In my view, the questions moral philosophers grapple with are as interesting and important to libertarianism as those posed by political philosophers. As an advocate for a free society in which people themselves are the moral arbiters rather than government, I believe it is my responsibility to think long and hard about the moral rules I adopt to guide my behavior. The underlying assumption of libertarianism is that people have the ability to act civilly without having a gun pointed at their heads but we must back up this assumption if we want our political philosophy to be taken seriously. Each of us has to set an example by being able to articulate, defend, and advocate for our own moral principles of social interaction, not so that we can force everyone to follow one conception of morality, but to ensure that we are all thinking critically about the principles that we live by and to prove that the libertarian ideal is possible. Libertarians are generally pretty good at explaining how strangers would interact in a free society, but we rarely consider how our relationships with the people we love influence our choices, economic and otherwise, which affect the rest of society in a myriad of ways, good and bad. As individuals with only so much time, attention, and money to devote to others, we must balance competing motivations when coordinating with other people. Love is a powerful motivation and just as important as the standard self-interest that guides our interactions with strangers.
Therefore, in honor of Valentine’s Day, I’m going to discuss how some of the moral philosophical traditions that have had a significant impact on libertarianism have dealt with love, the currency that most affects interactions between intimates. Namely, I am going to focus on John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, Immanuel Kant’s deontology, John Rawls’ contractarianism, and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. I am going to consider possible responses each philosopher would have to a classic thought experiment of moral philosophy. My ultimate assessment of the above-mentioned schools of normative ethics is that none except Objectivism has successfully integrated a meaningful conception of love into their philosophy.
Here is the classic thought experiment: imagine two adults are drowning in a pool. One is a stranger to you and the other is a loved one (a friend, a family member, or a romantic partner). You are the only person around and if you don’t take immediate action, both people will die. However, you only have time to save one of them. Who should you save? Just about everyone will have the impulse to save the person they love, but let us go through the different schools of thought to see what the philosophers might say.
Many libertarians such as David Friedman invoke some form of John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism or consequentialism by arguing that a free society maximizes happiness and minimizes suffering, not just for one person but for most or all people. One of the main problem with utilitarianism is illustrated by this thought experiment: you do not have all of the relevant information necessary to determine which person you should save because you don’t know (and cannot know) which person would provide the most utility to the world. Utilitarians often try to get around this problem by advocating “rule utilitarianism” which claims that there are general rules people can follow that tend to maximize utility, such as “don’t kill” or “don’t steal.” However, in the extreme circumstances of our thought experiment it does not seem that a rule would be very helpful or justified. There doesn’t appear to be any evidence that the rule to always save a person you love over a stranger will maximize utility for all. Thus, utilitarianism fails to provide us with a solution.
Immanuel Kant’s deontological ethics have also been influential to libertarianism through the natural rights approach. Kant argued that consequences are irrelevant to morality and that what really matters is that people act based on a good will motivated by duty. One should do the right thing purely because it is the right thing to do, not because it will make anyone happy or better off. Kant has several ways of determining which actions are inherently good but as they are not widely supported among libertarians, or practical, explaining them is not necessary for this discussion. Suffice it to say that Kant provides us with no definitive solution to the thought experiment, either. While it seems he would say you have a moral duty to save somebody, it is unclear which person you should save. Indeed, it seems plausible that Kant would find the question morally irrelevant.
Contract theories of morality and justice such as constitutionalism and Rawlsian social contract theory are mainly political and have little to say about individual scenarios such as the one put forth in this thought experiment. Some feminist philosophers such as Jean Hampton have argued that contractarian philosophy can depart from tradition and provide a framework for interactive-shaping institutions between intimates. I do not find these arguments convincing and I fail to see how such a philosophical approach could have anything to say about which person one should save in our experiment.
However, I think Hampton is right to criticize moral philosophy in general for focusing on the institutions that govern interactions between strangers while leaving no room or attention for the moral importance of partiality. Many have hypothesized that this is because historically, men have predominated the study of philosophy and that if philosophy done by women were more prevalent, the relevance of intimate relationships for morality and ethics would gain a larger emphasis.
Interestingly, Ayn Rand is one of the only philosophers who I believe has successfully integrated the importance of love into her philosophy. Indeed, she asserts, “Love is the expression of philosophy.” While I myself am not an Objectivist, I have always been surprised by how many people label Objectivism as cold or unfeeling when it is one of the only moral philosophies that even takes love into serious consideration. Objectivism holds that the proper purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of one’s own happiness and rational self-interest. In an interview with Playboy, Rand said that love is an expression of the deepest values in a person’s character. She rejected the notion that love is selfless because that would mean “that you derive no personal pleasure or happiness from the company and the existence of the person you love, and that you are motivated only by self-sacrificial pity.” She argued that it is not self-sacrifice to die for someone or something that you love because “if the value is great enough, you do not care to exist without it.” It seems that for Rand, choosing to save the person you love should be a no-brainer. You might think the issues the thought experiment is getting at are too complicated for straightforward answers, but at least Rand’s philosophy is comprehensive enough to consider the question. Regardless of my opinion of Objectivism, I applaud Rand for recognizing the importance love has for moral philosophy and for her ability to incorporate it into a larger worldview that values individual rights and liberty.