All Commentary
Monday, January 1, 1962

Importance Of The Promise


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.

Man’s Purpose

“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.”

Variable Objectives

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

having.”’

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.

Foot Notes

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.


  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”