“Morals and the Free Society” is an essay I’d like to get feedback on. It’s much too long for a single blog post, so I’ll post it in installments every few days. For reference—or if you just can’t wait to read the whole thing in all its glory—the complete essay is posted here. To advance to the second installment, click here.
What is the appropriate place of morals in a free society? By “free society,” I mean a social order that places heavy emphasis on individual liberty; for example, freedom of speech, of assembly, of religion; freedom from coercive state power, as exemplified by unreasonable search and seizure, incarceration without trial, conscription (military or otherwise), etc.; and freedom of commerce, particularly including the protection of property rights. By “morals”—which I shall use interchangeably with “ethics”—I mean fundamental principles for the conduct of life, making no preconceptions about what those principles must be. For instance, even a simple egoistic hedonism is on the table as a possible moral system and conceivably even as the best.
In asking about the appropriate place of morals in a free society, part of what I’m asking is which morals, if any, are encouraged or even required by a free society. Do the political arguments in favor of a free society imply any particular system of morals? Does the operation or the structure or the maintenance of a free society require or imply any particular system of morals? If a free society does not require any particular moral system, does it at least encourage (or inhibit) any? Or are the politics of a free society and morals completely independent? What moral vision, if any, should we associate with a free society?
The purpose of this essay is to explore these questions and eventually to attempt an answer. My strategy is to take the superiority of a free society for granted and ask what implications that has for morality. I aim to show that this strategy is fruitful. Although the conditions and requirements of a free society hardly determine a complete system of morals, I shall argue that they powerfully and helpfully constrain the character of a moral system. There is a moral vision for a free society.
Is a Free Society a Paradise of Moral Tolerance?
One approach to the question of what moral system is appropriate to a free society is to say that no particular system is more appropriate than any other. This view is sometimes held up with pride by advocates of a free society, as a point in its favor. The free society, they say, does not coerce its people in any way and a fortiori does not impose morals on them. On this view, people in a free society are left free to work out their own way of life and code of values. Thus, the free society is the social order of tolerance par excellence. For instance, Murray Rothbard, in “Six Myths about Libertarianism” (1980), writes that, “Libertarianism does not offer a way of life; it offers liberty, so that each person is free to adopt and act upon his own values and moral principles.”
It is odd that this “tolerance” view of the free society is as common as it is, inasmuch as it is so obviously false. The free society is hardly neutral as between “hedonism,” “’bourgeois’ conventional or religious morality,” and “libertinism,” to quote some alternatives named by Rothbard. On the contrary, the complement of personal liberty is personal responsibility, and the free society is hard on those who forget that. The free society rewards ants (especially ants who get a good education), not grasshoppers. As George Gilder (2012), Michael Novak (1982; 1996), Deirdre McCloskey (2006), and many other writers have pointed out, the free society promotes the virtues of industry, initiative, perseverance, prudence, reliability, honesty, courage, independence, politeness, affability, frugality, probity, discretion, cheerfulness, goodwill, daring, endurance, sobriety, fidelity, restraint, entrepreneurship, and many others, all of a distinctly bourgeois cast. Hedonism and libertinism, by contrast, are punished—not by the government or any coercive authority, of course, but by their outcomes, which the individuals who engage in such practices are left to bear on their own.
One may say that all this is not due to the deliberate imposition of morality by a free society but is an entirely natural consequence of the fact that the free society does not allow persons (e.g., the hedonists and libertines) to impose the consequences of their actions on others. This is true, but it does not alter the fact that a free society is not morally neutral: it is a bourgeois paradise and by the same token a torment to contrary “lifestyles.” Nor is this any mere accident. The conception of individual freedom—as consisting in freedom from coercion, in freedom of all action that is not itself coercive, and in the observance of property rights—that lies at the base of the free society is not some neutral, obvious, universally accepted moral concept sanctified by God, “intuition,” and Harvard University. Rather, it is embedded in and depends on certain predominantly individualistic conceptions of human life, endeavor, responsibility, and happiness.
In addition, obviously the prohibition on coercion and protection of property rights themselves represent moral principles, and the free society is not “tolerant” of their violation. (Rothbard himself is quick to point this out.) Thus, a free society is not morally neutral; it plays distinct favorites.
- Gilder, George. 2012. Wealth and Poverty: A New Edition for the 21st Century. Regnery.
- McCloskey, Deirdre N. 2006. The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce. University of Chicago Press.
- Novak, Michael. 1982. The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism. Simon and Schuster.
- ———. 1996. Business as a Calling. The Free Press.
- Rothbard, Murray. 1980. “Six Myths about Libertarianism.” Modern Age, 24: 9–15. (Original title: “Myth and Truth about Libertarianism.”)