education philosopher

William James and Libertarianism

Posted in Uncategorized by KevinCK on November 8, 2015

I came to William James about 10 years after I came to a libertarian understanding of politics and the world. Thus, I know that the work of James did not lead me to libertarianism and doubt that libertarianism affected my subsequent appreciation of the works of William James. But since I’ve been a libertarian in political outlook for about the last 20 years, and I consistently fin William James to be one of the most edifying philosophers, I sometimes wonder if the two are congruent with each other.

On its face, it seems like there wouldn’t be. Libertarianism is a political ideology that puts human liberty at its core, and the William Jamestype of libertarianism I subscribe to believes that political/social arrangements achieve liberty best when there is minimal government and the rest is left to voluntary arrangements (by markets or other means). William James was a philosopher/psychologist with a wide range of concerns, none overtly political; he spawned a (variation on) a pragmatic theory of truth, crafted a theory of experience called radical empiricism, and wrote on other topics. But never, from what I can tell, politics.

But there are at least two ways I can see the works of William James being congruent and fitting quite nicely with a libertarian worldview. First, as wide-ranging as James’s work was, his philosophic projects always placed individuality at its core. Some might say that James’s overarching philosophical starting point is that people always occupy different vantage points from which they see the world, and thus, see and interpret the world differently. His pragmatic theory of truth tells us that what we will call true (and what we should mean by ‘true’) is that an idea works in experience enough to satisfy our purposes. But this view has been criticized on the grounds that if we don’t all settle on one purpose as the standard for judging whether a belief works, James’s theory will allow for multiple “truths” at any one time. Yes, and that’s exactly what we see in the real world; different folks with different criteria for what it takes for a thing to be considered true. And as much as we want a way to settle on one true answer per question, “what works” is probably the best standard we can come up with in a pluralistic world like ours. Inasmuch as libertarianism is a philosophy that respects individuality as an important part of the human condition, James’s respect for individualism makes his work quite congenial to libertarian-minded people.

But there is a more direct connection I found between the work of William James and why I am a libertarian. It comes from James’s remarkable essay “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life.” There, he puzzles over the ultimate source of morality. And where does he find it? Not surprisingly, in the idea of human experience. If no sentient humans exist, nothing can be good, evil, justified, an obligation, etc. When one sentient human exists, she becomes the moral standard for judging good, evil, etc.

When more than one sentient humans exist, that’s when things start to get interesting. It is quite possible that different folks have different intuitions (because they are differently situated) about what is good, evil, an obligation, etc. But experience can be our only appeal in deciding these moral issues. When we disagree, each of us imagines that there must be some non-experience-relative way to get at the truth of the moral situation, but what we usually do is invoke some authoritarive God whose standard trumps all (who even if it did exist, we don’t have cognitive access to the mind of) or some seemingly objective standard that those who experience differently go on to reject just as quickly as they rejected our moral intuitions.

Here’s where the essay becomes (in my eyes) quite congenial to the libertarian position. James, then, goes on to explore where moral obligations come from, concluding “that without a claim actually made by some concrete person there can be no obligation, but that there is some obligation wherever there is a claim.” True to James’s individualism, he suggests that every time there is a claim made to an obligation, that alone creates an obligation. (For my money, I think James goes too far here, but I can understand why he does it. James does not want to put himself or anyone else in charge of evaluating whether a claim is “legitimate” because that entails one subjective vantage point deciding on another.)

Thus, the world consists of a plethora of heterogeneous claims and likely of more claims than the human world can realistically satisfy. It is likely as well that some claims will exist whose satisfaction will thwart the claims of others. My claim that I should have your things thwarts your claim to be able to keep your things. When you and I compete for the same job, only one of us (if either of us) can have that claim satisfied.

As trite as it sounds, James’s vision is that we keep experimenting to try and find better and better sets of social and moral rules that allow as many claims as possible to be satisfied:

The course of history is nothing but the story of men’s struggles from generation to generation to find the more and more inclusive order. Invent some manner of realizing your own ideals which will also satisfy the alien demands,—that and that only is the path of peace!

The most inclusive order? I am not sure about other libertarians, but this sounds a lot like the primary reason why I am a libertarian in the first place. We all have a bunch of claims – or maybe preferences – and markets and a voluntary society leave us as free as possible to satisfy them. One thing that gets conservatives running hot and cold on markets, in fact, is exactly that they allow all of us to try and satisfy our preferences, and as long as our preferences don’t involve harming non-involved others (and thwarting their preferences), markets allow us to pursue our claims… even when conservatives believe those claims to be immoral.

If we are attracted to the Jamesian vision of creating a more and more inclusive order, I’d argue that markets and keeping things voluntary as possible is a big part of that. Politics tends to make things into zero sum games, where there are winning and losing sides; I can only get what I want in the political sphere if others don’t get what they want. Markets  more often create non-zero-sum transactions. Rather than all of us voting on what kind of car all of should get, whether we should purchase unhealthy junk food, or whether we should roll MDMA, each of us is allowed to choose for herself what choice to make with the means at her disposal. Libertarians also put the idea of tolerance at the heart of their moral, and legal, orders. The rule is that as long as it doesn’t involve harming others who don’t wish to be involved, you should have as wide a latitude as possible to pursue the life you want to live, even if others believe it is wrong or immoral.

William James didn’t seem to write from any overtly political perspective, so it is hard to tell how much of current libertarianism he’d go along with. And I cannot claim that his work is overtly or deliberately libertarian. This is simply my interpretation of how some of William James’s seeming ideals, and his profound respect for individuality, is congruent with the values many libertarians also hold dear.


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