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The Moral Foundations of Modern Libertarianism

Randy E. Barnett

Georgetown University Law Center

VARIETIES OF CONSERVATISM IN AMERICA, Peter Berkowitz, ed., Hoover Press, 2004

Libertarians no longer argue, as they once did in the 1970s, about whether libertarianism must be grounded on moral rights or on consequences; they no longer act as though they must choose between these two moral views. In this paper, I contend that libertarians need not choose between moral rights and consequences because theirs is a political, not a moral, philosophy, one that can be shown to be compatible with various moral theories, which is one source of its appeal.

Moral theories based on either moral rights or on consequentialism purport to be comprehensive, insofar as they apply to all moral questions to the exclusion of all other moral theories. Although the acceptance of one of these moral theories entails the rejection of all others, libertarian moral rights philosophers on the one hand, and utilitarians on the other, can embrace libertarian political theory with equal fervor. I explain how can this be and why it is a strength rather than a weakness of libertarian political theory.

Conservatives, neoconservatives, and those on the left who seek to impose by force their comprehensive conception of the good neglect the problem of power - an exacerbated instance of the twin fundamental social problems of knowledge and interest. For a comprehensive moralist of the right or left, using force to impose their morality on others might be their first choice among social arrangements. Having another's comprehensive morality imposed upon them by force is their last choice. The libertarian minimalist approach of enforcing only the natural rights that define justice should be everyone's second choice. A compromise, as it were, that makes civil society possible. And therein lies its imperative.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 21

Keywords: libertarianism, jurisprudence, political theory, moral theory

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Date posted: August 10, 2004  

Suggested Citation

Barnett, Randy E., The Moral Foundations of Modern Libertarianism. VARIETIES OF CONSERVATISM IN AMERICA, Peter Berkowitz, ed., Hoover Press, 2004. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=565202

Contact Information

Randy E. Barnett (Contact Author)
Georgetown University Law Center ( email )
600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
202-662-9936 (Phone)
HOME PAGE: http://www.randybarnett.com
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