Libertarian Ethics

Revised February 12, 2003

For the distinctions between Philosophical Libertarians, Neo-Liberals or Economic Conservatives, Civil Libertarians, and Anarcho-Libertarians, see the first section of The Limits of Libertarianism. The discussion here concerns what I there call Philosophical Libertarianism.

Libertarianism holds that the basic moral concepts are individual human rights (although it is not the only kind of rights-based theory) and that the rights to be respected are NONINTERFERENCE rights. These generally fall under the heading of rights to life, to liberty or to property. For libertarianism, the only proper limit to one person's enjoyment of these rights is his or her duty to respect the similar rights of others.

A (moral, human) right is a being's legitimate claim on the conduct of others, implying that others have a duty to behave towards him or her in certain ways.

A negative or noninterference right is a being's legitimate claim that others not interfere with him or her in a certain way. A positive or "welfare" right is a being's legitimate claim that others--possibly government or society as a whole --provide him or her with something which he or she needs. (This distinction has been challenged in recent philosophical work on human rights, but for the purposes of this introductory essay, let us assume, as most libertarians do, that it makes sense.)

Unlike many liberals and democratic socialists, libertarians reject all positive rights. They do not believe that persons in need have any right to assistance unless they have made contractual arrangements in advance for that assistance, e.g., they have bought insurance. The right to liberty provides a strong defense of the right to make such contractual arrangements if a contract-partner can be found. (Libertarians hold that once contracts are voluntarily made, the contracting partners have a strong moral duty to keep them.)

The noninterference right to life is a right not to be killed or injured, not a right to receive food or even the means to produce food or the opportunity to work for wages. The noninterference right to liberty is a right not to be kidnaped or enslaved or prevented from mutually agreed-upon activities which do not harm third persons. The noninterference right to property is a right not to have one's legitimately acquired possessions stolen or degraded by the deliberate or negligent actions of others; it is not a right to be given possessions or resources so that one can avoid poverty or starvation.

Acquiring rights to particular possessions under libertarian theory: Libertarians affirm a strong non-interference right to property over possessions that persons acquire by voluntary transfer from other persons, provided that the earlier possessor was the legitimate owner of the possession . But if A's possession X comes from B, and B's possession came from C, and C's from D, etc., there must be a point at which somebody was able to acquire a right to possess X without receiving it from somebody else. The standard answer to this problem (found classically in John Locke's Second Treatise of Government) is that the original legitimate owner created the possession by mixing his labor with natural objects not belonging to anybody in particular. Analogously, today we can increase the value of our own possessions by working on them ourselves so that if we sell them at a price greater than we paid for them in the first place, we have a right to that increase produced through our own labor.

Libertarianism and Government. Libertarians hold that justifiable legal rights of citizens and the duties of government derive from the basic non-interference (moral) rights of citizens. Governments are properly instituted to protect these non-interference rights. Legal rights not to be killed, not to be kidnapped, and not to have one's (rightly acquired) possessions stolen are thus justified by our moral rights. Corresponding to the legal right not to be killed is the duty of the government to restrain potential murderers or to arrest and prosecute alleged murderers. Governments have derivative positive (legal) duties to protect us, duties that ultimately rest upon our basic non-interference (moral) rights, even though there are no basic positive (moral) rights. (This paragraph added 3/26/02.)

For further discussion of Libertarianism see The Limits of Libertarianism.

For alternate views of rights see