The common separation between theory and practice is an artificial and fallacious one. But this is true in ethics as well as anything else. If an ethical ideal is inherently “impractical,” that is, if it cannot work in practice, then it is a poor ideal and should be discarded forthwith.
For background, see here and here. The discussion regards classical liberalism / libertarianism: is the “ethical ideal” sufficient to “work” in practice.
So, working from Rothbard: I will not accept a separation between theory and practice; if an ethical theory cannot work in practice, it is a poor theory that should be discarded…
…well, I won’t be as unkind as Rothbard. Maybe the ethical theory just needs some modification.
Ethics: A set of principles of right conduct. A theory or a system of moral values.
What is the definition of an ethical theory? Answered by Kevin Browne, 20 years of teaching experience in ethics and moral philosophy:
Ethics can be understood as the method for justifying these [moral] beliefs [of right and wrong] and the set of rules which guide us in applying them.
We can think of ethical theory as a decision model. The critical element in morality is the need to make decisions regarding fairly difficult issues. What we need is a well reasoned method for taking the facts and making the best decision we can in terms of our moral principles. This often involves the process of judgment.
Judgment? On what basis are we to judge the facts and come to a just conclusion? Browne makes a noteworthy statement not in reply to this question, although he does answer it:
Ethics and Morality: These two terms are often thought of and used synonymously. This is not entirely correct but there are similarities inasmuch as both words have their origin in common. One is the Greek and the other is the Latin word for “custom.”
Is this so? Ethics and morality both are rooted in the word “custom”?
Ethics: The term ethics derives from Ancient Greek ἠθικός (ethikos), from ἦθος (ethos), meaning 'habit, custom'.
Morality: (from Latin: mōrālis, lit. 'manner, character, proper behavior') is the differentiation of intentions, decisions and actions between those that are distinguished as proper and those that are improper.
This doesn’t clarify enough. Let’s look up the Latin:
Mōrālis: From mos (“manner, custom, way; law”). First used by Cicero, to translate Ancient Greek ἠθικός (ēthikós, “moral”).
So, returning to Rothbard: for libertarianism to be considered an “ethical ideal,” it seems to me one must discuss something about the custom behind the ethic. Further, perhaps this “custom” must be incorporated into the ethical ideal.
But Isn’t the NAP Enough “Custom”?
I have heard it said: as long as someone accepts the NAP, I really don’t care about their other customary and traditional practices. But is this sufficient?
Consider the debates even between well-meaning libertarians: immigration and abortion come to mind. Each side believes it is properly applying the non-aggression principle to the issue.
Or consider any “continuum” problem. What is the proper punishment for a crime? How much land must be mixed with labor before one can claim to “own” the land?
How would such things get worked out if all that the participants shared was the non-aggression principle? No other means by which to come to an answer?
The answer is, they wouldn’t get worked out – at least not peacefully.
Or what about my favorite? The front-yard sex-orgy guy moves into a community of church-going families. Sure, they all accept the NAP, but maybe they “accept” some things even more.
Perhaps we need something more than “don’t hit first” if we desire the theoretical ethical ideal of libertarianism to find its way into practice. Perhaps we need to find the proper custom.
My view? I will not belabor it here as you all have heard it a few hundred times already: the old and good law – custom, tradition. It is what people grow up with, what they are trained with, what they understand about how things work around here. Mixed with Christian ethics, it gave the west the longest sustained libertarian-approaching society during the Middle Ages.
And…and…and…such a thing didn’t spring forward in any other society influenced by any other tradition. Certainly not for any sustained period of time.
The thing is, others have touched on this before I have – bigger names. Hans Hoppe need not even be mentioned – his shadow looms large over this topic. But also Mises, as offered by Joe Salerno:
For Mises, liberalism first emerged and expressed itself in the nineteenth century as a political movement in the form of “peaceful nationalism.” Its two fundamental principles were freedom or, more concretely, “the right of self-determination of peoples” and national unity or the “nationality principle.” The two principles were indissolubly linked.
Liberalism (the forerunner to libertarianism) cannot be separated from the nationality principle (which I think Mises linked specifically to language – and, if so, I think he didn’t go far enough).
Rothbard took this idea further:
Contemporary libertarians often assume, mistakenly, that individuals are bound to each other only by the nexus of market exchange. They forget that everyone is necessarily born into a family, a language, and a culture. Every person is born into one of several overlapping communities, usually including an ethnic group, with specific values, cultures, religious beliefs, and traditions. . . .
And these “specific values, cultures, religious beliefs, and traditions” fill in the blank spaces where the non-aggression principle cannot reach – because the non-aggression principle is not designed to reach these; it doesn’t have answers to many questions of “judgment.”
So, perhaps if we want to bring forward this ethical ideal of non-aggression into practice, perhaps we should take up the task of giving it the capability to do so.
From A Texas Libertarian:
Maybe we need someone to bridge the gap between politics and culture, to define praxeologically what culture is required to support liberty. Hoppe has already blazed a trail in this regard as well (ever the bridge builder), but I think there is further to go in placing the perfect libertarian theory securely onto the imperfect foundation of reality below.
Maybe it won't be a giant of liberty like Hoppe who does this. Maybe it will be lowly mosquitoes like us.
I guess this means you, ATL. This idea overwhelms me. Hoppe spent his entire career in training for this. I already have a day job, and my education couldn’t have prepared me less for such a task. To give some idea of how overwhelmed I feel regarding this, in my lifetime I will not understand this topic even to the point where Hoppe has already brought the discussion.
But yes, maybe someone needs to do this.