Why Let the State Define Morality?

Over at EconLog, Dave Henderson has a short, but excellent, post on liberty and morality. Henderson discusses the desirability to have non-coercive means of discouraging undesirable behavior. He uses the example of Youtube using their power to de-platform a popular but controversial individual and the subsequent conservative backlash. Henderson does not believe that the government should have the power to censor, but that a private organization may choose who or who not to host. What follows below is an edited and elaborated version of what I commented at EconLog.

I think this is a good example to distinguish between (how I understand) jurisprudence and ethics.

Jurisprudence is rules for how a sovereign should behave, which inherently means what things should be illegal (ie, punished through a coercive state behavior).

Ethics, on the other hand, are the rules for the good life.

Jurisprudence rules are typically precise and accurate (like the rules of grammar). They are often designed and arbitrariness is typically seen as a bad thing for jurisprudence.

Ethical rules, on the other hand, tend to be more loose. “How to live the good life” can have many answers. Some may live the good life by being generous with their resources (and what does this mean?). Some may live the good life by trying to be kind (whatever that means). There are many ways and various combinations of ways to answer the question. It’s worth mentioning that, while these rules are loose, it is not imply they are arbitrary or moral relativism wins the day. For example, what makes a movie good may be relative to a certain degree, but there do appear to be certain barriers that cannot be crossed before a movie is considered “bad.” Things like : clear focus of camera, comprehensible plot, proper sound, etc.

Libertarians tend to conflate jurisprudence with ethics, and as such they tend to make the state the arbiter of morality (despite their frequent objection to such).  An example of this is some of these disgusting behaviors; some libertarians will argue that any behavior that discourages these actions, even when done by private individuals, is bad.  The logic is since these actions do not violate jurisprudence rules, then they must be tolerated. This, then, leaves the distinction of morality solely in the power of the state; so long as the state determines it is legal, it must consequently be moral since it cannot be punished in other ways. Consider segregation: many libertarians will argue (justly or unjustly, I’ll leave to the reader) that the state has no right either in enforcing segregation or enforcing integration. “Of course a person has the right to segregate! Of course they have the right to discriminate who they do business with!” But then they will resist shaming attempts at those same people who are discriminating (they’ll tend to support not shopping there or not inviting them to parties or something, but not other forms of shaming).

But I do think we need to make a distinction here, that we can frown on something for ethical reasons, want to discourage it, but also not think coercion is the proper way to do so. Allowing non-coercive forms of behavior acts as a means of transmitting morality as well. When the state ends up defining morality, it can very well lead to faction and violence.