The Morality of Good Intentions


Mr. Bidinotto writes frequently for The Freeman and other publications.

Cultural commentators have long remarked on the enormous generosity and compassion of the American people. Significantly, it was the era of laissez-faire capitalism which saw the rise of the great philanthropies. Not only were men more inclined to feel benevolent; with the unleashing of the wealth-producing power of free markets, many men, for the first time, possessed the means to help others if they wished. Meanwhile, the capitalist system has led to an enormous increase in living standards worldwide, precisely to the extent it has been permitted to exist. It is no exaggeration to say the poorest areas on earth are those most insulated from the benefits of individualism and capitalism.

Judged by consequences alone—absolutely or comparatively—the capitalist system would have to be regarded as a magnificent historical success. Thus there has been, in recent decades, a significant retreat from anticapitalistic arguments based upon its allegedly negative consequences. This does not mean that attacks upon the free society have ceased—only that the grounds for them have been subtly shifting. As the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1964) put it: “Few observers are inclined to find fault with capitalism as an engine of production. Criticism usually proceeds either from moral or cultural disapproval of certain features of the capitalist system, or from the short-run vicissitudes (crises and depressions) with which long-run improvement is interspersed.”

If not consequences, then, what? What does this “moral and cultural disapproval” consist of? Before we get to the root of today’s remaining hostility to individualism and capitalism, let us consider the residual criticisms against their alleged negative consequences.

A central argument against capitalism stems from a vestigial “conflict-of-interest” doctrine, resurrected by Karl Marx as his theory of “class conflict.” Under capitalism, he wrote, “exploitation” was the rule; and the resulting class tensions would lead inevitably to a “Communistic revolution.” (See The Communist Manifesto.)

But significantly—and contrary to his own prediction—it was not capitalistic nations which experienced communist revolutions, but anticapitalistic dictatorships. Pre-revolutionary Russia, China, Cuba, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and the now-Marxist regimes of Africa could not remotely be described as “capitalistic”; and the nations of Eastern Europe fell, not to communist revolutions, but to invading Soviet armies.

A society of state-imposed status is vulnerable to violent revolution; a society of individual opportunity and individual rights is not. Free societies must first be eroded intellectually and institutionally before they are ripe for insurrection; but by then, they are no longer free societies. What Marx did not grasp was that individualism is the antithesis of exploitation. And the general benevolence and high living standards associated with capitalism largely immunize truly capitalistic nations from social instability.

Today, Marx’s “exploitation” theory is dead as a plausible critique of individualism and capitalism. It owes its last gasps not to empirical evidence, nor to intellectual theory, but to a vague sense of envy of “the haves”—and to those “moral and cultural” considerations we shall address in a moment.

What Causes Crises?

How about the argument that capitalism leads to “short-term vicissitudes” such as crises and depressions? This argument held some plausibility during those periods—such as the Great Depression—when, to many, capitalism seemed to have failed. But since that time, several things have thrown that argument into disrepute. First is the wealth of literature now demonstrating that it was government intervention in the marketplace—not the marketplace itself—which brought about such crises. Second is the generally-conceded failure of government interventionism to prevent such crises, or to end the purported “chronic” problems of capitalism (e. g., unemployment, poverty, the business cycle, and so on).

The failure of welfare-state interventionism is generally, if grudgingly, acknowledged. Meanwhile, the even more disastrous failures of collectivist economies have left capitalism’s critics in the position of “the pot calling the kettle black.” Even if these criticisms of capitalism’s inevitable “downswings” were valid, most people now realize that collectivism means economic collapse, unrelieved by any “upswings”—hardly an enticing alternative. A similar example concerns the attack on capitalism for fostering monopolies—a charge coming from those who would centralize all economic planning in a single agency in Washington.

Again, whatever following these arguments retain is rooted in the more basic “moral and cultural” concerns cited by the Britannica.

Then there is the argument that capitalism causes the “alienation” of the worker. This is a kind of bridge between the economic, and the moral-cultural critiques. Even if capitalism gives the worker a higher income, critics charge, it does so only by imposing upon him meaningless, uncreative tasks in mass-production assembly lines, depriving him of any sense of identity, achievement, or control over his own life.

This, coming from advocates of central planning and individual sacrifice to the collective, is transparent hypocrisy. The rightless, voiceless workers of socialized economies remain mired in state-directed drone work—or, as in Poland, are threatened with Soviet invasion for demanding their rights. But meanwhile, American industrialists, competing for manpower in the free labor market, are exploring new methods to restore individual responsibility and creativity to the work place. And more and more repetitious tasks are being automated, leaving to people the creative tasks no machine can perform. The very market system which purportedly causes worker “alienation” is facing and resolving the problem—just as it competes to fulfill every other market demand.

Perhaps the low point in anticapitalistic critiques came during the 1970s, with the ecology crusade. From the brain-cracking abstractions of dialectical materialism, which charged capitalism with exploitation and historical irrelevancy—the collectivist argument had collapsed to shrill, apocalyptic declarations that capitalism was creating smog, dirty water, and dwindling numbers of California condors. This, coming from those who do not utter a word about mass murder in communist Cambodia, enforced starvation in communist Ethiopia, scorched-earth genocide in communist Afghanistan, or massive environmental despoliation in communist Russia.

Those who continue to reject individualism and capitalism—as the Britannica admits—seldom claim the superior consequences of socialism or even the “mixed economy” any longer. In fact, to argue the “evil” of the market economy, and the relative “good” of collectivism, one must dispense entirely with discussions of empirical consequences. This means appealing to some alleged “morality” in which consequences are irrelevant: an ethical premise which exonerates collectivism and condemns capitalism in spite of the consequences.

One might call this premise “the morality of good intentions.” Every proponent of the free society has experienced the exasperation of arguing with an adversary who seems immune to facts, evidence, logic, proof. The morality of good intentions is the immunizing agent. Facts, evidence, logic, and proof are all irrelevant. What matters is one’s moral intuitions—his “good intentions.”

Good Consequences from Good Intentions?

The morality of good intentions takes two forms. In its “soft” form, it still pays lip service to intending good consequences—but perfunctorily, and in spite of all evidence to the contrary—as if actual results were, somehow, beside the point.

For example, the die-hard interventionist proclaims his intention to raise the income of inner- city black youths via minimum wage laws—a good consequence. But does he seem excessively concerned that the minimum wage seems to exacerbate black teen-age unemployment? He advocates rent control, with the stated intention of permitting the poor to have access to affordable housing.’But does he seem distraught that the stock of available housing in rent- controlled areas is curtailed’? He demands economic sanctions against South Africa for its racist apartheid policies. But does he hesitate when it is argued (even by many South African blacks) that the resulting economic hardships will fall mainly on the black majority? He would ban “home work”—in-home production by garment makers—allegedly to prevent their “exploitation” by unscrupulous employers. But does he reconsider when they cry that working at home is the only viable way they can generate critically needed incomes?

In these, and scores of similar instances, the answer has frequently been a resounding “no.” The “soft” form of the morality of good intentions pays lip service to good consequences—but closes its eyes to actual results.

It is important to distinguish the person holding this premise from the person who. from ignorance or confusion, honestly believes that interventionism or collectivism leads to good consequences. The point here is that, today, the ranks of the knowledgeably innocent advocates of statism are rapidly shrinking—and what is left are, quite often, those to whom the effects of their proposals are only a secondary concern.

“Hard” Intentionalism

The “hard” form of this premise totally divorces moral intentions from consequences. The hard-core “intentionalist” dismisses any concern for effects, blindly and exclusively focusing on a sense of duty—a duty to follow some moral edict regardless of context, in spite of consequences. This premise leads to the psychology of the fanatic, as described in Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer. The hard-core “intentionalist” expresses only the most remote concern for consequences—usually, some vague, distant utopia. But this is, in most cases, a rationalization. His real satisfaction comes from a sense of “doing the right thing”—even when “right” has, in his mind, no clear connection with reality.

One exponent of this “hard” intentionalism was Lenin. In Modern Times, Paul Johnson cites some revealing facts about Lenin’s mentality. At age 22, Lenin persuaded friends against collecting money for famine victims, since their misery might help them “reflect on the fundamental facts of capitalist society.” Trotsky described him as a Robespierre and his methods as Jacobin; another contemporary called him an “illegitimate child of Russian absolutism.” !n any case, the direct consequence of his ideas on real people meant nothing to Lenin. “We’ll ask the man, where do you stand on the question of the revolution. Are you for it or against it? If he’s against it, we’ll stand him up against a wall.” All that mattered to Lenin was the idea of a communist society—an abstraction to which mere humans were sacrificial offerings.

It is thus pointless to argue with proponents of “the morality of good intentions,” hard or soft. Facts, reasons, evidence, logic, are all beside the point. What matters is only their sense of moral duty—an unshakeable loyalty to some moral premise severed from reality. The reward for such loyalty does not lie in the results: only in a feeling of self-righteousness, of “being right.”

Consider, now, the “intentions” of many of today’s anti-capitalists. Declaring their desire for a society based on “compassion” and “benevolence,” they condemn individualism and capitalism—not for their results—but because they are not based upon such compassionate in tentions.

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” wrote Adam Smith. “We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” And this is precisely the problem—say the collectivist proponents of “good intentions.”

For instance, the following appeared in a letter to a newspaper: “Webster’s . . . defines capitalism as ‘the economic system in which the ownership and exploitation of wealth are left largely in private hands.’ Webster’s further defines exploitation as the way to ‘turn (something) to one’s own advantage; utilize selfishly.’ This . . . is a very good reason to question the merits of capitalism.”

Observe the nature of this all-too-typical moral criticism. There is no mention of the actual effects of capitalism—or of alternative systems. All that matters is the intention underlying the system . . . an intention which is not primarily “compassionate.” Remaining unasked, hence unanswered, are the questions: Why is an action which enhances one’s well-being evil? And why is compassion alone the essence of morality?

This gets to the crux of the modern assault on capitalism. Perhaps, admit collectivists, capitalism delivers the goods; perhaps it benefits the masses; but that isn’t its intention. Far more “moral,” they believe, to have a collectivist system which intends compassion and fails to deliver, than one which intends “selfishness” and benefits all!

Fortunately, there is no dichotomy between capitalism’s moral and practical aspects. Capitalism is not simply the only practical social system; it is the only social system based upon moral responsibility and benevolence.

The heart of the “morality of good intentions” is irresponsibility. It requires of its practitioners no more than a feeling or intention. Moral responsibility requires far more. It requires one to reject hypocrisy by acting upon his convictions and intentions (integrity). It requires one to concern himself with the real-life truth or falsehood of his convictions (honesty). It requires one to consider and accept personal accountability for the social consequences of his actions (justice).


The essence of the philosophy of individualism is self-responsibility. An individualist accepts full moral responsibility for forming reasoned judgments, and for living by the work of his own mind. He knows that nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed—that whatever values he seeks must have a basis in the natural requirements of human well-being. He knows that his survival and success depend ultimately on his integration of ends and means, values and virtues, practice and principle. He knows they demand his rigorous concern for facts, and entail his total personal accountability. In short, he grasps that individualism means integrity, honesty, and justice—and that to reject these natural laws is self-defeating.

Moral responsibility is the core of the capitalist system. In every aspect, capitalism requires men to live in accordance With their natures as productive, self-responsible moral agents. When socialists sniff that capitalism is only concerned with “the bottom line,” they are rebelling against the fact that capitalism—mirroring reality itself—is focused on consequences, not mere intentions. To survive, man cannot merely wish for his means of survival, but must produce them. Likewise, to succeed under capitalism, one must do more than simply “mean well” (who doesn’t?). One must produce and trade real goods and services others want and need. Capitalism is the only social system which takes cognizance of human nature and the requirements of reality.

Every other social system—from fascism to feudalism, from imperialism to socialism—at- tempts to by-pass the moral requirements of individual human life. In the place of integrity, honesty, and justice, they demand conformity, obedience, and parasitism. Yet because reality demands these virtues as the price of survival, the only option is systematic plunder of those who do assume their moral responsibilities.

Deep down, even die-hard “good intention-alists” know that “meaning well” will not feed, clothe, or shelter anyone. Even they know that necessities and luxuries must be produced and provided by those who have assumed the moral responsibility to do more than “mean well.” Hence their eagerness to concoct social systems which harness morally responsible individuals in service to their “good intentions.” Such a system indulges them the luxury of feeling self- righteously moral through intentions alone—while others must labor to turn those intentions into reality.

But is their motive really a compassionate desire to help—or simply the desire to feel compassionate? If it were otherwise, why do they stubbornly resist decades of evidence dem onstrating the catastrophic consequences of their policies? No one can forever claim to be benevolent in spite of the consequences. And while it is impossible to read minds, one must wonder at the stubborn blindness of self-styled moralists to their own chronic disasters. In my opinion, “the morality of good intentions” constitutes their blinders.

What About Benevolence?

If the moral core of capitalism is self-respon-sibility, then what about benevolence’? Adam Smith was right: Under capitalism, most people’s foremost priority is rarely “service to others.” But that does not imply that their aim is to exploit others. Nor does it mean that benevolence and compassion are incompatible with a self-interest rooted in self-responsibility. In fact, only a self- responsible individual can reject the notion that human interests are inherently at war—and is thus free to feel general benevolence. Moreover, only productive people who are allowed to keep what they produce have the financial means to act upon compassionate feelings for the helpless.

Today, the erosion of individualism and capitalism is bringing back the very misanthropic attitudes which they once vanquished. Under redistributionism, producers are becoming increasingly incensed over their exploitation. Many, equating today’s predatory welfare state with “capitalism,” are coming to accept that “the system” is “dog-eat-dog.” More and more are returning to the view that there is an inherent “conflict of interests” among men.

Among the casualties of this trend are, of course, economic efficiency and productivity. But the less obvious casualties include honesty, integrity, and justice. Honesty—as men rationalize their parasitism. Integrity—as they abandon their principles of working for what they want. Justice—as they start to live at the expense of the shrinking number of producers.

But there are even less tangible casualties—ironically, the very qualities which government intervention was supposed to nurture in the “heartless” capitalist system: benevolence, compassion, and good will.

As human survival comes to depend less on personal responsibility, and more on political pressure-group warfare, men learn to fight for their livelihoods by joining special interest groups. Like rodents fighting for cheese, men are reduced to feuding over government “benefits.” Each resents paying more in taxes than he receives from the public troughs—and resents the unearned benefits going to others. So he comes to regard his fellow men, not as friendly competitors, but as enemies in a battle for survival.

One cannot feel benevolence under a system of “loot or be looted.” One cannot feel com passion when punitively taxed so that others may receive the plunder. One cannot feel good will toward those having a legal stranglehold on his life, liberty, and property.

The economic case for capitalism has never been refuted. But it is seldom economics that is disputed anymore. The empirical case against collectivism is now openly discussed. But it is rarely the facts that are at issue today.

Increasingly, the last remaining prop for collectivism is the creaking crutch of a splintering morality—a morality of empty intentions. It is the last impediment to a fully capitalistic society.

For the self-responsible, confronting and banishing “the morality of good intentions” is an ethical imperative. And besides its obvious benefits to ourselves, such a crusade would constitute our greatest act of true compassion for the tortured human race.


March 1987

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December 2014

Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
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