Does Survival Trump Morality?

On the Philosophical Underpinnings of the Free Society

To the Editor:

I welcomed the article “Philosophy 1 On 1” (The Freeman, March 1999), because James Otteson makes the moral case for a free society. Usually, libertarians focus upon utilitarian issues, seemingly unaware that we often lose on this basis because our adversaries have taken the moral high ground. Moreover, frequently the very cause of economic and material loss is an outgrowth of the violation of moral principles, as when incentives are given for destructive behavior while penalties are given for responsible behavior. Consequently, the author is right to raise the fundamental question as to whether slavery and theft are wrong.

However, there is a stumbling block to the suggestion that we adhere to moral principles. People respond that although they find murder and theft abhorrent, there are times when they are called for. Here it does not suffice to simply repeat that what is wrong is wrong. Rather, one needs to acknowledge the conditions under which morality must be violated (as when a soldier kills, or an escapee from a concentration camp steals). The guide is simple: survival trumps morality. It is this requirement that necessitates government, and which should provide its limits. Consequently, theft and taxation can be justified, even as they violate morality—provided there is no realistic alternative, and they are limited to their minimum extent. By this criterion, almost all intervention is precluded. However, it remains for libertarians to acknowledge that liberty is not indivisible, but on rare occasion must be compromised for survival (as when the Continental army fought the British). With that modification, the position of Dr. Otteson can establish “the philosophical underpinnings of the free society.”

—Allen Weingarten
Morristown, New Jersey

James Otteson responds:

I thank Dr. Weingarten for his letter, but I am not sure what his disagreement with my position is. The two exceptions he offers to the moral principles I discuss in my essay both presuppose prior violations of those same principles: if a soldier is justified in killing someone, presumably this is because some violation of life, liberty, or property has already taken place; similarly, if an escapee is justified in stealing from (perhaps even killing) his captors, it must be only because a similar violation has already taken place.

I assume Dr. Weingarten agrees with me that if there had been no such violations, then the killing and stealing would not in fact be justified. If so, his examples actually underscore, not undermine, the importance of respecting others’ life, liberty, and property.

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