QVGOP Think Tank

Libertarian versus Conservative Thought on Norms of Societal Morality


Policy matters such as the universal legalization of marijuana, the United Nations’ recent proposal to establish abortion as a human right or the normalization of “gender fluidity” characterize not only our American culture but a modern version of Western culture being promulgated on a global scale.  Schools of thought are quite divided on the benefits and consequences of advancing these comparatively radical policies.  

This essay intends to contrast libertarian and conservative thought on the question of whether or not imposing morality on culture through public means is tyrannical. 

The antecedent premise to embrace before considering the debate is the fundamental necessity of politics to a free society.  Political discourse is the manner in which civilized societies share ideas and resolve differences as compared to the alternative solution of dominance and violence.   Political discourse evolves into policy, filters through the government and ultimately becomes law.  The laws we pass as a society reflect our collective cultural character exemplifying matters of greatest importance to us.    The law cannot make citizens  moral, but, it can protect freedom, promote conditions necessary for human flourishing and instruct the population at large on basic virtues and norms of moral behavior. 

Libertarianism, in the strictest sense, is a political philosophy which considers liberty of the individual as the highest political good and the most essential element in promoting human flourishing.  Libertarianism does not make claims beyond politics therefore limiting its commentary to government and economic markets while decidedly excluding ethics and morality from its realm.  Libertarians accept government as a necessary evil that must be restrained to its most limited form wielding only enough power so as to sufficiently protect individual rights and markets.  Any government intervention into social matters is to be construed as social engineering and a violation of individual ethical rights.  Drug pushers, prostitutes, pornographers and the like, as long as they are not forcibly coercing their wares on others, are voluntarily participating in a marketplace where a legitimate exchange of a product or a service with a willing customer is taking place.  Exchange of goods and services in a marketplace is a common good, therefore, if “some” do not approve of the activity and wish to render such exchanges illegal, this is an assault on the common good.  To further exemplify the point, voluntary polygamy would be construed as a common good whereas involuntary monogamy is not.

Strictly embracing only economic and political characteristics of society, it follows that Libertarians fundamentally disagree with Conservatives on the need for a moral cultural standard to instruct our government on our cultural social fabric.   The Libertarian position refutes the claim that there is a discoverable, universal, eternal ethic and, therefore, cautions against imposing “truth” and virtues on society at large.   Furthermore, such action is not only an infringement on individual liberty but is actually inimical to freedom in that such behavior seeks to impose private preferences through public means.

The Conservative perspective purports that a degree of government must instruct a free society for several principle reasons.  Imperfection, being a permanent feature of the human condition, dictates that individuals may not be counted on to always exhibit their better selves.  Individuals left in full freedom of choice without social norms and minimal government intervention might not educate sufficiently their children or keep their residences free from fundamental hazard risks or organize sufficiently police protection units for their communities  or choose not to drive a vehicle when under the influence of mind altering drugs.  Political moral authority is necessary to protect conditions of human flourishing beyond the physical and economic realm.  Conservatives contend that other forms of harm exist which too need subjection to societal guidelines;  defamation, freedom of speech and association, personal frugality, self-reliance, temperance, mutual respect, appropriate public behavior and so on.  Many, including the Founders, insist that free society is not possible without societal virtue.  Without general moral societal norms, a citizen in a free society may not inherently understand when his or her actions could be construed as a nuisance or harmful to other individuals.  Nuisance and harm are largely culturally defined.  Even some certain behaviors conducted by voluntary or consenting individuals may negatively impact a third party.

Conservatives believe that the law educates the population on generally accepted norms of behavior, shapes attitudes, enhances understanding and exhibits the character of the society.  Therefore, Conservatives contend that certain policies such as assisted suicide, legalization of recreational addictive, mind-altering drugs, proliferation of pornography, prostitution and abortion run contrary to basic human good- as defined as that which promotes human flourishing and happiness and enhances the moral character of the society.

While Libertarians and Conservatives are politically housed on the right side of the political spectrum, they are quite at odds over the role of public morality in culture.   Libertarians prefer that politics be separated from morality while Conservatives see the union as critical.  All agree that laws do not render men morally good.   This responsibility rests solely on each individual (although often with the support of positive societal structures).  The task of the law is to protect cultural conditions for individual liberty and prohibit behavior that violates social norms and impacts negatively on the rest of society.  The question is how should morality be woven into society?  Clearly it is needed, it is a question of how.

For more in depth reading on this topic, read Selfish Libertarians and Socialist Conservatives?

by Schlueter, Nathan and Wenzel, Nikolai