Failure modes of libertarian* goggles

*metaphysical (not political)

[Content note: more musings on cause and effect, free will, and moral responsibility, touching on the rationale behind sins ranging from general ableism and classism to greedy cookie-grabbing.]

Now it’s time for me to delve deeper into what I have called before the “libertarian-free-will mindset” and the “deterministic mindset”.  In this post, I explained what I mean by these competing concepts and emphasized that I see them as a major component of almost every disagreement and debate.  At the time I was using the clumsy terms “free-will-leaning” and “determinism-leaning” in referring to them, but more recently I’ve come up with “libertarian goggles” (with the understanding that we are using “libertarian” in the metaphysical rather than the political sense, though political libertarians are probably gazing through these a lot of the time too) and “determinist goggles”.  I think this is less awkward… or maybe it’s more awkward, but for now I’m going to stick with them anyway.  The word “goggles” in each case is intended to stress that I’m gesturing towards a way that people tend to perceive things: again, all of this has very little to do with anyone’s abstractly-held philosophical position (which they may not have developed anyway), but the assumptions they tend to make when sizing up a situation involving human behavior.  Someone can study philosophy and decide that the arguments for incompatibilist free will are the most valid, while in their day-to-day lives they tend to excuse people’s behavior as the function of their background and environment; someone else can behave likewise without having ever given a single thought to the academic philosophical issue of free will in the first place.

Today I want to explore the flaws in the view through libertarian goggles and exactly how it may affect a person’s judgment or the rationalizations they construct for it (I intend to get to my issues with determinist goggles in the next post).  This may sound like the premise for another dispassionate essay written in a cerebral, sitting-back-in-my-armchair-musing voice.  Actually, this essay feels to me like more of a personal rant than it might seem on the surface from my tone.  I’ve known people who rarely seem to take their libertarian goggles off, and they frustrate me.  In several cases, I feel that I’ve been directly victimized by them via this mode of thinking.  In my experience, they are prone to several logical fallacies which might not necessarily from the free-will libertarian premise but which I am going to speculate are at least strongly correlated with a tendency to view the world through nondeterministic-free-will-ish assumptions.  I don’t promise any kind of clinching argument to show that this is the case; I’m mainly just going to describe my observations of such a correlation.

Before I begin, I should of course make the obvious disclaimer that I realize humans are complex and it would be foolish to imply that they fit neatly into the categories of “libertarian gogglers” and “determinist gogglers”.  But I’ve known a number of people who appear pretty far in one direction or the other even while this doesn’t apply to anywhere near everyone, just as I’ve known a number of people whose political views align clearly with the right or the left while at the same time a lot of other people are centrist.

I. What do libertarian goggles do, exactly?

The “libertarian goggles” I speak of are a metaphor meant to describe a certain way of viewing the world.  Libertarian goggles cause the wearer to see most conscious actions as completely free choices which bring with them moral responsibility.

The world viewed through libertarian goggles looks like a bunch of people choosing to do bad things and then placing the blame for their behavior on the folks around them, or their genetics (in particular, sickness or disability), or Society, or The Government, or This Bad Economy, instead of on themselves for not trying harder.  Nobody is bound by the conditions they find themselves in; therefore, to pretend that they are amounts to excuse-making.  It’s all a matter of attitude, plain and simple.  And the allure of being able to explain their own failures away by putting them on other people or on supposedly extenuating circumstances is strong enough that it blinds them to all of the agency they really have.  This is the main reason why so many others (who lack libertarian goggles and the wisdom they bring) wind up learning to explain so many things with a deterministic model.  These people would be so much better off, so much more able in their own lives and in not damaging the lives of others, if only they would see this, because understanding one’s own freedom empowers one to overcome any difficulty.

People failing at things don’t make up the whole world, of course.  There are plenty of people who do really well, and they manage this mainly through pushing themselves and not falling into the rut of blaming the rest of the world for their difficulties.  Where they start out and just how much effort they have to exert to pull themselves up is essentially irrelevant when it comes to bestowing praise: someone from a less fortunate background has just as much ability to move upwards as anyone else, and the fact that they start out in a lower position only means more reason that they ought to work hard to improve their situation.


It follows from what we see through the libertarian goggles that doling out pep talks rather than sympathy to those who are struggling seems like a reasonable way to go.  And if someone asks for our help when they clearly could be pushing harder to better themselves instead of trying to leach off of other people, then naturally we will be reluctant to help them if in doing so we slow ourselves down on our own journey upwards (which tends to be a risk of sacrificing for someone else).  In fact, helping them would actually be doing them a disservice, more often than not, because it would instill a reliance on other people for support rather than on their own willpower.  Surely it’s much more virtuous to stand back and let those who are in trouble hit bottom so that they have no choice but to learn how to bounce back from adversity on their own steam.  Tough love, and all that.

Needless to say, I’ve seen that last idea held up as the rationale for any and all forms of bullying.  A society which places faith in libertarian goggles can be a pretty harsh place.  But might this framework still lead to a coherent model, however harsh, of the world in which we live?

Well, it’s clear enough to me that the model is fundamentally flawed and does not lead to a full picture of the territory.  The sort-of-tautological criticism that can be made against the libertarian-leaning view which stands out immediately in the context of other things I’ve written here is that the libertarian goggles act as a shield against incoming gadflies whispering deterministic heresy.  That guy over there seems to be acting irresponsible for no apparent rational motive and claims that he’s trying to stop acting that way but has trouble controlling it for some reason.  His behavior doesn’t match the symptoms of any of the three or four disorders that we acknowledge exist.  Without libertarian goggles we might be receptive to at least the vague suggestion that there’s something wrong with the guy — something deep in his wiring and therefore not entirely under his free control — which doesn’t have a name yet (or that his behavior might be influenced by his upbringing or how society treats one or more demographic categories that he fits into etc., all aspects of his life we’re not in a position to understand right now).  The small handful of very well-known conditions which we do recognize weren’t always known; they had to be discovered through the study of medicine.  There are undoubtedly many other such conditions which still haven’t been discovered.  But once we’re wearing the libertarian goggles, we’re no longer open to considering such a notion; we’re sticking with our very conservative List of Known Conditions and it doesn’t occur to us to seek any explanation from outside of it.  We will instead throw up our hands and invoke a sort of mysterious Agency of the Gaps to explain away his behavior… which is just another way of saying that we’ll conclude that it’s his own damn fault, because somehow he chooses to have a weaker will or less moral fiber than we have.

This is obviously not the right approach for investigating empirical reality, for a number of reasons including those outlined in my post about “gadfly speculations”.  (The analogous criticism is equally valid, of course, for the determinist-goggles mindset, but I’m waiting until another day to pick on that.)  However, my issue with the libertarian-goggles approach extends beyond its inherently fallacious nature to the fact that in my experience it brings with it a bundle of other wrong-headed attitudes, which I attempt to describe below.

II. The strong link in the chain

I wanted to separate under several headings my criticisms of what I consider to be harmful ways of thinking that come from wearing the libertarian goggles for too long, but I couldn’t help but realize that they’re all just different ways of looking at the same core idea.

I remember once hearing a little parable that had been passed among the philosophy students at my university, which went like this.  In some fictional philosophy department (at least, obviously not ours), it is arranged for there to be a large plate of cookies laid out each day as free food for the poor undergrads and grad students in the department.  (Note that there are always many more students than cookies, but I suppose the point is that there should always be some food resource during the day, however small, for the most exhausted students to dip into to keep their sugar levels up.)  But many of the faculty members have a habit of grabbing cookies for themselves, even though they are obviously meant for the students.  One day there are ten cookies on the plate, and ten professors each take a cookie.  In this way, the cookies disappear one by one, so that by the late morning they are all gone and none of the philosophy majors who wanted a little sugar rush have had the opportunity to get any.  The students are understandably annoyed and looking for someone to blame.  The thing is, it wouldn’t have bothered anyone if only two or three of the cookies had disappeared.  It wouldn’t even have been such a problem for nine out of the ten cookies to be gone: the state of greater-than-zero cookie material being available for snacking emergencies is all that mattered.  So it’s tempting to blame the professor who took the last cookie.  But somehow it doesn’t seem fair to put all the blame on her.  The philosophy students spend so much of their energy arguing about it that soon they are all in dire need of a pick-me-up, which is a problem because meanwhile there are still no cookies and they’re no closer to agreeing on who should be held accountable.

I hypothesize (with all the weight of my authority as an armchair social psychologist) that the philosophy majors who are libertarian-gogglers are distinctly more likely than the rest to put the default blame on the professor who took the last cookie.  I call this “privileging the final link in the causal chain”.  In our cookie example, the causal tree looks pretty simple, with all of the choices leading up to the final result being independent.  It can be drawn as a directed graph looking something like this (time flows left to right; the yellow node represents the “no cookie material left in plate” state).


In our real world, most causal trees look more like this, with many choices influencing other choices.


At each node (except yellow one on the right, which represents a final state), some agent made a decision, for better or for worse.  In my opinion there’s actually a pretty straightforward way to quantify the rightness or wrongness of each of these decisions.  But that doesn’t tell us anything about which decision-maker ultimately deserves praise or blame for the final state, because as I’ve argued before, agency does not imply moral responsibility.  It follows that it is dubious to assume that the main responsibility lies with, say, one of the agents at the nodes directly pointing to the rightmost one above, just because those decisions happened after the other ones which influenced them.

But I find myself in disagreements with certain people — and from my observations those people are the kind that are wearing libertarian goggles a lot of the time — who seem to assume without questioning that the responsibility lies entirely with whomever made the most recent decision (indicated by red nodes in the pictures above).  And I’ve found it hard to convince them otherwise.

This particular fallacy takes on many variants.  One of them is putting primary responsibility on someone (agent X) for choosing one out of the only two actions A and B allowed to them by someone else (agent Y).  Agent Y may have foisted upon X a choice between two equally unethical actions A and B, and it seems clear enough to me that Y deserves somewhat more of the blame than X does for whichever one of them X chooses.  But I remember once discussing such a philosophical thought experiment with a group of my colleagues over lunch, where Y is somehow forcing X to choose between killing two people, and I was surprised at how many of them thought it obvious that X was primarily guilty for whichever murder results, having been the one to actually pull the trigger.

Another variant, fairly common in political discourse I think, is the notion that it’s fair to judge agents equally for performing the same action with the same result, even if these choices were influenced by very different sets of circumstances.  This disagreement can take place even between people who agree that both agents should be judged negatively but differ on what should be the appropriate magnitude of punishment for each of them.  A typical dialogue between a Libertarian-Goggler (abbreviated LG) and a Devil’s Advocate (abbreviated DA, whom I consider the hero in this scenario for playing the gadfly role) might look something like this.

LG: I propose that the law against committing A should be applied equally to citizens X and Y, since they both did it to the same negative effect.

DA: But is that fair?

LG: What do you mean, “fair”?

DA: Citizen X was essentially manipulated into doing A, while citizen Y made a very conscious choice to do it.  They both need to be penalized, but surely it’s unfair to treat X as harshly as we treat Y, given X’s extenuating circumstances.

LG: It’s perfectly fair.  Both chose to do A when they could have made a different decision, do you deny that?

DA: No, but consider the fact that citizen X didn’t hadn’t been properly exposed to all the facts surrounding the ramifications of doing A, was in a more desperate situation that made A harder to avoid, and had less beneficial alternate choices at his disposal than citizen Y did.

LG: Could Mr. X have made himself less ignorant if he’d tried hard enough to learn the relevant information?

DA: Well, technically yes…

LG: And could Mr. X still have overcome temptation to do the right thing, which would still mean not doing A, even if the other choices were less than ideal?

DA: Yes…

LG: Then both should be held equally responsible for what they did.

DA: Come off it!  You know the situations aren’t equal, so it’s unfair!

LG: Were their choice-making capabilities not equal?  Either you have free choice or you don’t… [And so on.]

My claim about where libertarian-gogglers tend to stand in such debates begs the question of why the libertarian goggles should influence one’s thinking in this way.  Before writing all this out I imagined introducing my answer to this in a big reveal that might sound clever.  But actually, since I opted for abstract descriptions without real examples, the way I’ve written it already renders the connection pretty obvious.

Libertarian goggles impede one’s ability to recognize the legitimacy of circumstantial factors in choice-making.  Since they highlight freedom in choice-making abilities, external influences (genetics, upbringing, physical/mental conditions, surrounding societal forces, etc.) fade into the background.  When someone decides to do something, an observer wearing libertarian goggles sees the event of that choice clearly without considering the backdrop of events leading up to it.  Such events include other nodes in the causal chain, or restrictions placed on the choice-maker, or aspects of the life of the choice-maker which have led them up to the point of making said choice.  The scenarios I laid out above are all variants of this kind of blind spot.

Now libertarian goggles don’t render the wearer completely unable to perceive the presence of extenuating circumstances surrounding a decision.  Libertarian-gogglers (or at least most of them) aren’t so delusional that they entirely refuse to acknowledge that certain conditions or prior events might make things easier or more difficult for the people they’re observing.  What they refuse to acknowledge is the notion that such factors affect in any way the essential freeness, and therefore the attached moral responsibility, associated to the choices themselves.  In other words, even if they view the factors as factors in some physical or psychological sense, they don’t fully recognize their influence in a metaphysical sense with ethical import.  I assume there’s some limit to the degree of distortion provided by even the strongest libertarian goggles out there — for instance, hopefully the wearer would recognize that the classic scenario of having a gun held to one’s head is a factor that sharply reduces autonomy and the weight of moral responsibility.  But I often suspect it’s the case that the distortion can be severe enough in a number of cases to stretch the wearer’s perceptions to the edge of what “basic social common sense” allows.

The upshot is that the libertarian-goggler will survey an event that resulted from human choices and zoom in on exactly one of those choices that lead to it.  Which of course is exactly what I was arguing against here, via some sort of “argument by symmetry” showing that there are no grounds for arbitrarily privileging one node over others.

III. Reaching the logical conclusion

I’ve already alluded to the obvious potential for certain malicious types of bullying that can arise from abusing the guidelines outlined above for navigating life via the libertarian-free-will route (which I would describe as a very narrow path with “tough love” on one side and “overt disgust for those doing worse than you do” on the other).  Let me now mention a related nasty behavior that just naturally appears at the end of the path the libertarian-goggler travels on.  It is often colloquially referred to as “victim-blaming”.

Victim-blaming occurs when a crime is committed against someone and that someone, the victim of the crime, is met with moral judgment for having failed to act more wisely in order to prevent that crime.  I claim that this unfair reaction is essentially the natural logical conclusion of libertarian-free-will-colored thinking.  It is precisely what can result from a habit of wrongly isolating particular agents in a complicated situation as the bearers of primary responsibility.

In my experience, true, explicit victim-blaming (as in actually placing the blame on the victim rather than merely pointing out that they would have been better off doing something differently) is relatively rare on the individual level, although many other types of rhetoric are easily mistaken for it.  However, I’ve definitely seen plenty of the more abstract variant of blaming a governing system for not managing to sufficiently enforce rules against things that will hurt them.  On a small scale, this can take the form of cheating and finding various minor shortcuts that go against the rules because of the unlikelihood of getting caught and/or light punishments for those who are, and then defending one’s behavior on the grounds that “if they cared that much about us not cheating they would do a better job of enforcing the rules”.  Here someone is ignoring all the potential constraints on the rules enforcement system which is running things, and ultimately putting the blame on the people running that system, rather than themselves, if things go badly (that is, if they cheat and this harms someone else).  And yes, a few years ago I began to notice that the people I knew who seem to explicitly or implicitly endorse rationalizations of this kind were the ones whose views on current issues seemed the most influenced by libertarian goggles; in fact, I think that very observation is what started me down my train of thought that has led me to writing this post today.  And I’m willing to bet that there’s a strong correlation between full-on victim-blaming and libertarian goggles as well.

But lest I sound like I’m preaching from a high horse, I can definitely point to a blatant example of this behavior in myself.  During my first year in the city where I currently reside, I was living just outside of the city and was very dependent on public transportation.  A lot of my daily movements were within official city limits, but my home was just outside of them.  Very annoyingly, the monthly fee for transportation passes costs twice as much when including the zone surrounding the main city.  Each month I paid to recharge my transportation card for within city limits only, with the intention of finding ways to avoid using the one last bus that went outside the limits to take me to my apartment.  But eventually I succumbed to laziness and developed the habit of taking that bus anyway, despite the fact that I had no valid ticket for it.

The bus system here is run in such a way that nobody ever checks for tickets except for controllers who only board buses very occasionally.  The fine for being caught without a ticket is some 30 Euros.  My decision to pay for only the cheaper monthly pass and ride dirty for that one route proved to be a rational one from the point of view of personal finances: visits by controllers are so rare that I was only caught once during that year, and the 30-Euro fine I paid was far less than the money I saved by not paying for extra-urban access.  But more interesting was the way I constantly tried to justify this choice of breaking the rules on an ethical (rather than rational-self-interest) level.  I kept pointing to the fact that obviously this city does a very lackadaisical job of enforcing payment for bus rides.  And somehow I convinced myself (and even still sort of halfway believe) that if I was doing harm by getting illicit rides on that bus, it was really the city’s fault for failing to deter me from it — this was often dressed up as “the fact that they clearly don’t try that hard to enforce it means it must not matter very much to many people”.  Never mind the fact that the city legislators probably have their hands tied in ways I can’t imagine, or that it’s those who are lower on the rungs of the economic ladder rather than the rule-makers that were likely to suffer indirectly from my actions, etc.  Sometimes selective blame-assigning can be so tempting.

If you have read up to this point, you may be objecting that what I’m describing in this section doesn’t really follow as a natural conclusion of what I detailed previously with a node directly pointing to the rightmost one being singled out as the ultimate cause of some effect.  Surely when a crime is committed, the final decision involved in the causal chain is that of the criminal or rule-breaker, so the libertarian-goggler would blame the criminal rather than the victim?  My answer is that I’m not contending that the libertarian-leaning mentality dictates that one should necessarily point the finger at the one whose decision came temporally last.  My thesis is that the libertarian-leaning mentality disregards the difference between agency and ultimate responsibility and singles out one decision as carrying the moral weight, based on whichever one is most convenient to single out.  In a lot of contexts, this is one of the decisions which comes temporally last with an arrow pointing directly to the effect, because absent other deciding features of the situation this may seem like the canonical choice.  In other contexts of personal involvement, the most convenient agent on whom to load the blame is one which is definitely not you or your friends, and preferably one which is remote and faceless (e.g. “the city” for not disciplining bus-riders effectively).

The point is that the libertarian-goggler, wanting to focus on someone’s freedom of choice not bound by other forces, finds themself in the tricky position of selecting one node in the diagram as representing freedom in the truest sense, because the model of absolute freedom begins to break down when considering more than one agent in the same picture.  And sometimes this means they have to be a little bit arbitrary in their selection process.

The world through libertarian goggles can appear an exciting and beautiful place, where everyone has indefinite unfettered potential and is empowered to overcome any seeming obstacles in their way to achieve what they desire provided they desire it badly enough.  But one consequence of denying that difficulties can be legitimate hindrances is that we all feel entitled to withhold help from the less successful lest they drag us down instead of pulling themselves up as we want to keep doing for ourselves.  In the end we face the danger of finding ourselves in a world where blame is bestowed entirely on those who fail for their failures regardless of unfortunate circumstances; credit is doled out only to those who succeed regardless of luck and privilege; and those who climbed their way to the top through whatever means they could get away with feel justified in looking down upon those whose heads they stepped on.  In short, it is a world which legitimizes the domination of the weak by the strong.

2 thoughts on “Failure modes of libertarian* goggles

  1. I’d really wish you wouldn’t have used the word “libertarian” to describe this mindset, because even if you claim to mean the metaphysical meaning of libertarian and not the political, the way the essay is written invites a conflation of the two so strongly it appears intentional or kind of negligent. May I suggest “high-agency” views vs. “low-agency”? Maybe “absolute-agency” vs. “no-agency” if you want to be stark?

    This whole thing is a tricky map-and-territory issue. Agency and responsibility (and agents themselves) are map-phenomena and they work better on low-resolution, low-fidelity maps. As you note, when we look closer they evaporate. Since agency and responsibility are map-phenomena, part of what makes us assign them in particular ways is practicality. While agency of variable strength and broadly distributed responsbility is more accurate and in many cases more compassionate, hardline, concentrated, buck-stopping responsibility has other advantages: it makes it at all possible to create tractable explicit rules, it’s less vulnerable to bureaucratic Molochian degeneracy and Milgramesque horrors, and makes true accountability possible. As a result, some go overboard with it. As always we need both models (or rather, a model that allows for a sliding scale).

    (You may have already intended to write much of this in your next post…)


    1. Well now that you suggest “high-agency” and “low-agency”, I’m strongly leaning towards picking them up and wishing I hadn’t used the word “libertarian” either! I never really felt comfortable with it (these terms are unpleasantly polysyllabic, for one thing), but one thing I’ve learned in my effort to put these thoughts in writing is that coming up with clean, elegant terminology doesn’t come as easily to me as I’d hoped. Somehow when racking my brains I missed the simpler and “more obvious” idea that you jumped to.

      I will admit that an awful lot of (political) libertarian rhetoric does sound to me as if it comes from behind the libertarian high-agency goggles. However, I regard this as a coincidence (two independently distinct senses of “liberty”), and I honestly wouldn’t want or intend my terminology to increase risk of conflation between the two. Although TBH I don’t spend a lot of energy worrying about inviting widespread misconceptions since this blog has a pretty tiny readership.

      Although what you describe is one viable way to look at the opposite extreme, my conception of the opposite extreme is more along the lines of “people’s behavior tends to be dictated by factors beyond their control, so we should be should avoid talking about personal responsibility altogether and focus on changing disadvantageous factors”. That might be only a minor variant on what you have in mind, but in my next post (which I’m partway through a draft of), I’m going more for the personal-disempowerment route (also how easily it breaks down in practical application) when describing the dangers.

      As always we need both models (or rather, a model that allows for a sliding scale).

      I couldn’t agree more, especially with your parenthetical rephrasing.

      Liked by 1 person

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