14 August 2013

Moral Overlearning, Liberatianism, and Arete

EconLog | Bryan Caplan | Libertarianism as Moral Overlearning

"Overlearning" is a key idea in educational psychology. One good explanation:
Overlearning is a pedagogical concept according to which newly acquired skills should be practiced well beyond the point of initial mastery, leading to automaticity.
In experiments, researchers often test the effects of overlearning by (a) making subjects practice until they reach 100% accuracy, then (b) practicing some more. Intuitively, though, the idea is simply to make perfection routine. [...]

Libertarians often argue that they are merely holding governments to ordinary moral standards. It's wrong for a private individual to physically attack other people who are behaving peacefully. It's wrong for a private individual to take other people's property without their consent. So why is it OK for government to do these things? Yet non-libertarians usually find these observations unconvincing.

My claim: The fundamental difference between libertarians and non-libertarians is that libertarians have overlearned common-sense morality. Non-libertarians only reliably apply basic morality when society encourages them to do so. Libertarians, in contrast, deeply internalize basic morality. As a result, they apply it automatically in the absence of social pressure - and even when society discourages common decency.
I think what Caplan is describing is "Aretē" — variously translated as "virtue" or "excellence of character." The idea of virtue, as I understand the Aristotelian usage, is not just doing Good things and refraining from doing Bad things. It is more about making good decisions as a habit. You should not only have good intentions, nor simply make good decisions. The good decisions should be routine.

You don't have to contemplate deeply, nor construct lengthy pro and con lists, nor engage in tortuous casuistry, nor consult expert exegesis, and certainly not refer to opinion polls. Virtue, character, Aretē, or moral overlearning make all these things superfluous.

Caplan concludes:
The "libertarianism as moral overlearning" framing is self-congratulatory. I freely admit it. [Me too! —SB7] Perhaps the real story is that libertarians stupidly generalize narrow moral principles to situations where they're entirely inappropriate.* Either way, though, the concept of moral overlearning deserves your attention. If you only apply moral principles when other people encourage you to do so, how much about right and wrong do you really know?

* If that's what you think, I highly recommend Mike Huemer's The Problem of Political Authority, which explores these questions forwards and backwards.
I think Caplan is right, but I'll go a step farther. If you only apply moral principles when society encourages you to do so, and you apply them in the same way everyone else does, then answer me this: how confident are you that the morals and mores and norms of our society are perfect?

What is the probability that we have hit upon the optimum set of moral guidelines? And if we haven't, shouldn't you be operating in contradiction to the particular ways the majority would have you apply moral rules? Isn't it a near certainty that society has rules that either need to be changed, abandoned, introduced, or modified in scope? Which ones do you think these are? How can you tell? And which version of these rules to you act according to, the extant, flawed but popular version, or your own version? How consistently? How publicly?

Edited (15 Aug '13): I should point that I'm more interested in the connection between moral overlearning and Aretē than in the connection between moral overlearning and libertarianism.


  1. It's more than self-congratulatory; it's self-deluding as to the nature of the disagreements between libertarians and our opponents.

    I don't think this framing serves any purpose. I wouldn't even call it incorrect - it's just a model with no useful applications.