What Kind of Libertarian Are You?

My libertarianism’s of an off-the-beaten-path sort, with its intellectual roots among the Ancient Greeks.

Aaron Ross Powell
3 min readMar 18, 2018

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I was recently asked on Twitter whether my libertarianism is of the consequentialist or deontological variety. For those not hip to the terminology, the question is about what sort of moral theory underpins my political theory. Those two — consequentialism and deontology — are, for many, the default choices when it comes to libertarianism. You can believe in political liberty because free people in free markets lead to the most wealth and happiness — and so liberty is valuable because of that, in which case you’re a consequentialist. Or you believe that there exist hard and fast, unavoidable moral rules — about obligations or prohibitions or rights — that we must respect, and doing so demands, at least in part, respecting the liberty of individuals. If that’s your line of thinking, you’re a deontologist.

My answer to the question-as-framed is “Neither.” I’m not a consequentialist, nor am I a deontologist. I believe, of course, that the consequences of actions and of political systems matter a great deal. But I don’t believe that consequences are all that matters in moral or political considerations. And I believe, of course, that we live with certain obligations towards others, among these a respect for rights. But I don’t believe that articulating a set of rules and then following them is the most fruitful or psychologically authentic way to think about morality.

Here’s the answer I gave on Twitter.

Which is a lot of opaque terms. So here’s an adumbrated unpacking:

If a consequentialist believes that what matters when faced with a moral choice is which option creates the best consequences or results in the most overall happiness, and a deontologist believes that the correct action is the one that follows from a set of moral rules, a virtue ethicist says the right action is whatever a truly virtuous person would do when faced with…

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Aaron Ross Powell

Host of the ReImagining Liberty podcast. Writer and political ethicist. Former think tank scholar.