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Independent Thinking, Morality, and Liberty

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 7, No. 4.


Independent-Thinking-720Why do we accept the political ideas we accept? Why do we embrace the moral ideas we embrace? Do we uphold the same cognitive standard in each sphere? We should.

Observe that no advocate of liberty would say that if a person is raised in a family or culture that accepts leftist ideas, he should unthinkingly accept those ideas. Nor would we say that if a person is raised in a capitalist or liberty-loving family or culture, he should blindly accept those ideas.

Why? Why do we know that it would be wrong to accept political ideas just because others do? We know it because we recognize the propriety of independent thinking in regard to political matters.

Unfortunately, few advocates of liberty uphold this same standard when it comes to moral matters.

How many people are raised in a family or culture that regards altruism—the idea that we have a moral duty to serve others—as correct? Nearly 100 percent. And how many are willing to question whether altruism is true? Very few. This, in large part, is why we are losing our liberties—especially our economic liberties.

To see why this is so, let us look briefly at what liberty is, what it enables, and what altruism has to say about that. Then we’ll turn to the nature of independent thinking, its demands in regard to moral issues, and what this means for advocates of liberty.

Liberty is the political condition under which physical force is legally barred from social relationships. This condition depends on and is sanctioned by the moral principle of individual rights—the idea that each person has a moral prerogative to act on his own judgment for his own purposes. Because the only thing that can stop a person from acting on his judgment is physical force, the establishment and maintenance of liberty requires a government dedicated to banning physical force—including indirect force, such as fraud—from social relationships; and using force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use.1

Under liberty, each individual is free to act as he chooses—regardless of what others think or feel about his choices. The only proviso is that he may not violate the rights of others, which means, he may not force others to act against their own judgment. So, for instance, under liberty each person is free to earn as much money as he is willing and able to earn, and free to use that money as he sees fit—whether to save for retirement, or to invest in a business, or to buy health insurance or groceries or a yacht.

Under liberty, no one, including the government, may stop a person from acting on his own judgment, producing wealth, or keeping the product of his effort. In other words, under liberty—genuine liberty, the kind under which property rights are recognized and protected—people are free to be fully selfish. As Karl Marx complained, “The right of man to property is the right to enjoy his possessions and dispose of the same”; it is the right to do so “without regard for other men, independently from society”; it is “the right of selfishness.”2 Marx didn’t get much right, but he got that right.

This is why, as I have argued many times and in many ways in this journal, if one wants to defend the politics of freedom, one must defend the ethics of self-interest. The former is an application of the latter. And this is why altruism is entirely incompatible with freedom.

According to altruism, we are our brother’s keeper, and we must love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We may not ignore their needs or desires; we may not pursue only our own chosen goals and values; we must sacrifice our values, our time, our money for the alleged sake of others or “the greater good.” The political implication of altruism is, as Marx put it, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”3 Or, as Barack Obama puts the precept, we must “spread the wealth around” because “it’s good for everybody.”4

Whereas the principle of rights recognizes people as individuals who are properly free to pursue their values and live for themselves, the morality of altruism regards people as cogs in a collective who must sacrifice their values and live for others. Auguste Comte, the philosopher who coined the term “altruism,” put it clearly: “To live for others” is “for all of us a constant duty” and “the definitive formula of human morality”; it follows that “[a]ll honest and sensible men, of whatever party, should agree, by a common consent, to eliminate the doctrine of rights.” Altruism, Comte continued, “cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such notion rests on individualism.” On the premise of altruism, he concluded, “[rights] are as absurd as they are immoral. . . . The whole notion, then, must be completely put away.”5

That a duty to live for others is incompatible with liberty is almost self-evidently true. The pressing question for advocates of liberty is: Why does anyone accept the idea that altruism is true? Is it true because that’s the general consensus? That is not a reason; it is the logical fallacy of appeal to the masses. Is it true because parents, preachers, and teachers insist that living for others is good? That’s not a reason; it’s the fallacy of appeal to authority. Is it true because “God” said so? That’s not a reason; it’s (at best) another form of appeal to authority.

Why, then, do people accept altruism as true? What is the reason to “live for others”? The fact is, there is no reason to live for others—which is why no one has ever provided a reason. There are only appeals to consensus, authorities, and stories that say we should live for others.

If we care about liberty, we must demand reasons in support of the moral ideas that in any way affect liberty. We must commit ourselves to the policy of independent thinking—the policy of always looking at the facts of a matter and forming our own judgments on the basis of observation, evidence, and logic.

That others claim an idea is true doesn’t make it so. Even if others’ conclusions happen to be correct, if we don’t understand why they are correct, then we don’t know they are correct.

Think about what it means to understand something. It means to grasp what stands under the idea in question, what supports it, what grounds it in reality. If we don’t know what supports an idea, if we don’t know the facts that give rise to it, then we don’t understand it. For instance, if someone tells us that the universe is just six thousand years old, but we don’t know the (alleged) facts that support this claim, then we don’t know it to be true; we know only that someone believes it to be true. Likewise, if someone tells us that the Earth revolves around the Sun, but we don’t know the facts that give rise to that conclusion, then we don’t really know that the Earth revolves around the Sun; we know only that someone told us it does. As philosopher John Locke so eloquently put it:

[W]e may as rationally hope to see with other men’s eyes, as to know by other men’s understandings. So much as we ourselves consider and comprehend of truth and reason, so much we possess of real and true knowledge. The floating of other men’s opinions in our brains makes us not one jot the more knowing, though they happen to be true.6

Just as we do not accept cosmological ideas merely because others say they are true—and just as we do not accept political ideas merely because others say they are true—so we should not accept moral or philosophic ideas just because others say they are true.

Independent thinking—or the virtue of independence—is the commitment to always look at reality for oneself, to always demand evidence or reasons in support of the ideas one accepts, to always insist the ideas one accepts make sense.

Consider what it means for an idea to make sense. It means that the idea makes it to the sensory level—that it is connected in one’s mind to the evidence of one’s senses. If we do not know how an abstract idea—such as the propriety of freedom or the principle of rights—connects to perceptual reality, then the idea does not make sense to us. And if we accept ideas that don’t make sense to us, then those ideas are, in Locke’s memorable phrase, merely “the floating of other men’s opinions in our brains.”

Altruism doesn’t make sense. There are no observable facts to support the claim that we have a duty to live for others. To accept altruism is to accept the floating of other men’s opinions in one’s brain.

Whereas altruism senselessly holds living for others and rejecting rights as the moral ideal, egoism sensibly holds living for oneself and respecting rights as the moral ideal.

According to egoism, that which furthers or promotes man’s life is the good; that which harms or destroys it is the bad.7 This principle is based on the demonstrable fact that the only reason we need values or morality is in order to live and prosper. As philosopher Ayn Rand observed, if we don’t want to live and prosper, we don’t need values or morality at all; we can simply stop thinking and acting, and nature will take its course. Our need for moral guidance arises only if we choose to live and only for the purpose of sustaining and furthering our life.8

Egoism holds that each individual should pursue his own life-serving values (if you want it, you must work for it), that each individual is the proper beneficiary of his own actions (if you make it, you own it), and that each individual must respect individual rights—including property rights (if someone else makes something, he owns it).

The principle of egoism can be understood: It is supported by the fact that pursuing values, being productive, keeping the product of one’s effort, and respecting the rights of others are requirements of human life. Put negatively, if people don’t take such actions, they cannot live. And, to the extent that people are forced to act against their judgment or to relinquish the product of their effort—that is, to the extent that they are treated as serfs or slaves—they cannot live fully as human beings.

The principle of egoism makes sense: We can see that people must act on their judgment, produce, and trade in order to live and prosper. We can see that when people are forced to act against their judgment, they cannot act in accordance with their judgment. We can see that freedom enables self-interested action, and that force thwarts it.

Although there is no reason to act in a self-sacrificial manner or to violate the rights of others, there is a reason to act in a self-interested manner and to respect the rights of others. The reason is that this policy is a requirement of human life and happiness—including, most importantly, our own life and happiness. Reasons don’t get any better than that.

It is as wrong to accept moral ideas on faith or authority as it is to accept political ideas on faith or authority—and the former is more damaging to our thinking because morality is more fundamental than politics. Our views of what is true in the realm of morality give rise to our views of what is true in the realm of politics.

Morality defines the good. Politics takes the idea of the good—as defined by morality—and applies it to the question of how people should live together in a society. If being moral is taken to mean sacrificing one’s values and living for others, then a “good” society will see to it that we sacrifice accordingly. If being moral is recognized to mean pursuing one’s values, living for oneself, and respecting the rights of others, then a good society will recognize and protect each individual’s right to his life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness.

Of altruism and egoism, one is a floating opinion; the other makes sense. Advocates of liberty need to think for themselves so they can see which is which. Otherwise, we can expect committed altruists to carry out their mission, which, in Comte’s memorable phrase, is to have rights “completely put away.”

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1 See Ayn Rand, “What Is Capitalism?,” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: Signet, 1967), p. 19.

2 Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question,” in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, 2nd ed., edited by David McLellan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 60.

3 Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, part 1 (1875),

4 Barack Obama’s answer to a question from “Joe the Plumber,”

5 Auguste Comte, The Catechism of Positive Religion, translated by Richard Congreve (London: John Chapman, 1852), pp. 309, 313, 332–33 (emphasis removed).

6 John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 27th ed. (London: T. Tegg and Son, 1836), p. 49.

7 Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1962), pp. 16–18.

8 See Ayn Rand, “Causality Versus Duty” in Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Signet, 1982), pp. 95–101; and Craig Biddle, Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It (Richmond: Glen Allen Press, 2002), pp. 43–52.