The concept of individual liberty was a key component in our country’s birth. Yet 238 years after Thomas Jefferson wrote about the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, America is still perplexed by questions of just how much liberty Americans enjoy, especially when it comes to their private lives. In this edition of FM89’s commentary series The Moral Is, Fresno State philosophy professor Andrew Fiala says it’s time to re-embrace our libertarian ideals.
A libertarian wave is sweeping parts of the country. The rising tide of liberty includes the legalization of gay marriage, marijuana, and physician assisted suicide.
Libertarians think that freedom should only be restricted in order to secure more extensive liberty or to prevent harm to others. Apart from obvious harms such as rape or drunk-driving, libertarians think that our sex-lives, our mental lives, and our dying are no one’s business but our own.
Not everyone agrees. Soldiers in the war on drugs argue that drugs are harmful to individuals and to social welfare. Opponents of gay marriage argue that homosexuality is inherently wrong or that gay marriage harms traditional marriage. Opponents of assisted suicide argue that it is dangerous to be too permissive with regard to death and dying.
Libertarians are not compelled by arguments about social welfare, traditional moralism, or fear of permissiveness. Indeed, they argue that individuals are entitled to choose to do dangerous things, so long as those activities don’t significantly and concretely harm anyone else.
It is important to realize that libertarian permission is not advocacy. To legalize gay marriage, marijuana, or assisted suicide is not to claim that these things ought to be chosen. I think there are better things to do than smoke pot. I am not gay. Nor am I suicidal or terminally ill. But if I were gay or terminally ill, I would want to be able to decide about my own life on my own terms. And if I had nothing better to do, it might be fun to get stoned.
Unhappiness is created when we limit liberty. Drug use is more harmful when it is forced underground and onto the black market. Homosexuality produces dysfunction when it is denied and hidden in the closet. And suicide at the end of life becomes desperate and dangerous when it is criminalized.
There are limits to liberty. Rape, impaired-driving, and forced euthanasia are obviously wrong because they cause harm and violate liberty. And children should not be permitted to use marijuana, get married, or obtain suicide medicines. Liberty rests upon the rational capacities of adults.
Adults are entitled to judge for ourselves about our own well-being. We may make mistakes about what is in our self-interest. But those mistakes are our own to make. And no one other than the individual is entitled to judge what makes life worth living.
Our own mental, emotional, sexual, and physical health are properly left to our own best judgment. We should seek advice from experts and support from our friends. But we ought to be free to decide who we love, what chemicals we ingest, and when and how we want to die.
The views expressed on The Moral Is are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Valley Public Radio.