One of the great debates of our time concerns the role of government in human affairs—government limited to defense of life and property versus government regulation and control of every aspect of our lives. Not that this is a new problem, for the proper role of government in society has engaged the attention of the ablest minds since the time of Plato. At present, however, the debate bogs down. The more the matter is discussed nowadays, the more confused become people’s beliefs and the further they seem to move from any common understanding of the problem or agreement on the answer.
Never in all history has the discussion been on such a scale as now, never such airing of views—with practically everyone seemingly bent on setting all others straight. But the more that some people contend with each other over the issues, the more is discord promoted, the less is harmony achieved. Force, rather than personal freedom of choice and action, mounts the driver’s seat. Why this unhappy state of affairs?
The reason may be nearer to home than most of us suspect. Few libertarian proponents of strictly limited government are sharply conscious of why they believe as they do. Nor have most authoritarians bothered to examine the why of their positions. Much less does either pretend to know or really care what is in the other’s mind, or why. Obviously, persons with no fundamental premises of their own are unlikely to have anything fundamental in common with each other. So, let us first examine the why of our own beliefs.
The reason we do not know why we believe and act as we do is because we are not aware of our basic premise or prime value or fundamental point of reference. With our lives anchored to nothing, we tend to believe and act aimlessly; that is, we obey emotional compulsions instead of adhering strictly to the disciplines imposed by some transcendental premise or value or principle personally thought out and accepted. People swayed by a variety of emotional compulsions—acting outside the realm of reason and with no knowledge of what moves them or others—can find no common ground, regardless of how much they talk or fight. They lack a common premise; individually, they lack a conscious premise.
Covetousness is an example of an emotional trait, as is fear of disapproval or desire for approbation. Suppose one person covets only political power and another only material wealth. With such diverse motivations, how could discussion lead them to agreement or even common understanding on, let us say, the TVA idea? The former would sense an advantage; the latter would think his ambitions thwarted. And the more logically they argue from such non-reasoned premises—from their emotional compulsions—the more widely would they diverge.
Marcus Aurelius remarked, "If you would discuss with me, first define your terms." Good! But much more important and useful would be to say, "First, let us at least understand each other’s premise, even though we may not agree." For it is fruitless to discuss economic, political, social, and moral subjects without first understanding our own premises as well as the premises of others. Otherwise, no party to the discussion can possibly know how to evaluate another’s statements.
"What is your object in life? What is it you hope to achieve by your earthly existence? What, in your view, is your purpose here?" These would be appropriate questions to ask anyone who sees fit to argue about man’s relationship to man.
Many people have never raised these questions with themselves, much less reflected on the answers. In this unthoughtful state, they do not qualify as instructors on questions of what’s right and what’s wrong in social, political, and economic affairs.
To arrive at a basic premise, one must ask and answer a fundamental human question: What is the goal of man’s earthly striving; that is, what is life’s highest value?
Is man’s purpose here longevity, to extend creatural existence, stretch his life span?
Is it to accumulate wealth, pile up material possessions, get rich?
Should man aim to achieve supremacy over his fellow men, gain personal power, make others behave as he sees fit?
Ought man to expend his life’s energies in trying to remake others in his own likeness; that is, become the ultimate arbiter of humanity?
With the questions put in this stark form, most people, even without prior reflection, would acknowledge that man is made for other things than these; he should have higher values. Yet, things such as these, in infinite variation, have served as motivations for countless actions, including those of "statecraft." Lust for power, glory, fame, title, notice, adulation, pomp, riches—all for a momentary show-off before earthlings—is about as much of a life goal as many people have. Try to discuss sensibly with people thus motivated a subject such as the scope of government!
Consider, briefly, the current rash of public discussions, debates, and "interviews"—radio, TV, and grand ballroom variety—and reflect on the why of their inanity. Of course, in the first place, they are designed mostly for entertainment. As the educational director (this was his title) of a national network said to seven of us prior to going on the air, "While we prefer that you not use profanity, don’t let anything stand in the way of making this a hot scrap."
Second, and by the very nature of these verbal brawls, the incentive is not to shed light but rather to out-clever one’s adversary. And third—by far the most important reason for the puerile nature of these insincere shows—is that no participant has the slightest notion what the other fellow’s premises are, and may not know his own!
To demonstrate further the futility and the aimlessness of discussions where premises are in the dark, merely reflect on personal experiences with friends and associates. Note how often attempts to "talk it out" lead to nothing but sharpened awareness of disparity in viewpoints. Failure to understand each other’s basic point of reference or prime value is more apt to yield bad feelings than harmonious conclusions.
Consider again those two persons, one whose chief aim is political power and another whose major purpose in life is the accumulation of material wealth. They decide to discuss or debate the efficacy of the TVA idea. In all probability, neither is fully aware of his own motivation, and it is almost certain that neither is conscious of the other’s basic point of reference. Should each argue logically from his own major object in life, the former would have to judge the TVA idea—government control and ownership of the means of production—to be consistent with his life’s pattern; and the latter, seeking opportunity for private investment, would judge the idea to be inconsistent with his life’s pattern. The longer they argue logically from their motivations—the further they move from agreement concerning TVA. It cannot be otherwise.
How much better if each were to start by examining his own premise and explaining it to the other! The first would confess, "I have no object or life value above that of political power." The second, "I have no object beyond that of great wealth." At this point they could conclude in unison, "It is useless for us to discuss the efficacy of the TVA idea. We should, instead, confine ourselves to a discussion of our varying premises. For, unless we can find a common or near-common premise, our reasoning and argument will only lead us astray and apart."
The variation in our respective life-values is enormous. Some men want power; some riches; a few seek justice.
"Men have sought all sorts of other things—they have sought God, they have sought beauty, they have sought truth or they have sought glory, militarily or otherwise. They have sought adventure; they have even—so anthropologists tell us sometimes believed that a large collection of dried human heads was the thing in all the world most worth
These comments are important and relevant. First, reflect on the senselessness of two individuals, discussing social, political, economic, and moral matters, the life object of one being only dried human heads and the sole object of the other being riches. Arguing logically from such shallow premises, one would condone murder and the other would see nothing wrong in buying thousands of acres of land and having the government take money from other people to pay him for not growing wheat on it. There is no need to belabor the futility of such argument. It is quite evident that all philosophical argument which does not proceed from a conscious premise is, perforce, a nonconscious argument—idle nonsense.
Second, while there is no prospect of any substantial number of people thinking through and adopting a common premise, we can recognize a fairly general but vague search for such motivational background. Merely observe the attempt of people to "pigeonhole" others. Are they Republicans? Democrats? Socialists? Leftists? Rightists? Pinks? Reds? Physiocrats? Benthamites? Liberals? Reactionaries? New Dealers? Conservatives? Libertarians? These are fuzzy questions to which nothing better than fuzzy answers can be expected; nonetheless, they do demonstrate that many of us like to know what is at the root of people’s actions and positions. If an individual’s standard doesn’t measure up to our own, we cross him off our list as unworthy of instructing us. Who would want advice from one bent only on collecting human heads? Or political plunder? Or coercive power over others?
Third, basic premises or life-values are on a scale of their own. They range from bad to good, from hellish to heavenly, from evil to virtuous, from senseless to sound, from immoral to amoral to moral. In short, it does matter what one’s major premise is—indeed, it may matter more than anything else in this earthly experience.
A "Good Will" Guide
A most admirable premise was developed and set forth by Immanuel Kant. His premise was that good will is the highest good, but he did not use the phrase as the equivalent of mere good intentions or general friendliness. The exercise of good will, according to Kant, is an affirmation of man’s moral freedom by which he participates in the world of things as they really are, and acts in terms of his own nature. He wrote:
"Everything in nature works according to laws. Only a rational being has the capacity of acting according to the conception of laws, i.e., according to principles. This capacity is will. Since reason is required for the derivation of actions from laws, will is nothing else than practical reason."’
Kant’s good was measured by whether he could answer yes to the question, "Can I will that my maxim become a universal law?" No rational being could will that lying or stealing or killing should be universally practiced; therefore, lying, stealing, and killing must perforce be rejected as maxims for personal conduct. They are bad!
Kant argued that any discussion which makes no reference to fundamental principles (basic premise) produces a disgusting jumble of patched-up observations and half-reasoned principles. "Shallow-pates enjoy this, for it is very useful in everyday chitchat."3
On the positive side Kant contended that a basic premise was indispensable "because morals themselves remain subject to all kinds of corruption so long as the guide and supreme norm for their correct estimation is lacking."4 Each individual must, of course, determine his own basic premise or supreme norm, deriving as much instruction as possible from others who have seen fit to devise and accept basic premises for themselves.5
The Emerging Individual
While having only admiration for Kant’s system of reasoning, my own adopted premise, though not inconsistent with his, is stated quite differently—certainly less profoundly—and is set forth for such reflection as anyone may wish to give it. My supreme norm or premise or fundamental point of reference has its origin in my answer to the question, "What is the purpose of man’s earthly existence?"
Admittedly, the answer to this question has to be highly personal. It will vary according to one’s fundamental assumptions. To me, it is self-evident that man did not create himself, for man knows almost nothing about himself. Man is the creature of God, or, if you prefer, of Infinite Principle or Consciousness or Intelligence. And there’s more to life than the five senses reveal. Thus, these assumptions can be summarized as follows:
a. A belief in the primacy or supremacy of an Infinite Consciousness;
b. A conviction that the individual human consciousness is expansible; and
c. A faith in the immortality of the human spirit.
For anyone with assumptions such as these, the answer to the question, "What is the purpose of man’s earthly existence?" comes clear: It is for each individual to come as near as he can to the realization of those creative powers which are peculiarly and distinctively included in his own potentialities. Man’s purpose here is to grow, to emerge, to hatch, to evolve in consciousness, partaking as much as he can of Infinite Consciousness.
If the above is accepted as the highest purpose of earthly life, it follows that any force—psychological or sociological—which binds or retards or in any way restrains the individual human spirit in its emergence must be thought of as an immoral and evil force. Conversely, the absence of such retarding and restraining forces—the personal practice of freedom—is moral, good, virtuous.
A Point of Reference
With this as a supreme norm or fundamental point of reference, it is easy enough to stand any and all proposals and propositions up against it and to form fairly accurate judgments as to whether they inhibit or promote a movement toward this ideal. Not only does this establish a basis for consistent action but it also permits others to judge whether one’s moral, social, economic, and political positions are logical deductions from the acknowledged premise. Others may disagree with the premise, which is their privilege.6 In this case the only discourse that makes sense must have to do with the varying premises. But, if the premise be adjudged satisfactory, then all issues can be intelligently discussed with enlightenment to the parties concerned.
Be it noted that in the above premise, as well as in Kant’s, each individual is assumed to be an end in himself. Anyone who acknowledges an Infinite Consciousness cannot help respecting fellow human beings as the apertures through whom Infinite Consciousness flows and manifests itself. Can man—any of us—predict which individuals will be most graced in this respect? Indeed not! Throughout recorded history the breakthroughs have occurred in the most unlikely individuals. Thus, it is the height of egotistical arrogance to doubt that each person—regardless of status, station, education, or whatever—is an end in himself. It would seem that no premise could qualify as good or moral or libertarian which fails to meet this qualification. Reason clearly dictates that "we treat humanity, whether in our own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only."7
In deciding on a supreme norm or fundamental premise for oneself it is advisable to select one that is unattainable; such, for instance, as the expansion of one’s own consciousness——the more one advances, the more there is to be conscious of. It is a road of individual progress that has no end.
Consider this: A person has his eye set on scaling the world’s highest mountain. This is his life’s ambition, his only goal. Repeatedly he fails, but the challenge will not down. Finally, he succeeds and triumphantly stands in the rarefied air of his accomplishment—his mission achieved! No other object lies before him.
Reflect on the planning, the physical training—the growing in strength—that accrued to him so long as the object was before him. Now, contemplate what happens in the way of fading, weakness, atrophy, when life’s deed is done, when there is no further object.
People arrive in a new land confronted with a wilderness. Clearing the forests and overcoming all the obstacles nature offers is their lot. Observe their development. Now, let them succeed, become affluent—their object realized, no other goal before them. Their moral fiber becomes soft, flabby; they become sloppy thinkers.
"Nothing fails like success," Dean Inge used to say; that is, no one can set himself an attainable object and, after its achievement, continue to grow. Thus, one’s object ought to be of the unattainable variety, one that calls for perpetual striving, leading the individual on an endlessly emerging road.
Reduced to the workaday world of practical affairs, a philosophy which concedes that each individual is an end in himself is a philosophy that precludes the practice of the few using the many as means. This philosophy is diametrically opposed to the socialistic scheme under which most of us unwillingly serve as means to the nefarious ends of those exercising unprincipled political power.
A high-principled premise for each rational human being is seen to be of the utmost importance. Lacking it, there can be no sensible discussion of moral questions, and without such discussion there can be no foundation for a free society. The adoption and strict observation of high-principled premises will, on the other hand, result in as straight thinking and as consistently sound action as rational individuals are capable of. How well men and women do this determines the extent of freedom in society.
Yes, freedom depends on you. The individual is both its means and its end—the only foundation of freedom, and also its crowning object.
1 See "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Welfare" by Joseph Wood Krutch in the Adventures of the Mind series, Saturday Evening Post, July 15, 1961.
2See Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals by Immanuel Kant (New York: The Liberal Arts Press, 1959), p. 29.
3 Ibid., p. 26.
4 Ibid., p. 6.
5 C. E. M. Joad’s Decadence, particularly the first eight chapters, is a brilliant explanation of what follows the "dropping of the object," that is, the disastrous results of not having high principles as premises. This book, published by Faber and Faber, Ltd., London (430 pp.), can be obtained from Humanities Press, Inc., 303 Fourth Avenue, New York 10, N. Y. $2.75. 6 "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." Henry David Thoreau. Walden. Ch. XVIII.
7 Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, p. 47.