As libertarians, we have strong views about what is moral and what is immoral. Perhaps the most obvious example of libertarian moral code is the belief that it is wrong to violate someone’s freedom, or their private property. But where do these moral assertions come from? What are they based on? For theist libertarians, the answer is often very simple. The arguments often go that God created humanity in his image and it would be wrong to violate God’s image, because God instructed us so. That was the approach taken by one of the earliest philosophers advocating private property, John Locke. As the world has become less convinced by the existence of a divine commander that upholds natural rights, atheist libertarians might worry that they can no longer explain their appeals to inalienable rights in a coherent fashion. I will here offer my own position; a position that does not rely on a supreme law-giver such as God, but at the same time defends natural rights effectively.
Let us assume that there is neither a supreme lawgiver nor any divine being to enforce moral laws. Where then, can one derive morality from? I would suggest that without God, there is no morality. At least, not in the sense we currently understand it. I would suggest without God, there is no objective good and bad, no objective right and wrong, and I am comfortable with this. I am comfortable with this because I believe there is a new way we should understand morality, a way that has adapts to there not being a supreme moral legislator.
Without God, it can no longer be said that there are certain things that we are all obligated to do, regardless of our circumstances. Neither are there any supreme guidelines of things we should do, even vague ones. After God, all that is left is for individuals to follow their own desires. Given those desires, there are things that individuals ‘ought’ to do to achieve them. For example, if I have the desire of making my friends happy, then I ‘ought’ to meet them at the pub. When God was in the equation, individual’s desires were irrelevant. I might to have the desire to go for a walk on Sunday morning, but given God’s moral authority, I ‘ought’ to go to church. If one does not accept God’s moral authority, as I do not, then my obligation to go to church disappears. The individual is sovereign of his own morality. I suggest a definition of morality to be: ‘A man’s moral obligations are his ‘ought’s’, where his ‘ought’s’ are the action or actions necessary to further an aim or desire of his’. At this point, one might worry about the desires of man, more specifically, that man can desire evil things. I shall address this concern later.
We have then established that a man is being moral when he does the action or actions he ought to do in order to further a desire. It is a part of the human condition that all men and women want to be happy; it is the only thing common to every human being on Earth. Happiness is the one common aim of all humanity. So, given that every individual human desires happiness, every individual human ought to pursue action to make themselves happier. We defined morality as pursuing the action that brings about a desire. Each human then, is being moral when they act in a way that is conducive to their own happiness. Thus, we have established the basis of finding morality. Now there is just the matter left of discovering what actions are conducive to human happiness!
I shall now address the issue of evil desires. If one has evil desires, then one would expect his morality to consist of actions to further evil ambitions. The worry might be that we may end up calling evil actions morally obligatory. I do not think this is the case, as I shall now attempt to show. It might be that a man A desires the death of man B, and so one might conclude that he ought to kill man B, to further his desire, and that this would be the moral action. But we have yet to consider the many other desires of man A. He also wants to be happy. When we factor this aims into our analysis, we find that man A ought not to kill man B; he has no moral obligation to do so. Many would find this questionable, thinking that the killing of man B would make genuinely man A happier than the not-killing of man B. I disagree, and I disagree because of the principle of non-aggression.
If we accept that morality is taking the action that furthers a desire, and a desire all humans have is to be happy, then all that is left for us to do is to find out what actions humans need to take to be happy. I think there are many instances and there are many situations people can point to where the exact course of action to maximise an individual’s happiness is not clear. What I think is clear is that a respect for the principle of non-aggression, the preservation of civil liberties, and the establishment of a free market have been shown over human history to optimize standards of living and maximize human happiness. Given this, each human ought morally to support these things as each of these things further each man’s desire for happiness.
It is clear that many will disagree that a respect for the principle of non-aggression, the preservation of civil liberties, and the establishment of a free market are the things that will do most to ensure human happiness, but here I think libertarians have a structure for the basis of libertarian morality, a morality not dependent on an idea of God as a supreme lawmaker. We must now go on to explain, in empirical terms, the merits of civil liberties, free markets, and non-aggression. We have our morality because of our mutual rational desires, and we further them best through peaceful cooperation and non-aggression. I because this story gives an account of morality more compatible and more comfortable with our libertarian principles; we choose our own desires, and we find the rational way to achieve them. Those who are most moral are those that put into action the most effective way to ensure their own happiness; it so happens that I believe these people to be libertarians, and the effective way they have chosen is liberty!