The Argument From Morality
Or, how we will win…
by Stefan Molyneux
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At the end
of my article "Forget
the Argument from Efficiency," I promised to write about
the argument from morality – which is also, in my view, how we will
win – and so here it is.
from morality is the most powerful tool in any freedom-lovers arsenal
– but also the most personally costly, since it draws lines in relationships
that can never be erased. The argument from morality can cost you
friends, family, community – and so approach it with courage, and
understand that, once you decide to use it, your life will never
again be the same.
the argument from morality is the most powerful approach to changing
society because all major social decisions are made on the basis
of ethics. If a population believes that a certain program is moral
– i.e. war, welfare, social security and so on – then they may grumble,
but they will also roll up their sleeves, get to work and support
it no matter what their personal cost. Men will go off to war, mothers
will turn their kids over to nannies, people will surrender massive
portions of their income and freedom with nary a protest – all in
the name of what is good.
"the good" is very, very hard. Throughout their lives,
people make thousands of decisions based on certain moral principles
– and it if turns out that those principles were wrong, then
they will be forced to admit that their whole lives have been spent
in the service of falsehood, or corruption, or evil – and that is
more than most people can stomach. In order to preserve their illusions
of goodness, they will fight any close examination of moral principles
almost to the death!
a fairly complex subject, of course, but it suffices here to say
that morality must be based on a universal and logically-consistent
set of principles – if it is just a matter of opinion, then no course
of action can be "better" than any other course of action
– any more than liking blue is "better" than liking red.
believe that their decisions are based on a consistent set of moral
principles, but those moral principles – as Socrates discovered
millennia ago – crumble within minutes under any rigorous logical
examination. I have found that the most effective approach is to
be curious and persistent – but not be afraid to call a spade a
To begin, there
are really only three principles to remember when using the argument
exists except people.
There is no
such thing as "the government," or a "country,"
or "society." All these terms for social aggregations
are merely conceptual labels for individuals. "The government"
never does anything – only people within the government act.
Thus the "government" – since it is a concept – has no
reality, ethical rights or moral standing. Moral rules apply to
people, not concepts. If anyone argues with you about
this, just ask them to show you their "family" without
showing you any individual people. They’ll get the point.
is good for one must be good for all.
in order to rise above mere opinion, must be applicable to everyone.
There is no logically consistent way to say that Person A must
do X, but Person Y must never do X. If an action is termed
"good," then it must be good for all people. If
I classify the concept "mammal" as "warm-blooded,"
then it must include all warm-blooded organisms – otherwise
the concept is meaningless. The concept "good" must thus
encompass the preferred behaviour for all people – not just
"Orientals" or "Policemen" or "Americans."
If it doesn’t, then it’s just an aesthetic or cultural penchant,
like preferring hockey to football, and loses any power for universal
prescription. Thus if it is "good" for a politician to
use force to take money from you and give it to me, then it is also
"good" for anyone else to do it.
is bad for one must be bad for all.
if it is wrong for me to go and steal money from someone else, then
it is wrong for anyone to go and steal money from anyone
else. If shooting a man who is not threatening you is evil in Atlanta,
then it is also evil in Iraq. If being paid to go and shoot someone
is wrong for a hit man, then it is also wrong for a soldier. If
breaking into a peaceful citizen’s house, kidnapping him and holding
him prisoner is wrong for you and me, than it is also wrong for
the agents of the DEA.
Thus far, the
argument from morality is very similar to the argument from consistency.
The argument from morality comes in by stating that, if it is wrong
or evil for me to rob Peter to pay Paul, then it is wrong or evil
for anyone – including politicians – to do it. Thus a man who defends
state welfare programs, for instance, can only do so on the grounds
of personal preference, but he cannot claim that it is moral.
In fact, he must admit that, on the basis of any universal principles,
the welfare state is immoral, since if it is wrong for anyone
to steal, then it is also wrong for everyone to steal – including
Using the above
principles, here are some examples of arguments from morality:
If owning guns
is bad, then it is bad for everyone. Guns, then, should be
banned. Thus policemen and soldiers must give up their weapons.
If policemen and soldiers need guns to protect themselves from dangerous
criminals, why not ordinary citizens? Does that mean that possessing
guns is sometimes good and sometimes bad? What is the difference?
Remember – there is no such thing as "a policeman" or
"a soldier" – those are mere concepts. Only people
exist, and if gun ownership is a good idea for a soldier, but a
bad idea for a private citizen, what happens to the soldier when
he goes on leave? Does his nature change somehow, so that now he
no longer has the right to own a gun? What about when a policeman
changes out of his uniform? Does he change in some fundamental manner,
and so loses the right to be armed? Is it only his uniform that
has the right to carry a gun? What if someone else puts on that
uniform? Of course, these questions cannot be answered, and so the
whole argument for gun control becomes logically foolish. People
will then turn to the argument from effect – i.e. general
gun ownership leads to increased violence – which can also be easily
countered. If gun ownership leads to increased violence, then surely
the cops and soldiers will become increasingly violent if they alone
have guns. Since dictatorships and war are worse than crime (because
you can defend yourself against criminals, but not governments),
then surely that is an argument against only allowing people
who work for the state to carry guns. Thus a person can only argue
against gun ownership from a subjective "me no like" perspective
– which is a perfect time to explain how the stateless free market
can grant him his wish!
to wage war requires that politicians retain the right to steal
from certain citizens to pay other citizens to murder people. In
other words, George Bush must be able to steal from some Americans
to pay other Americans to go murder Iraqis. Of course, if Bush is
allowed to do this, why is only Bush allowed to do this?
Why am I not allowed to do this? Why does the government make it
illegal for anyone else (i.e. the Mafia) to do this? Why is it only
good for people wearing certain clothing to be hired on as murderers?
Also – if the government can steal from citizens to pay soldiers
to shoot Iraqis because Iraqis are a threat, then what about the
stealing that pays for it all? Isn’t the government itself the greatest
threat to me, since it robs me at gunpoint to pay for a war which
encourages terrorism? If it is moral to rob me to pay people to
kill those who threaten me, aren’t I morally required to hire mercenaries
to shoot those who come to rob me in the first place? If it’s bad
for me to do that, why is it not bad for Bush to do
that? What is the difference between me and Bush? Are we some kind
of different species? If not, then why do we have such diametrically
opposite moral commandments? (Here, people will often talk about
our "voluntary transfer" of moral authority to the government,
but then state force is not required, and so taxation can be eliminated
If Person A
can shoot Person B for not paying Person C enough, why can Person
C not also do that? Why can I not do that, if I think my wages should
be higher? Why do some people have the right to supplement their
income with violence and others do not?
exactly is the moral difference between $5 and $5.15 per hour? Why
is one an evil to be punished and the other not? Does the extra
fifteen cents turn the first five dollars from an evil into a good?
Does it change the nature of the first five dollars somehow? Also,
if it is moral to use violence to increase one’s income, can people
on welfare shoot government officials if they want more money? What
about people on social security? If not, why not?
If one person
(say, Bill Clinton), can draw on a map and transfer the ownership
of the property he outlines in perpetuity, why only Clinton? Why
can’t I do that? If Clinton can pay state troopers to shoot those
who trespass on property he has never visited, can anyone do that?
The war on
drugs is based on the principle that Bob can decide what Sally may
do to her own body in the privacy of her own home. Why only
Bob then? Why cannot Sally also decide what Bob may do in the privacy
of his own home? And are drugs illegal because they are always bad?
But they are not always bad – no more than alcohol. Ever listen
to Sergeant Pepper's? What about Pink Floyd? Bohemian Rhapsody?
Chet Baker? Ray Charles? Beautiful stuff. All composed on hard drugs.
Is it the self-destructive excess that is bad? But it is not the
excess that is bad, but even occasional recreational use. Then that
must mean that all behaviour that can lead to self-destructive
excess must be banned. Working can lead to workaholism. Going to
the gym can lead to compulsive exercise. Desserts can lead to obesity.
Credit cards can lead to excessive debt. All these things must then
be banned – which leads to a logical contradiction. If all activities
which can lead to abusive excesses must be banned, then what about
the government itself? Is it not an abusive excess to have a government
with the terrible power to monitor and punish just about every aspect
of citizens’ lives? And finally, what about the budget of the DEA
itself? Hundreds of billions of dollars have been wasted in the
war on drugs, just to raise profits for criminals and government
agencies and chain millions of people in the drug gulags – is that
not a textbook example of "abusive excess?" What about
government deficits and debts in general? What about the government’s
excellent adventures in foreign policy? Its habit of arming and
funding foreign dictators? Training and supporting Bin Laden? Giving
aid and military helicopters to Saddam Hussein? Invading Iraq? Are
they not the greatest and most egregious examples of an excess of
self-destructive behaviour? Aren’t the inevitable brutalities of
state power – which truly harm the innocent – far more destructive
than smoking a joint? If not, why not?
calling themselves "the state" claim the moral right to
use force against other people – a moral right, they claim, that
is based on elections. Very well – all we have to do is ask which
moral principle justifies this rather startling right. The answer
we will get is: when the majority of people choose a leader,
then everyone has to submit to that leader. Excellent! Then
we must ask if senators and congressmen ever defy their party leader.
If they do, then aren’t they acting immorally? Their party has chosen
a leader – don’t they then have to obey that person? If they
don’t, then why do we? Also, if the principle is that the majority
can impose the leader’s decisions on the minority, why is that only
the case for the government? What about women, who outnumber men?
What about employees, who outnumber managers? And last but not least,
what about voters, who outnumber politicians? If the majority should
forcibly impose its will on the minority, shouldn’t we all have
the ability to throw politicians in jail if they don’t do what we
want? What if atheists outnumber Christians in a certain town? Can
they ban churches? Can Mormon wives "outvote" their husbands?
Students in universities outnumber professors – can they then threaten
jail for bad marks? Patients outnumber doctors, prisoners outnumber
jailers – the list goes on and on. If the moral theory of "majority
rule" is valid, then it must be valid for all situations.
If not, then it is a pure evil, since it supports the use of all
the ghastly horrors of the state – theft, kidnapping, imprisonment
– and sometimes, as we all know, torture and execution. Thus the
moral theory which justifies and demands the exercise of
such terrible power better be pretty damn airtight – and as you
can see, it is riddled with nonsense.
When you present
the above contradictions, if your listener cannot resolve them –
and trust me, he won’t be able to – then he has to admit that, until
they are resolved, he has no moral basis for his beliefs. He can
still hold his beliefs, of course, but he cannot claim that they
represent any universal principles – they’re just little personal
preferences – like if he said that he liked muffins more then doughnuts.
He has no right to impose such personal preferences on others –
and certainly no right to champion them as state policy. Ask him
if he will refrain from advocating his preferences until he solves
the problem of universal application. If he says yes, then ask him
if he will also oppose such state policies until he solves the problem.
If yes, congratulations! Baptize him an anarchist and send him out
to spread the word! If not, then tell him that if he continues to
advocate what he knows to be false – or at best questionable – then
he is a hypocrite.
I know, it
doesn’t sound very nice, but really – we are facing people advocating
the total power of the state – is sparing the feelings of those
arming our enemies to be our main concern? The ideal of freedom
deserves defenders made of slightly sterner stuff.
I’m sure the
basis for the argument from morality is fairly clear now – and so
now, with some practice in the Socratic method of "blank slate"
premise-questioning, you are poised to become an expert in the destruction
of false morality.
word of caution, however. As Socrates himself found, the decision
to deploy the argument from morality should not be taken lightly.
Asking fundamental moral questions makes many people become frightened,
scornful or outright hostile. It is though, in my view, the only
way that we can win the fight for freedom. Since society makes all
of its fundamental decisions based on moral premises, our only chance
for success is to undermine and change those moral premises – which
requires the skillful, persistent and consistent application of
the argument from morality. For too long we have been on the defensive,
crying our truths from lonely peaks – and all too often, only to
each other. It is time that we took the offensive, and began to
cross-examine those who are so sure of their right to use violence
to achieve their ends. It will not be easy – and here I speak from
personal experience – but it is essential. It is right and good
to ask such questions – and, if you decide that you are brave and
strong enough to start using the argument from morality, you will
have already joined that tiny group of honest thinkers that have
forever saved mankind.
Molyneux [send him mail]
has been an actor, comedian, gold-panner, graduate student, and
software entrepreneur. His first novel, Revolutions
was published in 2004, and he maintains a
© 2005 LewRockwell.com