There is a common misconception prevalent among the general populace about libertarians. It is that we are all heroin injecting, weed smoking, cocaine sniffing, prostituting, free loving libertines. The responsibility for the ubiquity of this grave misconception lies squarely at the feet of libertarians ourselves. We’ve done a terrible job of explaining the difference between our interpersonal ethics (the non-aggression principle) and intrapersonal ethics (religion or personal values).

Now, to be sure, some libertarians do fit the description above. Those are not libertarians with which I would associate myself, nor are they in any way indicative of the personal character of most libertarians. The vast majority of us are (relatively) normal people who adhere to the personal value ethics of either a mainstream religion or general cultural principles of what is considered good behavior. No offense is meant to those eclectic few who do fit the stereotype above, but they are not at all representative of the general libertarian population.

The general libertarian population operates and makes value judgements according to two different ethical principles. The first principle is what makes a libertarian, a libertarian: namely, the non-aggression principle. This is an interpersonal ethic that guides both how we interact with others and how we morally judge the actions of others. It is an incredibly simple standard that leaves massive leeway for a variety of individual action. This principle quite simply holds that no individual should aggress against the person or property of any other individual, ever, period. The only exception to this is retaliatory action in response to an overt, aggressive act. This is the ethic on which we base our entire political philosophy. It makes no assertions regarding what the proper way to experience life is, but merely says that however one proceeds in their existence, it cannot involve aggression against others, period.

Most (not all) libertarians also have what I call an intrapersonal ethic-an ethic that guides how they behave in day-to-day lived experiences. This ethic involves some conception of what the “good life” entails and how one should go about pursuing it. This personal philosophy can take many forms, from religions like Protestant Christianity to existentialism to secular humanism to Islam or any other life philosophy one can imagine. We do not advocate for the use of coercive force to make others adhere to this life philosophy because we recognize the pluralistic nature of humanity. Because we acknowledge that each individual is unique, with their own set of unique circumstances and experiences, we recognize that conceptions of the good life will vary wildly from person to person. Some may even fully believe they have discovered the one true, proper good life and attempt to convince others of this notion, but they will never violate the higher intrapersonal ethic of non-aggression in doing so. Thus, the duality of libertarianism that puzzles so many is established: we have one set of guiding principles for how we judge human-to-human interaction, and an entirely different set of principles lighting the path we take in our own personal walk through existence.

This explains the seeming paradox of people like my dear friend Anja. Anja is a devout Christian who fully believes that salvation through Christ and attempting to follow Him as closely as possible is the one and only way to achieve the good life. This means she does not accept, participate in, or condone a variety of currently illegal or heavily regulated activities like prostitution, drug use, pornography, stripping, and even gay marriage. However, she simultaneously would advocate for all of these activities to be perfectly legal and entirely unregulated because she recognizes that to make them illegal or heavily regulated would violate the non-aggression principle and the very right to self-ownership that every human being should enjoy. She would never participate in any of these activities, and would even actively campaign against individuals participating in them with great vigor; however, she does not advocate for the state to use its coercive monopoly on force to stop these activities at the point of a gun because none of these activities she considers illicit are actually, tangibly aggressing against the person or property of another human being. Thus, she follows the intrapersonal ethic of her Christianity by actively lobbying against these activities whilst also simultaneously following her interpersonal ethic by recognizing the freedom of individuals to participate in them as they please.

Thus, it is now comprehensible why libertarians advocate for the freedom to perform actions we ourselves would never even contemplating partaking of. Advocating for the freedom to do something on grounds of the non-aggression principle does not mean that we, ourselves, would ever do that thing or that we would even condone others doing it. We simply hold the interpersonal ethic of non-aggression in the highest regard whilst simultaneously adhering to our own standards for personal conduct and proper, moral behavior. This is a result of our recognition that the beautiful uniqueness of the human experience means the only way to ensure the maximum happiness of everyone, everywhere is to allow complete freedom to pursue the good life, whatever that may entail, so long as it does not harm others.