[Unfinished] In Defense of Classical Liberal Feminism

Why Liberal Feminists Ought to be Classically Liberal

Evan Jack
51 min readNov 1, 2022


[Draft 2, Unfinished & Unrevised]


In this paper, I argue that if one is a liberal feminist, then one ought to be a classically liberal feminist. I outline what I take to be the minimal thesis of feminism, and then analyze the liberal rendition of this thesis. Once I put forward a broad understanding of liberal feminism and its interpretation of the thesis, I then move to make a distinction between liberal feminists: classical liberal feminists and egalitarian liberal feminists. Having made this distinction, I give my account of why I believe there is this division within liberal feminism and give historical support for my account. Having done this, I then move to lay out a meta-ethical and normative ethical framework that I believe will best help us provide moral justification for liberal feminism. Having established our framework, I argue we have some degree of moral justification for feminism and then look at objections. After lining out how I am going to deal with objections, I provide refutations of each objection. After this, I argue that the way by which we dealt with objections to feminism entails that liberal feminism is morally justified while responding to the objections to liberal feminism. I, then, take it one step further and argue that the way by which we dealt with objections to feminism and liberal feminism entails that libertarianism is morally justified and then I defend against objections. Recognizing the rational entailments of our moral justification for feminism’s minimal thesis, I cover the strongest arguments that attempt to justify the key commitments of egalitarian liberal feminism, critique those arguments, defend against objections, and then explain why liberal feminists ought to be classically liberal. I then conclude with reflections on what has just been discussed as well as what is to be discussed in future papers regarding feminism that I will write for this class.

Keywords: Feminism, Liberalism, Rights, Moral Justification, Intuitionism, Name the Trait, Libertarianism, Egalitarianism.

In Defense of Classical Liberal Feminism

Throughout all of its history, feminism has had a single commitment from which all its other commitments come. This single commitment, which every form of feminism continues to hold to be the case, is the commitment to the minimal thesis of feminism, as I have decided to call it. The minimal thesis of feminism holds what follows to be the case:

(MTF) Women are, at the very least, morally equal to men.

It is evident that all formulations and reformulations of feminism hold (MTF) to be the case for two reasons: (i) Patriarchy’s minimal thesis holds that women are, at the very least, morally inferior to men; this is the opposite of (MTF), therefore, if one were to deny that all feminists are committed to (MTF), one would be inadvertently proposing the idea that some feminists are committed to patriarchy, an obviously absurd proposition.[1] (ii) All variants of feminism either hold that women are either morally equal to men or that woman are morally superior to men; (MTF) does not preclude one from being committed to both (MTF) and a principle that holds that women are morally superior to men, therefore (MTF) takes into account all variants of feminism.

Liberal Feminism

Liberal feminism is, simply, a combination of liberalism and feminism. I will not attempt to strictly define liberalism here, because it is a hotly contested notion, but what I will say is that, in my eyes, liberalism generally holds to two things: (i) There is moral equality between entity’s that have considerable moral consideration. (ii) That we ought to respect individual rights. Feminism, in my view, universally holds to (MTF). Therefore, liberal feminism holds that women are morally equal to men in the sense that women and men have equal moral consideration (everything else being equal) and women and men have the same rights (everything else being equal). To clearly express it, this is the liberal thesis of feminism:

(LTF) Women and men are morally equal.

Two Types of Liberal Feminism

Broadly, there are two types of liberal feminists: classical liberal feminists and egalitarian liberal feminists. As I take it, this divide within liberal feminism arises due to the fundamental disagreement about what rights are, instead of state intervention as our textbook suggests.[2]

I believe we can see this historically, but before I get into the historical analysis, let me outline the different conceptions of rights held by the two types of liberal feminism. Classical liberal feminists have a negative conception of rights and egalitarian liberal feminists have a positive conception of rights. A negative conception of rights sees that rights are moral restraints on actors that denote that actors ought to be restricted in those actions they can do in relation to a right holder. A positive conception of rights sees that rights are moral principles that denote that a right holder has a justified claim against another actor for something. So, for example, one who has a negative conception of rights would hold that people have a right to be free from being coerced by other actors. One who has a positive conception of rights would hold that someone has a right to, let’s say, another person’s labor, such as a doctor’s labor (think the supposed “right” to healthcare).

Historical Demonstration of My Account of the Divide

I think that my latter account of the divide between liberal feminists is supported by the historical evolution of feminism discussed in our textbook. Let’s start with Mary Wollstonecraft, who was alive when classical liberalism was in its infancy. She “insisted that women, as well as men, deserve an equal chance to develop into autonomous agents” (Tong and Botts, 2018, p. 15) Seeing this from Wollstonecraft, we can already see that when both feminism and classical liberalism were in their infancies, feminists spoke not of positive rights, but rather negative rights. In this case, the negative right is an actor’s right to be free from being stopped from achieving their ends (assuming those ends were not immoral). This is exactly what Wollstonecraft meant when she spoke of “autonomous agents” (Tong and Botts, 2018, p. 15). One hundred years later, John Stuart Mill argued that “[t]he average woman’s inability to do something the average man could do … did not justify a law or taboo barring all women from attempting that thing” (Tong and Botts, 2018, p. 18). What this demonstrates is that, at the time, classical liberal thinkers, such as Mill, held that even if there were descriptive inequalities between men and women (e.g., intelligence, strength, etc.) they in no way justified the belief that there is a moral asymmetry between men and women. What Mill was advocating for here was a negative right, women have a right to be from coercion used to stop them from exploring those things they want to explore (again, assuming those ends were not immoral). I believe that it has so far been historically demonstrated that classical liberal feminists, in some sense, held that women are morally equal to men and have those negative rights men do. So, let us move on to examine the emergence of egalitarian liberal feminism.

It seems to me that as liberal feminism developed over the hundred or so years after Mill, it became more egalitarian, and the reason for that was a shift in a view of what rights are, or, at least, what rights we have. I believe we can see this demonstrated by, at least,the time of “the second wave” of liberal feminism. First, let’s look at the 1967 Bill of Rights and which of those demands of the feminists demonstrate the shift in a view of rights that I am claiming took place:

II. That equal opportunity be guaranteed to all women, as well as men, by insisting that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces the prohibitions against racial discrimination.
III. That women be protected by law to ensure their rights to [emphasis added] return to their jobs within a reasonable time after childbirth without the loss of seniority or other accrued benefits, and be paid maternity leave as a form of social security and/or employee benefit. (Tong and Botts, 2018, pg. 24)

The second part of the bill holds that the federal government ought to enforce prohibitions against gender-based discrimination within private firms. What this entails is the federal government coercing those owners of a private firm to do something against their will, in this case hiring someone they don’t want to hire because of that person’s gender. This certainly, then, denotes an assumed positive right to be a part of a firm even if the firm not only doesn’t want you but rejects you from being a part of a firm on the basis of your gender.[3]

The third part of the bill holds that a woman has a right to return to the role she had in a firm before giving birth after her maternity leave ends. The question of is this a positive right is not interesting because it is obvious that it is. However, the more interesting question regards if it is obvious that such a right exists? I would argue it is not only not obvious but also unintutive. Here is my reasoning: let’s say you go on maternity leave and the person who was directly below you in terms of position within the firm gets that temporary promotion because you’re gone. Now, when they occupy that position you had, they are more efficient at it than you were ten times over even when you were not pregnant. Because this person has temporarily occupied your role, everyone in the company benefits greatly and much more than if you had the role. When you come back after your maternity leave ends, the firm tells you that they refuse to give you your old job back and want to demote you to the position the person who temporarily held your position had. The reason they give for their decision is that every single person in the firm has greatly benefited because they have gotten better wages due to the fact the company makes more profits because this person temporarily had your job and was better than you at it. Furthermore, the consumers have largely benefited because the cost of commodities the firm was selling has gone down because of what the person who temporarily had your position did. Are you really, then, justified in demanding your position back and threatening them with the fact that you will get the federal government to punish the firm? No! You are coercing a firm based on a clearly unjustified claim to a positive right that does not exist.

Having gone over the second waves discourse about rights, we can see that the second wave certainly had a positive conception of rights. We can also see that as time has gone on and we have gone through the third and into the fourth wave, a positive conception of rights has become more widespread within feminism. Let us look at some contemporary liberal feminists the textbook speaks of in order to demonstrate that this latter claim of mine is true.

Firstly, let’s look at Elizabeth Anderson. Anderson claims that “[t]o construct a society, people must, … aim to establish a community of equals, which integrates principles of distribution with ‘the expressive demands of equal respect’” (Tong and Botts, 2018, p. 30). Anderson then claims that this latter society would “[depend] on deprivileging bourgeois, heterosexual white men” (Tong and Botts, 2018, p. 30). How would this move of deprivileging happen? If it happens through individual people within the society doing permissible actions against bourgeois, heterosexual white men, such as abstaining from buying from any firm owned by them, then I wouldn’t say her view is necessarily problematic (though, it still may be problematic in some other irrelevant sense). However, if we are to use the state to deprivilege that group of people through coercive means then it certainly is not justified. I assume that Anderson advocates for the latter option, or, at least, is practically forced to resort to the latter option. I assume such because if people refused to eliminate “bad luck” or organize society in the way Anderson sees it ought to be and refused to hear her out, then she is going to either have to give up or resort to coercion.

Secondly, let’s look at Martha Nussbaum. Nussbaum holds that “to be equal men and women must have the same resources and opportunities in life” and that to achieve such an equal state of affairs we can employ state coercion (Tong and Botts, 2018, p. 30). She holds that we are justified in employing state coercion because “morality and equality demand that the state provide everyone with access to these capabilities” (Tong and Botts, 2018, p. 30). To clarify Nussbaum’s position, let’s clearly outline the two reasons she believes state coercion will have to take place: (i) In order to give men and women the same resources in life, some form of resource redistribution must take place. The most plausible method by which the state would do this is taxation which is coercive (ii) If some people did not want to organize society in the way Nussbaum wants it to be, the state is going to have to coerce them in some way to force compliance in order to achieve the supposedly moral state of affairs she calls “equality.”

Both of these examples, in a certain sense, imply that people have positive rights to certain things (e.g., resources, opportunities, etc.), and both of these liberal feminists are (self-proclaimed) egalitarian liberal feminists. In light of all that has been dissucesed thus far, I believe that I’ve demonstrated that there is historical backing to my account of what divides liberal feminists. Having done this, it is time to move on to outlining and arguing for the framework that will help us provide moral justification for (LTF).

Meta-Ethics and Normative Ethics

I take it to be the case that (MTF) has moral justification. What is my reason for thinking such? Simple: it is intuitive. In other words, to me, it appears to be the case that women are, at least, morally equal to men. The position I am forwarding is ethical intuitionism, my reasons for forwarding this position are two: (i) It is epistemically justified. (ii) It gets around the logical problem that is the is-ought gap. Let’s quickly discuss these two reasons.

The Epistemic Justification of Ethical Intuitionism

I believe that the epistemic justification of ethical intuitionism comes by way of the epistemology called Phenomenal Conservatism. According to Huemer (2007), Phenomenal Conservatism holds that

PC If it seems to S that p, then, in the absence of defeaters, S thereby has at least some degree of justification for believing that p. (p. 30)

Phenomenal Conservatism holds that seemings/appearances justify beliefs.[4] So, when it seems/appears to you that a dog is barking, for example, you have some degree of justification for believing that a dog is barking. Huemer (2001) sees that “A defeater for your justification for P (where P is something you justifiably believe) is defined to be a true proposition that, if it were added to your beliefs, would render you no longer justified in believing that P” (p. 94). Let us return to the dog barking example to better understand what Huemer is saying here. The morning after it seemed to you that a dog was barking, you go to the weekly community meeting. At the community meeting, a discussion arises about the barking noises everyone heard. One person then shows recordings of last night that show that it was actually a human running around the community making dog noises. Some of the kids and the kid in the video all then admit to it, saying that it was a dare. Knowing that it was a human and not a dog making the barking noise, you would no longer have justification for believing a dog was barking, or, at least, would have a lesser degree of justification than before. This would be an example of a defeater.

What type of justification do seemings afford us? As I take it, seemings provide us with prima facie justification because “[p]rima facie justification [is justification that] can be defeated or undermined by additional evidence. But in the absence of any such defeating evidence [defeater], prima facie justification for believing p will constitute all things considered justification for believing p [i.e., ultima facie justification]” (Pryror, 2001, p. 534).

The Is-Ought Gap

Within ethics, there is a logical problem with deriving an evaluative conclusion (an “ought-statement”) from non-evaluative premises (“is-statements”) called “the is-ought gap.” The reason this is a logical problem is that this problem is not just specific to deriving an evaluative conclusion from non-evaluative premises. Instead, this problem is, as Huemer (2005) says, “just a special case of a general principle of logic” (p. 74). Huemer (2005) explains why this is so:

[O]ne cannot validly deduce a conclusion that applies a predicate P, from premises that nowhere contain that predicate. This is nothing special about evaluative predicates; it applies to any predicate whatsoever. For instance, one cannot infer a conclusion stating that something is red from premises that nowhere contain the word ‘red’. (p. 74)

that something is red from premises that nowhere contain the word ‘red’. (p. 74)

Having recognized the is-ought gap for what it is, it can be asked, “Why is this a problem?” Well, essentially what the is-ought leads to is a concession to the idea that “no collection of facts about what is the case entail any claim about what ought to be” (Huemer, 2005, p. 73). From this many conclusions can be drawn, however, because of length limits (that have probably already been exceeded), I do not have time to go over athese conclusions and how they follow from the is-ought gap. Some of the important conclusions that follow from the is-ought gap are as follows:

(a) that we cannot know moral truths by observation, (b) that we cannot know (non-trivial) moral truths by deducing them from non-moral truths, (c) that we cannot know (non-trivial) moral truths by conceptual analysis, and (d) that we cannot know moral truths by scientific reasoning or inference to the best explanation. (Huemer, 2005, p. 74)[5]

Looking at this, it seems that all that is left to arrive at moral facts is by way of some a priori appearance, or, as we commonly call it, intuition. So, having given both positive justification — through Pheomenal Conservatism — and negative justification — through understanding the is-ought gap’s consequences — for ethical intuitionism, it is time to head back toward how ethical intuitionism can help us with providing moral justification for feminism by understanding the general character, functions, etc. of ethical intuitions.[6]

Ethical Intuitions

Huemer (2005) explains that “[a]n initial, intellectual appearance is an ‘intuition’. Giving a technical and clarifying understanding of intuition, Huemer (2005) see that, “an intuition that p is a state of its seeming to one that p that is not dependent on inference from other beliefs and that results from thinking about p, as opposed to perceiving, remembering, or introsepcting” (p. 102). Intuition, being a type of appearance, provides prima facie justification for any S’s belief that p, assuming, that S has the intellectual appearance that p. Now, an ethical intuition is “[a]n intuition whose content is an evaluative proposition” (Huemer, 2005, p. 102). The obvious question that first comes to mind is “Are there any good examples of an ethical intuition?” Huemer (2005) gives a few examples:

Enjoyment is better than suffering.
If A is better than B and B is better than C, then A is better than C.

It is unjust to punish a person for a crime he did not commit.

Courage, benevolence, and honesty are virtues.

If a person has a right to do something, then no person has a right to forcibly prevent him from doing something. (p. 102)[7]

So, now that we have gone over some examples of some propositions that draw out ethical intuitions, let’s go over some of the functions of ethical intuition that will be used in the moral justification of (MTF). Ethical intuitions tell us that someone is prima facie wrong or right, thereby providing non-inferential justification for the evaluative proposition at hand. It is “also involved in the weighing of competing values — for instance, we may have intuitions about whether it is right to kill many people in order to depose a tyrant, if the facts of the case are we as believe them to be” (Huemer, 2005, p. 103). The most important role that ethical intuitions play is unsuprising: they can help resolve many ethical dillemas (e.g., the classic trolley problem, involuntary organ donors hypothethical, etc.), they answer moral questions, they are a way by which moral facts come to us. Hence, why we have brought attention to them: we have a moral question: “Is (MTF) the case?” Now, having looked at and justified our meta-ethical framework, ethical intuitionism, let us quickly establish our normative ethical framework.[8][9]

Moderate Deontology

I take it that moderate deontology is the best normative ethical framework, especially if one is a meta-ethical intuitionist, but what is moderate deontology? Huemer (2021) explains,

[Moderate Deontology is an] ethical view that holds that some kinds of action are wrong even when they produce somewhat better consequences; however, they are permissible when they produce vastly better consequences (or avert vastly worse consequences).

Now, because I have length constraints, I will not go over objections to this view, or many arguments for it at all.[10] I have a single point in favor of moderate deontology: out of all normative ethical theories, it best “accommodates common sense ethical intuitions” (Huemer, 2021). Being ethical intuitionists when it comes to meta-ethics, what else could we ask a normative ethical theory to do other than express our ethical intuitions? I’d say nothing significant at all.

An Ethical Intuitionist Case for Feminism

Having established our meta-ethical and normative ethical frameworks, it is time to move to provide moral justification for (MTF). It seems to me that women are, at least, morally equal to men. Now, because I am not currently aware of any defeater that demonstrates the contrary, I currently have some degree of justification for believing that (MTF) is the case. I have prima facie justification for believing that (MTF) is the case. This is the simplicity of the ethical intuitionist case for feminism. We need not do anything more than that to garner some prima facie justification for our belief in feminism. However, that we have ultima facie justification for our belief in feminism, is not yet the case. For it to be the case, we must consider the objections. So, let us do that now.

Locating Objections

Historically, what were the common objections to the idea that women were, at least, morally equal to men? Using our textbook, we can identify one, but there are two more that we can historically account for: (i) “[T]he existence of general intellectual … differences between women and men” (Tong and Botts, 2018, p. 18) (ii) “[W]omen were … physically inferior to men” (Bergman, 2000) (iii) “[T]he female as … weaker of soul [than men]” (“The Nature of Women.” n.d.).

The first objection entails various objections such as men being more intelligent than women or men can engage in exercises of reason to a higher degree than women. The second objection entails various objections such as women being physically weaker than men or women lacking or having some physical trait that explains their inferiority to men. The third objection entails various objections such as women having less self-control than men because of the weaker constitution of their souls. Let’s respond to each of these objections one by one and demonstrate how they all entail making moral commitments that are highly unintuitive even after lengthy and strong reflection on the propositions at hand. These entailed moral commitments, being highly unintuitive, (most probably) cannot be rationally committed to by any ethical intuitionist, therefore showing why we, as ethical intuitionists, are rationally required to reject the already outlined objections to (MTF). But, before we go about considering and rejecting each objection, let us line out how we are going to consider each objection.

The Name the Trait Argument

The way by which we will go about considering the various objections is through what is called “The Name the Trait Argument.”[11]

(NTT) What is true of x, that if true of y, would then justify doing some action to y?

Let’s give an example: “What is true of women, that if true of men, would justify treating men as morally inferior?” Historically, the answers would appeal to some supposed intellectual, physical, or metaphysical “fact” about women. So, now that we understand how we are going to go about considering the objections, let us consider the objections.

Considering and Rejecting Objections

The first objection to (MTF) is that women inherently lack some intellectual potential or capacity men have. It has been argued for millennia and is still argued today in certain parts of the world. Why it still seems to have some rational force to some people, I do not know. Let us go over this objection in its most general form(s).

Many have argued that supposedly women are inherently less intelligent than men and then they infer from this supposition that women are morally inferior to men. First, I do not see how this draws out any ethical intuition. I know many men who are less than intelligent than I am, but never has it appeared to me that they are morally inferior to me. The objectors may object and say how the issue here is not the discrepancies between men’s intellectual abilities because those discrepancies are not inherent. Even considering this, how would inherency mean anything? Is the supposedly intuited principle not that those who are less intelligent have less moral consideration or something of that sort? If it is not, and it is about inherency, then why does intelligence matter? If it is both intelligence and inherency, then I’d say that we have empirical defeaters for the intuitions regarding inequality in terms of intelligence and intellectual capacity between men and women. An example of one of these empirical defeaters would be my observing some women I know being more intelligent than some men I know.

So, what we have argued so far is that the objection does not descriptively seem to be the case and that we have no ethical intuitions in support of the principles that the objection supposes when we reflect on them. Though, let us be super-duper charitable to the objectors by granting that the descriptive principles that the objection supposes are true and that we have some intuitions that support the objection (however weak they are). Having done this, let us see what the absurd implications of such charitability result.

Hypothetically, let us say there is a species of aliens who inherently are more intelligent than all humans. The objector would, by their own intuitive standard, rationally have to commit to the view that all humans are morally inferior to all of these aliens.[12] Taking into account the historically observed consequences of patriarchal views such as objection 1, some of the objectors would rationally have to commit to the view that these aliens can rape, beat, stone, hang, burn, etc. all humans. This is highly counter-intuitve and if it isn’t counter-intuitive to you then you may want to reflect on how reliable your faculty of reason is! So, such a commitment to objection 1 entails having a commitment to there being a case wherein every human can be raped, brutally beat, burned, hung, etc. by another species that is just inherently more intelligent than humans. Now, some objectors may reject the idea that such an absurd commitment is entailed by arguing that there is simply some trait that humans have that makes them morally equal to these aliens, or at least, that makes these acts of these aliens immoral. Whatever trait they specify, we can easily generate a counter-example by simply modifying the hypothetical to make it where these aliens are indifferentiable from humans except in terms of intelligence. Having modified the hypothetical in this way, the objectors that contended that there was a special trait that made humans still above or at least equal to these aliens would have to argue that this special trait is being inherently less intelligent than these aliens (which would contradict objection 1), or they could argue that it is some other trait both the aliens and humans share, and if it is some trait they share then men and women most probably also share such a trait (e.g., sentience). To reiterate, if they commit to objection 1 then they are rationally committed to the aforementioned and absurd entailments, but if they reject they are rationally committed to such then they must either contradict objection 1 or they must reject objection 1 by admitting that there is some trait that overrides the idea that moral equality is determined by the inherent intellectual capacity an entity has. If they contradict objection 1 then they have entered into an illogical position that would provide us rational entitlement to reject their objection. If they reject objection 1, then they have no objection to (MTF).

(MTF), then, has been defended against objection 1, and I would argue that it has been defended against objections 2 and 3 as well. I would argue this because you can just replace intelligence with any other trait and we can modify the genocidal alien hypothetical in regard to whatever trait the new objection is centered around. So, we could argue that the aliens are inherently physically superior or inherently have stronger and superior souls, etc.

Not only do the principles supposed by the objections not have any intuitive support when everything else is equal, but we can also see that when we consider all other things, including the rational entailments of the objections, we can recognize that any threshold we have is going to be transgressed. This is why moderate deontology is quite important to us here. We can recognize how ridiculous the objectors’ position really is because, when it comes to normative ethics, they not only fail on a deontological account but also on a utilitarian account. In other words, there really is no good defense of the objections from either side of normative ethics.

Having defended (MTF) against objections, I am going to go on to argue that the way by which (MTF) is vindicated entails the vindication of (LTF) and specifically classical liberal feminism. I will start with (LTF), then I will go on to look at how the way by which both (MTF) and (LTF) are vindicated entail libertarianism. With libertarianism being vindicated, it will easily be recognized that when it comes to most divides between classical and egalitarian liberal feminists we ought to side with the classical liberal feminists.

An Ethical Intuitionist Case for Liberal Feminism

The only objection that we have not considered to (LTF) in the process of considering various objections to (MTF) would be the objection that women are morally superior to men, therefore meaning there is no moral equality between men and women. Such an objection being true would be devastating for (LTF) because moral equality between men and women is the kernel of (LTF). This objection can be dealt with in the same way as the objections to (MTF) were, i.e., we can say that claiming women are morally superior to men entails holding the position that it is morally permissible for genocidal aliens to do all those aforementioned things to humans. If one holds this position then we can not only see that their position is not intuitive and has only a small degree of justification (if any at all), but we can also see that they no longer would have any way to reject the objections to (MTF), therefore meaning they would have no reason to be feminists or any defense of feminism at all. The only way they could gain a reason would be by fully accepting (MTF), that is, accepting (MTF) and the implications of how (MTF) is defended, one of which is (LTF).

In light of everything just said, I believe that there is no good objection to the idea that men and women are morally equal, and because there is no good objection to the idea that men and women are morally equal, I also believe we have ultima facie justification for our belief in (LTF). Therefore, liberal feminism has been vindicated. But we are not done yet! We must now see which form of liberal feminism, classical or egalitarian, is morally justified. To do this, I argue that we should focus on the divide in opinion regarding the role of the state that is present within liberal feminism. I believe we should focus on this divide because, one, I think it has already been implied that I think that the intuitive support for negative rights is much, much stronger than any intuitive support that positive rights can garner, so talking about rights here will not do us any good. Furthermore, I believe that even if we did look at the divide in opinions of what rights are, if the state cannot be justified in its existence, then our discussion of positive and negative rights will be all for naught.

An Ethical Intuitionist Case for Libertarianism

Michael Huemer has, over the past ten or so years, provided what I believe to be the best argumentative strategy to support libertarianism. I believe this for three reasons: (i) Huemer refuses to go on the defense. Instead of providing some absurdly rigid and ultimately unintuitive moral argument for libertarianism like those such as Ayn Rand and Hans-Hermann Hoppe have provided, he moves to demand justification for the state’s existence from statists, those who believe that the government ought to exist. This demand puts the statist on the defense and the libertarian on the offense, creating an imbalance in the dialectical exchange held between the statist and the libertarian that favors the libertarian. (ii) His Phenomenal Conservatism allows him to get around the statist’s charge that just because they are unable to provide moral justification for the state’s existence, does not mean that one has moral justification for libertarianism. Phenomenal Conservatism allows him to get around this charge because through the dialectical exchange between the defensive statist and the offensive libertarian, the statist will have failed to provide a defeater for the libertarian’s view, meaning that the libertarian has some degree defeasible justification for their belief in libertarianism. Furthermore, due to the argumentative strategy employed by Huemer, the degree of defeasible justification the statist has for their belief will continue to dwindle as the dialectic continues because the libertarian, being on the offense, will have been continually providing counter-examples, analogies, and hypotheticals that demonstrate how uninuituive the statist position is. (iii) Because Huemer’s approach has the goal of accommodating common sense morality (widely held and strong ethical intuitions), his approach will be more effective at convincing everyday people of libertarianism than other libertarian approaches. These three reasons, I believe, show why Huemer’s argumentative strategy is the best for libertarianism. So, let us get into it.

Huemer’s approach, I would argue, is just (NTT) in the context of the moral justification for the state’s existence.[13] Huemer has commonly referred to it as “the Problem of Political Authority”:

(PPA)NTT What is true of state actors, that if true of non-state actors, would then give political authority to nongovernmental actors?

First, let us define what “political authority” is to make (PPA)NTT clearer. Political authority is “the hypothesized moral property in virtue of which governments may coerce people in certain ways not permitted to anyone else and in virtue of which citizens must objey governments in situations in which they would not be obligated to obey anyone else” (Huemer, 2013c). Second, let us look at how Huemer himself states the problem of political authority. Huemer (2013c) says, “Why do we accord this special moral status to government, and are we justified in doing so? This is the problem of political authority.” Understanding these two things, we could restate (PPA)NTT as what follows:

(PPA) What gives the state special moral justification to coerce people in ways that would be considered immoral if a non-state actor coerced people in such ways?

Again, the answer to (PPA) is by definition political authority, but answering “Political authority!” would just be trivial. Hence, why we must ask “What gives the government political authority?” or “What is true of governmental actors that gives them political authority?” So, let us now go about looking at (non-trivial) answers to our question.

Considering and Rejecting Arguments for Political Authority

There are many common arguments for the state having political authority. Some of these common arguments see that it is either social contract theory, democracy, or consequentialism that provides the reason for why the state has political authority. I think that the three latter traits can and have been easily done away with, so I will not address them here.[14] What I will address is the argument for the state having political authority that I feel is the the most difficult, in a certain sense, to grapple with.

This argument is the political intuition argument. I think to some people it just really strongly seems the case that there is a difference between the state and non-state actors that gives the former political authority. I want to clarify that I don’t think the political intuition argument is very strong in most cases, however, I think some cases it is very strong. Let’s look at a different case of a very strong intuition that is, in a certain sense, analogous to what we are talking about now. Many people have a very strong anti-vegan intuition. To them, it just really strongly seems to be the case that there is a difference between humans and non-human animals that gives the former and not the latter some special moral consideration. However, when we use argumentative strategies such as (NTT), we see that we cannot specify any thing that demonstrates this difference that doesn’t lead to some absurd unintuitive conclusion. But, even once we lead the anti-vegan, statist, etc. into these unintuitive conclusions, they will just search for another thing that they feel could demonstrate the difference, and they will continue to arrive at unintuitive conclusions, unless they refused to give an argument and just stuck with their anti-vegan or (pro-state) political intuition. It is this move that I believe to be hard to grapple with, not only because it brings the dialetic to an unsatisfactory and abrupt halt, but also just leads to a somewhat problematic disagreement.[15] So, how should we deal with it? Well, Huemer (2013c) has gone over how various experiments have demonstrated “strong pro-authority bias,” how some level of cognitive dissonance may be present within statists, how status quo bias exists (the status quo obviously being in favor of the state), how political aesthetics influence people to believe in authority, how there is a certain psychological explanation for why pro-state political intuitions are unreliable, and various “[c]ase studies in the abuse of power” (Chapter 6). All of these considerations of Huemer, I think, show how pro-state political intuitions are unreliable or, at the very least, provide weaker defeasible justification than statists may think. Hence, I think that this is quite a satisfactory approach.[16] However, I do want to consider the implications of this response in the conclusion. I do also want to show how we can also justifiably believe that libertarianism, even when it comes down to appealing to brute political intuitions, still has a higher degree of defeasible justification than the statist.

I believe that even if we can dispel the political intuition argument we can still show that you should rationally take the libertarian position. I believe this for four reasons: (i) If one appeals to brute political intuitions, then libertarianism and statism will, at bottom, have similar, if not the same degree of defeasible justification. (ii) Every time the libertarian is successful within the dialectical exchange, it seems their position is stronger. (iii) When the libertarian is successful within the dialectical exchange, they will be so by showing how the statist’s attempt at solving (PPA) will only lead to having to accept absurd and unintuitive conclusions. In a certain sense, this not only seems to raise the degree of defeasible justification the libertarian has, it also seems to subtract the from the degree of defeasible justification the statist has. (iv) The seemings behind libertarianism, I hold, are stronger because they are, for a large part, those widely held ethical intuitions that compose common sense morality. Even the statist has these ethical intuitions and so if they didn’t supposedly have a very strong pro-state political intuition they would have no reason not be a libertarian and many reasons to be a libertarian. Once we consider these four reasons, it is clear why libertarianism is always going to have the upper hand.

The final comment I want to make before we move on from this section is that many people oppose libertarianism solely because they cannot imagine a society without a large state or, inversely, they cannot imagine a society with a minimal state or a society without a state. Many simply cannot comprehend or conceive of the status quo changing in such a radical way. Furthermore, many do not want it to change until they have accommodations. Let me explain what I mean by this. I believe that many cannot imagine a society that goes without killing animals for food. For many, an ethical vegan society is not only something inconceivable but also seemingly impossible. A libertarian society and an ethical vegan society are similar in that both are unimaginable for many. But, they are also similar in the other sense I describe above: many would not want a libertarian society or an ethical vegan society until they were accommodated. Let me continue to use the ethical vegan society for it will be good at explaining this. Many would not want an ethical vegan society because it would be a society without killing animals for food and so they reason it will be a society without meat which they want. However, once technology improves and synthetic meat becomes not only cheap but also tasty (maybe even tasting the same as that natural meat they are meant to be), many, I believe, will move toward ethical veganism. I believe this because they will be able to get what they want, meat, and, after getting what they want, they will all absolutely remark, “Oh, how could we have been so cruel killing all those animals? How horrid we have been!” I think the same thing may happen once a functional libertarian society is achieved. Many will say, once they realize the libertarian society accommodates them, “Oh, how could we have endorsed such horrible things like state coercion? How confused we were!” On this note, let’s move on.

A Critique of Egalitarian Liberal Feminism

Tong and Botts (2018) hold that “egalitarian liberals believe the state should focus on minimizing economic disparities as well as protecting civil liberties” (p. 12). When evaluating egalitarian liberal commitments, we obviously must look at the ethics of them. So, let’s look at its first commitment: using the state to aid the poor.

Is the State Justified in Aiding the Poor?

Huemer (2013c) explains, “Many government policies serve to redistrbute wealth from the rich to the poor. This class of policies looms large in contemporary social theory, overshadowing every other kind of policy in discussions of social justice.” Understanding the importance of redistrbutive policies to egalitarian liberals focused on social justice (i.e., all of them), we must find and then consider the strongest argument(s) for the state having justification for coercively enforcing such policies.

Huemer (2013c) and I both believe that the argument we are about to consider is “the strongest argument in favor of wealth redistribution.” Huemer (2013c) explains the argument as follows:

Imagine that you are passing by a pond where you see a drowining child. If you can save the child at slight cost to yourself, then it would be wrong not to do so. This example is often deployed in the ethics literature to motivate the principle that, if one can prevent something very bad from happening at list cost to oneself, one is obligated to do so. In particular, it is often said that if we have the opportunity to save poor people from suffering from starvation, malnutrition, or other serious harms at small cost to ourselves, we must do so. But now imagine that for whatever reason, you are unable to save the child in the pond yourself. There is, however, another bystander who could save the child at slight cost to herself. This individual, however, does not care enough about the child to do so voluntarily. The only way to cause the child to be saved is to threaten the bystander with violence unless she saves the child. You do so, and she saves the child. Call this the Drowning Child case. In this case, regrettable as the resort to coercion may be, it seems justified. This appears to show that it is permissible to coerce others to assist those in distress, provided that they can do so at modest cost and that there is no other way of causing the people in distress to be helped. By analogy, one may argue, the state is justified in using coercion to induce citizens to aid the poor, as in the case of government social welfare programs.

Let’s call what Huemer just described as the Drowning Child argument which, again, both of us believe to be the strongest argument in favor of wealth redistribution. How are we supposed to demonstrate that this argument is a bad argument, for it is quite an intuitive argument? Huemer (2013c) suggests that we should first modify the Drowning Child case to be more analogous to taxation. To do this he creates “the Incompetent Bystander case” (Huemer, 2013c). This case is just like the one before, except, when you do coerce the innocent bystander into saving the drowning child, “it is unclear whether the child will actually be saved” (Huemer, 2013c). Huemer (2013c) then asks us to assume “there is a fair chance that, on his way to trying to save the drowning child, the bystander will accidentally knock one or more other children into the pond who will then drown.” Whether or not coercing him is good seems unclear after considering these two modifications to the original case. Again, “it is quite unclear to you whether the net expected benefit of forcing the bystander to ‘help’ is positive or negative” (Huemer, 2013c). So, let’s suppose that we do coerce the innocent bystander into saving the drowning child, even after considering all the risks. Both Huemer and I would argue that doing such would be immoral. We think this because of two facts: (i) We already have a very strong intuition against the use of coercion that is one of the widely spread ethical intuitions that composed common sense morality. This very strong intuition against the use of coercion creates “a presumption against coercion,” as Huemer (2013c) notes. (ii) Having this presumption against coercion makes taking action in favor of coercion when uncertainty is present wrong because of the easily intuited moral principle that if one has a presumption against taking action x then in any case in which moral uncertainty is present, one should not take action because there is no clear side that seems better (this is what moral uncertainty is), and the role of a presumption in favor of something is to do indicate to the that person who has the presumption in favor of x that in cases of moral uncertainty or cases in which there is no clear reason to do one action over the other, you should do that action which you have a presumption in favor of. After considering this, we can see that when we make the Drowning Child case more analogous to taxation, it seems that we do not have justification to force someone to save the child. Huemer (2013c) also suggests that we can reach the same conclusion about the modified version of the Drowning Child case that we reached through our intuitions regarding moral presumption through recognizing that the “exprected harms … outweigh the expected benefits” in this modified case. From this, Huemer (2013c) holds, “Government antipoverty programs are justified, then, only if their expected benefits are positive and this fact is reasonably clear (that is, we have strong all-things-considered justification for believing it.” So, now, the egalitarian liberal must argue that the expected benefits of government antipoverty programs are positive and that it is clear that they are in fact positive for the coercion involved in funding antipoverty programs are justified. So, let us now consider the egalitarian liberal’s argument for why this is so.

Huemer (2013c) holds, “There is a simple and well-known argument for thinking that antipoverty programs are overall beneficial: antipoverty programs redistribute money from wealthier people to poorer people.” Heumer then goes over arguments in favor and against this simple and well-known argument which I do not have the time to discuss here. What I do want to emphasize is the fact that there is so many arguments going around makes a good degree of moral uncertainty arise in which our moral presumption against coercion has us conclude that the coercion required for antipoverty programs to be successful is not morally justified.

Now, assuming that we deal with the original Drowning Child case, we could still argue that the state is not justified in its use of coercion if we could demonstrate that the original Drowning Child case is not the best analogy to government antipoverty programs. Huemer (2013c) asks us to consider another case that may be the closest analogy to government antipoverty programs: “Consider the Charity Mugging case: you have started a charity to provide monetary assistance to the poor. To collect the needed funds, you take to mugging people on the street.” When considering the Charity Mugging case it is clearly intuitive that what the charity is doing is wrong. So, if we can argue that the Charity Mugging case better represents government antipoverty programs than the Drowning Child case, then we can argue that government antipoverty programs are unjustified. Huemer (2013c) and I both believe that the Charity Mugging case better represents government anti poverty programs for three reasons: (i) The charity does extremely similar things, if not exactly the same things that government antipoverty programs do (both are trying to provide economic aid to the poor). (ii) The charity is using coercion just as the state does to support its antipoverty programs. (iii) The charity and the state are “coercively acquiring” (stealing) the same thing: money. Knowing that we have three good reasons for viewing the Charity Mugging case as the best analogy to government antipoverty programs, Huemer (2013c) argues, “[I]f we accept ordinary intuitions about both the Drowning Child [case] and the Charity Mugging [case], we should conclude that government antipoverty programs are impermissible.” So, have we done it? Have we shown how a major facet of egalitarian liberalism is unjustified? Maybe, but let’s hold our horses and see if there are any objections to this.

Huemer recognizes that some philosopher would argue that there is no important difference between the two cases because the differences Huemer puts forward are descriptive and not moral. These philosophers then argue against Huemer that because there is no important difference between these two cases and the intuition regarding the Drowning Child case is stronger, then we should follow the conclusions of the Drowning Child intuition, one of them supposedly being that “we should endorse government antipoverty programs” (Huemer, 2013c). To deal with this objection, Huemer says we must carefully reflect on if there are any important differences between the Drowning Child case and the Charity Mugging case.

So, we already have reasons (i), (ii), and (iii) to show how the Charity Mugging case is more analogous to government antipoverty programs than the Drowning Child case is. However, some have objected that these are just descriptive differences and thus do not change the intuited moral fact that coercion is justified that was drawn out by the Drowning Child case, therefore making government antipoverty programs justified as the Drowning Child intuition is stronger than the Charity Mugging intuition. Whether or not this is true, I believe that if we do have more similarities, descriptive or not, between one case and government antipoverty programs then they are probably more similar, and it is somewhat plausible that this affords the Charity Mugging case the status of being more analogous to government antipoverty programs. So, I’ll go over some more simiarities that Huemer notes. Huemer (2013c) sees three more similarities between the Charity Mugging case and government antipoverty programs: (i) The charity and the state are trying to address not a urgent emergency (a child drowning) but a “chronic social condition” (poverty) (Huemer 2013c). (ii) The charity and the state can really only “alleviate” their problem, whereas the drowning child can be “easily and quickly” saved, therefore solving the problem (Huemer 2013c). (iii) The charity and the state continually steal money from people, whereas the drowning child being saved is a one-time thing. So, now we have six reasons to believe that the Charity Mugging case is more analogous to government antipoverty programs than the Drowning Child case is. Some may continue to object that we need some moral difference. So, let’s give them what they need.

Huemer (2013c) offers “a stringent moral duty to assist the drowning child” as a “relevant moral difference between the two cases.” To guage if there is a “stringent moral dut[y] to donate to charity,” Huemer (2013c) raises another case, “the Overworked Philanthropist case”:

Suppose that you regularly donate 80 percent of your paycheck to charities helping poor children. On the way to work, you see a child drowning in a shallow pond. Considering how much sacrifice you have already made for others, you wonder whether you must really get your clothes wet to save yet another child.

The answer is obviously yes, we should save the drowning child. Huemer (2013c) then says,

[I]f the duty to donate to charity is comparable to the duty to save a drowning child, then it seems that we may make the same claim about donating to charity; that is, even after donating 80 percent of your income to charity, you are still obligated to donate (more) to charity given the chance. If this is not so, then the obligation to give to charity must be somehow less stringent than the obligation to assist a drowning child. … Furthermore, in the Otherworked Philanthropist case, you would not be just slightly blameworthy if you failed to sae the child. Failure to save the child would be extremely blameworthy, perhaps not much better than murder. Therefore, if the obligation to give to charity is morally comparable to the obligation to assist a drowning child, then one who fails to give away over 80 percent of his income to charity is also extremely blameworhty, perhaps not much better than a murderer. We might have to conclude that the behavior of nearly everyone, including, for example, philanthropists who give away only 75 percent of their income, is utterly despicable.

I also want to further this point by saying that in the Drowning Child case, you have to give your entire being to saving the child. So, would one therefore have to provide the entirety of their income? Or, at least, so much of their income such that they themselves won’t die? This does not at all seem to be the case… Huemer (2021) picks up on this fact as well:

[W]e won’t just be giving a little bit occasionally. We’ll be giving almost everything, we have. After I’ve saved one starving child, there will be another one I could save. And another one. No matter how many I save, there will always be this argument that I could save one more, by giving a little more money — all the way to the point where I have only just enough to meet my own basic needs. There would be no particular point at which I sacrified anything of comparable significance to another person’s life. But the cumulative effect of all the giving would be to pretty much ruin my life. But it’s just not reasonable to ask people to make that much of a sacrifice for others. The [Drowning Child case] is different, because you only have one child to save.

So, now we have identified moral differences between the two cases. Therefore, we have eight similarities between the Charity Mugging case and government antipoverty programs that also count as differences between the Drowning Child case and government antipoverty programs: (i) The charity and government antipoverty programs have almost identical, if not the same function (attempting to provide economic aid to the poor). (ii) Both the charity and government antipoverty programs use coercion. (iii) The charity and the state are using coercion to acquire the same thing (money). (iv) The charity and the state are not addressing an urgent emergency (a child drowning) but instead a “chronic social condition” (Huemer 2013c). (v) The charity and the state can really only “alleviate” their problem, whereas the drowning child can be “easily and quickly” saved, therefore solving the problem (Huemer 2013c). (vi) The charity and the state continually steal money from people, whereas the drowning child being saved is a one-time thing. (vii) The duty to give to charity less stringent than the duty to save the drowning child. (viii) One must give their entire being to save the child, the charity and the state do not require one to give their entire being to charity. I believe that Huemer (2021) has also identified that there is a ninth difference:

[In the Drowning Child case and all its variants], you only ever threaten people with violence. Government, however, cannot merely threaten. Some people will always disobey (for example, tax evaders), and the government will then have to actually carry out its threats, for example, to imprison those people; otherwise, it will soon become known that the law is unenforced, and disobedience will be rampant.

Thus: (ix) The charity and the state actually carry out their threats. I’d say this is also morally significant. Seeing these ninth differences, let’s try eliminate them by modifying the Drowning Child case.

We cannot change the Drowning Child case in such a way that the first, third, and seventh differences are eliminated. The eighth difference is contingent upon the seventh being the case, for if the duty to give to chairty less stringent than the duty to save the drowning child, then it is not the case that one ought to give as much of their being to giving to charity as one ought to give to saving a drowning child. The seventh difference cannot be eliminated because of our moral intuitions, for to do so would be to eliminate our moral intuition that it really seems to be the case that the duty to give to charity is less stringent than the duty to save the drowning child. However, we have this intuition and so there is no way we can really deny that we have such unless we lie to ourselves or do something of the sort. We could do more analogies, but I’d say that they would suffer from the same problems the Drowning Child case is in being analogous to government antipoverty programs. The first difference cannot be eliminated for if it was then we wouldn’t be dealing with the Drowing Child case. Hence, the third difference cannot also be eliminated. On the contrary, the second, fourth, fifth, sixth, and ninth differences can be eliminated. However, I cannot imagine that the proponent of government would want the fifth difference eliminated as it does not really make the Drowning Child case more effective at drawing out those moral intuitions that they want to be drawn out. So, let us eliminate the second, fourth, sixth, and ninth differences now by modifying the Drowning Child case.

Suppose that there is a great amount of ponds around the country and that in those various ponds there are a great amount of drowning children. The degree to which ponds that have a great amount of children drowning them is prevalent is so much that it is a chronic social condition. One day, you are wheeling by a pond and see a great number of children drowning in it, yet you are unable to save them because you are in a wheelchair and would drown yourself in the pursuit to save the drowning children. In light of this, you pull out your gun and point it at a passerby yelling at them that if they don’t save the drowning children then you will shoot them. At this, they quickly go to save the drowning children. You continually force him to save children and provide him with food and water, so that he can go for quite awhile. Then, when he arrives at a point in which if he were to continue saving children he would die from exhaustion, you point your gun at another passerby and tell him you will shoot him if he doesn’t fill in for the other person. This passerby refuses seeing how miserible the other guy is. You then fire a shot in the air. He still thinks you won’t shoot him but you point your gun at other passersby to cage him. They, not wanting to die, do so. But, now you have no one to fill in for your almost dead child-saver. So, you point your gun at another passerby but they have the physical prowess necessary such that no group of passersby could put him in the cage, and so they do nothing. If you don’t shoot him then other people will not really also follow you. While he is walking away, the people once in fear of you shooting them are no longer afraid and so free the other man from the cage, to which, you out of all other options, shoot the physically superior passerby. People then start following your commands and all, to you, is well in that children are being saved.

This, I’d say, certainly doesn’t seem justified as you are caging one person and killin another, both of which by themselves would be enough to make your actions unjustified. In this sense, we can see that when we eliminate all those differences, the Drowning Child case actually draws out an intuition opposite to that which the proponent of government anti-poverty programs desired. Now, if we got rid of the ninth difference, it would be even less analogous to government anti-poverty programs. I think all of this goes to show that the Charity Mugging case is more analogous to government antipoverty programs than the Drowning Child case, and with this being shown, I believe we can justifiedly conclude that government antipoverty programs do not have justification in employing coercion.

On Equality

The next comtimment of egalitarian liberalism is to equality. What are we to make of this? Libertarianism, like egalitarianism, reveres equalit to a certain degree, as we know. Both positions hold that there is moral equality between persons, however, egalitarianism takes things a bit further, in that, their conception of equality is much more expansive. For example, “Libertarianism allows some to possess much more property than others, so in that sense, it supports (or at least tolerates) inequality” (Huemer, 2017). On the contrary, egalitarianism (or at least the egalitarianism involved in feminism)[17] holds that “to be equal [people] must have the same resources and opportunities” (Tong and Botts, 2018, p. 30).

Contrary to egalitarians, we hold that “the kind of equality that libertarianism supports is more fundamental and important than the kind that leftwing egalitarianism supports” (Huemer, 2017). Libertarianism (as stated above) holds that there is moral equality between persons which requires no positive action (in the sense that libertarianism only reconizes negative rights). The equality of egalitarianism (as stated above) requires “[t]he doctrine of political authority … [which] allows some to literally rule over others, to force others to obey their commands, whether or not those commands are wise and beneficial” (Huemer, 2017). Huemer (2017) rightly says, “[Leftwing egalitarianism] exempts the agents of the state from the moral constraints that apply to everyone else. This seems to me a much starker and more offensive kind of inequality than an inequality in the quantity of wealth different individuals.” As we have seen above, the idea that the state has political authority is not only unjustified but also leads to extremely unintuitive consequences that I believe no egalitarian (liberal) would accept. Thus, I believe that the way by which the equality desired by egalitarians is achieved (the state) is unjustified. Furthermore, I do not believe an egalitarian that has genuinely reflected on and considered the principled consequences of the use of the state to achieve his equality would hold it to be justified. For example, the Christian bakery case:

Suppose that there is a Christian bakery and one day a gay couple walks in. The gay couple makes it known they are gay and asks the bakery to bake them a wedding cake. The Christian bakery refuses to make them a wedding cake because homosexuality is a sin within their religion and they find it would be immoral if they were to indirectly support such behavoir by way of creating a wedding cake for them. The gay couple then leaves and files discrimination charges against the bakery with the state. Would the state be justified in killing or jailing the bakers? If not, how about shutting down their business? If not, what about fining them?

I think we can intuit that they are not deserving of death or jail time. If you think that the state would be justified in shutting down the bakery consider this:

If the state can justifiedly shut down the bakery because they are discriminating, then could they also justifiedly shut down women-only schools? Or people-of-color-only institutions? I imagine the egalitarian will respond “No.” to both of these and that they will also be quick to point out that those people are in a disadvantaged social (and probably economic as well as political) position. However, does having more of a voice, more money, and/or more of social standing give you less rights than someone who has no voice, no money, and no social standing? That doesn’t seem to be the case. If one has bigoted and harmful beliefs, do they no longer have a right to not be coerced? Furthermore, if one holds bigoted beliefs, should they have to pay money to hold them? Surely discrimination is immoral, but does that then mean it ought to be illegal? That seems to be a much, much stronger claim — one which seems to be false.

Why Liberal Feminists Ought to be Classically Liberal

We have seen that the two major commitments of egalitarian liberalism and thus egalitarian liberal feminists are to the state’s political authority and (their conception of) equality. The argumentative method utilized to justify the kernel of feminism and then of liberal feminism was also utilized to justify a rejection of the state’s political authority (libertarianism). This put egalitarian liberal feminists in a bind: either have highly unintuitive ethical justification for the state and reject feminism or reject the state’s claim to political authority and have ethical justification for feminism. I take it that any rational person would go with the latter. The egalitarian liberal feminist’s commitment to equality was then dealt with.

Appendix: On Abortion

Within the ideological commons of contemporary America, I believe that no issue has motivated discussion regarding than abortion has. Today, politicians capitalize on the outrage regarding abortion, speficially the outrage at the overturning of Roe v. Wade that happened June of this year. I haven’t heard discourse regarding it in a while (not at least since the beginning of school), but that is probably because I’m not super into those political communities that divorce philosophy from politics. Nonetheless, I still do hear about abortion, probably every day. The question of abortion is a grand question for the ethicist to tackle and, as I just said, I see ethicists try to tackle it every day whether that be through personal reflection, theorizing, or debating.[18] I, myself, have only recently started to give much thought to abortion. I have, in the past, held a pro-life position predicated on the right to life (I was 13-years-old) which I then abandoned (when I was 14-years-old) by taking up a pro-choice position predicated on the idea the fetus did not have personhood. I then abandoned the latter position (when I was 16-years-old) and became generally uncertain regarding the position of the abortion, though I always had a presumption in favor of pro-choice. At that time, I also had a “joke position” regarding abortion that I wrote a few papers on that had a Bataillean understanding of “death” as its major premise. Having such an understanding as a premise led to a “pro-death” conclusion (we have a moral imperative to abort the fetus). Now, obviously, it was not a serious position, as (i) Bataille’s understanding of death deals with phenomenological subjects (which a fetus [at least, for some time] is not) and (ii) could not adequately deal with the self-made objection of abortion only being employed for utility-motivated purposes (which if you’ve read Bataille then you know that utility-motivated action [in his view, all action] is a big “no no”). (When I was 17-years-old) I moved on from even associating myself with that joke position I had formulated and just held that those actions regarding abortion that I had personal experience with were not intuitively wrong (e.g., IUDs are abortive devices).[19] Recently, however, I have felt that I need to address the issue myself.

I will first say that there is a cut off. By “cut off” all I mean is that there is a point where it is immoral to abort the fetus. This may upset some “pro-choicers” (or pro-abortion people as the other side calls them; alternatively characterized as “pro-abortion”), however, it is obviously the case. To me this seems to be when the fetus is ensouled or when it becomes a subject, that is, when a mind emerges in the object that the fetus is, therefore transforming it into a subject. However, I must admit that my position needs to be thought out more before I make a strong commitment to it. Nonetheless, I will clarify that I lean pro-choice and in terms of practical policy am pro-choice (with the cut-off being viability[?]).


Bergman, J. (2000) The history of the teaching of human female inferiority in Darwinism. Creation. https://creation.com/the-history-of-the-teaching-of-human-female-inferiority-in-darwinism

Cook, T. B. (2017) Three Worries about Moderate Deontology. [Master’s thesis, Arizona State University]. https://keep.lib.asu.edu/items/155491

Huemer, M. (n.d.) Why I am Not an Objectivist. http://www.owl232.net/papers/rand.htm

Huemer, M. (2001) Skepticism and the Veil of Perception. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Huemer, M. (2005) Ethical Intuitionism. Palgrave Macmillan.

Huemer, M. (2007) Compassionate Phenomenal Conservatism. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 74(1), 30–55. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40041026

Huemer, M. (2013a) Phenomenal Conservatism. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://iep.utm.edu/phen-con/

Huemer, M. (2013b) Phenomenal Conservatism Über Alles. In Chris Tucker (ed.), Seemings and Justification: New Essays on Dogmatism and Phenomenal Conservatism (pp. 328–350). Oxford University Press.

Huemer, M. (2013c) The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey. Palgrave Macmillan. PDF.

Huemer, M. (2017) An Ethical Intuitionist Case for Libertarianism. Libertarianism.org. https://www.libertarianism.org/publications/essays/ethical-intuitionist-case-libertarianism

Huemer, M. (2021) Knowledge, Reality, and Value: A Mostly Common Sense Guide to Philosophy. PDF.

Jack, E., & Schulz, E. (2022a) A Defense of Private Property. Mansucript in preparation.

Jack, E., & Schulz, E. (2022b) Phenomenal Conservatism: A Phenomenal Defense. Manuscript in preparation.

Moretti, L. (2015) Phenomenal Conservatism. Analysis, 75(2), 296–309. https://doi.org/10.1093/analys/anu153

Moretti, L. (2020) Seemings and Epistemic Justification: How Appearances Justify Beliefs. Springer.

Pryor, J. (2000) The Skeptic and the Dogmatist. Noûs, 34(4): 517–549. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2671880

The Nature of Women in Aristotle and Plato. (n.d.) https://www.classicsnetwork.com/essays/the-nature-of-women-in-plato-and/786

Tong, R., & Botts, T. F. (2018) Feminist Theory: A More Comprehensive Introduction. Routledge.


[1]: One could argue that certain forms of feminism are practically committed to patriarchy, e.g., a radical feminist could argue that liberal feminism practically entails the reproduction of patriarchal structures. However, it would be absurd to say that any feminist intentionally and explicitly supports patriarchy.

[2]: Our textbook says, “When it comes into state intervention in the public sphere (civil or political society), however, a difference of opinion emerges between classical liberals on the one hand and egalitarian liberals on the other” (Tong and Botts, 2018, p.12). I will note that I’m not denying that a major divide arises between egalitarian and classical liberal feminists because of a difference in opinion about the state’s role. Rather, I’m arguing that the divide from which this major divide itself springs up from is the fundamental divide in how they view rights.

[3]: Do note that I will discuss the ethics of anti-discrimination laws later on.

[4]: For on why seemings provide justification or are reliable, or some other question regarding meta-justification, see Pryor (2000), Huemer (2007), Huemer (2013a), Huemer (2013b), Moretti (2015), Moretti (2020), and Huemer (2021). Furthermore, see Jack and Schulz (2022b) for a case for Phenomenal Conservatism against radical skepticism and various other objections.

[5]: Huemer (2005) details the arguments for these conclusions in chapter 4, “Reductionism.” I suggest you look to that if you desire the arguments. Huemer (n.d.) also explains how he arrives at a couple of these conclusions.

[6]: By “positive justification,” all I mean is that an argument that justifies the belief that p. Now, with “negative justification,” I am being more liberal with what justification is, and so, do not take justification here to mean warrant, demonstration, proof, etc. Rather, by “negative justification” all I mean is that we have shown how we must either say we can’t know any moral facts (because the is-ought gap prevents us from gaining any knowledge of a moral fact by way of any means other than intuition) or we can know some moral facts but only through ethical intuitionism. In this sense, if you are committed to the claim that we do know some moral facts, then you, in a certain sense, be an ethical intuitionism. In other words, what has been demonstrated is that all other positions besides ethical intuitionism cannot have justification for their claim to knowledge of moral facts. Hence, it is a negative justification, in that, it does not justify ethical intuitionism, at least, in the same way Phenomenal Conservatism does, and instead shows how ethical intuitionism is the only option (for those who believe we can know moral facts).

[7]: If it is not clear to you how these propositions result in ethical intuitions, Huemer (2005) explains, that “each of these propositions seems true. In each case, the appearance is intellectual; you do not perceive that these things are the case with your eyes, ears, etc. And they are evaluative. So the relevant mental states are ethical inutitions” (p. 102).

[8]: If you have not already figured out that I am a moral realist, I believe in stance-independent moral facts. I do not have time to go over the debate between moral realists and moral anti-realists in this paper because I’m quite sure I’ve already gone over the length limit. However, I will most probably cover it in my paper about Marxist feminism.

[9]: If you want to learn more about ethical intuitionism see Huemer (2005), Huemer (2017), and Huemer (2021).

[10]: For objections to moderate deontology and other normative ethical theories see Huemer (2021). For responses to common objections to moderate deontology, see Cook (2017).

[11]: I am not using the Name the Trait Argument here in the way that many vegan debaters (e.g., Ask Yourself) do, that is, I do not subscribe to the formalization of the Nature the Trait Argument that has as its main focus trait equalizability. Instead, I take an intuitionist approach that some, such as Huemer, use.

[12]: I use the word “rationally” a lot when speaking of commitments regarding beliefs, so let me explain what I mean. It seems to me that if p entails both q and r, and one rejects r, then they must also reject q, unless some essential difference between q and r can be provided or at least intuited.

[13]: Note that because the way by which we are justifying our belief in libertarianism is through (NTT), feminists, liberal feminists, etc. must rationally commit themselves to the libertarian position, assuming my argument for and defense of libertarianism is successful.

[14]: If you want to see the refutations of these arguments see Huemer (2013c), specifically Chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5 as well as Huemer (2017).

[15]: However, just because there is a disagreement regarding intuitions does not mean both of you are unjustified in your belief.

[16]: Huemer (2017) also addresses the political intuition “argument.”

[17]: There are much more extreme versions of egalitarianism. For example, there are some that do not believe in the existence of private property in any sense.

[18]: Most people start with debating, then begin ad hoc theorization, and they never end up at personal reflection (e.g., of their moral intuitions). Do note that the process should be done the other way around. When coming upon an ethical issue, one should first start by reflecting on their prima facie moral intuitions and then reflect on analogies, counter-examples, etc. in order to draw out those moral intuitions that will compose their ultima facie moral views. Then they should theorize and do this by lining out a thesis and then go over possible defeaters for their theory. If the theory holds up to your own scrutiny then, I guess (assuming you rigorously tested your theory), you are ready to see if it holds up to the scrutiny of others, i.e., you get to debate and tell people their wrong now (what most people consider the “fun part” [which is why most people start with it]).

[19]: Many people hold that intra-uterine devices (IUDs) do not have any abortifacients, substances that are used to terminate a pregnancy, which is true (supposing you share the same understanding of the term “substances” I do). But, some people also hold that IUDs do not prevent pregancy by causing an abortion. On the contrary, I believe it depends on how you define abortion. Many “pro-lifers” (or anti-choice people as the other side calls them; alternatively characterized as “anti-abortion”) hold life begins at conception and so abortion happens when one terminates a fertilized egg. Those with IUDs I have been around all have that type of IUD that changes the uterus’ lining so to prevent the implanation of a fertilized egg. Nonetheless, this is all semantic, so I digress.



Evan Jack

How sweet terror is, not a single line, or a ray of morning sunlight fails to contain the sweetness of anguish. - Georges Bataille