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Hunter Lewis on Morality

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The Secular Saints: And Why Morals Are Not Just Subjective. By Hunter Lewis. Axios Press, 2018. Vi + 435 pages.

Hunter Lewis has set himself a difficult task: he endeavors to explain why morals are not subjective. To understand his project, we must understand what Lewis means by “subjective” and its contrasting term “objective.”  Consider the two statements “Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Germany in 1939” and “Stalin was evil.” Whether Stalin signed the pact is a factual question, not dependent on people’s attitudes toward it. Either he did or he didn’t. What about the second statement? Is this true or false, in the same sense as the first statement? Are there “moral facts”?

To some people, it is obvious that there are no moral facts. Questions of good and evil, right and wrong, are “value judgments.” Ludwig von Mises expressed this position with characteristic force and lucidity: “All judgments of value are personal and subjective. There are no judgments of value other than those asserting I prefer, I like better, I wish. . .Value is not intrinsic, it is not in things.” (p.363, quoting Mises.)

Lewis agrees with Mises; but, like Mises, he thinks there is more to be said.  Value judgments express our desires; but to get what we want, we must deal with the world as it objectively exists. “Each one of us has a choice not only about goals, but also about whether we want to try to harmonize ourselves with reality and increase our chances of attaining our objectives by following rules, or whether we do not wish to do so.” (p.400)

The basic ideas of this position are straightforward. If you want a happy and fulfilling life, you must cooperate with others. A free market with the division of labor makes possible a vast expansion of productive power. To secure these benefits, though, people must obey certain rules: “We must face the reality of the physical and social worlds in which we live, and this reality imposes on us many objective rules. If we want to survive, we must eat, and if we want to eat, we must gather food, and so forth. By using our logic, and learning from experience, we can develop a system of objective rules that will enable us to consider the long term as well as the short term and to work together to meet our needs and even realize many of our desires. If we are unable to rein in our subjective desires in order to conform them to physical reality and find common ground with others, we will eventually perish. In effect, then, Mises is asking us to overcome the clashes of self-interest in the immediate social or political context, and instead focus on the long term and on the choice of policies and actions that are truly sustainable.” (pp.380-81)

In this view, then, the principles of ethics are what Kant called hypothetical imperatives: “If you want to survive and live a happy life over the long term, you should do such-and-such.”     Although value judgments are subjective, in the sense explained above, once you accept the value judgment expressed in the “if” clause of the hypothetical imperative, the rest of ethics becomes objective. (Lewis makes clear that Kant rejected this account.)

Lewis looks to David Hume as a precursor of this approach.  Far from being a moral skeptic, Hume recognized that people need to  cultivate certain virtues if they desire to live well: “we learn from experience what is both useful and agreeable, and no moral system makes sense if not useful and agreeable. Moreover experience teaches us that what is useful and agreeable in the long run is often of much greater consequence than what seems useful or agreeable at the moment.  .  .Importantly, we also have to want to learn from the ’facts’ of experience, and want to make our lives better. . This desire to improve our lives does not itself come from either logic or experience. . . it is clearly also a choice.” (pp. 190, 197)

If morality tells us how to advance our interests over the long run, and the free market is essential for doing so, an important consequence follows. Morality requires that we institute and sustain the free market. Intervention into the market is not only ill-advised but morally wrong.

Henry Hazlitt ranks high in Lewis’s estimation as a proponent of this view of ethics. ”Mises disciple, economic writer henry Hazlitt. .  .took both David Hume’s ideas and those of Mises and developed them into a complete moral philosophy under the name Cooperatism (or Mutualism) in his book, The Foundations of Morality.” (p.381)  The name Hazlitt chose for his system highlights the important of social cooperation in the free market to advance our long term interests.

I have discussed only one thread in this rich book. There is much more, e.g., a discussion of the view that God’s commands are the foundation of ethics. The writers whom Lewis treats reject this view. They are “secular,” though not all are hostile to religion; Hume, e.g., is much more a religious skeptic than Kant. The book also offers portraits of remarkable people, whose lives show their various attempts to make sense of the world. Lewis’s long and learned treatment of Montaigne is especially insightful.

One cannot read Lewis’s book without being impressed by the author’s philosophical acumen, scholarship, and humanity.

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute, and editor of The Mises Review.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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