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JOHN P. McCARTHY, Politics and the Moral Order - Ralph Raico, New Individualist Review 
New Individualist Review, editor-in-chief Ralph Raico, introduction by Milton Friedman (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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Politics and the Moral Order
THE EXISTENCE of our civilization is threatened today as the full implications of our prevailing philosophies are being actualized in the life of the common man. These philosophies have an inadequate conception of the nature of man and human liberty. Having been isolated in the academies up until now, they have had only a minimal effect on society as the bulk of the populace continued to be moved by its inherited traditions and beliefs, which provide a firm foundation for liberty, justice, and social harmony. Men accepted a moral order, and acted, or at least recognized their obligation to so act, with the purpose of attaining their own and society’s moral perfection. However, the vast physical and social changes of the recent era have nullified the effectiveness of the traditional guides to wisdom and morality, thereby leaving man naked before the onslaught of the destructive philosophies.
Surprisingly enough, many of the political and economic institutions responsible for our great advances in liberty and progress have been inspired in part by the writings of the very same men who have postulated the destructive philosophies. The explanation for this paradox is that our pragmatic attitude towards theory and our traditional morality derived from ancient sources have shielded us from the full implications of these philosophies while we utilized their practical suggestions. Indeed, in their use of the practical suggestions of these thinkers, the Americans were unconsciously motivated by a more ancient philosophical tradition quite at odds with the newer positions.
One alternative to the impending social chaos is a dehumanizing regimentation. Naturally rejecting this, we have no choice but to restore a philosophy of moral purpose and order as the foundation of our society. The age is past when we could rely solely on our pragmatic prudence and traditional morality as the safeguards of our liberty. This philosophy of liberty must be formulated in the academy by a thorough research into the works of its earlier exponents, as well as a new statement of its truths in an idiom and in a vein applicable to our age. Society must then positively commit itself to this view of man and the moral order. However, it is well to analyze the prevailing philosophies to see wherein lies their failure before attempting to state a positive position.
First, certain clarifications are in order. Since our crisis is primarily one of first principles, this discussion will not especially lend itself to the actual construction of our political institutions or to the effectiveness of their operations, even though such areas are of vital importance. Also by the way of clarification, the term “perfection” is used solely in the sense of the ideal to which free and responsible men are obliged to aspire. I am certainly aware of original sin and man’s proclivity to evil, and admit the necessity of considering this in the actual structuring of society so as to fortify the cause of morality with institutional and traditional supports. Furthermore, I repudiate that notion of man’s perfectability which would disregard his freedom, and interpret him in a deterministic light as raw material to be molded to a perfect image.
The notions which are at the root of our present crisis are the abandonment of a teleological view of man, the substitution of individual pleasure and life itself for justice and virtue as the ends of society, and the interpretation of natural law or rights as something pertaining to an earlier state in human history rather than as the code of man’s perfection.
Thomas Hobbes, of course, introduced these concepts to the Anglo-Saxon world by depicting organized society as a contractual arrangement made by natural man. The state of nature was anarchistic savagery, where men followed but one impulse, namely, egoistic hedonism: to live and get pleasures. Natural man came to the conclusion that he stood a better chance to satisfy this impulse, or at least to preserve from the hedonistic impulses of his fellows that degree of satisfaction which he had already attained, by submitting himself to the authority of the state. There are no moral codes or limitations relevant to the state power; It exists solely because men think the gains of their own hedonism will be better preserved from the hedonistic ambitions of their fellows in an organized state.
John Locke also started with natural man. For Locke, however, the state of nature was not necessarily a state of savagery. Nonetheless, man surrendered certain of his powers which he used in defending himself and his possessions to the state for the purpose of obtaining more adequate protection. This is not a complete submission to the state because its authority is specifically limited to those powers which man delegates to it in the original social contract. These powers are for the sole purpose of protecting man’s freedom of life and property. The natural law is a statement of the absence of restraint upon man, and is the standard to which man can appeal when the state transgresses the specific limitations of its power.
Locke does not concern himself with man’s perfection or his obligations to his fellows or to society, but just insists on man’s freedom from interference with his life and property. Consequently, his conception of man is basically hedonistic, with the nature of man being solely that of a property and pleasure-gathering agent, who of course, ought not to interfere with his fellows’ similar pursuits. This ethic does not inspire one to seek his own moral perfection, or his brothers’ or society’s perfection as a good in itself. The only social impulse is to improve the instruments of protecting one’s own freedom.
Granted that Locke’s works are a magnificent contribution to the literature of constitutionalism, to the concept of restraining arbitrary power, they still fail to express a positive and noble statement of man’s nature. He recognizes no good, no perfection to which we are in duty bound to aspire, but thinks only in terms of rights and unrestrained individuality.
Tom Paine pleads for the rights of man as liberties accruing to man by reason of his creation or existence. This would seem to suggest a notion that man has rights because he is by his nature a free agent. These rights include the pursuit of one’s own happiness, but he also speaks of man’s duty to God and to his neighbor. Paine was primarily a polemicist, rather than a philosopher, and one really cannot read too many profound meanings into his words. Yet, he seems to leave some room for an interpretation of man’s nature as that of a free being responsible for pursuing a moral good, which is a nobler justification for human liberty than the blunt animal desire for self-preservation and pleasure.
However, Paine is anti-historical in his assertion that a government’s legitimacy must be based on an original democratic grant of authority by the governed, and that each generation has the authority to change its government at will. His assertion that only those governments with delegated constitutions are legitimate could lead to anarchy. It is fine to plead for democratic reforms and constitutionalism, but the grounds for declaring a government to be illegitimate or for revolting are only present if the government is not a just one, or if it is not ruling for the benefit of all the nation.
William Godwin presented a new view of the nature of man. Man is by nature reasonable, and will always act for the utility of the whole of society. However, the institutions of organized society have corrupted man. The path back is to eliminate the corrupting institutions and restore human reasonableness by education. Then, once again, man will automatically follow the action dictated by reason, the action which serves the utility of society. There is no conception of human liberty or natural rights. Rather, man’s behavior is determined either by institutions or by education. The latter promotes a behavior pattern serving the utility, not the moral perfection, of society. Nor is there any concern with the individual’s own perfection and destiny.
This was the beginning of a reaction against selfish, dutiless individualism. Reaction denied not only virtue and justice, but liberty and natural rights as well. It demanded the forced subjection of the human being to the social end: the attainment of a maximum of utility in achieving the greatest amount of material pleasure for the greatest number of individuals. The utilitarian philosophers advocated unrestrained selfish individualism not out of a concern for liberty but because they believed in a natural harmony of selfish interests which would more efficiently advance the quantity and quality of human pleasures. A calculus of pleasure and pain was elaborated to induce men to a pattern of behavior which would avoid short-range pleasures, such as those which would interfere with the unrestrained activities of other pleasure-seekers, for the sake of achieving a greater quantity of pleasures in the long run. Education was also an instrument for showing individuals how to attain the greatest level of pleasure.
The utilitarian arguments for a rationalization of social institutions and for democracy were prompted solely by the exigencies of socal efficiency. A democratic society would prevent the short range selfishness of the few from interfering with the long range selfishness of the many.
The Lockean philosophy, despite its inadequate conception of the nature of man, had at least imposed distinct limitations on arbitrary governmental power. Utilitarianism, however, had abandoned any basis for human liberty. It denied natural rights, and did not even consider any notion of man’s perfection or moral obligations. Rather, it simply sought to channel human liberties into the production of the maximum quantity of pleasure, and it just happened that unrestrained individualism was the most efficient method of doing so.
This heritage of man as a pleasure-seeker who, by nature has no special dignity which makes him free, and no essential grounds of appeal against arbitrary state power if such is exercised in the name of efficiency, has persisted to our day. But now it is maintained that the most efficient means of pleasure-production is direction of human enterprise by the state.
Modern politics no longer concerns itself with the nature of man, the ends of society, justice, virtue, or even the limits of governmental authority. Rather, it is the study of the techniques of administering the institutions of government, with the sole purpose of distributing pleasures and keeping the populace in a satisfied and contented status. However, it seems to be failing at even this, since it has forgotten the spontaneous efficiency of undirected human energies in the production of a greater material well-being.
The great aim of political science has become administrative efficiency and the adjustment of atomized individuals who are the members of the state. Men are adjusted and molded to an acceptance of society and to an efficient participation in its productive activities. Free and responsible individuals are no longer moved to exercise their liberty by dealing justly with their fellows and society according to an inner conviction of duty and morality.
Astonishingly, the only freedom to which our sensate culture adheres is freedom from any imposed intellectual and spiritual orthodoxy. Indeed, the multiplicity of concepts of man and his nature is considered a good in itself, thereby emphasizing the society’s lack of concern with the nature of man. Yet, one of the essential ingredients of a just and liberal society is a commitment by the society—as reflected in the spirit of its institutions as well as in the personal convictions of the overwhelming majority of its citizenry—to the basic first principles of the nature of man and society.
The fundamental premises of the philosophy to which a society must be committed if it is to preserve its freedom is that a man is by his nature a free, social, and responsible being. Man is capable of knowing the truth which he must follow to attain his perfection. As a responsible being, he can only achieve this perfection by his own voluntary acts. To act as a responsible being, man must have control over his own person and must fulfill his duties by himself. This means he must have as much freedom in directing his personal affairs and in fulfilling his obligations to his fellow man and to justice as is possible. Governmental assumption of these duties would be a negation of personal responsibility.
Society is composed of individuals achieving their individual destinies and fulfilling their duties as required by justice towards one another. Man, by his nature, achieves his perfection as a member of society. Therefore, organized society is part of the natural order, and as such has a positive function to play in aiding man to achieve his perfection. Solitary man, without society, is helpless. Yet, society must not frustrate its own purpose of promoting human perfection by depriving man of the very means of achieving his perfection, his free and responsible direction of himself.
A recommitment by society to the principles of liberty and justice must be combined with an increasing awareness of society and the nation on the part of the individual. Men must renew their cognisance of their engagement in society, and must recognize their dependence on society, although, of course, not in the sense of being either a customer or a ward. A reverential attitude towards the traditions and heritage of our society and a commitment to its ideals of liberty and justice are essential for its preservation as a free society and for the prevention of its degeneration into a savage and irresponsible anarchy. This awareness of the nation and of its traditions will have a restorative effect and inspire free men to advance in the development of their civilization and moral order.
New Individualist Review welcomes contributions for publication from its readers. Essays should not exceed 3,000 words, and should be type-written. All manuscripts will receive careful consideration.
[* ] John P. McCarthy, a graduate of Fordham University, is at present a Woodrow Wilson Fellow in the Department of History, University of Chicago.