Friday, January 25, 2019


I read Feser's description of his journey in and out of Libertarianism. Sounds like his beliefs have quite a bit of overlap with yours BM. Sounds like he has thought pretty deeply about these issues too. Not sure I agree with him 100% but he raises some good points about the NAP not being enough.

You know, I wasn’t really looking to understand Feser’s views on libertarianism, and then RMB poked me right where it counts.  It is difficult to let stand “Sounds like his beliefs have quite a bit of overlap with yours BM.”  True or not, it must be addressed, such that nothing is left to the imagination of the ne’er-do-wells among us.

What do I mean by this?  Am I pointing to RMB as a ne’er-do-well?  Not at all; I stand in awe of his ability to so easily find my weak spot and prod me to action.  No, my concern regards those who might paint me with a Feserian brush where none is deserved.  So, call this post a proactive defense. 

Be warned, this is a long post.  Also, keep in mind that for me the idea of libertarianism is a philosophy that supports liberty – hence, perhaps, something more than the non-aggression principle is necessary.

As the term libertarianism can mean many things to many people, it is worth understanding what Feser means:

For me (and for at least many libertarians) libertarianism is merely a view about the proper bounds of state power, and not a general social, cultural, or moral philosophy.

Given this description, it seems that Feser’s move away from libertarian could mean his move toward the use of state power.  As I find myself in agreement with much of what he has written on the topic of natural law and morality – and in my case, at least, how these are supportive of liberty – it will be an unfortunate turn of events if at the end of Feser’s road one is to find the state.

He gives a hint of this with the following:

A libertarian could say, for example, that using cocaine for recreational purposes is morally wrong but should not be illegal.  And that is the sort of thing I would have said in my libertarian days.

I suspect the portion of the statement on which his view has changed is the “not be illegal” part, as I don’t believe Feser would now consider cocaine use morally right.  To reinforce this, Feser offers that while he was once committed to a view “in favor of private initiative and against government action.”

I have been committed to it ever since, even though I no longer take the latter component to the extremes a libertarian would.

A little “government action” is OK.

Nozick and Hayek were in any event the biggest influences on my thinking, with Rothbard a secondary influence.  Rand was never a big influence, though like most libertarians I had a general regard for her.

Feser begins with a history of his political-philosophical background and how he came to libertarianism; he would have at one time described himself as a libertarian-conservative (he would now describe himself as a “free-market conservative” or “limited government conservative”).  I will begin this examination only from the point of his rejecting libertarianism.

But immediately upon reaching this [libertarian] climax, the arguments started slowly to unravel.

At the core of his libertarian thinking was the idea of self-ownership.

In particular, I thought the conception of natural rights embodied in the thesis of self-ownership -- which I took to be independently plausible and which was the very heart of my own libertarianism -- fit in naturally with the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) natural law approach to ethics that had become my settled view by the early 2000s. 

I was dead wrong.

It should be kept in mind, it is the idea of self-ownership that he is rejecting; as his libertarianism is built on this foundation, he then rejects libertarianism.  However, it seems plausible to me that one can reject this particular foundation without rejecting the house built upon it; just as we have seen that many libertarians have as their foundation individualism, yet this foundation also proves rather indefensible if liberty is the objective.  Perhaps one just needs a stronger foundation.  This, after all, has been the project I have stumbled upon.

But I should be clear: the house I am after building is liberty, not libertarianism.  Libertarianism may not be sufficient for liberty, yet one cannot reject libertarianism without also rejecting liberty.  Let’s say libertarianism (as it is currently understood) is a necessary but insufficient foundation for liberty.

…we cannot plausibly be said to own ourselves in a substantive way if the right to self-ownership protects us only “from the skin inward” and says nothing about whether we may bring our powers to bear on the world. 

Two castaways on an island.  While you sleep, your mate builds a fence around you, claiming the remainder of the island for himself.  He has not touched you.  Now what?  I know some libertarians will say that the action of the mate is not allowed – not enough mixing of labor with land.  But who is to say “not enough”?  How much is enough?  On what basis? 

The NAP offers no answer.  Where Feser finds no answer – therefore rejecting libertarianism – I look for an answer to better build a foundation for libertarianism and liberty.

In any case, your mate has now precluded you from being able to “bring [your] powers to bear on the world.”  Self-ownership, ending at the border of your skin – or in this case, his fence (aka, your prison).

And precisely by doing so I have, you might say, respected the letter but not the spirit of the thesis of self-ownership.

So far, no problem – at least not with me.  I have often raised the point: on matters such as how much mixing of labor with land, custom and tradition will give guidance.  What is property?  Again, custom and tradition.  When does someone reach majority?  Custom and tradition.  Objectively identify aggression?  Again…custom and tradition.  May be a cop-out on my part, but it seems to me the best way by which such difficulties would be adjudicated – via customs and traditions generally accepted by and within the subject population.

In other words, I see no reason to throw out libertarianism based on a conceptual problem not present in the real world, not existent in any meaningful way in history.  I mean by this two things: while I understand the theoretical value in examining the extreme possibilities (two men stuck on an island), I find it difficult to draw sweeping, generalized statements on the validity of the underlying theory based on such examples that don’t present in today’s society; second, in the real world, custom and tradition are capable of governing most of what we would describe as continuum problems – it seems a waste of time to me to try to figure out that which people have already figured out.

So let’s continue, comparing self-ownership with the natural law of Aristotle and Aquinas:

First of all, the A-T ethicist grounds morality in a teleological conception of human nature, and cannot fail to agree with Mack that many of our powers are inherently world-interactive.  In particular, no A-T natural law theorist can fail to agree that our realizing what is good for us, our flourishing as the kinds of beings we are, requires that we be able to bring those powers to bear on the world. 

One can begin to find a can of worms here, even if one fully agrees with this statement.  What does it mean in the real world that for my flourishing I must be able to bring my powers to bear on the world?  I understand the issue in light of the man caged in on the island; what of the man caged in due to the lack of resources.  For want of a nail, his kingdom is lost – therefore we should ensure every man has a nail, horseshoe, and horse?  How?

Secondly, for those A-T theorists who are open to the idea of natural rights, those rights have themselves a teleological foundation.   We have the natural rights we have precisely as a means of safeguarding our ability to flourish as the kinds of beings we are, to pursue what nature has determined is good for us and perfects us.

Certainly on that desert island, it would be good for you to be able to eat; hard to do when your buddy claimed all of the land around you.  But this isn’t enough:

For among our powers and capacities are various moral capacities.

OK, I think; I have raised similar points.  I recall that the words “moral” and “ethics” have etymological roots in the words custom and tradition.  Our moral capabilities include acting in accord with custom and tradition.  This is music to my ears.

And for the Aristotelian, our moral character is initially formed as a matter of acquiring the right habits, in childhood, and only later coming to understand the rationale behind those habits. 

This is a fair observation.

To cause a child to fall into bad moral habits is therefore to damage the distinctively moral powers he owns by virtue of being a self-owner, and thus (given Mack’s self-ownership proviso) arguably to fail to respect his right of self-ownership in a substantive rather than merely formal way. 

Moving into somewhat dangerous territory; it really depends on how the situation will be handled.

But that in turn seemed to entail that at least in principle, certain governmental measures to protect children from moral corruption could be justified on self-ownership grounds!

Why?  What about the church?  Social organizations?  Extended family?  These are all more consistent with natural law than “certain governmental measures”?  “You are raising a bad child.”  Is this really the business of “governmental measures”? 

Well, as you can imagine, Feser took a lot of grief for this position, unjustifiably, as he offers:

[My point] was not to endorse any particular piece of morals legislation, but rather to argue that contrary to what so many libertarians (including my younger self) supposed, shouting “self-ownership” simply does not by itself suffice to rule out certain kinds of morals legislation.

If you think that public “hate speech” corrupts the youth, then you have grounds in self-ownership for curbing public hate speech by law.

It is on this point: self-ownership, given natural law, is not sufficient to rule out morals legislation; as far as he goes on this point, this seems reasonable to me.  In other words, self-ownership does not, by itself, preclude morals legislation – the concept of self-ownership is insufficient if one is to defend libertarianism, let alone liberty.  The issue to Feser is the meaning of the two components of the term: “self,” and “ownership.”

Summarizing an argument from another of his essays (an essay which is any case is behind a wall – so I will merely present his conclusion): what, exactly, is this “self” in self-ownership?  From whatever approach taken – from Cartesian to Aristotelian – the implications will make libertarians uncomfortable:

…we will either end up making most or even all of the body something strictly external to the self, and thus just another natural resource that others may at least partially homestead;

I suspect Feser is pointing to our final causes, and to realize these we must act outside of ourselves – we must act in the world.  If this is the case, then it seems to me that libertarians who lean on natural law – and not merely strictly self-ownership – might have to broaden their views of the meaning of aggression and initiating violence.

…or we will integrate the body into the self in a way that entails an Aristotelian view of human nature, and thus reinforces the morally conservative interpretation of self-ownership explored in the “Self-Ownership, Abortion, and the Rights of Children” article.

This seems in accord with much of what I have been writing both recently and for some time: if basing libertarianism on natural law, are we allowed to just pick and choose those portions of natural law with which we are comfortable – and still have liberty?

The “ownership” part of the term self-ownership is also problematic, according to Feser: if ownership is absolute, then libertarianism – and the thinnest of thin libertarianism – is correct.  But then what of the poor guy fenced in on the island?  Feser offers the example of storing nuclear waste on your property – if your rights are absolute, not a problem.  A libertarian would respond: that’s OK as long as no harmful radiation or contamination travels from your place to mine.  Theoretically a valid objection, but one providing little comfort to the neighbors.

Yet, I still see all of this as a rejection of the idea of self-ownership (as narrowly defined) as the basis for libertarianism, and not a rejection of libertarianism (with liberty being the objective of libertarianism).

So, if the rights of self-ownership are absolute, then this corresponds exactly as libertarians describe; however, it describes a world in which most libertarians might prefer not to live – think of the sex orgies on the front lawn, as one of many examples.  So, if the rights are not absolute, then where and how do you draw the line?  This question raises issues on subjects ranging from raising children to taking heroin.

…the thesis [of self-ownership] was hopelessly indeterminate, certainly way too indeterminate to ground libertarianism and even (as I now think) too indeterminate to be very interesting at all.

Feser, as is clear, rests his political theory of rights on the natural law derived from Aristotle and Aquinas.  To him, the fundamental question is about the theory of rights upon which one builds his political foundation.

The implications are something different than resting a political theory on self-ownership – again, in Feser’s view a foundation so weak that even most libertarians wouldn’t choose to build a house in the neighborhood.

From natural law we derive our natural rights; we have rights in nature to fulfill the ends nature has set for us.  In this case, we do not have a natural right to take actions that are positively contrary to these ends (take heroin) – and we are enjoined from taking actions that preclude others from fulfilling their ends (the mate on the island).

These natural rights are something different than what a thin libertarian would consider as rights.  Feser is building the case for what he sees as a grounded political theory consistent with human ends: in other words, Feser defines liberty as the liberty to achieve the ends consistent with our nature – our nature and ends as explained by Aristotle and Aquinas.

There is a break here with many libertarians, who hold strictly to the view that rights in property extend only to the physical – rejecting rights in things such as intellectual property or one’s reputation.  Rights derived from natural law extend much further than the physical.  Here again, one need not reject libertarianism – in fact one need not reject either self or ownership; one just need properly define these terms.

For Feser, self-ownership doesn’t work as a foundation for a political theory – not even a political theory with liberty as its aim.  And from natural law, Feser cannot get to a libertarianism that is consistent with the libertarianism understood by most proponents of the theory.  But this is the project, isn’t it?  To refine the foundations of libertarianism toward the objective of achieving liberty?  

At some point, Feser believes around 2004, he no longer identified as a libertarian.  However, this didn’t mean he turned into a right-wing totalitarian, as some of his opponents apparently have claimed.  He is still committed to minimal government and free enterprise:

That libertarianism is false does not magically cause government to be competent or give it a blank check to tax and regulate as it sees fit. …Indeed, while I am now firmly opposed to libertarianism, I am also as opposed as I ever was to every form of socialism and egalitarian liberalism.

Yet it seems to me that what Feser has demonstrated (or has attempted to demonstrate, depending on your view of his efforts) is that self-ownership is a poor foundation on which to build libertarianism.  For this he has rejected libertarianism.  Yet he is the one who chose self-ownership as libertarianism’s foundation!

I think that an A-T natural law approach to those matters entails the rejection of libertarianism, socialism, and egalitarian liberalism alike, and in most areas requires at least a presumption in favor of private enterprise and against government action.

Feser expands on this in a linked piece – Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation; it is behind a wall, but from the extract:

It is argued that classical natural law theory entails the existence of a natural right of private property, and that this right is neither so strong as to support laissez faire libertarianism, nor so weak as to allow for socialism. Though the theory leaves much of the middle ground between these extremes open to empirical rather than moral evaluation, it is argued that there is a strong natural law presumption against social democratic policies and in favor of free enterprise.

What I found regarding private property during the Middle Ages is certainly not absolute, yet far more secure than what we have today.  Feser presents a very large middle ground, even though a large middle ground is not justified based on the customs and traditions of the society out of which natural law was both lived and developed.

Natural law leads us to far more security in property than we have today.  Giving government justification in passing morals legislation does not move things in the proper direction.


It was Feser himself who based his libertarianism on self-ownership – yes, there are many libertarians who might say the same.  Still, having found that self-ownership is a somewhat problematic foundation on which to build libertarianism, he discards libertarianism.  But this was a foundation of his own choosing! 

Feser rightly points out the issues with this concept of self-ownership; yet, if we are to speak at all in terms of self-ownership, I am at a loss regarding the question: who owns me?  The one thing I can say with certainty is that my neighbors don’t own me – not in natural law, not in any sense.

Maybe libertarians just need a better definition of “self” and “ownership”; and maybe Feser could look to the church or extended family to secure this definition, instead of legislation – legislation is a lazy society’s way (and especially a lazy Christian’s way) to get out of doing the hard work.

My libertarianism is simple: don’t hit, don’t take my stuff.  How do I dump the notion that it is wrong to aggress – to be the first to introduce physical coercion in a relationship?  I cannot.  How does Feser?  Perhaps he is looking for more from libertarianism than it was ever capable of delivering.  I long ago stopped placing an undue burden on this philosophy of non-aggression.

…abstract moral principle cannot tell us much, and we have to look to common sense, experience, history, current circumstances, and whatever economics and the other social sciences can tell us in order to decide upon concrete policy.

As RMB noted in his initial comment: Feser and I hold similar views and I also see much in his journey that I have found in mine.  I think Feser would agree with me fully (or I agree with him fully) on the idea that libertarianism – on whatever foundation built – is insufficient for liberty; that it cannot survive in a pure form (e.g. shooting a child as punishment for stealing an apple). 

Yet I see our difference as follows: when he concludes it is not sufficient or cannot survive in its pure form (as defined by most), he throws out libertarianism; when I conclude it is not sufficient or cannot survive in its pure form, I look for what must be added to the foundation to build a house of liberty that will stand.  I look to many of the items pointed to by Feser – common sense, experience, history, etc.  None of these lead me to laws that regulate non-violent behavior – in fact; they lead me to the opposite. 

In other words, the nonaggression principle still stands; it just cannot stand without incorporating common sense, history, experience, etc.

I can accept that the natural law as presented and developed by Aristotle, Aquinas (and now Feser) precludes me from certain behaviors – behaviors that people would place in the category of morality: drugs, prostitution, etc.  I have also suggested that libertarians who lean on natural law may have a problem by not leaning on the entirety of natural law – which would include many of the issues raised by Feser.  This does not mean that one need favor legislation regarding these things; Feser seems to favor laws to regulate such matters – even, it seems, laws to regulate parenting.

I do not and cannot; I can never imagine a time when I will.  To leave as available for government meddling a field as nebulous as non-violent crimes is a certain path to hell on earth.  We see these results today, with the United States having the largest prison population on earth – both in percentage and absolute numbers.

No, these areas are best left to the family, even extended family; where these are insufficient, these are matters left to voluntary organizations – the church, charities, social clubs, etc.  Beyond this, prayer.  Look, the world isn’t perfect; government laws on such matters won’t perfect it, only corrupt it further.

Are we after libertarianism or liberty?  Feser and I would answer this question the same way, I believe: liberty is the objective.  After all, one cannot be free to achieve his ends without liberty.  Government has yet to demonstrate that it is a useful tool in delivering liberty. 

How turning away from non-aggression is an aid to achieving liberty, I cannot say.


Feser ends with a listing of several posts that further explain the development of his thinking on these matters.  I will likely examine one or two of these in the future.


  1. Excellent write-up, BM. Thank you. You found words that I could not. Reckon I need to explore and synthesize A-T natural rights. Hopefully you'll examine Feser's ideas further.

  2. I would also assert that self-ownership is the basis for liberty. But, as you point out Bionic, what is self-ownership? Unlike ownership in cars or homes, we do not have the ability to transfer ownership of ourselves to someone else. Even the slave must choose to be obedient - whether that obedience is coerced or enticed is unimportant – he still must choose.

    I believe that things that can be owned cannot exercise ownership. I also believe the converse: things that exercise ownership cannot be owned. We do not hold title over ourselves, so long as we have the power to choose and we cannot hold title over anything without that power.

    Therefore, I submit that self-ownership is a misleading term. That which we call self-ownership, that thing which is special to ourselves, is something different than ownership.

    Feser’s statement that the thesis of self-ownership being too indeterminate and uninteresting for use in grounding libertarianism shows an obvious lack of understanding of its importance. If self-ownership is not important, we can say that the individual is not important. It is a short journey from there to statism.

    I still say, Bionic, that your path is the correct one – we must build on the foundation of liberty to achieve a libertarian society. We must do what works.

  3. Replies
    1. Hate to be a fanboy, but dang. This is good stuff. Long, but necessarily so, and you're very welcome.

      "the nonaggression principle still stands; it just cannot stand without incorporating common sense, history, experience, etc."

      You can't (somehow) remove the foundation from a house and expect it to continue weathering the elements, or to function as a home for very long.

      "Two castaways on an island. While you sleep, your mate builds a fence around you, claiming the remainder of the island for himself. He has not touched you. Now what?"

      The problem with all attempts, like Feser's that you paraphrased above, to come up with a scenario which exemplifies the iniquity of libertarianism is that they all seem to employ the Nirvana Fallacy (or a close relative anyway). Libertarianism is given an impossible situation (with bad faith actors), while the alternative (the State) is either not mentioned or treated in such a way (good faith actors) that it would just work.

      For instance, Feser does not say how the democratic or republican state system he advocates would work in the same island scenario. Since there are only two, obviously a vote won't do. Who's vote counts for more? What happens when there's a conflict between two men on an island that are BU2B that all laws are subject to a majority vote?

      I think it is reasonable to assume that the stronger one would either threaten the other one, or beat him, into submission (for the greater good of course), and declare himself the 'president' of the island and assume control of all the resources. What objection would either have if their view is that government is to be provided for the greater good, as determined by the government itself, against people's will if it must.

      Neither system works very well, or at least both have plenty of room for abuse, without an underlying foundation of morality and custom. At least in the libertarian system, though, the guy could have woken up to dispute ownership of resources on the island, and since each believed in a law higher than themselves, that of the inviolability of self and property, this dispute would more likely be resolved peacefully.

    2. "it will be an unfortunate turn of events if at the end of Feser’s road one is to find the state."

      Feser never really renounced the state. He was never a convinced anarcho-capitalist, not even at the high water mark of his libertarian mentality. So undoubtedly you will find a state solution with Feser.

    3. ATL

      "...while the alternative (the State) is either not mentioned or treated in such a way (good faith actors) that it would just work."

      This really became clear to me while working through the second post, on social justice.

  4. There us no self-ownership in Christianity. There is individual responsibility in stewardship and duty to one of two beings. One of of them is a creation. The other being pure essence and self-existing.

    Choose wisely.

    A couple, long ago did not.

  5. "It was Feser himself who based his libertarianism on self-ownership – yes, there are many libertarians who might say the same. Still, having found that self-ownership is a somewhat problematic foundation on which to build libertarianism, he discards libertarianism. But this was a foundation of his own choosing! "

    You captured the essence of the whole issue in the paragraph above. Thank you for explaining how you did agree while clearly defining Feser's error.

    You articulated well the ambiguous thoughts churning around in my head.

    Feser hasn't examined this issue of liberty as deeply, completely, or precisely as you. He could learn a lot from this blog. Thanks Bionic Mosquito for leading us all on this journey for Liberty.

    1. Thank you, RMB.

      After I worked through the entire piece, I was able to reflect on just a couple of observations that summarized my thoughts - and would have saved all of us a few thousand words.

      One is the section that you cite. The other? Why not just properly define "self" and "ownership" and thereafter build libertarianism on a more solid foundation?

      But I needed to do all of the writing to be able to boil it down to a couple of succinct observations.

    2. Dear BM and All,
      As you have identified the problem, the word "ownership," is there a solution? Thinking myself I have come up with one, but there are probably better candidates. Mine is "self emanation." Something which originates or issues from a source. That is , each of us should be the source of our of our own lives, personalities, etc.
      Ira Katz

    3. Ira, my focus is not something to do with self-ownership, but liberty. I don't know that liberty will be found in our individual self as the source.

  6. Love this line:

    "legislation is a lazy society’s way (and especially a lazy Christian’s way) to get out of doing the hard work."

  7. An interesting write up. I started out, long ago, basing my foundation of libertarianism on natural rights( thus I styled myself a classic Rothbardian). I then begin a serious study of Hoppe's contributions which are not purely based on Natural rights. The final nail in the coffin of pure natural rights based libertarianism for me was a shocking and extended conversation with Tristram Engelhardt and his text "The Foundations of Bioethics"--of course the 2nd Edition.
    He completely overturned how I understand ethics and my foundation of liberty.

  8. Nice write up BM. You essentially factored self-ownership out of the logic showing it's not essential when determining whether (initiating) aggression results in a loss of liberty. The rest always comes down to some form of non coercive influence: culture, church, media.

  9. Any more I'm amazed that intelligent people could think that a political state would bring about the kind of society they profess to want to live in. The track record of how states have actually operated, and the tendency of the most cunning and ruthless people to rise into leadership positions should tell them differently.

    Loved your article. Thank you.