The Ethical Basis for a Free Country

Is there such a thing as a duty to others?

Yes: To leave them alone. And that’s it. There is no given, preexisting duty to others, outside of this.

Once you CHOOSE to associate with particular others, then there are new duties that arise. These obligations arise as the result of your choice.  If you choose to associate with others personally or professionally, you have an obligation to be honest. You should want to be honest, because this is how you expect to be

treated yourself. The desire not to be lied to is universal. NOBODY likes to be lied to, and if anyone claims they don’t care if they’re lied to — they’re lying.

You’re also obliged to keep your word. If you respect yourself, you will want to keep your word. If you respect yourself, you won’t want to say something you don’t mean. You won’t even want to offer to do something that you’re not interested in doing.

A rational person knows what he’s able and willing to do, and he’s willing to convey this honestly to others.

The reason so many people get into trouble, and even lie, is that they falsely believe they’re obliged to do things that they’re not obliged to do. They’ll think, “It would be bad and selfish for me to tell Don that I don’t want to listen to him complain about his girlfriend.” So instead of saying they’re not able or willing to do that favor, they simply say, “Oh, I’ll be there at 6 pm” and then cancel at the last minute, or not even show at all. Behaviors tend not to lie, so much as words do. But the words would not be deceitful if people did not possess the false beliefs in the first place: the false beliefs that they’re obliged to do things they are not, in truth, obliged to do.

The logic of what I’m saying is irrefutable. But the immediate reply is almost always, “That’s selfish.” By this, people mean to say, “You’re engaging in self-preservation — and that’s wrong, at least in this case.” The person accusing you of this usually wants you to do something for him. “I want you to loan your car to me. Refusing to do so is selfish!” But the person accusing you of this is also being selfish — isn’t he? Why is it morally bad when you assert your self-interest, while it’s morally acceptable, even morally good, for him to do the same?

Sometimes the person accusing you of selfishness doesn’t have a direct stake in the matter. “I don’t think you’re right to keep that money, even if you did earn it. That’s selfish.” The person telling you this won’t get this money, either way, so it’s not about that. But even so, the person asserting this principle wants you to live by his definition of morality. His definition of morality is that one should sacrifice and give up for others, as a matter of principle. But he’s asking you to follow HIS definition of morality. He doesn’t want you to follow your own — he wants you to follow HIS. Isn’t that selfish of him? And isn’t he contradicting himself by insisting that you give up your own wants, and your own judgment, in favor of his?

What kind of person even wants others to sacrifice for them? We’re often told, “Do the right thing.” The “right” thing usually refers to selflessness, to giving up one’s interests for the sake of another. It can be a supernatural other, or it can be the government, or it can be people in general, or it can be one person in particular. So long as you’re giving something up, you’re good; so long as you want to experience or hold onto anything valuable (material or psychological), you’re bad.

According to this twisted way of viewing things, there is no moral way to lead a self-fulfilling, self-rewarding or self-preserving life. The extent to which you do, you’re not good. And we wonder why the world is full of guilty, neurotic people. The only people who experience no guilt are criminals and politicians (essentially the same thing). Everyone else who expects him- or herself to be good, feels guilty the extent to which he or she actually gains and/or holds onto something. Only the sociopaths don’t care.

And we wonder why the world is so crazy. Human beings have done this to themselves. They have adopted and accepted a system of ethics — secular or supernatural, it’s exactly the same — in which there are unchosen duties to others. This is a recipe for moral cannibalism. That has been most of human history, and even the USA, a country founded on an implicit ethics of self-interested individualism, ultimately went the same way.

People who believe they are obliged to others will never embrace freedom. Freedom will never endure in a society where this false belief exists.

The next time humans experiment with establishing a free country (and I do hope there is a next time), they will have to get their ethical ideas right first. The American founders gave us a great system of government, but they could not give us the right approach to ethics.