Book Review: The Foundations of Morality

Henry Hazlitt is popular in libertarian circles for his book Economics in One Lesson. His other works are usually an afterthought, which is a terrible shame because I think libertarians could greatly gain from his insights on ethics.

I picked up this book, along with a bunch of others, from the free literature that Young Americans for Liberty chapters are always awash in, thanks to generous donors and uninterested university students. It went on my reading list for summer 2014, and like all the other books on that list didn’t get read. By the end of the year, however, I was beginning to seriously doubt my Objectivism-based deontology. The Foundations of Morality, the back-cover blurb promises, derives natural rights from utilitarianism. How could I pass that up?

The book doesn’t exactly deliver this. Rather, Hazlitt develops a particular type of utilitarianism–a eudaemonic, mutualistic form of rule-utilitarianism. Hazlitt terms this philosophy cooperatism, as he sees social cooperation as the crucial element missing from the many moral theories he’s studied.

And the reader is left with little doubt that he’s studied well. He quotes extensively from Bentham, Hume, Adam Smith, and his fellow Austrian economists, plus dozens of writers I’d never heard of. Not all of them agree with his positions; Hazlitt makes an effort to argue in good faith and present the best opposing viewpoints. A good 23 pages are dedicated to citations.

I could write considerably about the process of Hazlitt’s derivation, but thankfully he’s written a summary for us in the concluding chapter, which can be read for free on the Mises Institute website. Allow me, though, to indulge a few words about the more personally interesting parts of his philosophy.

As mentioned above, Hazlitt puts a premium on social cooperation. Interestingly, his method seems to be a feature of human psychology which has been much maligned by modern utilitarians: scope insensitivity. Rather than focus on trying to do the absolutely optimal thing on the global scale, he says, we instead have a stronger obligation to those around us–families, friends, neighbors, and coworkers.

This seems a partial solution to the problem of effective altruism: the “most effective intervention” may remain effective while monopolizing all charity resources for years if not decades. Some have expressed concern that widespread success of the EA movement could have extreme negative effects that nevertheless are outweighed by the needs of the absolutely worst-off1. Hazlitt’s approach routes around that, putting our first priority on our selves and families, then on those close to us, and then whatever surplus energy or funds still available are allocated to helping those further away.

Additionally, Hazlitt makes the claim that we cannot expect to make significant moral progress in our lifetimes. The common law has been developed over the course of centuries by generations of ethicists, and for the most part it works. While there are some areas which could be improved, he believes that the importance of adhering to general rules should temper our enthusiasm for modifying the moral code. Firstly, it’s essential that everyone operate in relative unison, and disrupting that suddenly would have a large deleterious effect on society as a whole. Secondly, we cannot be sure our interventions will actually be an improvement.  Even if we have identified a legitimate problem, the prescribed solution may not make things better. We should exercise extreme caution and modify the social contract slowly to avoid making things worse.

This Burkean notion is one of the best arguments I’ve seen to date against Ayn Rand’s view that most classical, altruism-based ethics should be thrown out simply because they are wrong2. While I’m still sympathetic to that approach, Hazlitt has a point. There’s a huge amount of essential social protocol which we would have to rederive from first principles if everyone switched to egoism wholesale. The social code, despite being built on erroneous foundations, is still  of value because of the adjustments/correction factors which were introduced to make it work.

Now such new ethics would likely be a lot simpler. Unlike the Keplerian revolution, however, switching from the old and overcomplicated carries a tremendous cost. Thus we should approach the problem gingerly, doing our best to leave a better moral code to our grandchildren, while not making things drastically worse for their parents.

In the end, Hazlitt’s argument for rights is not that they are inviolable consequence of the natural order, but rather a form of outcome-maximizing social cooperation. The essential ingredients of capitalism, property rights and freedom of exchange should be respected not because of ontological interdiction, but because they maximize human well-being. Were some variant socialism a better system for procuring humanitarian needs Hazlitt would give it a fair hearing, but the evidence of the last century suggest both that it cannot meet such needs, and that the transition costs would be prohibitive even if spread over generations. Capitalism, by comparison, is delivering the goods reasonably well now, and we should be hesitant to disrupt something that works.


1This is, basically, Nozick’s concept of a utility monster, extended along the temporal axis. Instead of treating the choice of where to allocate resources as a one-off decision, Effective Altruism’s emphasis on change means that we could spent decades pulling people out of poverty faster than anyone else while still seeing a net decrease in utility. Or the situation might be reversed, depending on the preferences of the altruist. Moreover, if we narrowly confine ourselves to what works quickly, then we may miss the most effective interventions simply because they require considerable capital investment. Vaccine development comes to mind.

2Rand is mentioned only once, noting her position as one of the few modern ethical egoists. Hazlitt’s concern is more with proving that helping self and others is non-contradictory (i.e. mutualism). Objectivists should still find something to appreciate in the chapter devoted to asceticism.  Hazlitt goes in depth discussing the gory details of medieval monks and religious devotees starving and torturing themselves while nevertheless depending on others for their survival. He does his best to present defending arguments, but concludes that self-discipline in the pursuit of moral ends is a more reasonable approach to ethics.


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