe is free to get wealthy by selling fish to the islanders. He’s not free to reap the benefits of the labor of people he enslaves, nor would Crusoe be free to pass on the wealth borne from this enslavement to his descendants. I find this revolutionary impulse to Rothbard’s argument intriguing and compelling. In spite of this, I remain unpersuaded by his overall case for anarchism.  I’ll begin unpacking why this is so in my next post.