Thursday, January 17, 2019

Codes to Live By

Henry Hazlitt
Mises Institute note on the below: Henry Hazlitt considered The Foundations of Morality to be his most important work. The following two reviews of that book were found in one of the many boxes of papers generously given to the Mises Institute by Bettina Bien Greaves. Bettina wrote in a letter to Hazlitt "It seems to me this is your very best book, and one that will live through the centuries." Unfortunately The Foundations of Morality never received the audience recognition he would have liked, but as Bettina said, it is a book for the ages. Bettina was right because it remains immensely important today.
Codes to Live By
Rosalie Gordon writing in America's Future (April 1973):
It is particularly fitting that there now be re-issued (it was first published in 1964) this seminal work by one of America's most distinguished journalists, economists and philosophers. Henry Hazlitt is as far as one can get from that breed of "instant" analyzers and accepters of current modes, which is merely another way of saying he thinks — thinks things through. 

And in these times, when at long last great numbers of our people are beginning to question the so-called "new morality" (which is neither new nor moral), his book could provide a needed buttress for that questioning. Besides, it will outlast by many decades the screeds of the "instant thinkers."
As an economist, Mr. Hazlitt is a practical man. As a moral philosopher, he understands the need for a rational basis for an ethical way of life. Contrary to modern "new morality" preachings, civilized man must have codes to live by; otherwise all is chaos and barbarism. Mr. Hazlitt traces most interestingly man's search for such codes throughout history, down to the present day. And between the Scylla of complete self-interest and the Charybdis of complete altruism, he reaches what he calls cooperatism — not the misnamed "social cooperation" of the socialist-communist state which imposes its dictators' brand of thinking on the people, but the sort of cooperation which flows naturally from men and women (as nearly as can be expected of fallible human beings) living by an individual ethical code which, being best for them, in the end is best for the whole society.
He puts it this way:
... social cooperation is the essence of morality. And morality, as we should constantly remind ourselves, is a daily affair, even an hourly affair, not just something we need to think about only in a few high and heroic moments. The moral code by which we live is shown every day, not necessarily in great acts of denunciation, but in refraining from little slights and meannesses, and in practicing little courtesies and kindnesses. Few of us are capable of rising to the Christian commandment to "love one another," but most of us can at least learn to be kind to one another — and for most earthly purposes this will do almost as well.
We found especially discerning Mr. Hazlitt's analysis of the moral or ethical bases of capitalism and socialism. He sees clearly that because capitalism promotes freedom, justice and productivity it has far more right to be called "social" (or "moral") than socialism which in its despotism actually promotes a code of immorality.
He cites, among other disciples of socialism, Lenin, who declared: "We must be ready to employ trickery, deceit, law-breaking, withholding and concealing truth. We can and must write in a language which sows among the masses hate, revulsion, scorn, and the like toward those who disagree with us."
We cannot begin to indicate the wide scope of this study, save to say that the author delves deeply into the relationship of ethics or morality to law, economics, equality and inequality, freedom, rights and even (bless him — could anything be more necessary these days?) to good manners!
The Foundations of Morality
Bettina Bien Greaves writing in The Freeman (June 1973):
The many contradictions among different philosophical theories have caused much confusion over the years. Unfortunately, too few teachers and textbooks explain the basic principles that could help students discriminate intelligently among them and understand the ethical code which fosters freedom, morality and social cooperation. Thus, Henry Hazlitt deserves special credit for bringing logic and clarity to the subject. His book, The Foundations of Morality, was first published in 1964. After having been out of print for several years, it is again available thanks to Nash and the Institute for Humane Studies.
The author is primarily an economist, a student of human action. As a result, he is a strong advocate of individual freedom and responsibility. He has long been a close personal friend and associate of Professor Ludwig von Mises, the "dean" of free market economics, to whom he acknowledges a great intellectual indebtedness. With this background, he is well qualified to discuss the ethics of social cooperation. His many years of "apprenticeship" as essayist, book reviewer and columnist (New York TimesWall Street JournalNewsweekThe FreemanNational Review and many others) prepared him well for explaining complex matters simply. The reader may wish to pause, ponder and reflect from time to time on the ideas and concepts presented, but the author's reasoning is clear, his prose unambiguous and most chapters delightfully short.
Mr. Hazlitt's position is that "the interests of the individual and the interests of society," when "rightly understood" are in harmony, not conflict. His goal in writing this book was "to present a 'unified theory' of law, morals and manners" which could be logically explained and defended in the light of modern economics and the principles of jurisprudence. This reviewer believes most readers will agree that Mr. Hazlitt succeeded. He has marshalled the ideas of many philosophers and analyzed them with careful logic. He has explained many of the contradictions among them, thus disposing of much confusion. He has formulated a consistent moral philosophy based on an understanding of ethical principles, so frequently ignored in today's "permissive" climate, which promote peaceful social cooperation and free enterprise production.
Mr. Hazlitt points out that our complex market economy requires peaceful and voluntary social cooperation. The preservation of the market is essential for large scale production and thus for the very survival of most of us. Therefore, social cooperation is the very most important means available to individuals for attaining their various personal ends. This means that social cooperation is also at the same time a well worthwhile goal. Let Mr. Hazlitt speak for himself.
For each of us social cooperation is of course not the ultimate end but a means. ... But it is a means so central, so universal, so indispensable to the realization of practically all our other ends, that there is little harm in regarding it as an end-in-itself, and even in treating it as if it were the goal of ethics. In fact, precisely because none of us knows exactly what would give most satisfaction or happiness to others, the best test of our actions or rules of action is the extent to which they promote a social cooperation that best enables each of us to pursue his own ends.
Without social cooperation modern man could not achieve the barest fraction of the ends and satisfactions that he has achieved with it. The very subsistence of the immense majority of us depends upon it.
The system of philosophy outlined in the book is a form of utilitarianism, "insofar as it holds that actions or rules of action are to be judged by their consequences and their tendency to promote human happiness." However, Mr. Hazlitt prefers a shorter term, "utilism," or perhaps "rule utilism" to stress the importance of adhering consistently to general rules. He suggests also two other possible names — "mutualism" or "cooperatism" — which he thinks more adequately reflect the central role of social cooperation in the ethical system described.
The criterion for judging the consistency or inconsistency of a specific rule or action with this ethical system is always whether or not it promotes social cooperation. Mr. Hazlitt reasons from the thesis that social cooperation is of benefit to everyone. Even those who might at times like to lie, cheat, rob or kill for personal short-run gain can usually be persuaded of the longer-run advantages of social cooperation, i.e., of refraining from lying, cheating, robbing or stealing.
Even the most self-centered individual, in fact, needing not only to be protected against the aggression of others, but wanting the active cooperation of others, finds it to his interest to defend and uphold a set of moral (as well as legal) rules that forbid breaking promises, cheating, stealing, assault, and murder, and in addition a set of moral rules that enjoin cooperation, helpfulness, and kindness. ...
The predominant moral code in a society is compared with language or "common law." Society does not impose a moral code on the individual. It is a set of rules, hammered out bit by bit over many centuries:
[O]ur moral rules are continuously framed and modified. They are not framed by some abstract and disembodied collectivity called "society" and then imposed on an "individual" who is in some way separate from society. We impose them (by praise and censure, approbation and disapprobation, promise and warning, reward and punishment) on each other, and most of us consciously or unconsciously accept them for ourselves. ...
This moral code grew up spontaneously, like language, religion, manners, law. It is the product of the experience of immemorial generations, of the interrelations of millions of people and the interplay of millions of minds. The morality of common sense is a sort of common law, with an indefinitely wider jurisdiction than ordinary common law, and based on a practically infinite number of particular cases. ... [T]he traditional moral rules ... crystallize the experience and moral wisdom of the race.
But what about religion, you say? Doesn't a moral code have to rest on a religious bases? The fundamental thesis of this book as noted, is that reason and logic are sufficient to explain and defend the code of ethics which fosters and preserves social cooperation. Yet, the author does not ignore religion. He calls attention to similarities among the world's great religions and the contradictions in some of them. Religion and morality reinforce one another very often, he says, although not always and not necessarily. Here is his description of their relationship:
In human history religion and morality are like two streams that sometimes run parallel, sometimes merge, sometimes separate, sometimes seem independent and sometimes interdependent. But morality is older than any living religion and probably older than all religion. ... [W]hile religious faith is not indispensable [to the moral code] ... , it must be recognized in the present state of civilization as a powerful force in securing the observance that exists. ...
The most powerful religious belief supporting morality, however, seems to me ... the belief in a God who sees and knows our every action, our every impulse and over every thought, who judges us with exact justice, and who whether or not He rewards us for our good deeds and punishes us for our evil ones, approves of our good deeds and disapproves of our evil ones. ...
Yet it is not the function of the moral philosopher, as such, to proclaim the truth of this religious faith or to try to maintain it. His function is, rather, to insist on the rational basis of all morality, to point out that it does not need any supernatural assumptions, and to show that the rules of morality are or ought to be those rules of conduct that tend most to increase human cooperation, happiness and well-being in this our present life.
Mr. Hazlitt discusses many perplexing ideas and concepts such as natural rights, natural law, justice, selfishness, altruism, right, wrong, truth, honesty, duty, moral obligation, free will vs. determinism, politeness, "white lies." Anyone who has speculated on these problems without reaching satisfactory conclusions, as has this reviewer, will no doubt find his analyses and comments both stimulating and enlightening.
The book contains numerous quotations from the works of early and recent philosophers, which the author always analyzes for their consistency with social cooperation. Except for a few technical philosophical terms — such as tautology (repetition of the same idea in different words), eudaemonism (the doctrine that happiness is the final goal of all human action) and teleotic (an adjective derived from the Greek meaning end, design, purpose or final cause) — readers should not find anything in the book really difficult to understand. As they follow the author's line of thought, they will discover that reason and logic come to the defense of morality; order and a common sense ethical code evolve from philosophical chaos.
Mr. Hazlitt has long been a noted free market economist — one of the very best. His introductory Economics In One Lesson is a long-time best seller. The Failure of the "New Economics," a careful critique of Keynes, is a real contribution to economic theory. With the publication of The Foundations of Morality in 1964, he added another very important feather to his cap as a moral philosopher. It is good to have it in print again.
To summarize, the author explains again and again, in the course of the book under review, that the rules of ethics are neither arbitrary nor illogical. They are not mere matters of opinion. They are workable, acceptable, moral rules developed over long periods of time. They must be adhered to consistently and may not be willfully violated without detriment to social cooperation. In this age of permissiveness, when everyone is encouraged "to do his own thing" and few see any urgency in respecting the rights of others, it is a rare philosopher who recognizes that the consistent adherence to a set of ethical rules promotes social cooperation and benefits everyone in society. Perhaps a free market economist, whose very field of study encompasses the role of social cooperation, is the most appropriate person to explain the logic of this position. This book should live through the centuries.

The above originally appeared online at


  1. At the base of Hazlitts claim seems to be the assumption that human floruishing, social benefit, or peace are good. What is his evidence that these things are objectively good, and not simply human preference? What makes the preservation of life objectively better than its extermination?

    What's missing is a base. Hazlitt has his moral feet planted firmly in thin air. Yes, we can identify the Good, and even behave in that way. But you must have a ontological base transendent above humanity (and everything else) to justify Good's existence. The Abrahamic God is the only known Being that fits this description.

    Common Morality or law without Him is not the objectice natural end of reason, but only an expression of that reasoner's preference. Hazlitt misses the mark here.

    1. God is not transcendent above man, since it was created by man's imagination. You may believe in such a "God", but your belief is a personal one that is not transcendent just like a belief in "goodness". Of course you may be right about the footing being weak, but saying that a mystical figure solves this is even weaker.

    2. My argument doesn't rest on, nor does it require, God's existence. It also doesn't require any belief in God for it to be true.

      My argument is: if Hazlett wanted a thorough philosophical support of objective moral value, that requires a transcendent being to establish ontological explanation of the value's objectivity. Hazlett fails to address the ontologocal problem.

      Without God, you're right: belief in "goodness" (objectively) is neither transcendent nor rational. This is a discussion moral philosophers have been having; many atheists and believers alike agree with this position. Sam Harris, Dennet, CS Lewis, Chesterton, and those folks related are good sources to look into the topic if you're interested.

      But as I said below,this topic is probably not suited for this site.

      Thanks for engaging.

  2. There is no missing base in Hazlitt’s argument and his moral feet are firmly planted in the nature of man to use reason and logic to create a code of ethics and “rules of conduct that tend most to increase human cooperation, happiness and well being in this our present life”

    1. What makes the increase of human cooperation, happiness and well being in this current life objectively morally good? What makes the nature of man the determiner of good? What makes reason and logic the proper methods of finding this moral good?

      Without an answer to these questions, any conclusions based on the above assumptions are baseless!

    2. They are not baseless. They’re just not based on your belief that one must believe that an Abrahamic God exists and that only this being “can justify Good’s existence” as you put it.

    3. Sherlock, let's assume that peaceful interaction between men is just a preference, not an objectively defined "good." Would that make it less worthy?

    4. Yes and his intention to do so without the godhead fundamental makes it a universally applicable and gives the power over to self determination and human inherent sentience.

      There is no need to justify or rationalize and beneficial instinct that rises to a higher call to benefit all.

    5. DesertBunny: Hazlett does not provide an ontological source for his assumption that human floruishing is objectively good. Neither has Daniel Dennet or Sam Harris. In a world where there is nothing transcendent to humanity, morals are simply preferences. Address the ontological problem.

      NAPster: once morality becomes preference, "worthiness" isn't a category. Without a transendent measure, there is no way to "rank" human floruishing vs. mass extermination (or freedom vs. slavery). All we could say is "I/we don't like it." Many atheist philosophers agree.

      Shegottawideload: it's universally applicable exactly because it is based in a power greater than humanity. Without that impetus, self determinatiom devolves into might makes right.

      And then you have a problem at your last sentence: what makes our beneficial instinct authoritative or a determining factor in objective truth? All we have evidence for are instintual preferences.

      Fun. Again, all: without a transendent measure, freedom is simply a preference, like all other preferences (free stuff from others). The socialist hedonism will certainly overpower the libertarians freedom-hedonism.

    6. Sherlock, I'm still not sure why your analysis is of any consequence. If you want peaceful relations among men, you have to persuade others of one of the following (a) a deity exists, we can know what that deity wants, and that that deity's wishes are objectively good, (b) peaceful relations are objectively good as demonstrated by the use of reason and logic, or (c) peaceful relations are preferable to violent relations.

      In other words, it's always about persuasion, and that involves appealing to someone's mental faculties, whether reason or faith.

    7. NAPster, my criticism of Hazletts moral writing is that it is incomplete, not that it's worthless. I just begs the question: what makes his assumptions true? I think the lack of ontological base sets the stage for anyone to undercut the case for human floruishing with other logical outcomes (nihilism, for example,being a gigantic threat to liberty).

      Regarding persuation: what you win them with is how you keep them. If you win them with (c), you are at a risk of losing them to some other preferential whim (e.g. human "compassion" and free stuff). If you win them with (b), you are at risk of losing them other logical outcomes (e.g. nihilism, with a personal preference for aggressing). With (a), you have a clear base that establishes the wrongness of agression. Once that is established, the NAP is the logical conclusion. That's why I think there is a practical consequence to how we justify the "Good."

    8. Moreover! If aggression can not be shown to be objectively bad, and lacks an ontological base, then the whole NAP lacks an objective base. That makes the libertarian case weaker. That's very consequential!

    9. Sherlock, as a man who has expressed deep Christian religious convictions, I can understand why you think that (a) is superior. But that doesn't work for atheists and agnostics, maybe not for deists and Epicureans either, nor for those whose religion might condone some violence, and nor for those who turn away from religion later in life.

      I don't know of too many libertarian who, having embraced the NAP through natural rights, argumentation ethics, utilitarianism, or other means, decide later to abandon it as a bedrock principle, but I'm sure that there are some examples to the contrary. However, I'm willing to bet that the bigger battle is to get someone to embrace the NAP; worrying about losing them later would be a nice problem to face.

    10. I see your point. Practicalities aside, my original point was my criticism of Hazlett (lack of ontological base, which undermines/weakens the rest of his point).

      Also, I think (a) is superior not just because I'm Christian, but because it objectively is. You don't have to answer, but what is stronger : morality as a preference, morality as best utility, or morality as part of the nature of all existence? Perhaps this is a topic suited better for another website. Thanks for engaging.

  3. Well summarized DesertBunny. Sherlock, I do enjoy some of your comments at this sight but must disagree on this point. However if you question the goodness of "human flourishing" there is no point in further discussion.

    1. I absolutely believe in the objective goodness of human floruishing! We have to seperase ontology (how something comes into being) and epistemology (how we know something). I know that human floruishing is objectively good (epistemology). On what basis is it good (ontology)?

      "Because I know it's good" is an epistemological answer, not an ontological one.

      Hazlett does something similar, in failing to ontologically support through goodness of human floruishing.

    2. Thanks for appreciating my other comments though!