Column on Morality & Freedom Again

Morality and Freedom Again

Tibor R. Machan

Quite a few people, among them some who are pretty bright and thoughtful, hold that people have moral responsibilities, that these aren’t mere preferences, and that a society that fails to accommodate this is flawed. For some who take morality seriously these responsibilities concern conduct that people ought to carry out for various ends or goals, such as fulfilling God’s will, helping others, promoting the public interest, creating beauty, advancing world peace, eliminating poverty, and so forth and so on.

Not that everyone accepts that people have any such responsibilities. Some influential thinkers are amoralists–they deny that there is any such thing as morality or ethics, that all talk about these matters is either outright bogus or merely a disguised way to discuss aspects of human psychology or sociology. In the social sciences most professionals and academics have held this view and still do, hoping that what they can do is show that a concern for how people ought to or should act is really about mental health or social adjustment, both manageable without recourse to talk about moral or ethical responsibilities, duties or human virtues. Hard core physical scientists, too, tend to deny morality and focus, instead, on the physical sources of desirable or undesirable conduct.

Almost needless to say, the denial of morality doesn’t easily square with much of public discourse. In politics and diplomacy, for example, nearly all parties openly blame their adversaries and praise their allies. Wall street is a favorite target of moral condemnation, as is Congress or the rich or Republicans or Democrats or so called market fundamentalists or socialists. No end of moralizing occurs in the editorials and columns published in newspapers, magazines, even in scientific ones such as Science News, Science, Scientific American, Nature, or Discover (at least whenever those who ask for reducing funding for science come under scrutiny).

But let me not dwell on moral skepticism here. Instead I want to explore the ideas of those who readily admit that people have moral responsibilities or duties. Some of these folks make the case that such moral responsibilities or duties are part and parcel of human life itself and when one is born, one already has these (although they are to be fulfilled only once one reaches maturity). My most favorite statement of this view comes from the French “father of sociology,” Auguste Comte, although others, such as the Harvard University professor of government Michael J. Sandel or Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, could be cited. Here is Comte classic statement:

“Everything we have belongs then to Humanity…Positivism never admits anything but duties, of all to all. For its social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of right[s], constantly based on individualism. We are born loaded with obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. Later they only grow or accumulate before we can return any service.” From The Catechism of Positive Religion (Clifton, NJ: Augustus M. Kelley Publ., 1973), pp. 212-30.

For now I do not wish to dispute the moral position Comte and many others hold, namely, that people ought to serve others. It does pose some dilemmas, of course, such as the one apparently pointed out by the poet W. H. Auden who reportedly exclaimed: “We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don’t know.” Instead I wish to point to an inconsistency about one use to which the position that we are obligated to society or others (or whomever) is put, namely, to support coercive measures that make fulfilling such an alleged obligation legally mandatory. This is that moral choice must be made freely, without anyone making another do the morally right thing. It is impossible to do the morally right thing at the point of a gun. Coerced morality is a contradiction in terms. Only when one does what is right or wrong voluntarily, of one’s own free will or initiative, does it amount to something morally significant.

However much someone believes that we should all serve God, society, the arts, the poor or any other possible beneficiary of our conduct, the last thing this could possibly justify is using coercive force against those who are supposed to comply with the edict.

What may mislead some to overlook this is the term “obligation.” It suggests something legally enforceable but that is not so when it pertains to ethics or morality, only when it applies to law. One may be obligated to respect other people’s rights and this may be legally required, made part of the law. But if one has a moral obligation to help one’s unfortunate fellows, promote the arts, conserve resources, or guard against the destruction of ancient ruins–all of that and anything similar has to be undertaken voluntarily, not at gunpoint. That’s the nature of moral or ethical obligations and responsibilities.

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