Many libertarians will tell you that moral theories have relatively little to do with their advocacy of libertarianism. They think that liberty is morally neutral. Their thinking for why this is so is basically that liberty enables people to live by all sorts of different moral ideas. It doesn’t favor any morality over others, they think, so liberty itself must be morally neutral.
To the extent that some libertarians think that morality is involved, it’s usually just conventional ideas that you shouldn’t harm others, steal from others, etc. So they think that all one has to do in arguing for liberty is to talk about something like the Golden Rule or the Non-Aggression Principle, and show that liberty has good economic consequences.
Or, if they’re doctrinaire students of Austrian economics, they may think that the need of liberty can effectively be derived from praxeology–a “purely descriptive discipline” studying human action–without any need to resort to moral ideas.
But in this essay, I will argue that a controversial moral theory is deeply involved in any advocacy of freedom, and that in order to be persuasive on a cultural scale and achieve a lasting victory, advocates of liberty must make a deliberate break with today’s conventional morality. They must advocate for a full moral theory based on reasoning, not just the “conventional wisdom” that’s widely accepted without thought.
Statists are Guided by Moral Ideas, not Economic Ones
The argument from “good economics” is a very common one among libertarians: Free market policies lead to economic prosperity, and therefore we should enact those policies.
But what if the people you’re arguing with don’t really value economic prosperity? What if they value other things above prosperity? Whatever lip service the political left gives to economics and prosperity, the fact is that they don’t value it–not really. What they actually value are things like “fairness,” “equality,” and “social justice.” To see evidence of this, pay attention to what they talk about first, what they get passionate and angry about. Watch virtually any Bernie Sanders campaign speech, and you’ll find that his main focus is on wealth inequality and “social justice.” In virtually every speech, he will say that large wealth inequality is wrong, immoral, and not what America should be about. He links inequality to economic problems, but his economic arguments are shaky. They don’t really support the use of the government to “equalize” wealth, and most of them have been refuted. (See Equal is Unfair for details on how the arguments against wealth inequality fail.)
Bernie Sanders and many other leftists keep pushing for a higher minimum wage, even though it is very well known among economists that it is bad economic policy and will cause unemployment among the very people it’s supposed to help. (Paul Krugman is an economist who used to know better, yet he has flip-flopped to say that minimum wages should be raised.) Leftists keep trying to implement greater degrees of socialism, even though socialism has been tried countless different ways and has failed to produce economic prosperity again and again. There’s a clear correlation between economic freedom (with property rights protection) and economic prosperity, and the Left has been working against economic freedom and property rights for centuries.
Leftists–for the most part–are not complete idiots, and they’re not insane. So there’s one conclusion left as to why they have kept pushing for policies that destroy economic prosperity: they’re not really after economic prosperity. What are they really after? Take Bernie Sanders’ speeches as a clue: a more moral governmental system.
And what about social conservatives who want to legislate against “sins” and what you can do with your body in private? Well of course, this is even more obviously guided by morality.
Libertarians’ Political Ideas Depend on Controversial Moral Ideas
So deep down, statists, both left and right, are focused on morality. But should we be, as advocates of liberty? Should we try to get statists to forget about morality and focus on economics? Well, it turns out that ideas about “good economics”–as well as every other governmental policy capitalists might advocate–ultimately presuppose and depend on moral ideas, whether people are aware of it or not. So moral issues cannot be escaped in political advocacy.
Case in point: What do capitalists mean when we advocate “good economic policies?” Do we mean policies that encourage suffering and famine like in Soviet Russia? No, we mean the policies that will enable people to achieve economic prosperity. And what do we mean by “economic prosperity?” We mean the material conditions that lead to the sustenance and flourishing of human life in this world.
So advocating good economic policies is advocating that people should choose to pursue the sustenance and flourishing of human life in this world. Is this a controversial moral idea? Yes, in fact, it is. It is a moral idea, because morality deals with the most fundamental goals people should choose, and life in this world is definitely one of the fundamental goals one can choose. It is controversial, because many moral thinkers have said that the function and meaning of morality is something other than to promote the sustenance and flourishing of human life in this world. The fundamental goal humans should pursue is something else, they have said.
In Christian morality, the ultimate goal is not prosperity in this world, but salvation in “the next.” The Biblical Jesus advised, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” (Matt. 19:21) The Apostle Paul said: “What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.” (Phil. 3:8-9) And the Apostle John admonished: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them.” (1 John 2:15)
In ancient Greek and Roman Stoicism, the goal that people should pursue is not prosperity and flourishing life in this world, but “virtue” for its own sake. Wisdom, justice, courage and moderation are ends-in-themselves, according to stoic thinkers.
In Kantian morality, people should pursue, not flourishing life, but fulfillment of their moral “duty” as an end-in-itself, (i.e. the Categorical Imperative.)
Many people today are influenced by these and similar moral ideas that are incompatible with a worldly, prosperous life as a fundamental goal.
In addition to economic prosperity, libertarians and capitalists are also generally concerned with advocating for property rights. But what are property rights? Are they physical barriers that protect people’s goods? No, declaring your property rights will not physically stop a bear from stealing food from your cooler, or Communist armies from seizing your factory. Ultimately, property rights are moral ideas. They represent the idea that individuals should be left free to use and dispose of the products of their effort, if they are to achieve the moral goal of prosperous life in this world.
Apocalyptic death cults waiting to be martyred, or for the Messiah to return and end the world, don’t have much use for private property rights. For example, many early Christians lived communal lifestyles, with goods shared among them according to need. (In this, they followed the Biblical example of the Apostles of Jesus and their followers. (Acts 2:44-45)) This sort of lifestyle continued on into the Middle Ages in Christian monasteries.
Similarly, there have been a tremendous number of socialists and communists in the past 200 years who have disputed the idea that private property should be recognized. They have claimed that the government (or “the community”) should own all property used in wealth production.
The idea of “intellectual property,” recognized in most modern countries, is even controversial among libertarians. So private property is definitely a controversial moral idea. We can’t even rationally define what should and shouldn’t be property for a given person, without a more fundamental moral framework that gives rise to property rights.
The third major idea that libertarians often discuss is the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). This is also clearly a moral idea: the idea that people–whether civilians or government officials–should not initiate coercion against other people. It’s not the idea that coercion is just bad style, or bad etiquette, but that initiating coercion is morally wrong.
This moral principle is quite obviously controversial: the vast majority of the world’s population does not believe in this idea as a principle. Many people don’t want to be forced in many situations, but don’t mind in others. Many people hate having money forcibly taken from them when individuals do it, but they agree with it when the government does it. Etc.
The battle over the ideas of liberty is a battle about moral ideas. But what are the main sides in this battle? I will argue that the main sides are conventional morality versus Ayn Rand’s ethics of rational egoism.
Conventional Morality Advocates Self-Sacrifice and Suffering, While Ayn Rand’s Egoism Advocates Self-Interest and Happiness
The conventional moral pronouncements that we hear all the time are things like “I try to be a good person, so I give to charity,” and “The world would be a better (more moral) place if everyone paid it forward,” and “He’s a hero for saving that woman from the burning car,” and “Morality is about social cooperation and helping others,” and so on.
The common thread in these sorts of moral statements is the idea that moral acts are those done for others, without an apparent reward for oneself. We don’t hear conventional moral praise for those who work to benefit others, while getting a clear and substantial reward for themselves. When Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs, or drug companies create products that bring great benefits to millions of people, but ask for a payment in return, they are not morally praised for this. They might sometimes be looked up to as practical role models for businessmen to follow in their careers, or as people that we want more of for their economic benefits, but they are not considered especially moral people for innovating and trading. It is only when entrepreneurs start giving vast amounts of their wealth to charity that they can perhaps approach the moral praiseworthiness of the middle-class woman who lives in a cheap apartment, volunteers all her free time at a children’s hospital and donates her disposable income to Doctors Without Borders.
In this view, the more a person gives of her time, energy and wealth to others, without expecting compensation–that is, the more selfless a person is–the more morally praiseworthy she is. (If she gives too much, she might be considered impractical, but her intentions will be seen as pure and noble.)
This idea that the selfless serving of others is the essence of morality is what Ayn Rand referred to as altruism. She held that this is a deeply wrong idea that destroys human self-esteem and stops morality from serving its proper role in human life. In contrast, Rand held that a proper morality would be based on egoism: the idea that the function of morality is to enable a person to pursue his genuine self-interest. Thus, for Rand, moral actions are ones properly aimed at an individual’s genuine self-interest. Self-sacrifice for others is immoral.
But we must be careful not to misunderstand Rand here. There is an extremely common error among adherents of conventional morality, where they identify self-interest with materialism: They see compensation and rewards for oneself as materialistic, essentially physical, short-range. But this is not Ayn Rand’s view of self-interest, and it is not the concept of self-interest that makes sense.
Pursuing your self-interest means pursuing what is good for you over the whole span of your lifetime. Human beings have minds as well as physical bodies that constitute their “selves.” So pursuing your self-interest means pursuing your long-term happiness, in accordance with your nature as a human being. Pursuing your self-interest often means forming relationships with some other individuals and helping them without any expectation of material reward. It can even mean providing some degree of help to strangers without apparent material reward. (For more detail on this point, see: Other People as Egoistic Values Versus Other People as Objects of Self-Sacrifice in Ayn Rand’s Philosophy.)
So if your self-interest can involve helping others, how do we tell the difference between a morality of self-interest and one of self-sacrifice? Basically, a morality of self-interest places its primary focus on the values, needs and interests of the individual who is acting (“the agent.”) Help to others is to be evaluated as morally good or bad with reference to the agent’s values and interests. In contrast, a morality of self-sacrifice ignores, dismisses or downplays the interests and values of the agent, in favor of a primary focus on the needs of others. Personal choices of goals and values are to be morally evaluated by how much they “help other people,” compared to how little reward they provide the agent in return.
Thus, someone like Mother Teresa, who sacrifices her happiness in order to minister to suffering, is largely admired as a moral exemplar around the world, while titans of industry like John D. Rockefeller and Commodore Vanderbilt, who basically earned their money legitimately and helped transform the modern world for the better, have been vilified as “robber barons.”
And thus, non-profit organizations like Doctors Without Borders, whose expenses are paid by donations and whose employees are low-paid, are seen as good, while pharmaceutical companies, who dare to profit off of helping others, are seen as amoral at best and evil at worst.
These evaluations according to the conventional morality of altruism are the opposite of egoistic moral evaluations. Under egoism, helping others is proper when it is in service of your own life and rational values. And in order for such help to serve your own life, the people you are helping must meet certain standards, not just be “needy.” The people you are helping must be essentially good people by egoistic standards, who do not believe it is their right to have others sacrifice for them. And your time and effort in helping an individual should be spent in proportion to the degree that that individual reflects or promotes your rational values. Assuming they are good people, strangers should be helped modestly, distant friends and business partners more, intimate friends and business partners still more, and lovers and one’s own children, most.
But under a morality of altruism, you are expected to help other people just because they are people “in need.” If any conditions are placed on this help, it is only that these people be part of your supposed “in-group,” i.e. your tribe, family, race, economic “class,” or nation.
Egoism sees profit, both material and spiritual, as a good thing to seek in interactions with others, (so long as it is not short-term “profit” gotten at the expense of long-term self-destruction.) It promotes the idea of a harmony of interests among rational individuals, where people can trade value for value and all benefit.
Altruism sees profit as crass and immoral. It promotes a false moral alternative between “good” self-destructiveness for the “benefit” of others, (Mother Teresa) and bad destructiveness of others for the “benefit” of oneself, (Bernie Madoff and the “robber barons.”) Yet it also promotes different standards of what it means to be moral for different people. In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, one of the characters speaks for Rand when he says:
Why is it moral to serve the happiness of others, but not your own? If enjoyment is a value, why is it moral when experienced by others, but immoral when experienced by you? If the sensation of eating a cake is a value, why is it an immoral indulgence in your stomach, but a moral goal for you to achieve in the stomach of others? Why is it immoral for you to desire, but moral for others to do so? Why is it immoral to produce a value and keep it, but moral to give it away? And if it is not moral for you to keep a value, why is it moral for others to accept it? If you are selfless and virtuous when you give it, are they not selfish and vicious when they take it? Does virtue consist of serving vice? Is the moral purpose of those who are good, self-immolation for the sake of those who are evil?
The answer you evade, the monstrous answer is: No, the takers are not evil, provided they did not earn the value you gave them. It is not immoral for them to accept it, provided they are unable to produce it, unable to deserve it, unable to give you any value in return. It is not immoral for them to enjoy it, provided they do not obtain it by right.
Such is the secret core of your creed, the other half of your double standard: it is immoral to live by your own effort, but moral to live by the effort of others—it is immoral to consume your own product, but moral to consume the products of others—it is immoral to earn, but moral to mooch—it is the parasites who are the moral justification for the existence of the producers, but the existence of the parasites is an end in itself—it is evil to profit by achievement, but good to profit by sacrifice—it is evil to create your own happiness, but good to enjoy it at the price of the blood of others.
Your code divides mankind into two castes and commands them to live by opposite rules: those who may desire anything and those who may desire nothing, the chosen and the damned, the riders and the carriers, the eaters and the eaten. What standard determines your caste? What passkey admits you to the moral elite? The passkey is lack of value.
So ultimately, the morality of altruism is not really about helping people to rise and achieve happiness. It is about celebrating humility, poverty and suffering for their own sake and reveling in people’s lack of achievement. It is permission to be mentally lazy, be mediocre, be helpless, play the victim. Hence Jesus’s pronouncements in the Bible: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” and “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matt. 5:3-5) When people rise by their own effort to prosperity, they are no longer among the “saintly” poor who are deserving of the sacrifices of their more prosperous neighbors: in Jesus’ words, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matt. 19:24).
It is fortunate that most modern people do not live by the morality of altruism with any consistency. Especially in the United States, people mostly act on some approximation of their self-interest in their everyday lives. Acting consistently on altruism would destroy our modern civilization and basically lead to the extinction of humanity. But the vast majority of people do nonetheless accept altruism in some degree as their moral guidance. They pursue it in fits and starts, and feel guilt about not acting on it more often. This guilt poisons their happiness, their self-esteem, and their moral self-confidence. It makes them susceptible to accepting the political implications of the altruist morality.
Conventional altruism and Ayn Rand’s egoism are very different approaches to morality. So now let us see what the political implications of these two moral approaches are.
Ayn Rand’s Egoism Supports Liberty and Property, While Altruism Supports Statism
As I showed in the first and second titled sections of this essay, political positions depend on moral ones. Political ideas are moral ideas applied to the governance of a society. They are how a society should be governed, given the basic principles of how people should live.
Ayn Rand’s philosophy holds that human life is the basis of morality. In order to live in the long term, humans have to think, plan and produce what they need in accordance with their thinking. Humans live and think fundamentally as individuals; there is no such thing as a collective mind. So, in order to live, individuals need to be free to think and act on their thinking in their own self-interest.
The main thing in human control that prevents an individual from acting on his own judgment is physical force by other people: people attacking an individual, imprisoning him, threatening him with force, etc. The pursuit of rational self-interest by production of wealth becomes impractical when a stronger gang can just take what you have produced and wreck your plans.
This gives rise to the need of the moral principles of individual rights. Rights are areas in which individuals should be free to act their own judgment, without physical interference by others. The right to life is the right to not be killed by another person. The right to liberty is the right to not be physically restrained or imprisoned by others. The right to property is the right to keep and dispose of the direct products of one’s effort, rather than having them taken or used by others.
The proper place of a government is to be a protector of individuals’ rights against other individuals and governments that would violate them. In this way, government is a guardian of individuals’ ability to act on their own judgment, practice morality, and live prosperous and thriving lives. In a morally proper government, rights set the boundaries between the spheres of freedom of different individuals, and limit what the government may do to its citizens.
Property rights are moral principles based on the fact that humans are not free floating spirits, and must be able to use and dispose of the products of their effort, if they are to plan, survive and prosper. It is only through use of the products of an individual’s effort that he can maintain and plan his own life, and thus exercise his other rights. (For more detail on this, see Why Socialism is Morally Wrong: The Basis of Property Rights.)
So this is a brief indication of how Ayn Rand’s egoist moral framework supports liberty and property. Now let’s look at conventional morality.
Under the conventional morality of altruism, prosperous people should sacrifice for others. This is their moral duty, if they are to be a good person. If they are not prosperous, people can be good by just sitting back and accepting the sacrifices of others. So let us ask: Is liberty necessary for this morality to be practiced? Well, we might say that someone who is imprisoned in a cell will have difficulty becoming prosperous and finding needy people to donate his money to. If everyone were idly imprisoned, there would be no one to support human life and keep the needs and sacrifices going.
But there is an alternative to idle imprisonment: slavery. If the government enslaves some of the population and forces them to produce for everyone, then there is a perpetual cycle of needs and people sacrificing to fill those needs. This is, according to altruism, a moral society. Of course, the people being enslaved did not necessarily choose to sacrifice; they were forced into it. If they didn’t want to sacrifice, but are only doing it because they were forced, then they’re not moral by the standards of altruism. But if they do choose to embrace their duties under their slavery, they can be moral altruists. The moral goodness, in the case of unwilling sacrificers, lies with their masters: In forcing these people to sacrifice for the needy, the masters have ensured that the needs of the needy have been met. The masters have also sacrificed themselves for the needy: Instead of pursuing their own lives and interests, developing their own talents, relationships, etc, the masters have chosen to devote their lives to serving the needy and running the government.
But sacrifice for the needy must be done freely and according to an individual’s own judgment to be moral, you say? Not at all. Who is an individual altruist to decide what the needs of others are? By his own moral position, he is the servant of others. It is not the servant’s position to judge what his master’s needs are–it is the master’s prerogative to tell the servant. Thus for altruists, so long as the government (which serves as the master-by-proxy) properly represents the will of the relevant “true master,” state enslavement can be perfectly moral. For theocrats, the true master is “God”; for Marxists, the true master is “the proletariat” (“worker class”); for social democrats, the true master is “society as a whole.”
So liberty is not necessary for the moral practice of altruism. What about property? Well, as we have seen, control over one’s own life is unnecessary for the practice of altruism, and the right to property is justified by the moral need of individuals to control and plan their own lives, in order to serve their self-interest. So it should be no surprise that altruism is compatible with violations of property rights. Under the morality of altruism, the product of an individual’s effort is not his. Morally, it belongs to the needy whom he serves. If he keeps and uses the product of his effort for himself, he is stealing what is rightfully theirs. Just like liberty, the right to individual property does not logically follow from an altruist moral framework.
Yet altruism is not only compatible with violations of capitalist rights, it actually encourages such violations. In a laissez-faire capitalist society, it is the egoists, producers and traders who prosper: they grow rich, become respected and influential. Those who regularly sacrifice themselves to serve others end up struggling: they are poor, worn down, and don’t have big voices in the culture. A laissez-faire capitalist society is suited to a J.P. Morgan, not a Mother Teresa.
Altruists sense this, and they don’t like it. They want higher social standing–consonant with being “the most moral people.” They want their voices to be more influential in their society, and so they want more wealth donated into the fund for the “needy.” They want the activities on which they have based their sense of self-worth to grow and triumph. And in their worldview, the happy, successful, powerful industrialists have gotten that way through immorality. A society that enables and encourages the success of immorality, while discouraging morality, is an immoral society.
So altruists tend to feel the need to destroy the success of industrialists. They do this by attacking the institutions that allow industrialists to succeed: governmental protections of liberty and property. In place of the pursuit of individual happiness, they advocate sacrifice for the “common good.” In place of the justice of individuals earning what they get by personal effort, they advocate “social justice” and equality of wealth. In place of private property, they advocate “communal ownership.” In place of the necessity of individual rights, they advocate the necessity of individual obligations to others. And as we saw earlier, from their perspective, there is nothing wrong with these obligations being enforced by the state.
From an altruist perspective, laws that enforce sacrifice are helping to thwart people’s temptation to “sin” by being greedy and self-interested. People can choose to embrace their moral and legal obligations, or not, but at least the laws keep immoral behavior out of public view and away from many impressionable children. If children are good and law-abiding, they will choose the “moral life,” rather than “criminal activity.”
From an egoist perspective, laws against non-coercive immorality are destructive of human life and morality. This is because personal choice–acting on one’s own judgment–is absolutely critical to morality as such. There is no morality in a forced decision. Morality exists to guide individuals’ free choices toward goals that will serve their own prosperous and happy life, in light of the fundamental facts of reality and human nature. But the initiation of force makes free choices impossible: instead of being able to base decisions on self-interest and fundamental facts of reality, a coerced person must act on the forcer’s commands, or be harmed. The individual’s free judgment is cast aside, so that he cannot sustain his life and happiness.
But altruists have basically dominated Western intellectual culture since the time of Jesus. There was a revival of the metaphysical and egoistic ethical thought of Aristotle in the European Middle Ages, and this led to higher respect for the individual’s life and judgment and hence, the Renaissance. This trend culminated in the Enlightenment, with its view of the “pursuit of happiness” as the natural exercise of individual rights to life, liberty and property. But altruism–the morality of self-sacrifice for others–never really went away. Moral philosophers continued to preach it or make concessions to it. So altruists have chipped away at capitalism bit by bit, enacting a law here, a law there, progressively expanding the welfare state. The dominant wing of altruists in the US has been the so-called “Progressives.” They dominate, not because of sheer numbers, but because of their consistency in advocating altruism and the constant moral pressure they exert in favor of greater statism. They have been steadily chipping away at liberty and capitalism in the US for the past 130 years. Pro-union legislation, the New Deal, the Great Society, welfare, Social Security, Medicare–these are all the handiwork of the Progressives.
The only way to really fight the Progressives and win over the long term is to challenge their moral ideas. Like it or not, statism follows from the morality of altruism. The acceptance of the moral duty to sacrifice for others wipes out the moral case for individual liberty and sets up government coercion as the practical way to achieve a moral society.
So those who accept altruism and capitalist liberty are being inconsistent. When people are inconsistent, the logic of their ideas is not in their favor. They are unable to make morally confident arguments and so they tend to be unconvincing and wishy-washy. They concede the moral high ground to their opponent: he is being true to his moral principles, while they are not.
As I have shown, the battle for liberty is a moral battle. If you are advocating for liberty, you are already involved in advocacy of morality, even if you don’t know it. If you want to stand firmly and consistently in defense of liberty, conventional morality will not do. You need Ayn Rand’s morality. Her moral philosophy could rightly be called “the moral philosophy of liberty.” It supports liberty from its deepest principles. Individual rights are not baseless duties, commandments, or “side-constraints,” as many libertarian philosophers would describe them. Nor are they utilitarian rules for what amounts to the collectivist “happiness of society.” Individual rights are principles that must be respected for each individual to live, be moral, and to prosper materially and spiritually in a society on this earth. Liberty is a logical consequence of egoism.
But Ayn Rand’s morality is more than just a weapon in the intellectual battle for liberty. It is the only morality that reason will accept. That is, it is the only morality that is fully consistent with the nature of man as a natural, living, thinking, individual being, who can think for himself and live his own life. It is a morality based on facts and directed toward the achievement of human happiness. So it’s an amazing tool to help you in life. If you want to achieve your dreams, have a fulfilling career, have great relationships, all while deeply and thoroughly enjoying life, then Ayn Rand’s rational egoist morality is an indispensable part of this.
If you’d like to learn more about Ayn Rand’s morality of egoism, I recommend reading my Introduction to Objectivism page, as well as The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand, Loving Life by Craig Biddle and Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics by Tara Smith.
For more on the relevance of moral ideas to the fight for liberty, I recommend the free online course, The Morality of Freedom, as well as Free Market Revolution and Equal is Unfair: America’s Misguided Fight Against Income Inequality by Yaron Brook and Don Watkins.