Monday, 17 August 2015

How to Re-lay a Moral Foundation

(From the archives - February 22nd, 2005)

Today in the West, there is a widespread feeling that something is badly wrong with our moral foundations. The political societies we live in have become decadent, and things are getting worse. Almost every day, the Western world is becoming an uglier, a more suffocating and a more dangerous place.

Traditional moral views, like the biblical Ten Commandments, have lost their power. If "Thou shalt not steal" truly is a moral base of today's societies, then why do political governments routinely seize and waste our earned wealth? If "Thou shalt not kill" is a touchstone of good conduct, then how can there be aggressive military superpowers? And as for "Thou shalt not bear false witness"? Politicians and media break it just about every day.

Moral authority seems to have fallen silent. Instead, we suffer the illegitimate authority of a rampant political class. The members of that class use fraudulent rationalizations and mental manipulation in their attempts to justify bad laws. They make their bad laws ever more arbitrary and more hurtful. And they want to enforce them ever more harshly.

What we are suffering today is moral anarchy. I find myself echoing Andrian von Werburg from 1840s Austria. "The anarchy of a studied despotism is intolerable.”

So, what can we do about it? How can we lovers of freedom help to replace this anarchy by a moral order beneficial to all good human beings? To answer this, I think we must first try to understand what morality is.

The origins of morality, say the professors, are in the natures of social beings. They point to how, in groups of animals living together – monkeys, say – all can gain from helping each other. You scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours. There comes a problem, though, when some animals try to cheat. They accept what others have to offer, without providing enough in return. Not surprisingly, the honest monkeys don't like this. They reject the cheats. Here is the beginning of a moral code: "Thou shalt not cheat.”

A moral code, then, is a set of rules, which mutually benefits those who keep to them, and ostracizes those that do not. For example, you can see in the Ten Commandments the obvious benefits for good people if those around them do not kill them, or steal from them, or bear false witness against them, or covet their possessions or their wives. And being moral is having, and striving to obey, such a moral code.

These ideas seem sound enough to me. But we human beings are far more than animals. If having our backs scratched was the highest need of human existence, we might start out by behaving like the monkeys. But it wouldn't be too long before someone invented a back-scratching machine. And made themselves a fortune.

What sets us human beings above animals is our creative powers. How, then, can we all gain from helping each other? One part of the answer must be, by using our different creative powers for the benefit of others. I use my skills in software to benefit Mr Jones, who in his turn delivers systems that benefit all his customers, including Mrs Smith, who in her turn…

But there's something missing from this picture. There's someone who hasn't had his back scratched yet – the end of the chain, me. If I benefit others, but that benefit doesn't find its way back to me, I'm getting a raw deal. The missing factor, of course, is trade or feedback. Mr Jones pays me for my work for him, which enables me, in my turn, to hire Mr Robinson to do something I want done but can't do myself. Which means that he can…

There is a name for what I have just described. It's called a free-market economy. Each of us, figuratively, scratches others' backs, in the ways that we find we can do well. And each of us gets our back scratched in return, in the ways that we need and enjoy.

But I missed out something else too. Remember those cheating monkeys? Well, the human race isn't immune from them either. There are those, that want to get their backs scratched without putting in the effort to do anything for others in return. Lazy, long-term welfare recipients are an example.

But others are worse cheats yet. Not only do they fail to do their share for the economy. But they maliciously queer others' pitches too. They bully innocent people. They rob people of their earned wealth. They spread lies, propaganda and dishonest rationalizations. They promote policies designed to damage the economy and the quality of people's lives. They try to push people down into a mire of fear and unhappiness. Of course, you have guessed what I am describing. The political class.

I have come to understand that morality and politics are opposites. For morality is a bottom-up thing. It comes from inside us – it comes from our nature. I find it unsurprising that, in the past, morality has been seen as of divine origin. Politics, on the other hand, is top-down. Politics is ultimately a, more or less obvious, smoke-screen that provides apparent legitimacy and an excuse for the political class to arbitrarily rule. No wonder that, as over the last 150 years or so bad politics has taken more and more of a hold over everyone's lives, morality has correspondingly lost ground.

So, what of modern moral systems? Not much to say, really. The Utilitarians made a good try, with their idea that a right act is one that increases happiness – both of those doing it and of others affected by it. The problem with this is, as they realized themselves, it's hard to draw a line between one individual's happiness and another's. What if an act makes one individual much more happy, and another slightly less happy? Is it right or wrong? How do you determine which? It's hard to do justice to individuals in such a system.

Others, myself included, have come up with lists of duties. For example: Avoiding being a drain on others. Peacefulness, non-aggression. Economic productivity. Helping those who help you. Keeping your promises. Not putting obstacles in people's way. Respect for others' fundamental human rights, like property and privacy. Honesty – not using lies, deceit or mental manipulation. Compensating those you harm. Taking responsibility for bringing up your children. These lists seem to be all very fine and good, until you ask, Why these particular rules, and not others? And there is a deeper question too. Where's the payback to me for keeping to these rules, if others don't do likewise?

* * *

Two opposite poles, between which all moral systems float, are egoism and altruism. Egoism is the idea that you should do what is best for you. Altruism is the idea that you should do what is best for others. And by implication, that you should sacrifice your interests for the sake of others' interests.

Egoism and altruism, each alone, do not work. Egoism, when used by those without respect for others – like politicians – leads to exploitation and injustice. But altruism is even worse. It not only suckers good people into missing out on the happiness they deserve. But it also provides apparent justification for requiring sacrifice from others. As George Bernard Shaw said, "Self-sacrifice enables us to sacrifice other people without blushing.”

Worse yet, with a very few noble exceptions like Mother Teresa, those that promote self-sacrifice do not themselves practise it. Churchmen and politicians tell us that we should do more to help the poor, needy and vulnerable. Yet they do not give up their positions of power and prestige, get out there, roll up their sleeves and get helping these people. They are egoists, yet they preach altruism. Such hypocrites deserve nothing but contempt.

There is, however, a good reason why we should sometimes consider others' interests, even if they have little in common with us. That reason may be paraphrased, "There, but for the grace of God, go I.” When good people suffer accident, or illness, or natural disaster, or are incapacitated by circumstances outside anyone's control, then it makes good sense to do our share to help them out of their troubles. The response of most people to last December's Asian tsunami showed this clearly.

Equally, though, if those concerned are robbers, or spongers, or cheats, or hypocrites, or promote or support political policies to harm us, why should we feel obliged to help them at all? Why should those of us, who value honesty and non-aggression, waste our time, money or compassion on those that cheat us or bully us? No matter how needy they are? After all, isn't rejecting them merely an act of self-defence?

Moralists have tried, with a lot of fiddling about, to find a tenable balance between egoism and altruism. But they haven't succeeded. I think I understand one reason why this is. I think they have been looking for the wrong thing. They have been searching for one great moral system, to knock the socks off all others. They have been seeking a morality that is RIGHT! where all others are WRONG!. They have been chasing after the moral holy grail. Which doesn't exist.

Those who try to balance egoism against altruism have also ignored the very system which can and does provide such a balance – the free market. In a free market, if you start getting too egoist and treating your customers or suppliers badly, you will lose them eventually. And you will get a bad reputation, which will make it harder for you to find new customers or new suppliers. This is an example of what I call common-sense justice. A truly free market balances self and others, by treating individuals in the long term as they treat others.

* * *

When philosopher, activist and student lovers of freedom meet at our international conferences, I am astonished by how relaxed many of us become after a few days. It feels as if, because we have a compatible moral base, including for example bans on initiatory force and fraud, we have far more in common with each other than we do with our so-called countrymen. I think this is something we can and should do much to help along.

We should encourage people to think of themselves as members of a moral community. We should encourage them to think of those far-away people, who share their moral base, as closer to them than the next-door neighbour who doesn't. In this way of thinking, morality does not arise, as it did long ago, from the social group. Rather, the social group arises out of shared morality.

It is clearly in the long-term interest of good people to have a sound moral code, to keep to it as far as they can, and to shun those that don't make an effort to keep to it, or at least something close to it. The question is, what moral code should we choose?

I am going to put into your minds a radical suggestion. What we need is free, open competition between moral codes – as many and varied as possible. What we need is a free market in morality, so that individuals can subscribe to – and be governed by – whichever code suits them best.

What kind of codes will succeed in the moral free market? I will not attempt to pick winners at this stage. Instead, I will try to say what characteristics a successful moral code should have. It will be clear. It will be easy to understand. It will be concise. It will be impartially applicable to everyone. It will bring benefits to its practitioners. And, above all, those who promote it will strive to their utmost to obey it.

Let the competition begin!

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