David R. Henderson  

Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism: Stephen Hicks Weighs In

Immigration, Skill, Efficiency... What I'm Saying...

Philosophy professor (and fellow Canuck) Stephens Hicks has a thoughtful post on bleeding-heart libertarianism (BHL). The whole thing is not long and is well worth reading.

Two highlights:

As a political-philosophical method: BHL says we should start politics by dividing people into groups and granting one group special prior ethical status. In this case, BHL divides people into poor and non-poor and holds the poor to have a special moral position in politics-making. That is not the way to ground politics, for two reasons: (a) Politics should start with individuals, not individuals-as-members-of-a-sub-group; and (b) politics should initially treat all individuals as having equal moral status -- in my view, as self-responsible, free agents -- not as having preferred status by belonging to a sub-group.

Well, certainly reason and passion should be integrated, and a morally normal person feels for those who are in poverty through no fault of their own. This takes us into the fascinating territory of the moral emotions, and for BHL our question should be: Why should exhibiting those particular feelings be primary in making the case for a free society? Other passions are part of the morally-healthy package: Admiration for those who have achieved a lot. Anger at those who violate rights. Respect for those who exhibit independence and integrity. And of course empathy for those who are struggling with poverty. But empathy for the poor is not more morally special than respect for integrity or anger at bullies and tyrants, and it is a mistake to single it out for special foundational political status. Instead, political theorists concerned with the moral foundations of liberal society should be concerned with general principles of moral character that enables individuals to live freely.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (10 to date)
stephen writes:

Something that bugs me about the "through no fault of their own" qualification is that the question "well, who's fault then?" never seems to get asked, let alone answered. What if the answer is "no one, really"? Perhaps empathy for the poor should remain just that, and poverty should be considered a just event.

Ken B writes:

I thought this was a great point "By focusing on the poor, BHL seems to make politics essentially or primarily about economics."

Or to rephrase, to make it more about that small part of the gillions of things people care about we label economics partly just because we imagine we can measure it.

Jason Brennan writes:

Seems like thoughtless strawmanning to me.

Tyler in Chicago writes:

Libertarianism is a a rejection of the coercive and corrective state. Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, is, after a few contortions, an embrace of coercion and correction for the sake of morally superior aims.

It seems to be an attempt to graft the vocabulary of libertarianism into the syntax of socialism. The end results of this won't be libertarian.

Mike Rulle writes:

The phrase "no fault of their own" has become so ubiquitous and misused in politics, we sometimes forget that there really are situations of bad luck. To not be at fault, does not mean someone else is the cause.

My main point, however, is that there will always be a certain portion of the population who will be poor for which empathy will be the right moral response. If the average IQ is 100, for example, and its standard deviation 15, then 2.5% of the population are starting out with a lot against them (some might argue its the right tail people!)

The poor are not the problem in this country---in the sense of the financial cost of helping. The envious middle class are the problem.

Becky Hargrove writes:

"The envious middle class are the problem" - economically, absolutely. The reason it matters is the degree to which statistics get distorted, and it becomes almost impossible to consider the poor in monetary terms.

Tony N writes:

Empathy is treated as morally special because doing so is socially advantageous. Admiration and contempt do relatively little to increase one’s attractiveness. When was the last time a man scored a second date by virtue of his man crush on Derek Jeter? His time spent with the Make a Wish Foundation however…

Empathy’s prominence in the BHL philosophy is but a consequence of this.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Jason Brennan,
Seems like thoughtless strawmanning to me.
Would you be willing to share with my readers and me why you think so?

Glen Smith writes:

Well, at a minimum, politics should not be about helping rich people become richer.

Andrew writes:

To see why Hicks was arguing against a strawman, see

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