All Commentary
Thursday, October 1, 1970

For Moral Growth

Mr. Machan is Assistant Professor of Phil­osophy at California State College, Bakers­field.

The philosophy of freedom has not always fared so well as has the practice of freedom. For in­stance, the American economic system, flowering under condi­tions of comparative freedom, has yielded a virtual miracle of goods and services, whereas the political philosophy of liberty—the sys­tem’s moral framework—has fallen out of favor with Ameri­cans. And today’s enemies of lib­erty look at the moral climate and propose that we blame it on Amer­ica’s economic success. They say that the free enterprise system—essentially the voluntary coopera­tion of individuals in their eco­nomic activities—did not and does not work. They attempt to prove this on the grounds that economic efficiency is not served by freedom of production and ex­change; but what they are really complaining about is that the free market has not done what it was never designed to do: it has not made everyone morally perfect.

The problem here is a failure to recognize the difference between political and personal behavior. The former has to do with how people should live together in peace, while the latter concerns one’s conduct of his own life. An effective political system may be approximated without the guar­antee that citizens of the system will all be good individuals. It is precisely so as to secure the pos­sibility for the highest degree of moral development on each per­son’s part that people must be free from each other’s aggression.

It is man’s personal freedom, his capacity for choice, that forms the philosophical base of the po­litical system we call the free so­ciety. If men were not free in this basic sense, they could not help doing what they do; and to expect them to refrain from interfering with each other’s lives would be irrational. And so would be the desire for a free society.

A free political society would require some means of protection against those who would trespass upon or attack the lives and prop­erties of peaceful persons. This conviction has been the impetus behind people’s support for some kind of political system, that is, for the institution of government.

What the enemies of freedom have never understood is that there simply is no political means by which to make people good. A free society does, however, stop those who try to lord it over others. If a culture is morally de­fective, there is nothing that po­litically free men can do to induce morality except to educate as en­ergetically and effectively as their talents and devotion to virtue per­mit. It is a mistake to blame free men for not attempting to make others better through political means: a person who respects freedom cannot aspire to become a philosopher king without contra­dicting himself; it is illogical to preach that no man should rule others and at the same time at­tempt to bring about this condi­tion of freedom and virtue by force!

When individuals fail to meas­ure up in moral qualities as is true of many in America today, this means they are acting without questioning what is right or wrong. The idea that individuals can aspire to moral virtue has been down-graded; instead, the collec­tive, the group, the society has been given the responsibility of building the good life. Individual­ism always has been central to the American economic system, but in matters of personal morality the individual was not widely recog­nized to have great significance and responsibility. Instead, the community, the church, the body politic assumed the role of moral leadership.

Today, when it is obvious to most that morality cannot be polit­icalized and that something is drastically wrong, people are re­jecting even the possibility of be­ing good. Many college and uni­versity students express the view that right and wrong cannot be known; we are capable only of mindless action. Not only students and young people but members of the older generation are generally pessimistic about the possibility of building a better life for them­selves and a better society.

Overt enemies of the free soci­ety often capitalize on this cul­tural moral vacuum by attributing it to the relative freedom most people enjoyed in the early days of America and other Western so­cieties which were influenced by the English classical liberal tradi­tion (of Adam Smith, David Hume, John Stuart Mill). By pointing to some of the real and alleged personal failings of people who have been part of the Amer­ican culture, they would have us believe that there is a necessary connection between political free­dom and personal misconduct. There is, of course, a necessary connection between freedom and the possibility of evil, just as there is such a connection between free­dom and the possibility of good. But what is important is that both good and evil are matters of per­sonal conduct. No one can make another person good or evil. Harm­ing someone who is good will not make him evil, nor will helping an evil person make him good, in the final analysis. Praise and blame, reward and punishment, are all re­sponses to good and evil, but they are not primary causes.

Those who contend that the free society is bad for people, because people who have been free did not always behave well, are mistaken. It is, in fact, only in a free society that the wrong-headedness, the personal mischievousness of some people, does not necessarily have a harmful effect on all. In social­ism, where everyone has a hand in the life of everyone else, the evil that men do must live after them—and beside them, and around them, and on and on. The misman­agement of some collectivist gov­ernment project burdens us all. Nor is it possible to uncover those who are responsible for the mis­management. The abandonment of self-responsibility in favor of col­lective action invariably spreads the lack of responsibility through­out society.

Today, in a climate of fear and moral uncertainty, unscrupulous persons make all sorts of attempts to gain political power over peo­ple. Their arguing that the free society and the corresponding free market produce human evil must be challenged. A free society may not produce everything that ev­eryone would like; but free men have the option to pursue their own goals and aims. When there is no freedom, a person cannot even aspire toward satisfying his aims privately. When one’s life is controlled by political masters and things are going badly, there is little personal incentive toward improvement, and understandably so. But in freedom, one man’s ef­forts suffice to make his own life, at least, more productive or other­wise worth while. And this may encourage others to do likewise.

To try to improve the quality of life in a given society by central­izing it under political leadership is futile. Such efforts simply dif­fuse responsibility and reduce the likelihood of moral improvement. Needed, instead, is a concentrated effort to restore to people both their rights and their responsibil­ities. Those who value human life and look for it to be lived well should encourage progress toward a free society. 

  • Tibor R. Machan is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Auburn University and formerly held the R. C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University.