All Commentary
Monday, March 1, 1965

A Moral Code for Rational Man

 Mr. Chamberlin is a skilled observer and reporter of economic and political conditions at home and abroad. In addition to writing a number of books, he has lectured widely and is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and numerous magazines.

Long a sturdy and consistent champion of the free economy, with the free market and the profit system as its foundation stones, Henry Hazlitt in The Foundations of Morality (D. Van Nostrand, 398 pp., $9.95) brings the familiar gifts of his felicitous writing style, lucid exposition, persuasive logic, lightened by a good sense of humor, to the sub­ject of the moral rules which should govern human conduct. What he offers is a system of prac­tical ethics, not bound to but also not excluding any specific religious commitment.

Modestly admitting that it would be presumptuous for any writer to claim very much orig­inality in a subject that has en­gaged the earnest attention of the world’s greatest minds over 25 centuries, Mr. Hazlitt takes his stand pretty definitely in the tra­dition of the British utilitarian moralists, beginning with Hume and proceeding through Adam Smith, Bentham, and Mill. There is also a dash of pragmatism, sug­gestive of Benjamin Franklin and William James, in his view that there is seldom a clash between morality and happiness — that, in his own words, “immoral action is almost always shortsighted action.”

Mr. Hazlitt sees in generally ac­cepted rules of moral conduct an instrument for eliminating clashes between individuals and also be­tween the individual and society. Believing that the word utilitar­ianism has perhaps outlived its usefulness, he calls his own eth­ical system by a new term, co­operatism.

Rejecting extremes of egoism and altruism, he rejects as a false antithesis the question whether moral rules should be framed to promote the long-run happiness of the individual or the long-run happiness of society. For, as he argues, only a rule that would do the first would do the second, and vice versa. Society is the individ­uals that compose it. If each achieves happiness, the happiness of society is necessarily achieved.

Author’s Advantages

In considering public, as dis­tinguished from private ethics, Mr. Hazlitt enjoys an advantage over his eighteenth and nineteenth century predecessors. Socialism and communism are no longer theories, of which the validity can be neither proved nor disproved by actual experience. Now about one-third of the world’s popula­tion lives under communist rule, and a considerable number of other states have introduced vary­ing degrees of socialism.

In view of the author’s lifelong preoccupation with economics, it is not surprising that two of the most vigorous and incisive chap­ters in his book are devoted to the ethics of capitalism and the ethics of socialism, which he equates, as did Karl Marx, with communism. He comes close to the heart of the question when he remarks that the central issue between capitalism and socialism is liberty, and expands this idea with a significant quotation from Friedrich Hayek:

“Free enterprise has developed the only kind of society which, while it provides us with ample material means, if that is what we mainly want, still leaves the individual free to choose between material and nonmaterial reward…. Surely it is unjust to blame a system as more materialistic because it leaves it to the individ­ual to decide whether he prefers material gain to other kinds of excellence, instead of having this decided for him.”

Five Characteristics

Mr. Hazlitt lists as follows five basic characteristics of the free economy: Private property, free market, competition, division and combination of labor, and social cooperation. And he established a close, intimate relationship be­tween the free economy and the maintenance of morality and civ­ilization. For free enterprise is possible only within a framework of law and order and morality. Not only does free enterprise pre­suppose morality; it also helps to preserve and promote it, most of all by making possible the free­dom of choice, which is a basic characteristic of any meaningful ethical system.

Immoralism of Communism

The author emphasizes the basic immoralism of communism, the contempt for ordinary rules of decent conduct expressed in the writings of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin. It is not the least of the virtues of the free enterprise sys­tem that it makes for tolerance and discourages the fanatical will­ingness to sacrifice all principles of humane conduct in the name of an abstract goal to be realized at some time in the future.

Mr. Hazlitt does not hesitate to grasp the nettle of the “rather Red than dead” slogan. If the alternative were submission to communist slavery or the prospect of destruction in nuclear war, many of us, as he says, would choose annihilation as the lesser evil. But the alternative is false. When President Kennedy took a firm stand against Soviet missiles in Cuba, he improved the long-range prospects of peace. And, as Mr. Hazlitt says, appeasement on the part of the West, in the face of Soviet threats, merely increases the danger to the West. And he drives home this point with a little parable, “Johnny and the Tiger,” which he originally pub­lished in The Saturday Evening Post and which is worthy of George Orwell, in the vein of Animal Farm.

Mr. Hazlitt has composed an excellent manual of conduct for a rational and humane society. If there is a fault in the work, it is perhaps inadequate consideration of the forces in human nature which make for irrationality and inhumanity.

Mystics receive scant considera­tion from Mr. Hazlitt and one misses some discussion of the philosophic Roman Emperor, Mar­cus Aurelius, perhaps the most inspiring of stoic thinkers. The work stands squarely in the frame­work of British common-sense ra­tionalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, supplement­ed by such modern libertarian thinkers as Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises.

For its erudition, its exposure of the fallacies of statism and political and economic coercion, its smooth development of a sys­tem of practical ethics that is closely linked with jurisprudence and economics, The Foundations of Morality deserves a high rating among the many books that have been the fruits of Mr. Hazlitt’s long and distinguished career as a publicist. Its appearance is an excellent accompaniment to the author’s recent celebration of his seventieth birthday.

Reprinted by permission from The Wall Street Journal of December 23, 1964.

  • William Henry Chamberlin (1897-1969) was an American historian and journalist. He was the author of several books about the Cold War, Communism, and US foreign policy, including The Russian Revolution 1917-1921 (1935) which was written in Russia between 1922-34 when he was the Moscow correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor.