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Political anarchy & moral anarchy

February 28, 2015

There is an important difference between political philosophy and moral philosophy. The former field of study looks at the question of “what is the role of government” while the latter field looks at the question “what is the best way to live”.

These questions are often muddled together, especially by conservatives and socialists who conclude that if something is good (moral philosophy) then it should be mandated by the government (political philosophy). For libertarians and anarchists the distinction between political philosophy and moral philosophy is sharp. The most famous example of the distinction comes from the pity quote often attributed to Voltaire that “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”. The “agreeing” part is about moral philosophy while the “defend … your right” is about political philosophy. Both issues are important, but before you can answer either question it is helpful to at least recognise that they are different questions. 

Sometimes, it is not just people but also language that contributes to the confusion between political and moral philosophy. One prominent example is the use of the word “utilitarian”. A “political utilitarian” (such as David Friedman) will argue that the government should only interfere where their actions increase total utility. Note the topic of discussion is government action, and it says nothing about what you should do personally. But a “moral utilitarian” (such as Peter Singer) believes that all of your personal actions should be aimed at increasing total world utility. The two philosophies both make use of the word “utilitarian” but they are very different concepts, and can result in very different conclusions.

The word “anarchy” is another such word.

In the realm of political philosophy, anarchy means “no state”. Given that political philosophy is about what the government should do… if you do not believe the government should exist then that is the end of the issue. At the level of political philosophy there cannot be different types of anarchists, since all anarchists must give the same answer, which is “nothing”. Of course, anarchists can discuss (and disagree) about how people may choose to act without the state. However, our preferences about personal behaviour and our predictions for the future are not “political philosophy” since they are not related to the role of government.

In the realm of moral philosophy, anarchy can take on a more expansive definition, and symbolise a way of life or a set of decisions about how we should interact with each other. For example, in moral philosophy the word anarchy could mean “no leader” in any situation, which would rule out bosses, managers, captains, coordinators, etc… or a more moderate version could mean “no leaders with excessive power”, which could be interpreted in many different ways depending on your understanding of power dynamics… or it could extend to “no leaders including gods”, which extends the moral system into the realm of the supernatural.

While the “political anarchist” position is fairly straight-forward and unambiguous (no government) the “moral anarchist” position can be expanded into a massive range of issues. Some moral anarchists insist that opinions about class, history, power, violence, sociology, democracy, economics, inequality, gender, sexuality, nationality, race, religion, culture, anthropology, group dynamics, family structures, and many other issues are central to their anarchist beliefs. The inevitable diversity of opinion on these moral questions mean that it is relatively easy for “moral anarchists” to break into different schisms with different tendencies… and so we see the existence of various hyphenated-anarchists such as anarcho-syndicalistsanarcha-feminismanarcho-primitism and a variety of other options.

It is worth repeating that the differences are only possible with regards to questions of moral philosophy, and that with political philosophy there the is no need for hyphenated-anarchy since a political anarchist simply believes in “no state”.

It is easy to see how a “political anarchist” and a “moral anarchist” may end up misunderstanding each and talking at cross purposes. The moral anarchist will insist that the political anarchist needs to expand their “no-state” anarchy into moral philosophy, and agree to a variety of other moral issues. The claim that “anarchy is more than simply opposition to government” is an assertion of moral anarchy and a rejection of political anarchy. In contrast, a political anarchist will distrust any claims about a “correct morality” since imposing a moral framework (no matter how well intentioned) requires the creation of a state which violates their basic position of “no state”.

By noting the difference between “political anarchy” and “moral anarchy”, I do not mean to imply that one is correct or more important… though I certainly have an opinion about that.

Instead, the goal here has been to explain how different groups can sincerely claim to be anarchists while being fundamentally different (and often hostile) to each other. When different anarchist groups collide it is not uncommon to see both sides forlornly trying to explain the “true meaning” of anarchy, and dismissing the other side as “not real anarchists”. The frustration and confusion comes from competing interpretations of “anarchy”, and whether it describes a political philosophy or moral philosophy. Instead of both sides trying to win a semantic battle about definitions, perhaps a more productive way forward is to recognise the existence of both “political anarchy” (no state) and “moral anarchy” (which relates to power and leadership more generally). Understanding this distinction might not lead to any more agreement… but at least it might be possible for the different anarchist groups to better understand why it is that they disagree.

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  1. TerjeP
    March 3, 2015 at 11:22 pm

    The sharp line you draw between political philosophy and “moral” philosophy is a very useful reductionist approach. At least it is in my view. However I don’t find this distinction to be widely accepted. For a lot of people the two are part of an inseparable whole. When I argue for this distinction I frequently find that it is like explaining that there are two separate sides of any coin and the other person responding as if I am trying to convince them that there is such a thing as a one sided coin. Maybe I communicate poorly but I suspect that many people just don’t like reductionist thinking.

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