Liberty is best defended by means of a single moral foundation.

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.

Further Reading

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