Mythbuster: Libertarianism and Unchosen Obligations

It is a common mistake, made even by some libertarians and former libertarians, that libertarians reject the idea of unchosen obligations. Gene Callahan, apparently a former libertarian turned communitarian, is the latest to make this mistake. He says:

Obligation . . . is the crucial idea denied by libertarian political theory.1

Well, this is just patently absurd. Libertarians, of course, do not deny that individuals can have obligations to others, including non-humans.

Fortunately, Callahan goes on to clarify what he means:

We can have obligations that we did not agree to take upon ourselves.

But this is something that not all libertarians deny, as a wide and deep enough perusal of libertarian literature will demonstrate.

At the very least, libertarians recognize the unchosen obligation not to threaten or use initiatory physical force against other rational beings (i.e., to refrain from what we call aggression).

Libertarians generally make two important sets of distinctions regarding obligation: that between negative and positive obligations and that between enforceable and unenforceable obligations. One can go further and recognize that obligations can have different weightings relative to one another such that one obligation can override or delimit the legitimate means of fulfilling another.

Rights, at least as I define the term, are legitimately enforceable2 moral claims against another’s prior obligation not to threaten or use initiatory physical force. The Non-Aggression Principle (NAP)3 and corresponding rights4 are unchosen, enforceable negative obligations.

Can we have unchosen positive obligations? Libertarians need not deny this, and not all do. It should be easily recognized that unchosen, unenforceable positive obligations are strictly compatible with the NAP/rights.

What about unchosen, enforceable positive obligations? Provided they are compatible with the NAP/rights, if there are any that meet this description, then libertarians need not deny unchosen, enforceable positive obligations outright. I’ll leave it up to the reader’s imagination to come up with possible examples of unchosen, enforceable positive obligations that are compatible with the NAP/rights. If you take the challenge, bear in mind what I wrote about how one obligation can override or delimit the legitimate means of fulfilling another.

Suffice to say that it is a myth that libertarians (need to) deny unchosen, even positive, obligations. Callahan is attacking a straw man.

To criticize libertarians in general for denying unchosen, enforceable positive obligations, or just certain of them, would be more accurate. But to do so would be to take the position that the threat or use of initiatory physical force (i.e., aggression) is at least sometimes justified — that, for example, what is usually thought of commonsensically as theft or trespass or murder in everyday life, is not theft or trespass or murder in the “political” sphere, i.e., when the state or the “community” does it.5

I will conclude with four quotations of my own:6

Freedom is, in truth, a sacred thing. There is only one thing else that better serves the name: that is virtue. But then what is virtue if not the free choice of what is good?
— Alexis de Tocqueville

The practical reason for freedom, then, is that freedom seems to be the only condition under which any kind of substantial moral fibre can be developed.
–Albert Jay Nock

Simplicity and truth of character are not produced by the constraint of laws, nor by the authority of the state, and absolutely no one can be forced or legislated into a state of blessedness; the means required are faithful and brotherly admonition, sound education, and, above all, free use of the individual judgment.
— Benedict de Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus

Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like.
— Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, Question 96, Second Article

Cross-posted at The Libertarian Standard.

  1. It doesn’t help interpretation that Callahan started this sentence in the title of his post. 

  2. The presence of the term ‘legitimately’ here but not elsewhere in the post should not be taken to imply I am making a different claim here. I add it here in a definition for greater clarity. 

  3. It’s not an axiom. 

  4. Most fundamentally, the life, liberty, and property triad. Of the three, I think liberty is the most fundamental (at least at the individual level of analysis, from the perspective of moral theory; at the structural level of analysis, that of political and legal theory, the right to property may be the most fundamental; rights cannot be fully understood exclusively from either perspective, but rather must be conceived from a dialectical perspective that encompasses both as well as the cultural level (see Chris Sciabarra’s Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism for more on these three levels of dialectical analysis, which I adapted to conceptualizing rights chapter 3 of my dissertation) ) but it cannot be exercised or properly understood without the right to private property. 

  5. In chapters 6 and 7 of my dissertation, I deny that this is truly the political sphere. I conceive of genuine, immanent politics as discourse and deliberation between equals in joint pursuit of eudaimonia (flourishing, well-being). By ‘equals’ I mean ‘equality in authority’ as in Locke’s state of nature, though I do not conceive of ‘nature’ in Lockean, social-contract theory terms but rather in Aristotelian terms, i.e., of teleological completeness or perfection. In short, politics presupposes liberty. Hence, the term ‘vulgar politics’ (or vicarious politics) used as a category on this site as a synonym for statist “politics.” 

  6. Yes, I know these thinkers were not libertarian. But seen in the proper light philosophically, free of the contradictory ideas held by those who wrote them, these statements present truth. Accurate textual exegesis has its place but is another matter, one we are not concerned with here. 

Geoffrey is an Aristotelian-Libertarian political philosopher, writer, editor, and web designer. He is the founder of the Libertarian Fiction Authors Association. His academic work has appeared in Libertarian Papers, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, the Journal of Value Inquiry, and Transformers and Philosophy. He lives in Greenville, NC.

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  • Geoffrey Allan Plauché Jun 24, 2011 @ 18:37

    Good old, poor misunderstood Gene is up to his old antics again.

    In his most recent reply on his blog to this post (I’ll get to the other one later), Gene Callahan drops the context of his original post and my reply (above) in which he vaguely or sloppily (you decide) claimed that libertarian political theory (not just certain libertarians) deny that we have obligations to others (he didn’t qualify the term).

    That prompted the post above in which I tease out the various possible meanings of Gene’s post and point out that libertarian political theory only rejects unchosen positive legal obligations while it does not necessarily rule out chosen positive legal obligations or positive nonlegal obligations (chosen or unchosen).

    As is his wont, Gene took great offense at what he perceived to be my attempt to make him look stupid for his either intentional equivocation or incredible sloppiness.

    In his most recent post, he attempts to cast me in a negative light (again) and retcon his original post. He crows triumphantly at having found a quote from Murray Rothbard that, he implies, vindicates his original position. Here is that quote:

    “In the free society, no man may be saddled with the legal obligation to do anything for another, since that would invade the former’s rights; the only legal obligation one man has to another is to respect the other man’s rights.” — Murray Rothbard, Ethics of Liberty

    But note that here Rothbard is writing about unchosen positive legal obligations, yet earlier in Gene’s post he writes:

    My Libertarian Strawman Has a Firstname…
    it’s ‘M’ ‘u’ ‘r’ ‘r’ ‘a’ ‘y’. My libertarian strawman has a surname…

    When I posted this [it’s not entirely clear to what “this” is referring; Rothbard was not mentioned at all in his original post] about positive obligations [emphasis added], several libertarian commentators could not imagine what in the world I was talking about. My suggestion was ‘absurd’ to one commentator [Gene links here], but at least another was merely puzzled. These guys really know libertarian theory, so I must be wrong. Where in the world would I have gotten such a strange idea?

    Positive obligations simpliciter — Gene is once again either engaging in deliberate equivocation or being incredibly sloppy (you decide). He’s also being disingenuous with the “absurd” and “straw man” references.

    What I wrote in the above post was that the plain language of Callahan’s original post, which stated that libertarian political theory rejects obligations simpliciter, was absurd. I then went on to, as I said, tease out other possible meanings for Callahan’s post. And I never wrote that Gene was attacing a straw man in claiming that libertarian political theory rejects unchosen positive legal obligations; in fact, I agreed that it does! What I called a straw man was the idea that libertarians (need to) deny unchosen nonlegal positive obligations.

    Given Gene’s context-dropping in his latest post, the reader not familiar with his original post might think his original point, poorly expressed though it was, was limited to proving that Murray Rothbard rejects unchosen positive legal obligations when in fact he ascribed this position to libertarian political theory in toto. It doesn’t take a logician to see that his rediscovery of the Rothbard quote above does not in and of itself say anything about libertarian political theory in toto.

    In any case, as poor “misunderstood” Gene helpfully clarified in that other response to the above post, what he really meant by the unqualified term “obligation,” and therefore presumably now means by “positive obligation,” is unchosen positive legal obligation. As I’ve noted repeatedly, he is right that libertarian political theory rejects this species of obligation. He really needs to clean up his act, however, and stop implying (deliberately or out of sloppiness) that libertarian political theory necessarily rejects positive obligations simpliciter. It doesn’t.

    Gene thinks that the libertarian rejection of unchosen positive legal obligations is obviously absurd, so obviously in fact that he has merely to give a carefully crafted hypothetical scenario and repeat lines like “You bet you do” and “You bet you should,” to prove how absurd it is. Unfortunately, Gene displays great ignorance of libertarian literature in this argument and, as is his wont, makes no attempt whatsoever to treat the libertarian position charitably and in a scholarly manner.

    One could point out various problems with his hypo, his lack of specificity with regard to the laws he thinks we need and how they would be enforced, that libertarians have reason to reject his proposal on the grounds of the dangers and evils of a surveillance-police state even apart from their rejection of unchosen positive legal obligations, and that such obligations and their accompanying laws are unnecessary to deal with his hypothetical scenario, that there are other options, such as private property guest/customer usage rules, HOAs and restrictive covenant communities, boycotting, and ostracism, for dealing with anti-social people whether they break laws or not, and so on. But what would be the point? Gene doesn’t seem to care about the truth; he only seems to care about smearing libertarians and undermining libertarianism by any means necessary.

  • Geoffrey Allan Plauché Jul 25, 2011 @ 15:18

    So Gene continues to mischaracterize me and other libertarians, this time writing:

    My Strawman Has Another Firstname, It’s ‘W’ ‘A’ ‘L’ ‘T’ ‘E’ ‘R’…

    and the last name is Block. Right in the first paragraph, what does Dr. Block say? “In [libertarianism], there are only negative obligations.”

    Damn that Block and his hatred of libertarians, always setting up “strawmen” to try to “smear” their good name!

    If you read my original post above, you’ll see, Gene’s suggestions to the contrary, that I never claimed he was setting up a straw man with which to smear libertarians by pointing out that in libertarianism there are only negative obligations.

    Gene’s original claim, remember, though he himself seems to have conveniently forgotten, was that libertarianism rejects obligations. Yes, that’s right, obligations simpliciter; and libertarianism, not just certain libertarians. Gene was sloppy and has been taking it out on me ever since for pointing that out.

    Moreover, there is a world of difference between the claim that in libertarianism there are only negative obligations and the claim that libertarianism rejects certain types of obligations. Being a political philosophy, libertarianism can very well include only enforceable negative obligations without rejecting, for example, (chosen or unchosen) nonenforceable negative and positive obligations. Whether it rejects chosen enforceable positive obligations (say, created by contract or producing a child) is a matter of debate among libertarians.

    What Walter Block meant by that line Gene quoted falls along similar lines with what I wrote in my post above. He’s saying that libertarianism is a political philosophy that rejects enforceable positive obligations — whether he limits that rejection to unchosen, as I would, or includes chosen as well, I don’t know — and says nothing about nonenforceable obligations. It’s concern is with enforceable negative obligations, namely, obligations to respect the life, liberty, and property of others, i.e., matters of political justice, not the whole of ethics.

    Now, Walter Block is a rather thin libertarian with whom I and many others have disagreements. He’s not always as precise, nuanced, and dialectical as I would like. But do I really need to explain to Gene the fallacy he is committing by cherrypicking a libertarian theorist or two and imputing their beliefs to libertarianism as a whole? Because, remember, Gene originally made a very vague claim about libertarianism as such, not about Rothbard or Block in particular. But then, he almost seems to have forgotten that this is what he did.