Puritans and Libertarians

by Benjamin Studebaker

Within the hallowed halls of academia, there is a terrific and vibrant discussion about ethics and morality, about how we should conduct our lives and what the best way to live a good life is. There are utilitarians, contracturalists, rights theorists, all kinds of fun thoughts flitting about. However, amongst the wider population, this great conversation fails to penetrate. Among the wider population, the moral debate is a mere shadow of what goes on at the universities. Increasingly I observe a contest among young people in the public sphere between two equally simplistic, poor moral conceptions–the puritanical ideology, which is under decay, and the libertarian ideology, which is on the rise.

In the United States, we increasingly run across the phenomenon of the “college libertarian”. There are numerous associated traits and views that go along with the moniker:

  • Support for Ron Paul, Rand Paul, Gary Johnson, or similar.
  • Proponents of drug legalisation and/or a lower drinking age–sometimes no drinking age at all.
  • Proponents of LGBT equality.
  • Scepticism of/opposition to traditional religion.
  • The tendency to live the “college lifestyle”–high sexual activity, partying/clubbing, frequent use of drugs and/or alcohol, joining of stereotypical fraternities/sororities.
  • Engages in unusual amounts of internships/work experience/CV stuffing in order to get an advantage over other students.
  • Desires a high-paying job and to keep most of the income earned thereby–puts self before state.

Juxtaposed against this, we have the traditional puritan ideology, which still maintains adherents in the youth population:

  • Support for Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, or similar.
  • Proponents of the war on drugs and/or a higher drinking age–sometimes prohibition.
  • Opponents of LGBT equality.
  • Adherence to traditional religion.
  • The tendency to oppose the “college lifestyle”.
  • Engages in charitable activities/community activism.
  • Desires to live a godly life–puts god before state.

This is quite different from the spread in say, the 60’s, in which an economically centrist and socially conservative ruling ethos was challenged by the hippie ethos. Hippies were communal–they wanted to share everything. The college libertarian has no interest in sharing; he is a self-seeker. The traditional ethos in the 60’s was also more state-centric. This was the post-war period, the era of FDR, Truman, Ike, JFK, LBJ, and Nixon. These people believed in a much bigger and stronger central government than does the modern ruling class. Compared with the culture war of the 60’s, the culture war of today leaves the state out of the picture entirely. The state is relegated far down the priority list. For the puritans, the local church community is central. For the libertarians, only they themselves or those they consider useful or enjoyable have value. Neither has a wide societal concern for the political community as a whole.

Don’t mistake my meaning–the libertarians genuinely desire for equality for LGBTs, but it’s for ultimately self-focused reasons. Libertarians have a phobia of coercion, of the notion that any group or community has any moral claim upon them, and this hatred of power causes them to see themselves in those who are under its yoke. They mock the notion of “community” or “society” as false or illusory. They reject the church because its concern for others entails subjugating oneself to the good of others, and this they resent being made to do. For the same reason, they attack the state and social welfare programmes. They resent being made to be helpful to others. One such example might be the character “Littlefinger” from Game of Thrones, who makes the following stand for the libertarian ethos:

Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb, but they refuse. They cling to the realm or the gods or love, illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.

At its heart, libertarianism is a nihilist ideology–humanity, society, nationality, community, all of these things are deemed illusory. All that matters to the libertarian is his own life and his ability to enjoy it in whatever way seems fit to him subjectively. So all he cares about, correspondingly, is being left alone by others and permitted to pursue whatever he deems pleasurable, regardless of the effect that might have socially. The libertarian claims to be about freedom, but what he is really about is tyranny, of the self-interest over the social interest.

There are many policies that the libertarian subscribes to that have merit, but they have merit for different reasons–we should consider say, drug legalisation not because drugs are harmless fun about which no one should make laws (they are often far from harmless; they reduce our productive efficiency and can be addictive) but because prohibition is an ineffective means of reducing the incidence of their use and its negative impacts. We should grant LGBTs equality not because society has nothing to say about what goes on in the bedroom but because doing so improves the lives of LGBTs far more than it harms those who dislike homosexuality.

For the libertarian, all of these moral questions are reduced to “what gives me the greatest hypothetical freedom from moral obligations to others”, a socially destructive thought, and one which is a gross oversimplification of the complexity of moral questions.

The puritan view is no better, as it seeks the inverse outcome, assimilation. The puritans want everyone to be like them purely because different behaviours make them uncomfortable. Their religious views give them a communal moral focus, however, so this impulse of theirs must be otherwise justified. The opposition to LGBT equality must be couched in terms that emphasise the interest of LGBT people themselves–by opposing LGBT equality, the puritans can see themselves as attempting to “save” homosexuals from hell. They also hope to discourage the spread of the libertarian ethos as a whole, which they frequently mislabel the “secular culture”. There are many secular philosophies that do not entail the behaviours and attitudes puritans find so repulsive, but they often do not see a distinction. Ultimately, the puritans come to believe that the central flaw in libertarianism is its ungodliness, the secularism itself. This is not so–the libertarians are instead crippled by hyper-individualism at the expense of all other moral concerns or obligations. This does to some degree derive from ungodliness, but not in the way that puritans perceive it.

Libertarians combine a rejection of god with a belief that objective morality can only exist with god. For them, rejecting god entails rejecting morality. Interestingly, the puritans agree with them on this–they just decline to reject god in the first place. Both have made the grave mistake of assuming the truth of the causal dependence hypothesis (CD), which I talked about the other day. Both ethoses wrongly link morality to metaphysics, leading both in mirroring wrong directions. It is entirely possible to be a secularist who rejects the causal dependence hypothesis, who believes that morality matters independently of the god question. Most modern moral philosophy is secular, but it also considers itself a candidate for objective moral truth. The obligations moral philosophers find tie us to society and to each other without necessarily tying us to a religion or to a deity. This reintroduces the prospect of libertarians seeing their autonomy diminished for the benefit of others, something which they fear more than anything else. While they often claim Mill, Mill’s harm principle is their undoing–it is permissible to coerce others so as to prevent them from doing harm to others.

The defence of libertarians and puritans against a secular moral philosophy that carries with it obligations to others that are disagreeable to them? Democracy. Academic philosophers fail to penetrate the public consciousness with their bizarre and complex moral theories. The simplicity of the causal dependence hypothesis, of linking god and morality, either accepting both in a pre-conceived way or rejecting both altogether, is more appealing to the casual person–even the average college graduate. Insofar as we remain democratic, penetration of complex or sophisticated moral views among the wider population is likely to remain limited, at great cost to us all.