Archive for May, 2011

Column on Individualism Isn’t Rediculous

Individualism Isn’t Ridiculous

Tibor R. Machan*

Some critics of individualism propose an alternative social philosophy and defend it so it is then possible to compare their case to the individualist position. But more often than not what critics do is caricature individualism, suggesting that individualist believe that people are autonomous, meaning, exist all on their own with no need for anyone else. Or they claim individualism means that no one has any moral responsibilities toward anyone else. Or that everyone is basically self-sufficient or should be.

Now clearly very young people have to have the support of their parents, at least, and their intimates so as to get on in life. As they grow up the support they enjoy can gradually be made optional–some support will be rejected by them, as when they refuse to follow their parents’ religious or political guidance. Yet, how would one acquire something as important as one’s language and other skills if there were no teachers about to lend a hand?

Our obvious connections to many, many other people certainly cannot reasonably be denied; so by alleging that individualism requires one to believe in people’s radical independence the critics have their victory via distortion, without actually having to make out a better case. Moreover they leave the impression that their preferred alternative, whereby we all belong to society and owe everything to it, is the only one and is trouble free.

But the kind of individualism that sensible individualists champion isn’t some ridiculous notion that people can grow up and live as hermits. Even if in some very rare cases this were possible, it is surely not the sort of individualism that is promoted in social political philosophy (e.g., by the likes of John Locke, Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand). Such individualism focuses on the moral and intellectual sovereignty of people; they need to make choices, and be free to do so, about how to act in much of their lives which they are normally equipped to do. And they need to be able to assess ideas propounded to them by others, make sure these are sound ones and not have them shoved down their throats as is done in more or less Draconian tyrannies.

This is the kind of individualism that’s advanced by reasonable individualists and if it is a good idea, it implies that a decent human community, a just one, needs to be so conceived that people can indeed enjoy sovereignty, that when they join others in various endeavors they do this of their own free will, voluntarily and not be treated like military conscripts (or termites or ants whose identity consists entirely of being tied to others of their species).

A very important point to keep in mind is that individualism isn’t at all the same as forswearing the company of others. What individualism implies is that everyone needs to be free to select those with whom one will associate, be this in adult family life, in friendship, in professional life, in sports and in recreation. Unlike the associations typical of a place like North Korea–and the military of many Western countries–as the individualist sees it adult human beings ought to exercise discretion when they join up with others. Some of this, of course, can misfire–e.g., when one let’s oneself be guided by irrational prejudices such as race or national background (although at times these are mere easy options for some folks, with no malice involved). Or when one chooses to join criminal gangs.

The central point is that individualism prizes more than other social philosophies the personal, private input of all those who take part in adult human associations. These must all be voluntary, in large part because they amount to vital moral decisions on everyone’s part which one would be deprived of making if one were herded into groups one hasn’t chosen to join. True, there will always be some gray areas, as when one is “pressured” by one’s peers or family to be part of some assembly of people one would ideally wish to be free of. There must be an exit option for free men and women but it may take some doing to make use of it.

As with most matters in human life, we aren’t dealing here with geometrical exactitude, just as Aristotle observed over 2500 years ago. But all in all the individualist alternative is far more accommodating of human nature and social life than are the collectivist alternatives that get a lot of support from social philosophers–communitarians, socialists, or social democrats–these days.

*Machan is the author of Classical Individualism (Routledge, 1998). He teaches at Chapman University, Orange, CA. He blogs at

Column on Serious Flaws of Egalitarianism

Some Serious Flaws of Egalitarianism

Tibor R. Machan

Egalitarianism teaches that everyone deserves to be treated with equal consideration and respect. Mostly this is meant to stress how everyone should be provided (as a matter of public policy) with basic necessities like food, health care, schooling, etc. But that is too selective and excludes millions who would much rather gain equal provisions of different goods and services–say to exhibit one’s paintings in a famous museum and or to star in a movie. Or why not an equally plush home or car or vacation? Why not an equally meaningful occupation or career? Why not, indeed, an equally happy relationship or life?

Well, perhaps because such provisions cannot possibly be given to all, in equal quantity and quality. Yet, of course, that very same problem faces egalitarianism when it comes to the so called basic necessities. There is scarcity in food, education, health care (e.g., in the supply of professionals, equipment, and materials), etc., etc. At any given time only so much of these benefits is being produced. Perhaps they could be increased with some nudging or outright coercion but even that cannot make them available to all and usually backfires so shortages are the result. And any effort to ration is going to involve major unequal features, such as the blatantly unequal power to impose the rationing that some will have while others lack.

These flaws of egalitarianism ought to be evident to all, especially to those who are familiar with George Orwell’s little story, Animal Farm, or Kurt Vonnegut’s novella, Harrison Bergeron, both of which are excellent depictions of the dystopian nature of any egalitarian political-economic system. But if that isn’t enough or has escaped the attention of egalitarianism’s champions, there are the zillions of examples from real life.

Consider something as simple as the provision of a forum for public comment on policies being considered by governments. There simply is no time for everyone to chime in, nor space. Even as egalitarian a forum as The New York Times must limit the number of comments it can accept from readers in response to columns published in the newspaper. (Indeed, some columns accept no comments at all!)

Now this may not seem as vital as getting an equal share of so called basic goodies, in fact it is. One of the most erudite advocates of egalitarianism considers it vital for members of a just society to have the opportunity to chime in on public policies. Such democratic discourse is deemed to be essential to justice by the Nobel Laureate economist, Amartya Sen of Harvard University–to see, check his mammoth recent book, The Idea of Justice (Harvard, 2009)? Only if men and women are equally free to give input when public policies are discussed are they properly empowered. Indeed, the term “freedom” for Sen has this implication above all–we must all be free to chime in when public policies are being considered. As Sen has said, “participation in political decisions and social choice … have to be understood as constitutive parts of the ends of development in themselves,” development toward economic justice, that is.

But even if one were to regard such universal equality a good thing and worth the very risky cost of empowering government officials to implement it, it simply cannot be achieved since even mere participation in public debates involves costs. No country could afford it and, paradoxically, it would consume and thus diminish many of the resources that might be slated for equal distribution.

Take another case in point. People are always clamoring to be part of discussions, e.g., as they try to call talk shows or submit comments to the Op Ed pages of newspapers, yet there is scant room for them so only very few can succeed. Moreover, whatever goods and services are produced by people could not possibly be slated for equal distribution since there is no assurance that the producers will come up with the amount of these needed for such massive consumption. Just look at how few books get reviewed in The New York Times Book Review–something I am particularly aware of since it has never bothered to review any of my now more than 40 books. Where is the editors’ famous commitment to egalitarianism here?

Well, it is nowhere because it is an impossible commitment or if you will, ideal. (Only “ideal” assumes it is something good whereas that is just what is at issue–if it has so many inherent flaws, it is most probably a bad idea!) As it is often pointed out, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and while egalitarianism may be well intended by some of its proponents, both the process and the end result turn out to be teeming with disappointment.

A Brief on Abortion Rights

A Brief on Abortion Rights

Tibor R. Machan

It is risky to reenter this discussion. I have entered it often and been not just criticized but also denounced for my position. This is that up to the point the cerebral cortex develops, a fetus isn’t actually but only potentially a human being. It may be useful to restate at least the outline of the case for this, one that seems most reasonable. That is, after all, the question in need of an answer–what is the most reasonable belief about this? If a human being is killed by abortion, then it may be prohibited other than in very special circumstances (e.g., self-defense, as when the pregnancy seriously threatens the life of the woman). But if what is killed isn’t yet a human being but only a potential one–just as a caterpillar isn’t yet a butterfly, only a potential one–the killing it isn’t homicide and may not be prohibited.

Basically if a woman has the right to seek an abortion, it would mean the fetus to be aborted isn’t yet a human being. If not, then at any point of its development the fetus is a human being. So the basic dispute is about when a human being comes into existence–at conception, sometime later, at some midpoint, or perhaps even at birth. It is all about when a human being emerges during pregnancy.

What is a human being? An animal with the capacity to reason, to form ideas and guide its conduct in large measure with the use of those ideas. The capacity may not even be exercised just yet but so long as it exists–so long as the entity could use its reason, could form ideas by which to guide its actions–a human being starts to exist. That is what is meant by humans being rational animals. That is why brain death is taken to spell the demise of a human being. That, at least, is the most reasonable stance to take on the issue.

Does a zygote or embryo possess the capacity to reason, to form ideas and guide its conduct accordingly? No. But why? Because a zygote or embryo lacks a cerebral cortex, the seat (in the brain or in the organism) of the faculty of reasoning. Prior to the emergence of the cerebral cortex only the potential of becoming a rational animal exists; no actual reasoning can take place, not even a little bit of it that would be possible to a nearly born infant. (So partial birth abortions would amount to homicide and could be murder!)

All this isn’t, of course, geometry. So there are hazy borders and divisions. Some zygotes become fetuses earlier than others; some fetuses become human beings earlier than others. Not very differently from how some children become adults earlier than others and how some adolescents become adults earlier than others. And these cases can be just as consequential–a adult may be convicted of a crime very differently from how a child or adolescent is.

There is a period before the human being emerges when the killing of the fetus couldn’t amount to homicide, let alone murder. Yes, there is a human zygote or embryo present but killing it isn’t killing a human being, a human infant. So it is reasonable that early abortions do not amount to infanticide, which is homicide and could be murder. It would, then, be an injustice to convict someone of homicide or murder for killing a human zygote or embryo. (There might be something morally amiss about such killing but it wouldn’t be homicide or murder.) No one deserves such a conviction.

The contrary position is often based on the idea of ensoulment, which arises from a theological or religious framework and which doesn’t belong in a secular legal system, any more than would most other theological or religious ideas, e.g., mortal sin or eventual resurrection, belong. So while in terms of certain theological or religious views it may be a sin, even a mortal sin, to have an abortion, it wouldn’t be unlawful within a legal order that includes the separation of church and state. And when some person is killed by another, it can be murder even if in terms of a certain theological point of view a person doesn’t really die at all since the soul survives and the body will be resurrected. But for a secular legal system all this is irrelevant.

The only important secular case for taking the view that abortion is homicide and could be murder is one that holds that the potential to become a human being already makes it a human being–the caterpillar is already a butterfly, as it were, or the infant is already an adult. But this is not reasonable and most advanced legal systems reject the idea. Still, that isn’t decisive. However, what is decisive is that although an egg is a potential chicken, it isn’t a chicken yet.

This position isn’t one that amounts to something as well founded as the principle of metaphysics that A is A. Or even as certain as some well established truth in physics or chemistry. Hardly anything is, yet once something is true beyond a reasonable doubt, it is enough to base our actions on it.

So it seems to me that the view sketched above is the best basis for resolving the debate about the right to abortion. Might someone who holds it have a reasonable change of mind upon further inquiry and understanding? Yes. But that is true of nearly every conviction a reasonable person holds.

Column on Hayek on Morality

Hayek on Morality

Tibor R. Machan

When he was about to receive the Nobel Prize in economic science, I interviewed F. A. Hayek for Reason magazine (at his home in Salzburg, Austria). Although he didn’t believe that political economists should dwell on ethical issues per se, he was by no means “necessarily a moral relativist” as Francis Fukuyama asserts in his Sunday New York Times Book Review piece (5-8-2011) of the new edition of The Constitution of Liberty (edited by Ronald Hamowy for the University of Chicago Press, 2011).

Hayek did, of course, object to the notion, mentioned by Fukuyama, that “there is a higher perspective from which one person can dictate another’s ends.” However, the stress here needs to be on “dictate.” No one can do what is morally right when this is being dictated to or coerced from a person. That isn’t at all because ethics or morality is subjective or relative. It is because to hold someone responsible for either morally right and wrong actions, it is that person who has to be the cause of it. The criminal law recognizes this, as have most moral philosophers. And when it is denied that one has free will or can exercise free choice about what one will or will not do, morality disappears. This is why so many thinkers who embrace determinism either reject morality as bogus or transform it into a social psychological device by which desired behavior might be encouraged or prompted from people. (A good example is much of the current work by nureoscientists!)

As Hayek put it elsewhere, “It is only where the individual has choice, and its inherent responsibility, that he has occasion to affirm existing values, to contribute to their further growth, and to earn moral merit.” (“The Moral Element in Free Enterprise,” Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Economics [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967], pp. 230.) However, this view does not depend on moral relativism but on the ancient idea, held by most moral philosophers, that for conduct to be morally significant, it must be done freely, as a matter of the free choice of the moral agent.

One way to discredit defenders of political and economic liberty is to allege that they do not take ethics or morality seriously, that they are indeed subjectivists or relativists. Most people are pretty sure that some human conduct is ethically wrong or right. They teach this to their children and hold to this idea as they judge their fellows, including politicians and international movers and shakers. So to suggest that someone like Hayek, who defends freedom of choice in the market place, is a moral relativist pretty much serves to dismiss his or her views. But it is a mistake.

Alas, the effort does not succeed even when it is made by a famous public intellectual like Francis Fukuyama. It would have been far more accurate to say that for Hayek the tenets of a sound ethics or morality aren’t directly relevant to political economy. As he said in the same interview for Reason magazine, “I don’t see why it should be necessary for political philosophy to have any view at all about what is right for man—unless the political system does something about it, it needn’t concern itself with what is right for man.” This may be objected to for a variety of reasons but not because it supports moral relativism. Indeed, something akin to this position is held by Professors Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen in their book Norms of Liberty (Penn State Press, 2005) when they argue that the principles of classical liberalism aren’t directly derivable from ethics but are, instead, meta-norms, meaning, norms that are required for the social realization of ethically significant conduct.

The relationship between objective personal morality and the principles of politics which are basic to a constitution such as Hayek’s constitution of liberty is a challenging aspect of political philosophy. It does not help to casually dismiss Hayek’s approach by caricaturing it as moral relativism.

Column on Revisiting Selfishness

Revisiting Selfishness

Tibor R. Machan

Because I am always eager to do well for myself–have done this for as long as I can recall, starting with wanting to succeed in school, on the athletic field, in trying to be healthy and fit, and wanting to escape the brutal Soviets when I was only 14–I always pay attention to people who denigrate selfishness. After all, I and most people I know well or even just a bit seem to me to be like me, are concerned to do well for themselves. None of them routinely wastes resources; none makes pointless sacrifices but tends, instead, to aim for good deals; and even those who are dedicated to helping their fellows pick and choose carefully–the reckless ones aren’t receiving much aid, nor the vicious ones, only those who have shown some concern for themselves but have met with obstacles not easy to overcome. In other words, even in being generous and charitable, those who try to do well for themselves tend to receive more than those who are literally unselfish.

So then why are so many who speak up about how we ought to act make a special effort to denigrate self-interested conduct?

One could be cynical and give the answer that of course it is of possible benefit to people to urge others to be generous and charitable and not care for themselves but for others, instead, including those doing the urging. They are, after all, among these others whom they implore that they should look out for. So, then, is it a kind of perverse selfishness that may motivate people who preach unselfishness?

Or there is the less cynical view that many people have a very narrow idea of themselves and all they seem to want to do is fulfill some momentary urges, not really enhance their lives properly. This may well be the view of selfishness that many condemn but it’s a very impoverished idea of the human self that’s involved here. Like the self of a drug addict or gluttonous person. Such people think of themselves as no more than a bundle of raw, irrational desires, never mind what ultimately would contribute to their lives, what would indeed be to their proper self-interest.

Another idea is that the self for many people belongs in this earthly life and what they really want is happiness for eternity–everlasting salvation. But that is actually quite selfish since such folks give up something they see as not very important for something else that they consider all important, their eternal spiritual selves. And it is all a great bargain, if you think about it: you give up joys and pleasures for about 65 years of your earthly life so as to obtain bliss forever. Not a bad deal, me thinks.

Now of course all this championing of selflessness or unselfishness and dissing of selfishness cannot be right. Nearly everyone tries to take decent care of himself or herself first. Then if there is time and stuff left, helping others can also become important. But only if those others are deserving and don’t waste the help, wont squander it. For most even here a bit of pitching in to try to set negligent folks on the straight path will be OK but not if it is futile. Other people, after all, are not unfamiliar to us and their struggles often generate sympathy, even empathy. Up to a point, after which they are digging their own holes of self-defeat. In other words, one can be generous and charitable to a fault! And one shouldn’t be.

Another reason a proper measure of self-regard is to be applauded is that people tend to know much more about what will enhance their own lives, or they at least are in the best position to find out, than do their fellows. So helping people comes down too often to meddling in their affairs, even creating messes for them with all that butting in. Here is where quite apart from whether it is their proper job, politicians and bureaucrats make much more trouble than they and their cheerleaders admit. It is not easy to know what will make someone’s life better, other than in some rare cases which amount to emergencies and very simple help. So urging people to be unselfish amounts, in many instances, to removing the best support they could get in their lives, namely, their own!

The drive to besmirch proper selfishness is a misanthropic one. It shows disdain for people, promotes their sense of ineptitude. So I recommend that everyone follow the motto I have made up as my bumper sticker: “Assert yourself, thoughtfully!”