All Commentary
Monday, September 22, 2014

Liberty is best defended by means of multiple moral dimensions.

By Max Borders

Ultimately, there are only two forces in this world that matter: power and persuasion. Those who love liberty shun power.

But to be persuasive, you have to be capable of guiding people down different paths. To increase the odds of bringing people into our orbit, we should learn to think along multiple moral dimensions in support of a free society. In other words, if we’re going be freer, we have to learn to speak in a variety of moral languages. Why? Because people operate in those moral languages—even freedom lovers.

Indeed, if we were to rely on a single moral foundation—say, rational egoism—we would be vulnerable. To see why, let’s examine Craig Biddle’s objectivist position.

Premise One: Initiating force is wrong because it stops someone from acting on his rational judgment, the basic means of sustaining (and furthering) his life.

This premise can be true at times, but it is susceptible to attack as a generalized ethic. For example, few take seriously the notion that a 20 percent tax on Warren Buffett’s income deprives Buffett of the means to sustain his life. If it takes $30,000 per year to sustain his life, then Buffett has 1 million times more money than he needs. Premise one, therefore, may actually provide justification for the statist to take Buffett’s wealth. I don’t think we want that.

Now, if we argued that taxing Buffett diverts capital that’s actually lifting people out of poverty, we’d fall outside the scope of rational egoism.

Premise Two: Egoism holds that each individual should pursue his own life-serving values, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.

Suppose there is something about Buffett’s happiness or life-serving values connected to his many assets. One might argue that taking a portion of Buffett’s wealth deprives him of such, and that an egoist ethic gives primacy to his happiness. There is an important insight here, but is it strong enough to function on its own?

Even if we suppose that rational egoism justifies the connection between happiness and wealth, we’d have to show that taxing Buffett made him less happy, and that such a consideration was more important than some competing value—for example, keeping certain people out of desperate poverty. Remember: All of this is about persuading others. So even if readers of this publication think personal happiness for billionaires is more important than poverty alleviation, a lot of people don’t.

Premise Three: A related and even more widely accepted moral code, altruism, holds that the standard of morality is self-sacrificial service to others.

Now, there are a number of alternative moral considerations that will be competing with rational egoism, and these moral systems will be wired deep within people. Altruism competes among them. Should defending liberty leave these off the table?

What’s more, Craig does not distinguish between ethics and politics here. So an ethic of self-sacrifice (à la Mother Teresa and Auguste Comte) does not automatically translate into a politics of forced redistribution.

Instead of accepting the objectivist’s definition of altruism as a universal duty to sacrifice to others, suppose we simply acknowledge that people can have moral instincts to be concerned for the less fortunate. And, indeed, if we accepted rational egoism as the single moral foundation for liberty, we would not be able to defend free markets on grounds that entrepreneurship and markets are the most effective poverty fighters. The rational egoist is not comfortable with utilitarian thinking. But surely that approach is important to defending liberty.

Premise Four: 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.

Factual requirements?

So egoism, an ethic that each individual should pursue his own life-serving values, is justified by the idea that people must act according to their own minds. And this justification, says Craig, has basis in fact—that is, what is required for the individual to live. We’ve already shown that not all initiation of force (taxing Buffett) deprives people of their means of living in any profound sense.

But as importantly, the reason people need moral values at all is not merely to live. We need moral values in order to live with each other. Most people want to live in peace. Assuming a conversation with those who want peaceful coexistence, we need to be able to discuss all sorts of different moral frameworks that operate, at least, to minimize conflict.

For this, a single moral foundation is not enough.

Value pluralism

And that is the basis of my rather different ideas about what it means to live free. No—not basis—but rather a “constellation of beliefs.” As we float out in the moral universe with each other, often moving in different directions, we must do our best not to collide. And that requires understanding people with different perspectives.

If we’re going to gain and preserve a free society, we’d better be prepared to speak in a variety of moral languages: utilitarian, Aristotelian, rights talk, and so on. Why? Because people—even freedom lovers—begin at different starting points.

The main problem with any attempt at grounding some political philosophy on a single foundation is that said foundation becomes an easier target: Do away with that spindly column and the whole edifice comes down. If you have a constellation, or web of justifications, these can be stronger together.

Such is not to argue that we can’t take issue with other moral languages. It is rather to acknowledge that they’re out there—and they motivate people. Put another way: Assume we all think freedom is good—that is, we personally value it, and we’ve joined together in a community. Will that community hang together as well if we make membership contingent on everyone embracing a single foundational belief?

That we’re all reading this publication demonstrates my point. To widen and deepen our community, we’d better learn to justify liberty across a number of values—and integrate them. One person’s axiom can be another’s antagonism. If we’re going to convince others that freedom is the goal, we must convince them that freedom makes room for different values.

If we don’t, power may prevail.

You can read a Portuguese version of this article here.

  • Max Borders is author of The Social Singularity. He is also the founder and Executive Director of Social Evolution—a non-profit organization dedicated to liberating humanity through innovation. Max is also co-founder of the Voice & Exit event and former editor at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). Max is a futurist, a theorist, a published author and an entrepreneur.