"The basic test of freedom is perhaps less in what we are free to do than in what we are free not to do." ~ Eric Hoffer
Ethics, Religion and Freedom
From the latter's recent article in Britain's Spectator magazine, it appears that the readership of Strike The Root may include such luminaries as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the distinguished free-market Conservative historian Paul Johnson; for it refers to the very themes struck in my recent piece here about the tsunami.
According to Johnson's article, the Archbishop has, apparently, allowed as how he now doubts "the existence of a deity, or at least [of] a benevolent one"--no doubt after reading my account of "The Deluded Theist" here on STR. Hmmm; one down, a few hundred million to go. Johnson himself, on the other hand, follows the military maxim that attack is the best form of defense, and comes out swinging with the title "Why the giant waves were acts of a benevolent God" and explains that the tsunami, like earlier disastrous earthquakes, was not really all that big a deal; the 150,000 victims "were going to die anyway. You might argue that the existence of death itself told us something about God, but not the acceleration of extinction in a few particular cases." He adds that in the long term, "nothing is more trivial than a large-scale natural disaster" and so qualifies himself nicely for another descriptor in my piece: "The Ugly Conservative."
It so happens that when the Spectator article was brought to my attention, I was in the process of reading Johnson's magnum opus, Modern Times. It is, indeed, a masterpiece; nobody interested in the history of the 20th Century should miss a chance to read it. Johnson is an historian of towering skill and enormous capacity for detailed research; he portrays the cultural and political backgrounds of each of the key nations that wrote the history of the world following WW-I. His depth of knowledge is amazing; in dozens of countries one after another, he shows in meticulous detail that intervention by a political class correlates with increasing poverty and mayhem; that the less restraint a society places on its government, the more it resembles an abbatoir. Even so, alas, he leaves the reader to draw the obvious conclusion that that government is best, which governs not at all.
His favorite theme is that war and other man-made horrors occur when morality becomes relative, in the society in question; when the "Judeo-Christian values of individual responsibility" become obscured and moral absolutes are abandoned. It's a theme that resonates among freedom-lovers, and so deserves a closer look.
When moral absolutes disappear, any savagery can be "justified" in the "interests of the State"--yes, of course; it is happening all around us as I write. The very nation that most enshrines the high ideal of affording a "speedy public trial" to anyone to be deprived of his liberty is now scorned worldwide for deliberately and persistently incarcerating suspects without end or trial or access to counsel in a military base in Cuba. Why? "National Security," of course. The bloodiest phase of the French Revolution began after there was formed what?--a "Committee of Public Safety." So yes, thus far Johnson is right; the abandonment of moral absolutes by large parts of a society is an open invitation to the disaster of the moral relativism of government; though sadly, he fails to denounce the very notion and existence of all government as also fundamentally immoral.
But is he in any case also right to link such moral absolutes to theism?--to name "Judeo-Christian values of individual responsibility" as if the latter are uniquely caused by the former? I don't think so. True, Judeo-Christianity is one source of an ethic of individual moral responsibility; Johnson's error is to imply that it's the only one. It's nothing of the sort.
Other sources may be found in at least some other religions. It also comes from a rational (and atheistic) understanding of the true natures of man and government. There is, in other words, such a thing as a rational ethic, and to my mind it is greatly superior to the kind based on irrational superstition which Johnson promotes.
It starts with the fundamental axiom that each human possesses absolutely the right to own and operate his or her own life; such a "right to life" is and must be the starting point. It cannot be proven or disproven, yet no logical progress can be made without it. Were it not true, everyone would be owned by someone else, and that is impossible, a fatal, logical contradiction. As Ayn Rand put it, a proposition is an axiom if, in order to try to disprove it explicitly, one is obliged to assume it implicitly. Here, the very act of asserting that one is not one's own master disqualifies one from expressing any independent sequence of reasoning. Hence the self-ownership axiom.
From there it follows that an "ethical" act is any act that enhances or preserves the life that is owned. It is ethical to eat, for eating prolongs that priceless asset; it is ethical also to love, for loving someone else returns an abundant sense of well-being in oneself. It is ethical to work, for work is needed to acquire food to eat; it is ethical to trade, for trading allows the efficiency of division of labor and therefore provides warmth of clothing, shelter of buildings; it is ethical to defend, but not to aggress, etc. Other people, on the basis of rational ethics, are valuable to the actor as trading partners or potential traders, in every case; from that it follows that one's own long-term interests are best served by respecting the interests of everyone else. Such a rational ethic is elegant in its simplicity and comprehensive application.
The self-ownership axiom and the ethic of universal respect to which it leads are the amply sufficient components of the "individual responsibility" that Johnson rightly says are indispensable to a harmonious, prosperous and humane society; but they owe nothing at all to the hypothesis that humankind, or anything else, was created by a supernatural being--and they are diametrically opposed to the idea of government, the entire business of which is always to deny the right of self-ownership, to make decisions on the individual's behalf, to enslave. As all history shows, however, government is by no means incompatible with the superstition that Johnson claims to be the only source of such moral standards; on the contrary, State and Church have time after time colluded to deny this right to life, all over the map.
To preserve his myth of a supreme being, Johnson has now gone to the extreme of belittling the immense tragedy of the tsunami as "trivial." No such repulsive moral contortion is required by the rational ethic: each of those 170,000 human lives snuffed out was of potential value to all of us, in some form of future exchange. The logic of the Judeo-Christian ethic demands they be written off, as Johnson did; but for good reason, we market anarchists deplore and mourn the loss of every single one.