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The Morals of Human Cooperation


Tags Free MarketsMedia and CulturePhilosophy and MethodologyPrivate Property

11/30/2009Bettina Bien Greaves

[The Freeman, 1973]

The many contradictions among different philosophical theories have caused much confusion over the years. Unfortunately, too few teachers and textbooks explain the basic principles that could help students discriminate intelligently among them and understand the ethical code which fosters freedom, morality and social cooperation.

Thus, Henry Hazlitt deserves special credit for bringing logic and clarity to the subject. His book, The Foundations of Morality, was first published in 1964. After having been out of print for several years, it is again available thanks to Nash and the Institute for Humane Studies. [The Mises Institute offers an edition published by the Foundation for Economic Education in 2007.]

The author is primarily an economist, a student of human action. As a result, he is a strong advocate of individual freedom and responsibility. He has long been a close personal friend and associate of Professor Ludwig von Mises, the "dean" of free market economics, to whom he acknowledges a great intellectual indebtedness.

With this background, he is well qualified to discuss the ethics of social cooperation. His many years of "apprenticeship" as essayist, book reviewer and columnist (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The Freeman, National Review and many others) prepared him well for explaining complex matters simply.

The reader may wish to pause, ponder and reflect from time to time on the ideas and concepts presented, but the author's reasoning is clear, his prose unambiguous and most chapters delightfully short.

Mr. Hazlitt's position is that "the interests of the individual and the interests of society," when "rightly understood" are in harmony, not conflict. His goal in writing this book was "to present a 'unified theory' of law, morals and manners" which could be logically explained and defended in the light of modern economics and the principles of' jurisprudence.

This reviewer believes most readers will agree that Mr. Hazlitt succeeded. He has marshalled the ideas of many philosophers and analyzed them with careful logic. He has explained many of the contradictions among them, thus disposing of much confusion. He has formulated a consistent moral philosophy based on an understanding of the ethical principles, so frequently ignored in today's "permissive" climate, which promote peaceful social cooperation and free enterprise production.

Mr. Hazlitt points out that our complex market economy requires peaceful and voluntary social cooperation. The preservation of the market is essential for large scale production and thus for the very survival of most of us. Therefore, social cooperation is the very most important means available to individuals for attaining their various personal ends. This means that social cooperation is also at the same time a well worthwhile goal. Let Mr. Hazlitt speak for himself.

For each of us social cooperation is of course not the ultimate end but a means. … But it is a means so central, so universal, so indispensable to the realization of practically all our other ends, that there is little harm in regarding it as an end in itself, and even in treating it as if it were the goal of ethics. In fact, precisely because none of us knows exactly what would give most satisfaction or happiness to others, the best test of our actions or rules of action is the extent to which they promote a social cooperation that best enables each of us to pursue his own ends.

Without social cooperation modern man could not achieve the barest fraction of the ends and satisfactions that he has achieved with it. The very subsistence of the immense majority of us depends upon it.

The system of philosophy outlined in the book is a form of utilitarianism, "insofar as it holds that actions or rules of action are to be judged by their consequences and their tendency to promote human happiness."

However, Mr. Hazlitt prefers a shorter term, "utilism," or perhaps "rule utilism" to stress the importance of adhering consistently to general rules. He suggests also two other possible names — "mutualism" or "cooperatism" — which he thinks more adequately reflect the central role of social cooperation in the ethical system described.

The criterion for judging the consistency or inconsistency of a specific rule or action with this ethical system is always whether or not it promotes social cooperation. Mr. Hazlitt reasons from the thesis that social cooperation is of benefit to everyone. Even those who might at times like to lie, cheat, rob or kill for personal short-run gain can usually be persuaded of the longer-run advantages of social cooperation, i.e., of refraining from lying, cheating, robbing or stealing.

Even the most self-centered individual, in fact, needing not only to be protected against the aggression of others, but wanting the active cooperation of others, finds it to his interest to defend and uphold a set of moral (as well as legal) rules that forbid breaking promises, cheating, stealing, assault, and murder, and in addition a set of moral rules that enjoin cooperation, helpfulness, and kindness.

The predominant moral code in a society is compared with language or "common law." Society does not impose a moral code on the individual. It is a set of rules, hammered out bit by bit over many centuries:

[O]ur moral rules are continuously framed and modified. They are not framed by some abstract and disembodied collectivity called "society" and then imposed on an "individual" who is in some way separate from society. We impose them (by praise and censure, approbation and disapprobation, promise and warning, reward and punishment) on each other, and most of us consciously or unconsciously accept them for ourselves.

This moral code grew up spontaneously, like language, religion, manners, and law. It is the product of the experience of immemorial generations, of the interrelations of millions of people and the interplay of millions of minds. The morality of common sense is a sort of common law, with an indefinitely wider jurisdiction than ordinary common law, and based on a practically infinite number of particular cases. … [T]he traditional moral rules … crystallize the experience and moral wisdom of the race.

But what about religion, you say? Doesn't a moral code have to rest on a religious basis? The fundamental thesis of this book, as noted, is that reason and logic are sufficient to explain and defend the code of ethics which fosters and preserves social cooperation.

Yet, the author does not ignore religion. He calls attention to similarities among the world's great religions and the contradictions in some of them. Religion and morality reinforce one another very often, he says, although not always and not necessarily. Here is his description of their relationship.

In human history religion and morality are like two streams that sometimes run parallel, sometimes merge, sometimes separate, sometimes seem independent and sometimes interdependent. But morality is older than any living religion and probably older than all religion. [W]hile religious faith is not indispensable [to the moral code] …, it must be recognized in the present state of civilization as a powerful force in securing the observance that exists.

The most powerful religious belief supporting morality, however, seems to me … the belief in a God who sees and knows our every action, our every impulse and our every thought, who judges us with exact justice, and who, whether or not He rewards us for our good deeds and punishes us for our evil ones, approves of our good deeds and disapproves of our evil ones.

Yet it is not the function of the moral philosopher, as such, to proclaim the truth of this religious faith or to try to maintain it. His function is, rather, to insist on the rational basis of all morality, to point out that it does not need any supernatural assumptions, and to show that the rules of morality are or ought to be those rules of conduct that tend most to increase human cooperation, happiness and well-being in this our present life.

Mr. Hazlitt discusses many perplexing ideas and concepts such as natural rights, natural law, justice, selfishness, and altruism; right, wrong, truth, honesty, duty, moral obligation, free will vs. determinism, politeness, and "white lies." Anyone who has speculated on these problems without reaching satisfactory conclusions, as has this reviewer, will no doubt find his analyzes and comments both stimulating and enlightening.

The book contains numerous quotations from the works of early and recent philosophers, which the author always analyzes for their consistency with social cooperation. Except for a few technical philosophical terms — such as tautology (repetition of the same idea in different words), eudaemonism (the doctrine that happiness is the final goal of all human action) and teleotic (an adjective derived from the Greek meaning end, design, purpose or final cause) — readers should not find anything in the book really difficult to understand.

As they follow the author's line of thought, they will discover that reason and logic come to the defense of morality; order and a common sense ethical code evolve from philosophical chaos.

Mr. Hazlitt has long been a noted free market economist — one of the very best. His introductory Economics In One Lesson is a long time best seller. The Failure of the "New Economics," a careful critique of Keynes, is a real contribution to economic theory. With the publication of The Foundations of Morality in 1964, he added another very important feather to his cap as a moral philosopher. It is good to have it in print again.

To summarize, the author explains again and again, in the course of the book under review, that the rules of ethics are neither arbitrary nor illogical. They are not mere matters of opinion. They are workable, acceptable, moral rules developed over long periods of time. They must be adhered to consistently and may not be willfully violated without detriment to social cooperation.

In this age of permissiveness, when everyone is encouraged "to do his own thing" and few see any urgency in respecting the rights of others, it is a rare philosopher who recognizes that the consistent adherence to a set of ethical rules promotes social cooperation and benefits everyone in society.

Perhaps a free market economist, whose very field of study encompasses the role of social cooperation, is the most appropriate person to explain the logic of this position. This book should live through the centuries.

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