It is not unusual in our era to explain what people do by reference to their vested interests. Thus, when a doctor tells us we should consider his cure for what ails us, we are tempted to say, "No wonder; he's a doctor, and it will benefit him to have us take his treatment." Never mind that the doctor has perfectly good reasons for his recommendation. They are treated as rationalizations.
There is no doubt that many people act from motives that are best classified in terms of vested interests. In an age when the very idea of having good reasons for acting is widely debunked, when ethics, especially, is regarded as a myth, perhaps most people who make up our society have difficulty being confident about any other reasons besides their vested interests—that is, reasons having to do with perpetuating their own function as doctors, politicians, bureaucrats, teachers, steel workers, etc.
But the very idea of vested interest gains its meaningfulness from the possibility of other interests that could motivate a person. The typical idea voiced by economists, namely, that all of us always act because we prefer to do what we do, also makes the concept of preference meaningless; it makes sense only when it is contrasted to desires, wants, purposes, plans, obligations, responsibilities, and so forth.
So, contrary to widespread opinion, there are very different motives which account for what people do. Among the many, we should not lose sight of people's moral convictions, be they right or wrong. Granted, for example, that many bureaucrats, politicians, and citizens in general act from motives such as preserving their status as power-wielders, employees, patrons of special groups, or beneficiaries of favors, some of them actually act as they do, especially in matters of public concern, because they believe that as human beings they ought to act that way. (We need also to keep in mind that people do not always act on the same motives. Thus Ralph Nader may at one time press for certain governmental policies because they will perpetuate his power, and at other times because he thinks them to be the morally right course to pursue.)
It is a favorite claim of some economists, including, especially those who advocate mainly free-market policies, that even moral exhortation is necessarily motivated from vested or "self"-interest. (In a recent essay for Encounter Milton Friedman made just this claim about all the saints, namely, that they are pursuing their private interests.) And in view of the fact that economists tend to operate or reason on the basis of statistical generalizations—or assumptions that are useful even if false—this claim is not without analytical value to them in their effort to make very general predictions about human behavior. (For instance, they base on this belief their prediction that bureaucrats administering regulatory agencies will oppose efforts to deregulate. Since the ethics of government regulation are necessarily internally inconsistent, like those of thieves and liars, this claim probably fits them better than ordinary persons.)
Still, one reason that moral exhortations are often effective is that many believe in the morality being relied upon. As hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue, so phony moral exhortation is the compliment baloney pays to sincerity. Both, however, assume the reality of their polar opposites. Unless some credible adherence to certain moral positions exists, faking adherence to the position could have no point at all.
Now the moral position that still permeates the cultures of our epoch is a grab bag of varieties of altruism. There may be cynics who deny this, and millions who fake it, but there are enough of those in influential places who sincerely believe that each person's highest duty is to serve others (which may include gods, neighbors, future generations, the race, the working people of the world, the whites or the blacks, the women or the men, etc.). When those who find something crucially wrong with this morality simply ignore its influence, or pretend that talk of morality is meaningless—that is, could never be right—the altruist stance ends up being victorious. This is because some system or code of values, whereby people can guide their choices in terms of some hierarchy, is indispensible for the sort of beings humans are. (Not possessing instincts but minds, they need principles, abstractions, to guide them. And a moral position is aimed at providing the most general system of principles for this purpose.)
The one area that most of the influential people who promote the cause of liberty tend to eschew is moral philosophy. Various foundations and institutes are devoted to the clarification and promotion of the free society. And most of them devote their funds mainly to economic education of varying complexity. Some strive to teach Chicago School economics, others promote the thought of Adam Smith, others instruct in Austrian economics, and yet others find it important to counsel simple economic common sense. There are such organizations that focus on education, history, and other fields. But hardly any find it important to explore moral philosophy.
The fact is, however, that the most consequential ideas and ideals in society are moral ones. When all the economic reasoning is over, when all the history has been laid out, when all the varieties of educational theory have been explored, there still remains that central question, "What should I do?" And if the answer that is most widely respected remains, "Do whatever you can for others," then considerations of inefficiency, lack of previous success, high cost, or pedagogical ineffectiveness simply will not suffice. When you accept an ideal as binding on you and others, it makes no difference how unrealistic, ephemeral, or illusionary it may be, you tend to stick to it.
Why then the widespread avoidance of investment in the exploration of ethics by what are otherwise dedicated groups of individuals?
I suspect that altruism is itself partly to blame. Those who support various foundations tend, in the final analysis, to accept the altruistic ethics (in one or another of its varieties). Perhaps, also, the subject of ethics or morality cuts too deep. Religious issues would, no doubt, come under scrutiny. And this realm is very touchy, even in our so-called secular age. Also, there is the plain fact that ethics is a highly personal matter, yet not easily dealt with verbally, articulately. What if it were to turn out that a proper ethical code would reflect badly upon those who sponsor a conference on ethics? What if the hedonism some leaders of think tanks practice were to turn out to be a form of viciousness or immorality?
There is, finally, the point that while ethics cuts very close to home, those who deal with the field professionally tend to be verbally agile, able to rationalize their form of behavior quite readily, handle their viciousness or immorality with virtuosity, so that it's difficult for those not trained to give clear verbal expression to their ideals and ideas so as to give a good account of their own stance.
Despite these obvious and understandable obstacles, it would be extremely valuable to mount a full attack on the most pressing problem of our age, namely, the lack of sound moral principles. If those who love liberty could come to at least cherish virtue also, their case would be so much stronger, indeed, so much more persuasive. For while they stress liberty, in the sense of the absence of coercion, the bulk of the problems people face concern virtue, in the sense of what one should do, how one should act, what goals one should pursue. I for one am convinced that no virtue is possible where liberty is absent. But this needs to be shown to many more people before they will give liberty a chance. To that end the hard, risky, even frightening task of confronting the serious and basic questions of ethics must be faced squarely.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Viewpoint: On Neglecting Ethics".