Books / Digital Text

1. The Foundations of Liberal Policy

6. Private Property and Ethics

In seeking to demonstrate the social function and necessity of private ownership of the means of production and of the concomitant inequality in the distribution of income and wealth, we are at the same time providing proof of the moral justification for private property and for the capitalist social order based upon it.

Morality consists in the regard for the necessary requirements of social existence that must be demanded of each individual member of society. A man living in isolation has no moral rules to follow. He need have no qualms about doing anything he finds it to his advantage to do, for he does not have to consider whether he is not thereby injuring others. But as a member of society, a man must take into consideration, in everything he does, not only his own immediate advantage, but also the necessity, in every action, of affirming society as such. For the life of the individual in society is possible only by virtue of social cooperation, and every individual would be most seriously harmed if the social organization of life and of production were to break down. In requiring of the individual that he should take society into consideration in all his actions, that he should forgo an action that, while advantageous to him, would be detrimental to social life, society does not demand that he sacrifice himself to the interests of others. For the sacrifice that it imposes is only a provisional one: the renunciation of an immediate and relatively minor advantage in exchange for a much greater ultimate benefit. The continued existence of society as the association of persons working in cooperation and sharing a common way of life is in the interest of every individual. Whoever gives up a momentary advantage in order to avoid imperiling the continued existence of society is sacrificing a lesser gain for a greater one.

The meaning of this regard for the general social interest has frequently been misunderstood. Its moral value was believed to consist in the fact of the sacrifice itself, in the renunciation of an immediate gratification. One refused to see that what is morally valuable is not the sacrifice, but the end served by the sacrifice, and one insisted on ascribing moral value to sacrifice, to renunciation, in and for itself alone. But sacrificing is moral only when it serves a moral end. There is a world of difference between a man who risks his life and property for a good cause and the man who sacrifices them without benefiting society in any way.

Everything that serves to preserve the social order is moral; everything that is detrimental to it is immoral. Accordingly, when we reach the conclusion that an institution is beneficial to society, one can no longer object that it is immoral. There may possibly be a difference of opinion about whether a particular institution is socially beneficial or harmful. But once it has been judged beneficial, one can no longer contend that, for some inexplicable reason, it must be condemned as immoral.