The Three Justifications for Morality

Morality, defined here as conformity to how one ought to act, has three different foundations throughout history. They are God imposed, State imposed, and self-imposed. All three of these theories are also theories of ownership because it is only through ownership that proper action can be dictated. Ownership is defined here as the ability to execute exclusive control on an object. This includes your body. So, who owns you? Our perceptions about ownership have defined our lives in the past and our legal structures that subsequently evolved. It is through our understanding of this history of ownership that we can seek to liberate ourselves and achieve true freedom and flourishing.

The first ideas of morality come to us from religion. These ideas are God imposed, most notably in the Western European world as the Ten Commandments, and they have been implemented and followed throughout our legal systems to a large extent. My concern here is less with the history of the legal systems and more with the ideology that governs our recognition of authority when it comes to dictating morally correct action. In the God imposed theory of morality, we are all owned by God. Jesus is our shepherd and we are but lambs, and language of the like. The very mentality of the religious believer is that the individual is incapable of knowing right from wrong; only God can know such things. So, in order to be virtuous, I must do what I am told by God. God controls my fate, and it is only by his grace that I shall make it into heaven, lest I be cast into hell. God has the power to dictate how you ought to live, and this can only be established through the recognition and acceptance of God’s ownership over your body.

Of course, it may also be argued that God has given us freewill, and we have the capacity to choose our actions. This may be technically true, but God still dictates which choices are correct and incorrect. We lack judgement over our own actions, a fundamental necessity of ownership. In the religious view, we are no different from a cow owned by a farmer. We may choose when to eat grass and where, but our choices are limited by the fence around the field. Yes, the fence may offer us protection from predators, but it also prevents us from eating whatever grass we may desire, and it has also deprived us of the choice to erect our own fence should we choose to have one. We are not autonomous creatures that own ourselves.

The second idea of morality comes from government. Sometimes called rights, the government dictates to us what actions we can take, and which ones we cannot. The punishment and reward systems are not as prolific as those in religion, namely freedom from jail is heaven and jail is hell, however, they do still exist. Instead of listing commandments, the government grants rights. Governments take a more positivistic approach; they tell you what you are allowed to do, and if it isn’t listed, you cannot do it. In some legal traditions, most notably common law, it was understood that if the law didn’t explicitly forbid it, you were allowed to do it. This interpretation has since given way to the more explicitly positivistic approach in which the government allows you certain freedoms through rights. An example of this is with the U.S. constitution. When the first amendment was written, James Madison marveled at its relevance. He argued that the right was superfluous because nowhere in the constitution did the government have the capacity to regulate speech. This interpretation has since been turned on its head and every free speech battle has been about what the first amendment allows the citizens to do and not what power is given to the government by the constitution.

Governments steal from their citizens through taxation and asset forfeiture, they limit services we can provide or receive, they decide who can provide what services and how through licensing, they mandate how we can receive medical care, they dictate what constitutes money, and they regulate what we are allowed to put into our bodies. Again, it could be argued that we have the freedom to decide these things because we have the freedom to vote, but this is even less reassuring than freewill. At least with freewill we can make choices on a daily basis. With voting, we get a choice maybe once every two, four, or six years. And even then, politicians rarely keep their campaign promises. We are owned by a schizophrenic, sociopathic master, with no regard for our wellbeing, and every incentive to sell us out as chattel to the highest bidder. We are not just cows in a fenced in field anymore; we are in the back of a semi-truck on our way to the slaughterhouse and all we get to decide is who is driving the truck.

Finally, we come to our final theory of ownership, and thus basis for morality; self-ownership. I am the only being capable of moving my fingers to type this article. I am the only being capable of blinking my eyes, turning my head, or walking a mile on my legs. You can put a gun to my head and force me to do these things, but you cannot control my body as I can. No being on the planet is capable of exclusively controlling the body of another living creature. I cannot will a rabbit to eat grass, a gazelle to run from a lion, or a person to read this article. I can use force or the threat of force to compel action. I can use compelling speech or coercive deception to compel action. However, I have no capacity to will action from another being. This is because self-ownership is self-evident, it is a priori, and it is a condition of reality. Once we recognize this, no other basis for morality is possible save our own self-imposed one.

I am not arguing for moral relativism, i.e. the idea that every individual has their own morality and thus can to whatever they feel is right at the given moment. No, I am arguing for a morality that acts in accordance with our observed reality, the one that demonstrates that every living being owns his, her, or its body, and to try to compel action from another necessarily requires force or coercion, which violates the self-ownership of the being actively being compelled into action. You are the only person that can decide to use your eyes and your brain to read and interpret this article. If I put a gun to your head and force you to do it, I am violating your ownership over yourself. Your exclusive control over your body is being violated by my threat of complete destruction lest you choose to comply with my dictates. My actions would be immoral because they do not comport with reality. Indeed, they violate the evidence of reality.

Self-imposed morality, or a morality based upon self-ownership, dictates that in order to be moral, we must act in accordance with reality. Reality very evidently shows that you own your body and I own mine. For anyone to attempt to violate that ownership, they must aggress against us, and thus their actions are immoral. This is where the concept of the non-aggression principle is derived. It states that the initiation of the use of force is morally wrong. This is a valid moral principle because the initiation of the use of force always results in a violation of someone’s self-ownership.

Self-imposed morality also gives us the freedom to decide for ourselves how we ought to act. We are limited only by the immorality of aggressing against other living beings. We are free to decide what relationships we value, what labors to pursue, what virtues to embody, and how happiness is best experienced. Religion is unnecessary, however, you are free to follow one as long as you or your congregation are not violating the non-aggression principle. Governments are also not necessary, however, should you and your neighbors choose to form a voluntary coalition with common goals, you are free to do so as long as you do not aggress against anyone. You are free to make or earn your bread as you so choose. You are even free to characterize this state of existence as anarchy, and I encourage you to do just that.

Rights, Do We Have Them?

Definitions are important in order to ensure proper understanding. If I say my favorite fruit is an orange because I love the crisp crunch and bitter sweet taste as I bite into its green flesh, you are going to look at me like I am strange. Clearly what I am describing as an orange is actually a granny smith apple, and the concept of orange is different between the two of us. This is why the analogy of comparing apples to oranges makes sense. In my example, I am literally confusing an apple with an orange. This makes for very poor conversation, so I will always try my best to present the best definition possible for ideas I am discussing. That being said, I will now address the question at hand; do we have rights?

A quick Google search of “What is a right?” will return the following definition that is most pertinent to our discussion: “a moral or legal entitlement to have or obtain something or to act in a certain way.” When we think of rights, we think of the right to life, liberty, happiness, freedom of speech, to bear arms, and in more common dialogue, the right to healthcare or education. Let’s break this down a little bit. If we have a right to life, we are entitled to live, which means other people are obligated to not interfere with our life. This puts a claim on the actions of others. If I have a right to the freedom of speech, then others are obligated to let me speak in a public forum. If I have a right to healthcare, then doctors and nurses are obligated to treat me when I am ill or injured. A right, by definition, obligates others to affirm a claim I have as a living person. So, where do rights come from?

Natural Law would have you believe that your rights come from your humanity. You are a human being, so you are entitled to life, liberty, and property. This means other people are obligated to not interfere with your life or your freedom so long as you are respecting the rights of others, and to allow you to acquire property as long as you are not violating the rights of others. These are called negative claim rights as they do not require any positive action on the part of other people. However, these rights still place an obligation on other people. If you were on a tropical island with no other people, your need for rights would not exist as there would be no other people there. What about healthcare or education?

The United Nations has declared healthcare to be a basic human right. This means that other people are obligated to give you healthcare; doctors and nurses are obligated to give you care. Education is also often referred to as a human right. This means teachers are obligated to teach you. In fact, I would argue that if education is a human right, then anyone that knows more than anyone else is obligated to educate the less knowledgeable. Perhaps that’s why I’m writing this? I digress. These rights would be positive claim rights as they require positive actions on the part of other people. Doctors and teachers must intervene in your life and expend their time, energy, knowledge, and resources to give you something. This certainly does not seem just. Are we doomed then, to live an unjust life in an unjust world?!

That seems a bit hyperbolic, so let me put an end to this rhetoric of rights. Rights, as a physical entity, like say your shoes, do not exist. They are purely a construct of the human mind. Worse yet, they are a fabrication, and an elaborate one at that. Not only is the right to healthcare a farce, but so too is the right to life. There is no real difference between positive and negative claim rights as negative claim rights still place an obligation upon other people, even if that obligation is simply to do nothing but recognize that you are a person. At its worst, the right to life could be construed to mandate that all potential life has a right to life, meaning all eggs in a woman must be fertilized and granted life as a human. This would bind all living people to perpetually living for the not yet born, thus putting precedent on creating new life over living your own life. As rights to not exist, they are neither useful nor helpful in understanding our relationship with reality or each other. Instead of having a right to life, simply recognize that we exist, and any attempt to interfere with our existence from others violates the non-aggression principle. For more on that see my post, The Moral Framework. With all this talk of rights, who benefits?

Qui bono? That is the phrase we should always ask when unraveling a complex philosophical structure meant to deceive us. Who benefits from humans believing that we have rights and that they must be recognized and respected by other people? Why, those that enforce the rules for respecting those rights; governments and politicians. If I can convince you that you have an illness, and I am the only one with a cure, are you going to buy that cure from me? Of course you are! You get to feel better, and I get to take advantage of your ignorance. Governments have a direct incentive to grant the people as many rights as they can conceive of as those same governments will grow in size, scope, and revenue in order to preserve those rights. You have a right to life? Here’s a system to make sure people aren’t killing you. You have a right to property? Here’s a system to make sure people aren’t stealing from you. Oh, and we have to steal from you to pay for it, but we are going to call it taxation. What’s that? You want a right to healthcare? Of course! Here you go! You just have to wait six months before you see a doctor. You have a right to healthcare, but no one said you have a right to healthcare right now. Oh, and you definitely have a right to education. How else are we going to prevent you from thinking critically about any of our laws or your “rights” unless we indoctrinate, I mean educate you about them or how wonderful we are for providing them to you?

There is also the Positivist legal theory. This states that all rights are granted by the government. You can do only what the law allows you to do, and all power resides within the government to grant freedoms. You have the right to live because the government has given it to you. You have the right to speak as long as the government says it is OK. While this approach is more honest about the nature of rights, it is morally corrupt and logically inconsistent. To address the latter claim first, we know that ownership is defined as exclusive control over an object. In this case, we are referring to your body. If the government is the sole entity that can grant you the right to speak or move or live, then you are not the owner of your body. This is a contradiction of reality and it cannot stand. Governments understand this, which is why they use the threat of violence at the barrel of a gun to enforce their laws. This is also why this approach is morally corrupt. Enforcing the notion that the government has the authority to grant rights to people requires a violation of the non-aggression principle, and this is morally wrong. Positivism also fails to grant humans rights. So, what is the answer?

At this point, we can unequivocally say, “No, we do not have rights.”  Do you know the saying, “beware of strangers bearing gifts?” The government is one big entity of strangers, and the gifts they bear are called rights. Reject their rhetoric wholesale lest you get caught up in their convoluted mess of what rights you do or do not have and when, where and how. Instead recognize two simple truths. One, rights do not exist so you do not have them; and two, the ten scariest words in the human language are these, “I’m from the government, and I am here to help.”