Published on Strike the Root
Ethics, Religion and Freedom
by Jim Davies
the latter's recent article in Britain's Spectator
magazine, it appears that the readership of Strike The Root may include
such luminaries as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the distinguished
free-market Conservative historian Paul Johnson; for it refers to the very
themes struck in my recent piece here about the tsunami.
so happens that when the Spectator
article was brought to my attention, I was in the process of reading
Johnson's magnum opus,
Times. It is, indeed, a masterpiece; nobody interested in the history
of the 20th Century should miss a chance to read it. Johnson is an
historian of towering skill and enormous capacity for detailed research;
he portrays the cultural and political backgrounds of each of the key
nations that wrote the history of the world following WW-I. His depth of
knowledge is amazing; in dozens of countries one after another, he shows
in meticulous detail that intervention by a political class correlates
with increasing poverty and mayhem; that the less restraint a society
places on its government, the more it resembles an abbatoir. Even
so, alas, he leaves the reader to draw the obvious conclusion that that
government is best, which governs not at all.
favorite theme is that war and other man-made horrors occur when morality
becomes relative, in the society in question; when the
"Judeo-Christian values of individual responsibility" become
obscured and moral absolutes are abandoned. It's a theme that resonates
among freedom-lovers, and so deserves a closer look.
moral absolutes disappear, any savagery can be "justified" in
the "interests of the State"--yes, of course; it is happening
all around us as I write. The very nation that most enshrines the high
ideal of affording a "speedy public trial" to anyone to be
deprived of his liberty is now scorned worldwide for deliberately and
persistently incarcerating suspects without end or trial or access to
counsel in a military base in Cuba. Why?
of course. The bloodiest phase of the French Revolution began after there
was formed what?--a "Committee of Public Safety." So yes, thus
far Johnson is right; the abandonment of moral absolutes by large parts of
a society is an open invitation to the disaster of the moral relativism of
government; though sadly, he fails to denounce the very notion and
existence of all government as also fundamentally immoral.
is he in any case also right to link such moral absolutes to theism?--to
name "Judeo-Christian values of individual responsibility" as if
the latter are uniquely caused by the former? I don't think so. True,
Judeo-Christianity is one source of an ethic of individual moral
responsibility; Johnson's error is to imply that it's the only one.
It's nothing of the sort.
sources may be found in at least some other religions. It also comes from
a rational (and atheistic) understanding of the true natures of man and
government. There is, in other words, such a thing as a rational ethic,
and to my mind it is greatly superior to the kind based on irrational
superstition which Johnson promotes.
starts with the fundamental axiom that each human possesses absolutely the
right to own and operate his or her own life; such a "right to
life" is and must be the starting point. It cannot be proven or
disproven, yet no logical progress can be made without it.
Were it not true, everyone would be owned by someone else, and that
is impossible, a fatal, logical contradiction. As Ayn Rand put it, a
proposition is an axiom if, in order to try to disprove it explicitly, one
is obliged to assume it implicitly. Here,
the very act of asserting that one is not one's own master disqualifies
one from expressing any independent sequence of reasoning. Hence the
there it follows that an "ethical" act is any act that enhances
or preserves the life that is owned. It is ethical to eat, for eating
prolongs that priceless asset; it is ethical also to love, for loving
someone else returns an abundant sense of well-being in oneself. It is
ethical to work, for work is needed to acquire food to eat; it is ethical
to trade, for trading allows the efficiency of division of labor and
therefore provides warmth of clothing, shelter of buildings; it is ethical
to defend, but not to aggress, etc. Other people, on the basis of rational
ethics, are valuable to the actor as trading partners or potential
traders, in every case; from that it follows that one's own long-term
interests are best served by respecting the interests of everyone else.
Such a rational ethic is elegant in its simplicity and comprehensive
self-ownership axiom and the ethic of universal respect to which it leads
are the amply sufficient components of the "individual
responsibility" that Johnson rightly says are indispensable to a
harmonious, prosperous and humane society; but they owe nothing at all to
the hypothesis that humankind, or anything else, was created by a
supernatural being--and they are diametrically opposed to the idea of
government, the entire business of which is always to deny the right of
self-ownership, to make decisions on the individual's behalf, to enslave.
As all history shows, however, government is by no means incompatible with
the superstition that Johnson claims to be the only source of such moral
standards; on the contrary, State and Church have time after time colluded
to deny this right to life, all over the map.
To preserve his myth of a supreme being, Johnson has now gone to the extreme of belittling the immense tragedy of the tsunami as "trivial." No such repulsive moral contortion is required by the rational ethic: each of those 170,000 human lives snuffed out was of potential value to all of us, in some form of future exchange. The logic of the Judeo-Christian ethic demands they be written off, as Johnson did; but for good reason, we market anarchists deplore and mourn the loss of every single one