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Saturday, February 15, 2020

Utility of Liberty

In The Largest Study Ever of Libertarian Psychology, Jonathan Haidt et al note that besides the two moral foundations which drive liberals (harm/care, fairness/reciprocity), and the three additional ones concerning conservatives (ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity), libertarians are uniquely more concerned with a sixth moral foundation of "liberty".

They don't give much consideration to the big picture whys of this. How does liberty compare and contrast to the other moral foundations? Why do some have an innate sense of liberty in the same way that others have an innate sense of fairness? The full article includes the gem "if liberty is included as a moral value, libertarians are not amoral." If?

Evolution has given us fairness because fairness works out better for everyone in practice. There is always a tug of war between one's self interest and one's innate (or reasoned) sense of fairness, and this balance may strike differently from one to the next (and this variation continues to be selected for over time).

But the same is true of liberty, aka autonomy of choice. In the paper, they note that "autonomy is posited to be a universal basic human psychological need" and elsewhere "respecting the autonomy of others may be seen as a way to promote the welfare of individuals", both with accompanying references that are not super elaborative on those points. They seem... vague on just why this liberty thing actually matters.

Liberty/autonomy is a real, utilitarian virtue. It is a foundation of evolution--the freedom to vary from the mean, to explore, to gamble on the unknown, or to pursue a unique insight. It is the side of the equation that acknowledges that local decisions can be more tailored to local circumstance than centralized ones, that an individual knows the fine details of their own life and associated risks better than any outsider. This is in contrast to the authoritarian view that the king, the expert, the committee, or the regulator knows best because they have more wisdom, access, or intelligence than the individuals they control. Both are true in times and ways, but for many (most?) things the wisdom accumulated at the top is quickly outweighed by the circumstantial details lost in the process. It makes sense for the center to control the whole, but not the parts; and the latter is the reason for liberty. Whether we dare to let people decide for themselves, that is the liberty/authoritarian axis. And this is quite orthogonal to the usual liberal/conservative axis.

The paper vaguely leaves the flavor that libertarians are defined (for better or worse) by being cold and rational, and in particular unaffiliative. But I think they are missing the bigger picture: that libertarians' respect for liberty is precisely an affiliative emotion, in the same way that fairness is. They do want to affiliate with you--the free you, the best you, the real you, not the version of you that is subservient to some tribe or rule. Libertarians are not anti-social, they are anti-social-pressure, which is easy to misconstrue in a questionnaire.

Now if only we could get liberals and conservatives to appreciate liberty in the same way that they appreciate fairness, because both sides are frighteningly authoritarian today. A world with no liberty is as bad as a world with no fairness.

Whatever happened to live and let live?

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Simon Funk / simonfunk@gmail.com