Saturday, April 12, 2008

Liberty and Morality

I subscribe to an investment research service from a group called Stansberry and Associates. I have received many of their newsletters for the last year, a small investment to see if their advice is worth following. I think it is, and beginning very soon I will be investing my money in part based on their recommendations. But that is not my point today.

The founder of the company, Porter Stansberry, is a die-hard practical libertarian (I don't know how he votes, I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't vote at all). Today, in his Digest, he makes the following statement:
[T]here is an objective standard of morality in the world: First, do not aggress against another person or their property; and secondly, do all that you have contracted to do.
Is it really that simple? It may be. To look at a couple of other examples. the Ten Commandments outline the rules of human relationships in commandments 6-10 on the same 2 principles. Jesus summarized personal morality in the famous Golden Rule: Do to others exactly what you would want them to do to you. Stansberry is simply applying this principle to the realm of personal property and liberty. For his purposes in his newsletter, this is a very effective summary.

But when I read it, I find it feels somewhat lacking. I think the problem is this: Stansberry's formulation is entirely negative - it only defines what we cannot do, but makes no statement about what we ought to do. If there is an objective standard of morality, does it only limit my behavior? Does it not also compel me to actions of a positive sort? Is this not at least implied in Jesus' formulation of the Golden Rule, one which seems to require some sort of positive action on our part towards those with whom we come in contact?

This is a reasonable question, and reasonable people may disagree with my answer. I believe that a moral life is one that not only limits its actions where they would impose upon another, but is also one that causes us to treat others in a positive and uplifting manner. That is, it is not simply that we do not hurt people, we also actively look to help them. I believe then that this three-fold pattern defines a moral life:
  1. Do not aggress against another;
  2. Do all that you are contracted to; and
  3. Practice kindness and courtesy.
Like all moralities, this is more simply stated than lived. But until I read Stansberry today, I don't think I had ever bothered to even try and state what I meant by a moral life. Here's to my first effort.

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