Viewpoint: Affirming the Moral Defense of Liberty


The point of this essay is to push for a certain line of argument for the free society. Some time ago I emphasized the epistemological issues involved in discussing freedom, which stemmed from my concern with the widespread skepticism regarding values. If those who value liberty are unwilling to defend the possibility of knowledge of freedom's value for human beings, then the prospect of liberty can only be dim. One must be firm on the issue of an individual's capacity to know what is good for him. Since most intellectuals disputed that possibility, it was their case in support of their skepticism that had to be met, for how far can one get in defending a value if the very idea of establishing that something is of value is generally thought to be impossible?

The skeptical arguments against values are no longer so widely respected. That is a fact. (Here we are dealing with the sociology of philosophy.) People in many circles have realized that denying the possibility of knowing values leads to nihilism and mysticism. Given that this is widely enough realized—and one can draw on all sorts of recent (Watergate) examples to support the need for objective values—the next move is to argue for the value of political liberty.

It was Irving Kristol who so poignantly chided the libertarian tradition for being value-free. (See "Capitalism, Socialism and Nihilism," Public Interest, Spring 1973, pp. 3-16.) And not only the tradition (the past) but some of the contemporary libertarians (Chicagoites and Stirnerites) argue for a value-free case for political liberty. Kristol is not just tilting against a strawman. Too many defenders of the free society think that morality is bunk.

But morality is a fact of human life. True, as with all tools that may be used to improve human life, this tool—morality—can also be misapplied, misconceived, abused, and so forth. But the fact is that human beings, as individuals capable of initiating action, face the selection of alternative courses of conduct, some of which are correct, others incorrect. To make correct selections, human beings must identify a standard of judgment. And this is where morality enters their lives.

If the right standard is not identified, wrong ones will be employed. Altruism is the morality of those who want to live off others' effort. If the others do not make the effort to identify the morality suited to human life—meaning the lives of all individuals, not just the parasites'—then altruism wins out, by default. Since values are indispensable, however much some want to deny this, those that will be advertised will win over those that are timidly defended.

Some defenders of human freedom believe that they need just one principle from which to argue the case. They hold on to the nonaggression principle as if it were axiomatic in human affairs. But political liberty is not a self-evident principle. Politics is the social realm of human beings, the area of community affairs. Before community affairs can be understood clearly, private affairs must be understood well enough. Community life is not a primary. To answer the question, "How should I act vis-a-vis my fellow human beings?" one needs to know the answer to the question, "How should I act?" The standards of individual, private conduct must come before the standards of collective conduct, of conduct involving others. (The denial of this fact leads to collectivism!)

So the nonaggression principle is a derived principle, secondary to the individualist moral code, ethical egoism. But ethical egoism is not indifferent to social conduct. Once it is learned that one's happiness qua human being is the proper goal of an individual, it is necessary to learn how that happiness is best achieved within the social context. This is where the nonaggression principle comes to fore, not before that.

Advocacy of the free society can involve those who espouse divergent moral viewpoints, but it cannot rely on all these viewpoints for an adequate support. Thus, one must identify the correct moral standard before one undertakes to give the free society an adequate defense. If someone does not know the argument to support the nonaggression principle (human rights theory), one is well advised to simply refrain from further argumentation. There is no harm in this—the division of labor applies here, too.

The spectacle of nihilism occurs among defenders of the free society when they claim that prostitution, careless production, hucksterism, phony experimentation in psychology, blackmail, irresponsible personal conduct on various fronts, etc., are all quite OK by defenders of human liberty. When such nonsense is advanced, people rightfully dismiss the advocate of the free society. Most people know that deceit, indiscriminate sex, obscenity, bad scholarship, yellow journalism, shyster law, etc., are immoral, however badly they put their justification of their convictions. Any political theory that accepts these practices as "quite OK" must be defective. It is the Classical Liberals' inadequate moral theory that led to the success of collectivists who declared that since the moral righteousness of self-interest was undefended, the moral righteousness of the interest of the collective could be stuck in as a substitute.

It is time to realize that there is no value-free defense of human liberty. We ought to be free because only in freedom can our self-interest be achieved. And our self-interest is the highest value rationally defensible.

Tibor Machan's Viewpoint appears in this column every third month, alternating with the views of Murray N. Rothbard and David Brudnoy. Dr. Machan's book on B.F. Skinner will appear late in 1974 from Arlington House.