Single vs. Plural Moral Foundations

By Craig Biddle

There is only one demonstrably true moral foundation for liberty: rational egoism. It consists of many integrated principles, but it is a single foundation.

Why should people be free? Observe that “should” is a moral concept. Either it is true that people should be free, or it is not. If it is true, and if we want to defend this truth, we need to understand and articulate why it is true.

People should be free because people have a moral right to live their lives as they see fit (life), to act in accordance with their own judgment (liberty), to keep and use the product of their effort (property), and to pursue the goals and values of their choice (pursuit of happiness). This is the principle of individual rights.

Where does this principle come from? Why do individuals have rights? We have rights because rights are requirements of human life in a social context. Man’s basic means of living is his reasoning mind. We live by using reason, observing reality, identifying the nature of things, making causal connections, integrating these into concepts and principles, and acting in accordance with our consequent knowledge. To the extent that we are forced to act against our judgment, we cannot live fully as human beings; we are relegated to “living” as puppets, serfs, or slaves.

If someone points a gun at Max’s head and tells him to shut up, or to hand over his wallet, or to “choose” a different career or a different lover or the like, Max cannot act fully on his judgment; thus he cannot live fully as a human being. A human life is a life guided by the judgment of one’s own mind.

This is why initiating physical force against people is morally wrong and properly illegal: It stops them from employing their basic means of living.

What’s so important about acting on one’s judgment and living fully as a human being? That is, as a matter of fact, what each individual morally should do. We can see this by going still deeper into the philosophic foundation.

Underlying and supporting the principle of individual rights is the principle of egoism, the truth that each individual should act in his self-interest and is the proper beneficiary of his own productive actions. Egoism holds that each person should pursue his life-serving values, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself, and that each should deal with others only on voluntary terms, by mutual consent to mutual advantage. Where does this principle come from? It is derived from still deeper principles—principles concerning the objective standard of moral value, and the very reason man needs values and morality in the first place.

The proper standard for determining whether an action or policy or institution is good or bad, right or wrong, is the factual requirements of the individual’s life. Why? Because people are individuals—each with his own mind, his own body, his own life—and because the only reason individuals need values or moral guidance is in order to live. If a person doesn’t want to live, he doesn’t need values or guidance at all; he can simply stop acting and he will soon die. Only a person’s choice to live makes values possible (to him) and necessary (for him). He can’t pursue values unless he’s alive, and he doesn’t need to pursue values unless he wants to live. Objective morality is derived from—indeed, is an expression of—the factual requirements of the individual’s life.

There is a great deal more to the moral and philosophic hierarchy undergirding rights, but the foregoing is an indication of the kinds of observations and principles involved. (For elaboration, see Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness or my book Loving Life.)

Why is this moral foundation the only one capable of supporting liberty? A peek at alternative codes provides an indication:

Altruism holds that we have a “constant duty”—an unchosen obligation—“to live for others,” says Auguste Comte; that we must be “servants of Humanity, whose we are entirely,” and, therefore, that we must “eliminate the doctrine of rights.” “The whole notion … must be completely put away,” Comte says.

Utilitarianism holds that “the measure of right and wrong” is “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” according to Jeremy Bentham. Crucially, “That standard is not the agent’s own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of happiness altogether,” writes John Stuart Mill. The individual must sacrifice his values, his goals, and possibly even his life to the more important collective happiness. Thus, the individual cannot have inalienable rights; such rights are “nonsense upon stilts,” writes Bentham.

Egalitarianism holds that we have a “duty” to establish “equality of opportunity” for all members of society and that “it is incorrect that individuals with greater natural endowments and the superior character that has made their development possible have a right to a cooperative scheme [i.e., a legal system] that enables them to obtain even further benefits in ways that do not contribute to the advantages of others,” writes John Rawls. Consequently, “no basic liberty is absolute”—not even “freedom of thought and liberty of conscience, or political liberty and the guarantees of the rule of law, is absolute,” he says. Individuals do not have “the right to own certain kinds of property (e.g., means of production) and freedom of contract as understood by the doctrine of laissez-faire.”

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam oppose rights, too. Both the Bible and the Koran condone slavery and call for the murder of unbelievers and for many other rights violations besides.

Far from undergirding liberty, all of these codes undermine liberty.

Only the morality of rational egoism supports the principle of individual rights. If we want to defend liberty on solid moral ground, we have to know what that ground is, we have to advocate it, we have to refer to it, and we have to encourage others to do the same.

By Max Borders

Ultimately, there are only two forces in this world that matter: power and persuasion. Those who love liberty shun power.

But to be persuasive, you have to be capable of guiding people down different paths. To increase the odds of bringing people into our orbit, we should learn to think along multiple moral dimensions in support of a free society. In other words, if we’re going be freer, we have to learn to speak in a variety of moral languages. Why? Because people operate in those moral languages—even freedom lovers.

Indeed, if we were to rely on a single moral foundation—say, rational egoism—we would be vulnerable. To see why, let’s examine Craig Biddle’s objectivist position.

Premise One: Initiating force is wrong because it stops someone from acting on his rational judgment, the basic means of sustaining (and furthering) his life.

This premise can be true at times, but it is susceptible to attack as a generalized ethic. For example, few take seriously the notion that a 20 percent tax on Warren Buffett’s income deprives Buffett of the means to sustain his life. If it takes $30,000 per year to sustain his life, then Buffett has 1 million times more money than he needs. Premise one, therefore, may actually provide justification for the statist to take Buffett’s wealth. I don’t think we want that.

Now, if we argued that taxing Buffett diverts capital that’s actually lifting people out of poverty, we’d fall outside the scope of rational egoism.

Premise Two: Egoism holds that each individual should pursue his own life-serving values, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.

Suppose there is something about Buffett’s happiness or life-serving values connected to his many assets. One might argue that taking a portion of Buffett’s wealth deprives him of such, and that an egoist ethic gives primacy to his happiness. There is an important insight here, but is it strong enough to function on its own?

Even if we suppose that rational egoism justifies the connection between happiness and wealth, we’d have to show that taxing Buffett made him less happy, and that such a consideration was more important than some competing value—for example, keeping certain people out of desperate poverty. Remember: All of this is about persuading others. So even if readers of this publication think personal happiness for billionaires is more important than poverty alleviation, a lot of people don’t.

Premise Three: A related and even more widely accepted moral code, altruism, holds that the standard of morality is self-sacrificial service to others.

Now, there are a number of alternative moral considerations that will be competing with rational egoism, and these moral systems will be wired deep within people. Altruism competes among them. Should defending liberty leave these off the table?

What’s more, Craig does not distinguish between ethics and politics here. So an ethic of self-sacrifice (à la Mother Teresa and Auguste Comte) does not automatically translate into a politics of forced redistribution.

Instead of accepting the objectivist’s definition of altruism as a universal duty to sacrifice to others, suppose we simply acknowledge that people can have moral instincts to be concerned for the less fortunate. And, indeed, if we accepted rational egoism as the single moral foundation for liberty, we would not be able to defend free markets on grounds that entrepreneurship and markets are the most effective poverty fighters. The rational egoist is not comfortable with utilitarian thinking. But surely that approach is important to defending liberty.

Premise Four: The proper standard for determining whether an action or policy or institution is good or bad, right or wrong, is the factual requirements of the individual’s life.

Factual requirements?

So egoism, an ethic that each individual should pursue his own life-serving values, is justified by the idea that people must act according to their own minds. And this justification, says Craig, has basis in fact—that is, what is required for the individual to live. We’ve already shown that not all initiation of force (taxing Buffett) deprives people of their means of living in any profound sense.

But as importantly, the reason people need moral values at all is not merely to live. We need moral values in order to live with each other. Most people want to live in peace. Assuming a conversation with those who want peaceful coexistence, we need to be able to discuss all sorts of different moral frameworks that operate, at least, to minimize conflict.

For this, a single moral foundation is not enough.

Value pluralism

And that is the basis of my rather different ideas about what it means to live free. No—not basis—but rather a “constellation of beliefs.” As we float out in the moral universe with each other, often moving in different directions, we must do our best not to collide. And that requires understanding people with different perspectives.

If we’re going to gain and preserve a free society, we’d better be prepared to speak in a variety of moral languages: utilitarian, Aristotelian, rights talk, and so on. Why? Because people—even freedom lovers—begin at different starting points.

The main problem with any attempt at grounding some political philosophy on a single foundation is that said foundation becomes an easier target: Do away with that spindly column and the whole edifice comes down. If you have a constellation, or web of justifications, these can be stronger together.

Such is not to argue that we can’t take issue with other moral languages. It is rather to acknowledge that they’re out there—and they motivate people. Put another way: Assume we all think freedom is good—that is, we personally value it, and we’ve joined together in a community. Will that community hang together as well if we make membership contingent on everyone embracing a single foundational belief?

That we’re all reading this publication demonstrates my point. To widen and deepen our community, we’d better learn to justify liberty across a number of values—and integrate them. One person’s axiom can be another’s antagonism. If we’re going to convince others that freedom is the goal, we must convince them that freedom makes room for different values.

If we don’t, power may prevail.

You can read a Portuguese version of this article here.