Proving Libertarian Morality
Reclaiming the High Ground
by Stefan Molyneux
note that all my Lew Rockwell articles are now available as podcasts
click here, then click on the MP3 files or just
download Juice (or use your favorite podcasting software), and
add me (http://feeds.feedburner.com/FreedomainRadio)
to your feed list!
One of the
central challenges faced by libertarians is the need to prove that
libertarian moral theory is universally correct, while statist and
collectivistic moral theories are incorrect. Until moral rules can
be subjected to the same rigour and logic as any other propositions,
we will forever be stymied by subjectivism, political prejudices
and the argument from effect.
Why is this
approach so important? Why bother with the grueling task of building
a logical framework for the examination of moral rules – and the
even more grueling task of communicating that framework to others?
Well, as I have argued in previous articles, the freedom movement
has made remarkably little progress throughout history. Von Mises
wrote seminal works disproving the economic efficiency of socialism
and communism in the 1920s – now, eighty years later, Western societies
are still sliding into the predicted morass of ever-expanding
state power, ever-increasing public debts and declining economies.
Although free market economic theories have made some progress in
academia (and even the popular media!) they have done nothing to
even slow down – let alone reverse – the constant expansion of state
In my view,
the reason for this is simple: libertarians have never won the
argument from morality. These days, none of our opponents argue
that the government is more efficient than the free market, or that
communism will set us free, or that private property is theft. All
the old socialistic shibboleths have been laid to rest – and yet
still people support government power, because they believe that
government power is moral. Most people believe that the government
takes care of the poor, old and sick, protects us from enemies both
corporate and militaristic, educates the young, builds us roads,
blah blah blah – we’ve all heard the same nonsense since the dawn
of time. All we say in response is that the government is inefficient
at doing these things, and that the free market would be better
– none of which touches the central rationale of state power, which
is that people believe that it is good.
understand the power of the argument from morality far, far better
than we do. They constantly harp on the virtue of state power, starting
in kindergarten with environmentalism, ‘friendly cops’ and the need
for ‘childproofing.’ The world is dangerous, children hear, and
capitalists want to kill you with smog, but your friendly government
is always eager to serve, help and protect. Children first experience
state power as firm, kindly and friendly teachers – so how could
they see and appreciate the violence that underpins the government?
How can we
oppose this? How can we best work to undo the endless propaganda
of pro-state school, media and prejudice?
from history, that’s how. To win a battle, one must first ask: how
were similar battles won in the past?
historical analogy to our current situation occurred in the 15th
and 16th centuries, during the rise of the scientific
method. The early pioneers who advocated a rational and empirical
approach to knowledge faced all the same prejudices that we face
today – all the same irrationality, entrenched power of church and
state, mystical and subjective ‘absolutes’ and early educational
barriers. Those who advocated the primacy of rationality and empirical
observation over mystical ‘insights’ and Biblical fundamentalism
faced the determined opposition of those wielding both cross and
sword. Many were tortured to death as heretics for their intellectual
honesty – we face far less risk, and so should be far braver in
advocating what is true over what is believed.
In order to
attack the false morality of state power, we must start from the
beginning, just as the first scientists did. Francis Bacon did not
argue that the scientific method was more ‘efficient’ than prayer,
Bible texts or starvation-induced ‘visions.’ He simply said that
if we want to understand nature, we must observe nature and theorize
logically – and that there is no other route to knowledge.
We must take
the same approach with defining and communicating morality.
We must begin using the power and legitimacy of the scientific method
to prove the existence and universality of moral laws. We must start
from the beginning, build logically and reject any irrational
or non-empirical substitutes for the truth.
What does this
look like in practice? All we have to do is establish the following
- Moral rules
must be consistent for all mankind.
- The more
consistent a moral theory is, the more valid it is.
is the most consistent moral theory.
libertarianism is the most valid moral theory!
a tall order? But give me three thousand or so words, and we can
at least take a swing at the first three.
To start from
the very beginning… do moral rules – or consistently preferred human
behaviour – exist at all?
There are only
two possibilities when it comes to moral rules, just as there are
in any logical science. Either moral rules exist, or they do not.
(In physics, the question is: either physical rules exist, or they
If moral rules
do exist, where do they exist? Certainly not in material
reality, which does not contain or obey a single moral rule. Moral
rules are different from the rules of physics, just as the scientific
method is different from gravity. Matter innately obeys the rule
of gravity or the second law of thermodynamics, but ‘thou shalt
not kill’ is nowhere inscribed in the nature of things. Physical
laws describe the behaviour of matter, but do not contain
a single prescription. Science says that matter behaves in
a certain manner – never that it should behave in a certain
manner. A theory of gravity proves that if you push a man off a
cliff, he will fall. It will not tell you whether you should
push him or not.
Thus it cannot
be said that moral rules exist in material reality, and neither
are they automatically obeyed like the laws of physics – which does
not mean that moral laws are false or irrelevant. The scientific
method does not exist in reality either – and is also optional –
but it is neither false nor irrelevant.
moral theories to the scientific method will provide the same benefits
that subjecting physical theories to the scientific method
did. Before the rise of the scientific method, the behaviour of
matter resulted from the subjective whim of gods and devils – just
as morality is now. Volcanoes erupted because the mountain-god was
angry; good harvests resulted from human sacrifice. No absolute
physical laws which limited the will of the gods were believed to
exist – and so science could never develop. Those who profited from
defining physical reality as subjective – mostly priests and kings
– fought the subjugation of physical theories to the scientific
method, just as those who profit from defining moral reality as
subjective – mostly politicians and soldiers – fight the subjugation
of moral theories to the scientific method.
The rise of
scientific truth resulted from the expansion of the scientific method,
which was a methodology for separating accurate from inaccurate
theories by subjecting them to two central tests: logical consistency
and empirical observation – and by always subjugating logical consistency
to empirical observation. If I propose a perfectly consistent and
logical theory which says that a rock will float up when
thrown off a cliff, any empirical test proves my theory incorrect,
since observation always trumps theory.
A further aspect
of the scientific method is the belief that, since matter is composed
of combinations of atoms with common, stable and predictable properties,
the behaviour of matter must also be common, stable and predictable.
Thus experiments must be reproducible in different locations
and time. I cannot say that my ‘rock floating’ theory is correct
for just one particular rock, or on the day I first tested it, or
at a single location. My theories must describe the behaviour of
matter, which is universal, common, stable and predictable.
is a generally-accepted rule – sometimes called Occam’s Razor –
which states that, of any two explanations, the simpler is probably
the more accurate. Prior to the Copernican revolution, when Earth
was considered the center of the universe, the retrograde motion
of Mars when Earth passed it in orbit around the sun caused enormous
problems to the Ptolemaic system of astronomical calculations. ‘Circles
within circles’ multiplied enormously, which were all cleared away
by simply placing the sun at the center of the solar system.
Thus any valid
scientific theory must be (a) universal, (b) logical, (c) empirically
verifiable, (d) reproducible and (e) as simple as possible.
Now the methodology
for judging and proving a moral theory is exactly the same
as the methodology for judging and proving any other scientific
The first question
regarding moral theories is: what are they? Simply put, morals
are a set of rules claiming to accurately and consistently identify
preferred human behaviours, just as physics is a set of rules
claiming to accurately and consistently identify the behaviour of
question to be asked is: is there any such thing as ‘preferred behaviour’
at all? If there is, we can begin to explore what such behaviour
might be. If not, then our examination must stop here – just as
the examination of ‘ether’ ceased after Einstein proved that the
speed of light was constant.
that there is no such thing as preferred behaviour contains
an insurmountable number of logical and empirical problems. ‘Preferred
behaviour’ must exist, for five main reasons. The first is
logical: if I argue against the proposition that preferred
behaviour exists, I have already shown my preference for truth over
falsehood – as well as a preference for correcting those who speak
falsely. Saying that there is no such as thing as preferred behaviour
is like shouting in someone’s ear that sound does not exist – it
is innately self-contradictory. In other words, if there is no
preferred behaviour, then one should oppose anyone who claims
that there is preferred behaviour. However, if one ‘should’
do something, then one has just created preferred behaviour. Thus
preferred behaviour – or moral rules – must exist.
- The proposition
is: preferred behaviour must exist.
- Anyone who
argues against the existence of preferred behaviour is demonstrating
no argument against the existence of preferred behaviour can be
How else do
we know that moral rules exist? Well, all matter is subject to physical
rules – and everything that is organic is in addition subject to
certain requirements, and so, if it is alive, has followed preferred
behaviours. Everything that lives, for instance, needs fuel and
oxygen in order to stay alive – even plants strain for sunlight.
Any living mind, of course, is an organic part of the physical world,
and so must be subject to both physical laws and has followed preferred
behaviours – to argue otherwise would require proof that consciousness
is not composed of matter, and is not organic – an impossibility,
since it has mass, energy, and life. Arguing that consciousness
is subjected to neither physical rules or preferential choices would
be like arguing that human beings are not subject to gravity and
can flourish without eating. Thus it is impossible that anyone can
argue against preferred behaviour, since if he is alive to argue,
he has followed preferred behaviours such as breathing, eating and
- All living
organisms require preferred behaviour to live.
- Man is a
all living men are alive due to the existence and practice of
any argument against preferred behaviour requires the existence
of preferred behaviour.
no argument against the existence of preferred behaviour can be
Since the scientific
method requires empirical corroboration, we must also look to reality
to confirm our hypothesis – and here the existence of preferred
behaviours is fully supported. Almost every human being believes
in moral rules of some kind. There is much disagreement about what
constitutes moral rules, but everyone is certain that moral
rules are valid – just as scientific theories disagree, but all
scientists accept the validity of the scientific method itself.
Disproving something that everyone believes in is almost impossible.
One can argue that the Earth is round and not flat – which is analogous
to changing the definition of morality – but one cannot argue that
the earth does not exist at all – which is like arguing that there
is no such thing as preferred behaviour.
- For a scientific
theory to be valid, it must be supported through empirical observation.
- If preferred
behaviour exists, then mankind should believe in preferred behaviour.
- Almost all
men believe in preferred behaviour.
empirical evidence exists to support the existence of preferred
behaviour – and the existence of such evidence opposes
the proposition that preferred behaviour does not exist.
argument for the existence of preferred behaviour is also empirical.
Since human beings have an almost-infinite number of choices to
make in life, to say that there are no principles of preferred behaviour
would be to say that all choices are equal. However, all choices
are not equal, either logically or through empirical observation.
To take one example, if food is available, almost all human beings
eat every day. If not themselves subjected to violence, human beings
are generally not violent. Almost all parents choose to feed and
shelter their children. There are many examples of common choices
among humankind, which indicate that preferential behaviour abounds
and is part of human nature – and requires that any theory claiming
otherwise must explain away this teeming evidence.
are almost infinite.
- Most human
beings make very similar choices.
not all choices can be equal.
preferred choices must exist.
The fifth argument
for the existence of preferred behaviour is biological. Since all
organic life requires preferential behaviour, we can assume that
those organisms which make the most successful choices are the ones
most often selected for survival. Since man is the most successful
species, and man’s most distinctive organ is his mind, it must be
man’s mind that has aided the most in making successful choices.
The mind itself, then, has been selected as successful by its very
ability to make successful choices. Since the human mind only exists
as a result of choosing preferred behaviour, preferred behaviours
succeed by acting upon preferred behaviour.
- Man is the
most successful organism.
man must have acted most successfully on the basis of preferred
- Man’s mind
is his most distinctive organ.
man’s mind must have acted most successfully on the basis of preferred
preferred behaviour must exist.
Due to the
above problems, any argument against the existence of preferred
behaviour can be dismissed as incorrect.
Since we have
proved the existence of preferred behaviour, the question of morality
now shifts. Since preferred behaviour does exist, what theories
can quantify, classify, explain and predict it?
First of all,
we must remember that morality is optional. As we all know, every
man is subject to gravity and requires food to live, but no man
has to act morally. If I steal or kill, no thunderbolt from the
sky strikes me down. Moral rules, like the scientific method or
biological classifications, are merely ways of organizing the facts
and principles of what exists.
The fact that
compliance with moral rules is optional has confused many
thinkers into believing that because morality is optional,
it is subjective. Nothing could be further from the truth!
Living organisms are part of material reality, and material reality
is rational and objective. Applying moral theories is optional,
but that does not mean that moral theories are subjective. The scientific
method is optional, but it is not subjective. Applying biological
classifications is optional, but biology is not subjective. Choices
are optional; consequences are not. I can choose not to eat, but
I cannot choose to live without eating. I can choose to behead someone,
but I cannot choose whether or not they can live without a head.
Morality is thus optional, but the effects of moral choices
are measurable and objective. There is no subjectivity involved
morality exists, the next question is: to what degree or extent
does morality exist? As mentioned above, the first test of any scientific
theory is universality. Just as a theory of physics must
apply to all matter, a moral theory which claims to describe
the preferred actions of mankind must apply to all mankind.
No moral theory can be valid if it argues that a certain action
is right in Syria, but wrong in San Francisco. It
cannot say that Person A must do X, but Person B must never
do X. It cannot say that what was wrong yesterday is right
today – or vice versa. If it does, it is false and must be refined
To be valid,
any moral theory must also pass the criteria of logical consistency.
Since the behaviour of matter is logical, consistent and predictable,
all theories involving matter – either organic or inorganic – must
be also be logical, consistent and predictable. The theory of relativity
cannot argue that the speed of light is both constant and not constant
at the same time, or that it is 186,000 miles per second, five fathoms
in depth and also green in colour!
moral theories apply to mankind, and mankind is organic, the degree
of consistency required for moral theories is less than that required
for inorganic theories. All rocks, for instance, must fall
down, but not all horses have to be born with only one head. Biology
includes three forms of ‘randomness,’ which are environment, genetic
mutation and free will. For example, poodles are generally friendly,
but if beaten for years, will likely become aggressive. Horses are
defined as having only one head, but occasionally, a two-headed
mutant is born. Similarly, human beings generally prefer eating
to starving – except anorexics. These exceptions do not bring down
the entire science of biology. Thus, since moral theories describe
mankind, they cannot be subjected to exactly the same requirements
for consistency as theories describing inorganic matter.
The final test
that any scientific moral theory must pass is the criteria of empirical
observation. Thus for instance, a moral theory must explain the
universal prevalence of moral beliefs among mankind, as well as
the results of human moral ‘experiments’ such as fascism, communism,
socialism or capitalism. It must also explain some basic facts about
human society, such as the fact that state power always increases,
or that propaganda tends to increase as state power increases. If
it fails to explain the past, understand the present and predict
the future, then it fails.
How does all
this look in practice? Let’s look at how the requirement for universality
affects moral theories.
If I say that
gravity affects matter, it must affect all matter. If even
one speck of matter proves resistant to gravity, my theory is in
trouble. If I propose a moral theory which argues that people should
not murder, it must be applicable to all people. If certain
people (such as soldiers) are exempt from that rule, then I have
to either prove that soldiers are not people, or accept that
my moral theory is false. There is no other possibility. On the
other hand, if I propose a moral theory which argues that all people
should murder, then I have saved certain soldiers, but condemned
to evil all those not currently murdering someone (including
those being murdered!) – which is surely incorrect.
If, to save
the virtue of soldiers, I alter my theory to argue that it is moral
for people to murder if someone else tells them to (a political
leader, say), then I must deal with the problem of universality.
If Politician A can order a soldier to murder an Iraqi, then the
Iraqi must also be able to order the soldier to murder Politician
A, and the soldier can also order Politician A to murder the Iraqi.
This problem cannot be solved, and so my theory is proven invalid.
I also cannot
logically argue that is wrong for some people to murder,
but right for other people to murder. Since all human beings
share common physical properties and requirements, having one rule
for one person and the opposite rule for another is impossible
– it is like proposing a physics theory that says that some rocks
fall down, while others fall up. Not only is it illogical, it contradicts
the observable facts of reality, which is that human beings as a
species share common characteristics, and so cannot be subjected
to opposing rules. Biologists have no problems classifying certain
organisms as human because they share common and easily-identifiable
characteristics – it is only moralists who seem to have this difficulty.
if my moral theory ‘proves’ that the same man should not
murder one day, but should murder the next day (say, when he steps
out into the Iraqi desert), then my position is even more ludicrous.
That would equivalent to arguing that one day a rock falls downward,
and the next day it falls upward! To call this any kind of consistent
theory is to make madness sanity.
theories require logical consistency, a moral theory cannot
be valid if it is both true and false at the same time. A moral
theory which approves of stealing, for instance, faces an insurmountable
logical problem. No moral theory should, if it is universally applied,
directly eliminate behaviour it defines as moral while simultaneously
creating behaviour it defines as immoral. If everyone should
steal, then no one will steal – which means that the moral
theory can never be practiced. And why will no one steal?
Well, because a man will only steal if he can keep the property
he is stealing. He’s not going to bother stealing your wallet if
someone else is going to immediately steal that wallet from him.
Any moral theory proposing that ‘stealing is good’ is also automatically
invalid because it posits that property rights are both valid and
invalid at the same time, and so fails the test of logical
consistency. If I steal from you, I am saying that your property
rights are invalid. However, I want to keep what I am stealing
– and therefore I am saying that my property rights are valid.
But property rights cannot be both valid and invalid at the same
time! Similarly, any moral theory which advocates rape faces a similar
contradiction. Rape can never be moral, since any principle
which approves it automatically contradicts itself. If rape is justified
on the principle that ‘taking pleasure is always good,’ then such
a principle immediately fails the test of logical consistency, since
the rapist may be ‘taking pleasure,’ but his victim certainly is
not. (The same goes, of course, for murder and assault.)
moral theories to the scientific method produces results which conform
to rationality, empirical observations and plain common sense. Murder,
theft, arson, rape and assault are all proven immoral. (Universal
and positive moral rules can also be proven – i.e. the universal
validity of property rights and non-violence – but we shall talk
about that another time!)
To aid in swallowing
this rather large conceptual pill, here is a table which helps equate
theories of physics and biology with scientific theories of preferred
(or moral) behaviour:
behaviour for mankind
cannot be created or destroyed, merely converted to energy
is alive and warm-blooded, it is a mammal.
share common structures and properties, and so behave in predictable
and consistent manners.
matter has rules – or requirements – that are common across
beings share common rules and requirements.
consistency, empirical verification.
consistency, empirical verification.
consistency, empirical verification.
does not attract mass, theories relying on gravity are incorrect
do not naturally self-select for survival, the theory of evolution
succeeds, theories based on the universal value of property
rights are incorrect.
it is safe to say that (a) moral rules exist, and (b) moral theories
must be subjected to the scientific method, just as theories of
physics and biology. Furthermore, any moral theory based on non-universal
or self-contradictory principles is demonstrably false.
is to succeed, we must examine all moral theories and commandments
in this light – otherwise we relinquish moral truth to our enemies,
which will only ensure our continued failure.
further reinforce the value of this point, we shall do just this
in our next conversation: the application of the scientific method
to the Ten Commandments, to see which can be considered valid.
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