George Molnar. Sydney Libertarianism 1965

Libertarianism and Philosophy

Source: Broadsheet No. 35, January 1965;
Transcribed: by Curtis Price.

Some people are convinced that libertarians hold their beliefs and attitudes on the basis of a particular brand of philosophical empiricism. We are told that it is “as empiricists” that libertarians reject religion, oppose censorship, criticize sexual moralism, and protest against political authority. Such statements, unless they are carefully set in a context which indicates their precise import, are liable to give rise to the following picture: Libertarianism is so tightly bound to John Anderson’s realist philosophy that any substantial deviation from the latter would leave libertarians without any reasons or rational arguments in favor of what they say and do. Without Andersonian fundamentalism libertarians would be intellectually naked. I believe that this picture captures the manner in which some libertarians think of the connection between libertarianism and philosophy, allowing for differences in degrees of clarity and assurance.

From the start this view treats Andersonian empiricism as a philosophy correct in essential respects. For the sake of the argument I shall go along in what follows with this assumption, in order to bring out certain difficulties in this view which remain even if the assumption is granted. Some distinctions need to be made at the outset.. Libertarianism, whatever its connection with philosophy, is not itself just a philosophy. At least four different elements enter into it:

(1) factual and theoretical beliefs, both common sense and scientific, concerning the nature of the world around us (especially the social world);

(2) philosophical beliefs concerning the nature of certain concepts we encounter (especially concepts influential in social life);

(3) certain preferences and values;

(4) actions and activities.

Given these distinctions, the suggestion that libertarianism is “based on” an empiricist philosophy is no longer simple. First we have to ask: how is it based on that philosophy? What, in general, is it for something to be based on a philosophy? And we also have to asks is the connection supposed to be the same for all four aspects of libertarianism or are there any differences?

The question of how some not purely philosophical thing is based on philosophy, is itself partly a philosophical question. The answer to it has to show how philosophy influences other things, and this involves explicating the concept of influence. The position which I take to be defensible here is, roughly, that philosophy can influence in one or both of two ways; causally or by providing reasons. A case of the former is the psychological impact which philosophical views may have on a learner, transforming his outlook and behaviour, perhaps unconsciously and at any rate in ways not logically connected with the content of the views. A case of the second type of influencing is when someone hearing a proposition takes account of it, and modifies his other beliefs in the light of it. Here philosophy exercises an influence by entering the class of things which are deliberately and rationally being considered in the course of thinking. I know of no way of making the distinction transparently clear in a short formula, but, apart from what the examples themselves suggest, the most important difference can be indicated as follows. On any reasonably unmetaphysical view of what it is for one thing to cause another, the influence exerted on a man’s thinking and behaviour is not always a causal influence. For suppose it were otherwise. If a proposition before you were treated as a cause, what would count as its effect? It couldn’t be your acceptance of it (you’d reject it if you thought it false), and it couldn’t be the fact that you are considering it (for you could be hearing or reading a proposition without considering it). Nor could the effect be changes in your other beliefs, because such changes depend not only on the proposition before you, but also on complicated logical judgements you make. Every one of these judgements could be different, and then the changes among your beliefs would be different. Hence the “effect” of a proposition can be different depending on what enters into the consideration. There is, bluntly, nothing which is correlated with the proposition as an effect is correlated with its cause. The premises of Barbara are not the cause of the truth or the acceptance of the conclusion. Between ideas and the changes they occasion in a man’s thinking there is often a logical link of the kind which we know (thanks to Hume) to be non-existent in the relation of cause and effect, We are forced to distinguish between the causal influence of ideas and their rational influence.

It is, I assume, in the second sense of “influence” that empiricism is supposed to be the basic influence on libertarianism. The claim seems to be that without empiricism libertarianism would have no rational basis. Let’s look at this claim as it applies to the four aspects of libertarianism distinguished above. What is it to have a rational basis for action? The quick answer is that actions are rational insofar as they are justified by reference to certain propositions expressing values and preferences. Empiricism can be a rational basis for libertarian actions (4) only by giving reasons for libertarian preferences (3). But this is just what any brand of philosophy is quite incapable of doing. Statements about the rationality of preferences presuppose standards of reference, and these standards are not created or laid down by philosophy. It cannot be a philosophical truth that it is rational (or irrational) to oppose censorship or the State. It is rational for libertarians to oppose the State, but this statement gives no philosophical reason for opposing the State. The philosophy in it merely brings out what is involved in the established sense of “libertarian,” i.e. to have, among other things, anti -authoritarian values. The business of philosophy is not to justify as rational any preferences against, any others. It is at most the function of philosophy to make logically explanatory statements about evaluative concepts which, like the rest of its material, it finds already in existence, outside philosophy.

Nor does empiricism provide a rational basis for the factual or theoretical beliefs of libertarians (1). Like other people libertarians do not usually look to philosophy to supply them with factual information, with experimental or statistical data, or again with hypotheses to explain these. The position is complicated somewhat by the fact that Andersonianism contains extensive elements of sociology and psychology (to name only two) which, together with logical and metaphysical theories, all pass under the name of philosophy. Leaving this aside, however, there is nothing in the pure philosophy of empiricism which can be said to provide a basis for libertarian beliefs as to matters of fact. This is quite natural since philosophy is neither a substitute for the particular sciences, nor itself a supra-science.

So far I have argued: that libertarianism is a complex of four elements; that there are two ways in which ideas in general, including philosophical ideas, can exert influence on, or be the basis of, something; that no philosophy is or can be the rational basis of three out of the four aspects of libertarianism. That leaves the critical element in libertarianism (2), and here we can talk about the place of philosophy. In considering religion, sexual moralism or political authority the student of society is obliged to look at both the actual transactions that go on, and at the concepts which enter into them. Frequently the main role of these concepts is to promote and to justify actual sets of behaviour (“ways of life”) and it is also the case that examination shows these concepts to regularly fail in achieving the intended justification. It is these facts which give libertarians an interest in the philosophical criticism of ideas. Thus, for example, if a particular mode of life is supported by reference to the commands of a divine being, and if philosophical investigation shows that the concept of God is inherently confused, this makes philosophy a proper part of libertarian-type criticism.

Now let us ask: how far do libertarians have to rely for their philosophical purposes on Anderson’s empiricism? If you assume that empiricism is by and large sound philosophy, then its categories and arguments will be sufficient for libertarian criticism. But even on that assumption Andersonianism is not necessary as a basis of libertarian thought. David Hume (an empiricist but hardly an Andersonian) and Bertrand Russell (an atomist) were both dedicated opponents of theism. Free-thought in its traditional sense is older than, and logically independent of, the teachings of Sydney realism. There is no reason to suppose that logical positivism, for example, or existentialism, can provide no alternate basis for the rejection of moralism. One could be quite ignorant of Anderson’s work and yet learn a thoroughgoing pluralism from A.F. Bentley (a pragmatist), just as one could see through the philanthropic ethic by studying, say, Mosca, Veblen, or Schumpeter. The reader will have no trouble in extending the range of examples. A bare acquaintance with what has been thought outside the narrow confines of the Andersonian school and its few favored sources, will soon convince anybody that it is possible to have libertarian social views without accepting the logic of four forms, the dichotomy quality relation, or many of the other distinctive Andersonian tenets. My main point is that there is no necessary (logical) connection between empiricist philosophy and libertarian social criticism. The latter involves philosophy, and for some people this happens to Andersonian philosophy, but it needs not be. The belief to the contrary is an error, the question is how to account for the error.

Here I can only hint at an answer. The origin of the myth that Realism and libertarianism are monogamously wedded lies in the historical accident that most libertarians first learned philosophy from John Anderson, They drew their inspiration, including much of their libertarian inspiration, from him; they acquired such appreciation as they have of the importance of objectivity and ratiocination from his teaching. Consequently it was easy for them to believe (mistakenly I maintain) that it is only by being Andersonians in philosophy that they could be libertarians in politics. The confusion was aided by the fact, already alluded to, that what Anderson called philosophy included a lot of social theory. Anderson himself thought that his social theory was part and parcel of his philosophy, and when libertarians adopted some of the former, much of the latter got dragged along. In terms of the distinction made earlier we can say that the really substantial influence of Andersonian philosophy proper on libertarianism is causal (historical), not logical. The significant thing is the psychological and “moral” impact of realist philosophy on individual libertarians. This, of course, is not itself philosophical but educational. The idea that everything is an occurrence in space and time is not a reason, or part of a reason, for libertarian thought and behaviour, although the presentation of such an idea to certain people had a bearing on their eventually taking up libertarianism.

Where are we now? The claim that libertarianism is based on an empiricist philosophy was seen in the first place to have application only to one aspect of libertarianism, and here the most that could be said is that Andersonianism is sufficient but not necessary for libertarian purposes. Furthermore, I have suggested that empiricist philosophy is not so much a source of reasons or logical grounds for libertarian thoughts, but rather a cause of certain people turning in a libertarian direction. The claim that libertarianism is based on empiricism can be supported, at best, only in the very weak sense that some libertarians use methods and arguments which they have learnt from Anderson. I should say that this constitutes no philosophical reason why one who rejects Realist metaphysics cannot be a libertarian.