Mythbuster: Libertarianism and Unchosen Obligations

It is a common mistake, made even by some libertarians and former libertarians, that libertarians reject the idea of unchosen obligations. Gene Callahan, apparently a former libertarian turned communitarian, is the latest to make this mistake. He says:

Obligation . . . is the crucial idea denied by libertarian political theory.1

Well, this is just patently absurd. Libertarians, of course, do not deny that individuals can have obligations to others, including non-humans.

Fortunately, Callahan goes on to clarify what he means:

We can have obligations that we did not agree to take upon ourselves.

But this is something that not all libertarians deny, as a wide and deep enough perusal of libertarian literature will demonstrate.

At the very least, libertarians recognize the unchosen obligation not to threaten or use initiatory physical force against other rational beings (i.e., to refrain from what we call aggression).

Libertarians generally make two important sets of distinctions regarding obligation: that between negative and positive obligations and that between enforceable and unenforceable obligations. One can go further and recognize that obligations can have different weightings relative to one another such that one obligation can override or delimit the legitimate means of fulfilling another.

Rights, at least as I define the term, are legitimately enforceable2 moral claims against another’s prior obligation not to threaten or use initiatory physical force. The Non-Aggression Principle (NAP)3 and corresponding rights4 are unchosen, enforceable negative obligations.

Can we have unchosen positive obligations? Libertarians need not deny this, and not all do. It should be easily recognized that unchosen, unenforceable positive obligations are strictly compatible with the NAP/rights.

What about unchosen, enforceable positive obligations? Provided they are compatible with the NAP/rights, if there are any that meet this description, then libertarians need not deny unchosen, enforceable positive obligations outright. I’ll leave it up to the reader’s imagination to come up with possible examples of unchosen, enforceable positive obligations that are compatible with the NAP/rights. If you take the challenge, bear in mind what I wrote about how one obligation can override or delimit the legitimate means of fulfilling another.

Suffice to say that it is a myth that libertarians (need to) deny unchosen, even positive, obligations. Callahan is attacking a straw man.

To criticize libertarians in general for denying unchosen, enforceable positive obligations, or just certain of them, would be more accurate. But to do so would be to take the position that the threat or use of initiatory physical force (i.e., aggression) is at least sometimes justified — that, for example, what is usually thought of commonsensically as theft or trespass or murder in everyday life, is not theft or trespass or murder in the “political” sphere, i.e., when the state or the “community” does it.5

I will conclude with four quotations of my own:6

Freedom is, in truth, a sacred thing. There is only one thing else that better serves the name: that is virtue. But then what is virtue if not the free choice of what is good?
— Alexis de Tocqueville

The practical reason for freedom, then, is that freedom seems to be the only condition under which any kind of substantial moral fibre can be developed.
–Albert Jay Nock

Simplicity and truth of character are not produced by the constraint of laws, nor by the authority of the state, and absolutely no one can be forced or legislated into a state of blessedness; the means required are faithful and brotherly admonition, sound education, and, above all, free use of the individual judgment.
— Benedict de Spinoza, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus

Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like.
— Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, Question 96, Second Article

Cross-posted at Is-Ought GAP.


  1. It doesn’t help interpretation that Callahan started this sentence in the title of his post. 

  2. The presence of the term ‘legitimately’ here but not elsewhere in the post should not be taken to imply I am making a different claim here. I add it here in a definition for greater clarity. 

  3. It’s not an axiom. 

  4. Most fundamentally, the life, liberty, and property triad. Of the three, I think liberty is the most fundamental (at least at the individual level of analysis, from the perspective of moral theory; at the structural level of analysis, that of political and legal theory, the right to property may be the most fundamental; rights cannot be fully understood exclusively from either perspective, but rather must be conceived from a dialectical perspective that encompasses both as well as the cultural level (see Chris Sciabarra’s <em><a class="vt-p" href="http://www.amazon.com/dp/0271020490/?tag=thelibestan-20">Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism</a></em> for more on these three levels of dialectical analysis, which I adapted to conceptualizing rights in <a class="vt-p" href="http://etd.lsu.edu/docs/available/etd-11082006-151644/">chapter 3 of my dissertation</a>) ) but it cannot be exercised or properly understood without the right to private property. 

  5. <a class="vt-p" href="http://etd.lsu.edu/docs/available/etd-11082006-151644/">In chapters 6 and 7 of my dissertation</a>, I deny that this is truly the political sphere. I conceive of genuine, immanent politics as discourse and deliberation between equals in joint pursuit of eudaimonia (flourishing, well-being). By ‘equals’ I mean ‘equality in authority’ as in Locke’s state of nature, though I do not conceive of ‘nature’ in Lockean, social-contract theory terms but rather in Aristotelian terms, i.e., of teleological completeness or perfection. In short, politics presupposes liberty. Hence, the term ‘vulgar politics’ (or vicarious politics) used as a category on this site as a synonym for statist “politics.” 

  6. Yes, I know these thinkers were not libertarian. But seen in the proper light philosophically, free of the contradictory ideas held by those who wrote them, these statements present truth. Accurate textual exegesis has its place but is another matter, one we are not concerned with here. 

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Excellent post. Re positive obligations, I discuss this in “How We Come To Own Ourselves.” Libertarians deny that there are enforceable, positive obligations that are “unchosen”. But committing a crime or tort gives rise to positive obligations that result from voluntary action. If you push someone in a lake who cannot swim, you have an obligation to rescue. And arguably if you procreate and bring a child into the world, you incur positive obligations to the child. But these are not “unchosen.”

    Moreover it is not incompatible with libertarianism to argue for unchosen (but unenforceable) positive obligations, such as the obligation to be charitable or polite or a good son.

  • I referenced your first argument on my critique of Callahan, on Wirkman Netizen. Though I rake Callahan and his admired Walsh through more coals than did you, I may have more areas of substantive agreement with him than you and Stephan. Still, there’s something quite dangerous in his attack on libertarianism. The quoted Walsh argument sinks into a sort of weird mysticism that would prevent any rational disentangling of the generally agreed-upon obligations one grows up with.

    • Thanks Wirkman.

      The quoted Walsh argument sinks into a sort of weird mysticism that would prevent any rational disentangling of the generally agreed-upon obligations one grows up with.

      I agree.

      I don’t agree with your assessment of libertarianism with regard to children though. But then, I come at the right to liberty from the direction of Aristotelian virtue ethics

      By the way, Roderick Long has weighed in on Callahan’s post as well.

      • Geoff, you don’t think parents have obligations to their children? I think it’s not unchosen–children with rights and dependencies arise from voluntary behavior. Are you saying Aristotelean ethics is inconsistent with duties to one’s children?

        • Stephan,

          Maybe I wasn’t clear. I was disagreeing with Wirkman’s criticism of libertarianism with regard to children and his suggestion of a basic right to sustenance (with a corresponding unchosen, enforceable positive obligation). Seems to open the door to at least a minimal welfare state. And as you say, it is unnecessary in order for libertarianism to adequately deal with parental obligations to children.

      • Callahan clarified in the comment section of Roderick’s blogpost that he only meant unchosen, enforceable positive obligations. But the clarification only makes it more difficult to understand what the big deal is. Roderick, Richard Garner, and I have some good responses to Callahan’s example of feeding children in the comment section of Roderick’s post.

  • Oh, please; enough yipyap. Would someone kindly give a single example of an obligation that they believe they have, that they didn’t willingly choose? Just one. Please.

    “I have the obligation to ___________ , but I didn’t choose it to be an obligation for myself.” Just fill in the blank, that’s all. One example will be sufficient to demonstrate that such a thing exists.

    Intellectuals…you really can’t see that you’re not saying anything, can you? If you didn’t choose it, you wouldn’t judge it as an obligation. But somehow everyone ELSE has these unchosen obligations…those are the ones that you can see, but they can’t. So if I “see” an obligation in you, do you therefore have it? Sheesh.

    • I have an obligation not to aggress against others, whether or not I consciously choose to accept this obligation. If you think otherwise, then you as a libertarian have no valid objection to anyone who says he does not accept this obligation and can therefore proceed to take your property, or your life, without your consent.

  • And I’ll give anyone another five years to come up with one! After a full decade, maybe folk can bring themselves to admit that no such thing exists.