Saturday, June 18, 2005

Column on Morality, Individualism & Liberty

Individualism and Obligations

Tibor Machan

The ethical basis of a free society is not often discussed because any
genuine morality, be it Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, atheistic,
agnostic?any serious, plausible answer to the question ?How should human
beings conduct themselves in their lives??requires individual freedom.
That?s because morality or ethics involves choosing to do what?s either
right or wrong and without individual freedom there cannot be such a
choice. The institution of the right to private property may be thought
important for purposes of economic activity but it, too, is vital to
morality and ethics because without a personal sphere of authority?what
the late Harvard University philosopher Robert Nozick called one?s ?moral
space??one has no chance to make significant ethical choices. A prisoner
is powerless to choose other than on some minimal matters, such as what he
or she will think and attempt to do, but rarely concerning extensive plans
of action. And those in tyrannies suffer Draconian demoralization, loss of
their human dignity, something that amounts to being in a position to make
choices for oneself. It?s vital to note that even communities with milder
tyrannies?for example, with massive government regulations and meddling in
people?s lives?undermine moral choice.

Still, it is not only the very general precondition of morality that
matters for the basis of a free society. It is no accident that the
American founders listed the pursuit of happiness as a crucial,
unalienable individual right. A sound morality concerns what our proper
goals are and how to achieve them, at least in a very broad sense. From
the time of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, one very serious candidate for
why we need morality has been that happiness is our goal in life and
virtues or principles of good conduct are the best guides to it. If we
are routinely honest, prudent, courageous, generous, moderate, temperate,
honorable, and so forth, this is how we are going to become happy or
successful in living a proper human life. (This kind of happiness isn?t
the same as that which so many modern thinkers keep pooh-poohing, namely
being continuously cheerful or pleased with oneself.)

Of course, this emphasis on linking morality with our happiness in life
has also been hotly disputed by many who hold that morality is about
unselfishness, sacrifice, having mainly obligations toward others or
serving humanity, the poor, the helpless and so forth. The main reason for
this different emphasis of such contending ethical or moral outlooks has
been the underlying belief that human beings are naturally greedy,
anti-social, selfish, and mean. The doctrine of original sin seems to
suggest this, as does the influential idea of human nature put on record
by the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes; it is also implicit in
the famous Venetian political thinker Niccolo Machiavelli?s teachings.
Freud, too, added to this, with his doctrine that we have basic instincts
that drive us to do bad things, especially where it concerns others.

Perhaps the most influential thinker who opposed the idea of the
connection between morality and happiness was the German philosopher
Immanuel Kant who believed that we need to be ethical or moral just
because, not for any purpose but because it is the right way to be for
rational creatures?virtue for its own sake alone, that was his message.
Others, like Auguste Comte and Karl Marx, also stressed that we ought
first of all to be devoted to others. Comte made it clear that ?This [?to
live for others?], the definitive formula of human morality, gives a
direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence, the common
source of happiness and duty. [Man must serve] Humanity, whose we are
entirely.? And as Marx put the point early in his career, ?When we have
chosen the vocation in which we can contribute most to humanity, burdens
cannot bend us because they are sacrifices for all. Then we experience no
meager, limited egoistic joy, but our happiness belongs to millions, our
deeds live on quietly but eternally effective, and glowing tears of noble
men will fall on our ashes.?

Most religious moralities also advocate that people?s first obligation is
to others, but they do offer a personal reward for doing this all through
one?s life, namely, everlasting salvation. And that?s pretty close to the
idea of one?s happiness, although in their case not in this but in the
after life.

Even if one doesn?t contend that people need to live for others?and it
was W. H. Auden who found the idea trouble when he exclaimed: ?We are here
on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don't
know??there is a nagging concern that a highly individualist ethics or
morality may not even motivate one to respect other people?s rights to
life, liberty and to the pursuit of their happiness. This has been
suggested as a problem with some efforts to deploy such an ethical stance
in support of freedom?how could one insist on freedom for all if we have
as our primary task to promote our own happiness?

An answer to this has been offered by some. It goes, mainly, that an
individualist morality implies that when one has chosen, mainly to achieve
happiness in one?s life, to live among other people (that is, in human
communities), one must realize, as a reasonable person, that one?s own
striving for happiness is something everyone else also shares?namely, that
very same responsibility?and that realization gives rise to the firmest
possible obligation to respect the rights of all. Otherwise one would have
no rational grounds to insist that one?s own rights be respected, nor for
a system of law that, in the words of the American founders, aims to
?secure [our] rights.?

Be this as it may, in fact morality, whatever is to be its substance, its
basic edict, is impossible without human liberty. And in a free and
diverse human community, where people with different moral convictions
must live in peace, that is what must be kept in mind, first and foremost.

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