Unit Overview

Eventually, the Soviet Union failed (1980s) and soviet-style communism was repudiated with it. But instead of communism the rest of the developed world made progress towards democratic socialism. In places that didn’t have communist revolutions there developed a robust welfare state providing many of the benefits that Marx hoped communism would provide, like universal education, a ban on child labor, free health care, progressive taxation, etc.

In the United States democratic socialism fails to develop to quite the same extent as it did in Europe but the United States still incorporates many of the policies that Marx originally proposed.

In the late 1970s John Rawls writes his monumentally important book A Theory of Justice which reinvigorated political philosophy and began a new era of political philosophy. Up until Rawls, communism remained the dominant liberal political ideology. Rawls’ work develops a philosophical framework that justifies democratic socialism as opposed to communism and ushers in a new era of political philosophy. Rawls sees his theory of justice as being inspired by Kant’s work. He argues justice requires that inequality in society is only morally permissible if it benefits the least advantaged.

Around the same time there is another political ideology gaining popularity as an alternative to soviet communism, which argues that the government should be as small as possible, that all taxation and all government programs are bad. Ayn Rand is an important figure in this movement as well as economists like Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek, and philosophers like Robert Nozick.

Liberty and equality are the two central values of any political philosophy. The challenge of political philosophy is to strike the balance between the two. Generally this distinction has been used to categorize various political thinkers of the last 50 years. Rawls is an egalitarian and Nozick a libertarian.

In this unit, I’ve also included a TED talk by the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and some notes related to the TED talk, on the psychological differences between liberals and conservatives. Haidt’s theory is one of the theories attempting to characterize the differences from a psychological point of view. While not directly related to our theories of libertarianism and egalitarianism, it maybe helpful as we enter the realm of applied ethics to pause and realize that people who believe different things than us are not bad people but just think about things differently.


The 20th Century

Below is an outline of the some of the major technological and political changes that form the backdrop for the philosophical debate between libertarianism and egalitarianism.


Rights Movements:

Major Historical Events:

  • World War I (1914-18) and Russian Revolution (1917)
    • Russian empire, France, Brittan, and (US) vs. Austo-German Empire, Ottoman Empire
    • e. collapse of the last remain empires in the west, democracy now in Europe
  • World War II
    • 100 million people in 30 countries
    • Germany, Italy, and Japan vs. Brittan, France, Russia, and the US
    • 50-85 million die, most in Russia
  • Post World War II
    • New World Political and Economic Order established
    • Churchill and Stalin Divide the world
    • Series of meetings between Churchill Stalin, and Roosevelt
    • United Nations
    • Bretton Woods Conference
    • NATO and Warsaw Pact
    • Decolonization of Asia and Africa
    • Colonization by the west replaced by capitalist “colonization”
    • Rise of the Military Industrial Complex and the Nuclear Arms Race
    • Proxy wars all over the planet as the US through the CIA squelch any and all popular democratic rebellions against dictatorships

Rawls’ A Theory of Justice

“Rather, the guiding idea is that the principle of justice for the basic structure of society are the objects of the original agreement. They are the principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association. These principles are to regulate all further agreements: they specify the kinds of social cooperation that can be entered into and the forms of government that can be established. This way of regarding the principles of justice I shall call justice as fairness”

-John Rawls

Rawls describes his conception of justice as “justice as fairness.” And for Rawls a fair society is one in which we all agree to follow principles that we would all unanimously agree to in founding a society into which they would then participate (notice the similarity to Kant’s Realm of Ends Formula). And, how do we determine what these rules are going to be? For the rules to be fair, according to Rawls, we need to decide what they are going to be in way that is totally unbiased. The way he suggests we do this is by making use of a theoretical device the calls “the original position.”

Individuals in the original position are under what Rawls calls a “veil of ignorance,” which means they have no knowledge of their: identity, gender, race, class, natural assets and abilities including motivation to succeed, intelligence, strength, health, religion, sexual orientation, conception of the good, psychological disposition, or anything that could give one any advantage or disadvantage over anyone else. You could be incredibly smart and beautiful with wealthy parents or you could be born mentally disabled with sever physical disabilities and born to a family in living in extreme poverty. However, in the original position members do have certain qualities: an aversion to risk, are mutually disinterested (don’t care how others do i.e. not jealous), self-interested, use primary social goods to measure their prospects (food, shelter, medical care, etc.), display instrumental rationality, have general social knowledge (sociology, psychology, economics, etc. Essentially, members in the original position are prudentially rational and intelligent and knowledgeable enough to know what their best interest is. The original position is Rawls’ version of how we determine the conditions of a just social contract. The original position is something we can “enter” at any time. Again, it is similar to Kant’s realm of ends in that it is a way of thinking about ourselves in relation to others. Rawls uses the original position as his starting point rather than the traditional state of nature that contractarian social contract theorists like Hobbes and Nozick use.

Rawls’ Three Principles
Rawls argues that in the original position we would choose three principles that would determine the fair and just principles that we would use to organize our society. The first is that each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all. This called the Liberty Principle. The second and third are that social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged … [The Difference Principle] and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity [The Fair Equality of Opportunity Principle].

Of the principles the first has priority in that the difference principle can be invoked to justify some inequality if that inequality doesn’t upset the foundational equality specified in the first principle. He says:

“The principles are to be arranged in a serial order with the first principle prior to the second. This ordering means that a departure from the institutions of equal liberty required by the first principle cannot be justified by, or compensated for, by greater social and economic advantages. The distribution of wealth and income, and hierarchies of authority, must be consistent with both the liberties of equal citizenship and equality of opportunity” (288)

However despite what Rawls calls the “serial ordering” of the principles in which the first specifies conditions that must never be violated, it is the difference principle that is in a sense more interesting, important, and unique to Rawls’ theory. The basic liberties that inequality of wealth must not harm are described by Rawls as:

“political liberty (the right to vote and to be eligible for public office) together with freedom of speech and assembly; liberty of conscience and freedom of thought; freedom of the person along with the right to hold (personal) property; and freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure as defined by the concept of the rule of law” (388)

So, the difference principle states that economic inequalities are just if they benefit all members of society and they don’t infringe on anyone’s basic liberties. The difference principle can be summarized in the following quotes from Rawls’ A Theory of Justice:

There is no injustice in the greater benefits earned by a few provided that the situation of persons not so fortunate is thereby improved.

Injustice, then, is simply inequalities that are not to the benefit of all.

While the distribution of wealth and income need not be equal, it must be to everyone’s advantage. (287)

The best way to understand the difference principle is terms of a veto power possessed by those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. Describing this Rawls says:

“Society should take into account economic efficiency and the requirements of organization and technology. If there are inequalities in income and wealth, and differences in authority and degrees of responsibility, that work to make everyone better off … why not permit them? … Because the parties start from an equal division of all social primarily goods, those who benefit least have, so to speak, a veto. Thus we arrive at the difference principle. Taking equality as the basis of comparison, those who have gained more must do so on terms that are justifiable to those who have gained the least.”

What this veto power means is that any arrangement must be acceptable to those who benefit the least. Imagine a negotiation between a billionaire and a homeless person. They are negotiating how of the millionaire’s one million dollar income he must share with the homeless person. The homeless person can’t demand it all because if he does that the millionaire will chose to not work. Crucially the less worse off person has a veto power so that if the billionaire suggests that he gets to keep all of the one million the homeless man can veto this arrangement. It is a little more complicated in that the original position is a not an actual negotiation between two people but rather a negotiation between all of society, in a sense and the inequalities must not compromise equal basic liberties. Extreme poverty and extreme wealth does compromise basic liberties, so the billionaire cannot propose a split that gives the homeless person something but still leaves him in extreme poverty.

To further illustrate Rawls’ difference principle consider the following four distributions of wealth:

Society A: 100% of the population earn $50,000/year.
Society B: 1% of the population earn $1,000,000,000/year, 9% of the population earn $1,000,000/year, and 90% of the population earn $25,000/year.
Society C: 90% of the population earn $100,000/year, and 10% of the population earn $25,000/year.
Society D: 10% of the population earn $1,000,000/year and 90% of the population earn $100,000/year.

Which society can be justified according to the difference principle? To answer this question you need to think about what society you would want to live in while keeping in mind that you are under the veil of ignorance and do not know where you will fall on distribution of income. You could be in the bottom 10%, top 1%, or somewhere in the middle. According to Rawls, given what he specifies about individuals in the original position, the difference principle specifies that we would choose society D because it is the safe bet. No matter where we fall in the distribution of income we benefit. Assuming of course that a difference of income between a $1,000,000 dollar a year income and $100,000 a year income does not compromise basic liberties. Rawls thinks we would choose D over B and C because in both B and C there is a possibility that we could end up with an income that is lower than A, the baseline level of equality. And he thinks we would choose D over A because even though there is inequality nevertheless everyone benefits from the inequality.

Rawls argues further that the difference principle provides an explanation as to why utilitarianism and pure egalitarianism, two important and competing theories of ethics and political philosophy, are wrong.

According to Rawls, no one in the original position would agree to be a part of a utilitarian society as their interest might be the one that would be sacrificed. He says:

“ . . . no one has a reason to acquiesce in an enduring loss for himself in order to bring about a greater net balance of satisfaction. . . Thus it seems that the principle of utility is incompatible with the conception of social cooperation among equals for mutual advantage.”

Consider the following distribution:

Society E: 90% of the population earn $1,000,000 and 10% of the population earn $1,000 a year.

In society E there is more overall utility than A, assuming there is a rough relationship between utility and income, but no one would choose E over A. And of course the reason no one would choose pure egalitarianism is that there are possible distributions that could benefit everyone more than pure egalitarianism. In practical terms let us consider the following three societies:

Idealized Soviet Russia: Let’s imagine a communist state in which strict equality is enforced, no one is allowed to have more of any material goods than anyone else, and the government constantly interferes with individual’s lives to ensure this is the case. The economy and business enterprises are owned by the state, etc. etc.

Idealized 1950s America: This is a society something like 1950s America but with higher taxes and even greater equality of wealth and income. (Relative to current America, taxes were higher, wages were higher and government funding of things like public education were higher.)

Contemporary America: This is a lot like the society we live in where there are incredibly vast inequalities in wealth and income.

Rawls’ difference principle is an argument for the Idealized 1950s America. 1950s America is better for the worst off than either contemporary America or Soviet Russia. The reasons that Soviet Russia turns out to be a bad choice have to do with basic facts of economics and human psychology. A capitalist economic system can produce more goods for people to enjoy than a communist system can, and to make capitalism the moral choice we just need to ensure that the extras goods produced benefit all members of society. And keep in mind Rawls is not saying that they have to benefit all members of society equally, they just need to benefit all members of society. In summary, equality serves as a baseline for determining what distributions are just and any distribution that leaves some people with less than they would have if everything were equal is unjust.

In sum, inequality is morally permissible as long as it benefits everyone and does not compromise the basic liberties of all members of society.


Conservative and Liberal Moral Psychology

With our discussion of egalitarianism and libertarianism we are now in the territory of contemporary American politics, and specifically American versions of conservatism, the Republican party, and American liberalism, the Democratic party. There is a rough alignment of the Democratic party with egalitarianism and the Republican party with libertarianism. The Democratic party has embraced egalitarian policies in terms of pursuing a policy agenda of increasing taxes and welfare programs while the Republican party has pursued a policy agenda of cutting taxes and reducing welfare programs. American politics is quite divided on economic issues and social issues and attempting any sort of discourse on topics fit within this political divide is all too often unproductive. One, of the things that I think is helpful in broaching these issues is understanding the psychological differences between liberals and conservatives, which has become an area of interest among social psychologists as of late. Here’s a video by Jonathan Haidt on psychological differences between conservatives and liberals.

Understanding Libertarian Moral Psychology


According to Haidt’s research on conservative and liberal moral psychology in terms of five basic foundations of morality:

  1. Harm/Care
  2. Fairness/reciprocity
  3. in group loyalty
  4. authority/respect
  5. Purity/sanctity

Liberals have a two-channel morality high in harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, and low in purity/sanctity, authority/respect, and in-group loyalty. Conservatives have a five-channel morality in which they use all five foundations of morality.

But where do libertarians fit in? According to subsequent research by Haidt and his colleagues: nowhere on the conservative-liberal spectrum. They are a totally separate category. Libertarians are actually low in all five of the moral foundations used by conservatives and liberals but high in one new foundation they called the liberty foundation.

Below are some excerpts from the previously hyperlinked article on libertarian moral psychology:

Table 3 shows that libertarians scored lower than the other two groups on agreeableness, conscientiousness, and extraversion. They scored low (similar to conservatives) on neuroticism, and they scored quite high (similar to liberals) on openness to experience. . . Libertarians report lower levels of the traits that indicate an orientation toward engaging with and pleasing others (i.e., extraversion and agreeableness). Low scores on agreeableness in particular have been said to indicate a lack of compassion and a critical, skeptical nature [51]. In addition, as in Study 1, we see that libertarians share traits with liberals (high openness to experience) as well as conservatives (low neuroticism). . . Table 3 shows that libertarians scored moderately lower than conservatives and substantially lower than liberals on empathic concern for others (also see Figure 3). Libertarians score slightly lower than liberals and similar to conservatives on personal distress, perspective taking, and fantasy. . . According to Davis [56], low levels of empathic concern indicate lower levels of sympathy and concern for unfortunate others, which may underlie libertarians’ lower scores on the harm foundation of the MFQ, and their general rejection of altruism as a moral duty.

Libertarians like liberals are low on disgust.

Libertarians score the lowest of any group on empathizing, and the highest on systemizing. In fact, libertarians are the only group that scored higher on systemizing than on empathizing.

Research by Baron-Cohen [62] has shown that relatively high systemizing and low empathizing scores are characteristic of the male brain, with very extreme scores indicating autism. We might say that liberals have the most “feminine” cognitive style, and libertarians have the most “masculine.” These effects hold even when men and women are examined separately, as can be seen in Table 3. Indeed, the “feminizing” of the Democratic party in the 1970s [63] may help explain why libertarians moved increasingly into the Republican party in the 1980s.

Need for cognition

Table 3 shows that libertarians scored slightly higher than liberals and moderately higher than conservatives on Need for Cognition.

As predicted, libertarians showed lower levels of emotional responsiveness on standard measures of the moral emotions of disgust and empathy (Figure 3). From an intuitionist perspective, libertarians’ relative lack of emotional reactions may help explain the generally low levels of moral concern that we found in Study 1 (see also [25]). McCrae and Costa [51] argue that low levels of neuroticism, agreeableness, and extraversion are indicative of an unemotional style. Libertarians were the only group to report a more systematic, rather than empathic, way of understanding the world, a characteristic of men [62] that may explain why libertarianism appeals to men more than women. If morality is driven largely by emotional reactions, and if libertarians are less emotional on most of the measures we examined, then libertarians should be moved by fewer moral concerns, as was the case in Study 1.

Libertarians did display high scores, however, on one measure of emotional reactivity, the Hong Reactance scale (Figure 3), which was found to lead to libertarian values and ideological identification. This pattern is quite consistent with the pattern of moral evaluations expressed in Study 1 where libertarians’ low valuation of traditional moral concerns contrasted sharply with the uniquely high moral value they placed on liberty. Libertarians also reported lower levels of agreeableness, measured using items such as “likes to cooperate with others,” and related to psychological reactance [72]. Psychological reactance may provide an intuitionist explanation [8] for the libertarian moralization of liberty.

The use of liberty rhetoric may have different psychological origins in different political groups. Autonomy is posited to be a universal basic human psychological need [73], and thus liberals may be attracted to liberty as a means of improving the psychological welfare of individuals. Similarly, social conservatives may be attracted to liberty as a means toward opposing redistributive taxation policies that challenge the status quo, yet still feel comfortable with the lifestyle liberty constraints that tradition and conformity require (see [22] for an explanation of this inconsistency). In contrast, libertarians may not see liberty as a means, but rather as an end, in and of itself, based on their heightened feelings of psychological reactance. The idea that libertarians are dispositionally more reactant than others when confronted with societal constraints is a potential gut-level explanation for their moralization of liberty. It is also evident in libertarians’ fondness for the historical phrase “Don’t Tread on Me,” which became a slogan of Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign and is frequently displayed on signs and flags at rallies for Tea Party supporters.

In conclusion, we found strong support for our second prediction, that libertarians will rely upon emotion less – and reason more – than will either liberals or conservatives.

libertarians are less identified with their community compared to both liberals and conservatives. They also scored low (just below liberals) on identification with country, which was the dimension that conservatives most strongly endorsed. In addition, they scored low (equal to conservatives) on identification with people all over “the world,” which was the dimension that liberals most strongly endorsed.

Consistent with the libertarian desire for personal liberty, libertarians feel relatively low levels of connection to their community, country, and people globally. This pattern suggests that libertarians are likely to join conservatives in opposing transnational humanitarian undertakings, and they are likely to join with liberals in opposing projects and legislation that are aimed at strengthening national identity.

Table 4 shows that libertarians showed the lowest levels of loving feelings toward others, across all four categories (although the difference with conservatives on love for friends was not significant).

Consistent with the results on the Identification with All of Humanity scale, the libertarian independence from others is associated with weaker loving feelings toward friends, family, romantic partners, and generic others. It is noteworthy that differences between liberals and conservatives were generally small (except toward generic others). Libertarians were the outliers.

Political and social psychologists often study ideology on a unidimensional liberal-conservative spectrum, but the real world is clearly more complex. As psychologists advance in studying the personality traits associated with liberalism and conservatism, our findings confirm the value of this approach and extend its reach by describing a heretofore-neglected yet politically important group – libertarians. Libertarians have a unique moral-psychological profile, endorsing the principle of liberty as an end and devaluing many of the moral concerns typically endorsed by liberals or conservatives. Although causal conclusions remain beyond our current reach, our findings indicate a robust relationship between libertarian morality, a dispositional lack of emotionality, and a preference for weaker, less-binding social relationships. These findings are consistent with previous research on the dispositional origins of moral judgment. By focusing on one understudied ideological group, the findings provide further evidence concerning the closely intertwined nature of personality, values, and political ideology.

As predicted, libertarians in our sample appeared to be strongly individualistic. Compared to liberals and conservatives, they report feeling a weaker sense of connection to their family members, romantic partners, friends, communities, and nations, as well as to humanity at large. While liberals exhibit a horizontal collectivistic orientation and conservatives a vertical collectivistic orientation, libertarians exhibit neither type of collectivism, instead displaying a distinctly individualistic orientation.

Libertarians’ weaker social interconnectedness is consistent with the idea that they have weaker moral intuitions concerning obligations to and dependence on others

Libertarians scored relatively high on just one moral concern: liberty. The libertarian pattern of response was found to be empirically distinct from the responses of liberals and conservatives, both in our cluster analysis of participants and in our principal components analysis of measures. We found strong support for our first prediction: Libertarians will value liberty more strongly and consistently than liberals or conservatives, at the expense of other moral concerns.

The only emotional reaction on which libertarians were not lowest was reactance – the angry reaction to infringements upon one’s autonomy – for which libertarians scored higher than both liberals and conservatives. This disposition toward reactance may lead to the moralization of liberty and an attraction to an ideology that exalts liberty above other moral principles – namely, libertarianism.

“libertarians were the only one of our three groups for which systemizing scores were higher, in absolute terms, than their empathizing scores”

They exhibit a high degree individualism, a low degree collectivism, and generally report feeling less bonding with others, less loving for others, and less feelings of a sense of common identity with others. Libertarians have a lower degree of the broad social connection that typifies liberals as well as a lower degree of the tight social connections that typify conservatives. These social preferences were related to their moral attitudes suggesting that libertarians have less functional use for moral concerns.

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