• Unit 2: Rights, the State, and the Free Market

    So far, we have predominantly considered theories of just action that base their criteria for justice on an action's consequences. Utilitarianism, as we have seen, provides a convincing justification for many of our moral intuitions, but even its more refined versions, such as the theory advanced by John Stuart Mill, start to seem unsatisfying once we realize that they reduce moral decisions to detached, rational calculations. If we want a completely adequate theory of just action, we may need to consider an alternative approach to justice and morality. Consequently, this course will continue to examine some other approaches to ethical questions which are not grounded in the consequences of an action. One such approach is represented by libertarianism, which argues that morality and justice are rooted in the natural rights of individual human beings. Consequences matter, of course, but they are always secondary to considerations of natural rights.

    Libertarianism centers on the relationship between individual freedom and the laws of the state. In this unit, we will look at arguments on both sides of this question. Plato, in the dialogue known as the Crito, gives arguments that claim the individual does not have a right to defy his or her government. In contrast, contemporary proponents of libertarianism like Milton Friedman and Robert Nozick uphold individual rights and liberties. John Locke argues that the contract we have with our government can always be rescinded. Locke’s arguments have been influential in the shaping of modern western democracies, in general, and the United States in particular.

    Completing this unit should take you approximately 15 hours.

    • 2.1: Individual and the State: Plato's Crito

    • 2.2: Libertarianism as an Alternative Approach to the Question of Rights

    • 2.3: John Locke and Fundamental Individual Rights

    • Unit 2 Discussion

    • Unit 2 Assessment