The Borders of Philosophy

TL sent a draft of some questions on the philosophy published in TableAus. These were my answers.

TL asked how the rational morality I’ve described in Philosophical Reflections handles some “vague” ethical questions.

A basic issue here is the link between moral principles and reality, reflected in his concern that “the connection between underlying principles is lost” and his question about “wondering how you got into a particular pattern of thought from first principles.”

An objective philosophy is not about deriving things from first principles. The only “first principles” are the two absolutes that reality and consciousness exist. An objective philosophy does not try to deduce principles from those, but by recognising them, derives principles from the observable facts of reality, and applies those to specific circumstances. Thus, to be objective a philosophy must derive all its principles ultimately from demonstrable reality, and as a corollary, all its principles must be consistent. To be unable to link one’s moral principles to each other or to reality is to find that they are wrong or arbitrary (or at best, tentative pending further thought).

Given that context, this is how I would answer his specific questions:


The valid role of government is the delegated agent of self-defence of the country’s people. Support for your “nation” is therefore a secondary virtue or vice, dependent on whether it supports or denies individual rights. A relatively free nation that defends individual rights is worthy of loyalty, while a dictatorship built on the violation of rights is not.

No nation deserves your unqualified support simply because you were born there. There is no such thing as a nation’s rights – a nation is not an entity, but a group of individuals, and it is in them that the rights reside. Your rights are yours by virtue of your nature as a thinking being, and do not have to be purchased by your unqualified support for the government. Nor do individuals, no matter how many they are, earn your loyalty except by honouring your rights.

Whether a nation that supports individual rights in some ways but violates them in others deserves your support depends on the balance of the two, but in any event, it deserves criticism for its flaws as much as loyalty for its virtues. For example, Australia and the USA are among the freest nations on earth and deserve support for that reason, especially against any less free nations who would destroy that freedom: but both deserve trenchant criticism for the many ways in which they violate individual rights (e.g. laws against victimless “crimes”, taxation to bribe some people with the money of others, and laws limiting the rights of voluntary contract).

Money for Nothing

A person’s need might induce pity and motivate you to help them, but does not give them the rightto your help. Need does not bestow an automatic claim on anybody else. How can it? The idea that need bestows the right to forcibly take something from those who can help you, purely because they can help you, is an inversion of morality. It punishes those who make life possible, in order to reward those who can’t live without them.

I define a free country as one whose government does nothing other than protect each individual’s right to be free from physical force. Thus it could have no government-enforced “social security”, whose essence is that because A feels sorry for B, they persuade C to force D to help pay to fix the problem. A, B and C have no such right.

Would the unemployed therefore starve in a free country? No, for two reasons.

First, the best thing you can do for the unemployed is give them a job. That is much easier in a free country, because there is more wealth in the first place, businesses are not burdened by proactive legislation and taxation, and the least productive people are not priced out of a job by government regulations (the actual effect of minimum wage laws).

Second, if you really care about the unemployed in a free country, just do something about it yourself. Give them a job, or donate your own money, or set up your own charity. How you go about it is then your decision, depending on what you are trying to achieve and on the circumstances and character of those you are trying to help. For example, perhaps you would wish to provide free training and support and rely on the gratitude (or pre-contracted agreement) of your graduates to provide for much of your costs; or perhaps the people you help can never repay you, in which case you must work out how to persuade other people to donate to your cause.

In any event, you would have to operate by the voluntary agreement of all you deal with. Using government force to compel others to pay the price of your pity would not be an option – and never has been a moral one.

The Others

The question of unemployment policies is a specific case of the more general question of how you should act towards other people.

A rational ethics derives from the value of your own life and it is your own happiness that is your proper moral purpose. The virtue of rationality includes the virtues of honesty and justice, and that is how you should treat other people. You do not owe other people more than that, nor do you owe anyone a second of your time or a cent of your property merely because they exist.

In a free country, other people are a value to you, and therefore it can be rational to support those who suffer (especially, through no fault of their own) out of wealth you don’t need for your greater values. However generosity is a gift based on benevolence to people you value, not something owed as a moral duty to all claimants.

Where your responsibility to others ends is where self-sacrifice, or the sacrifice of others to gain your ends by force, begins.

If your aim is “the greatest good of the greatest number”, or “the good of society as a whole”, or “helping the disadvantaged” – then a free society is actually how to achieve it, whatever the apparent shortcut advantages of using government force instead. But that is not its moral validation. Its moral validation is that freedom from force is the right of every person, because it is the basic requirement of human life.

The Outer Limits

In order to derive principles that apply to all people, philosophy has to look at the qualities we all share. This implies and requires not only determining what we share, but how we vary (this is related to the process of “measurement omission” discussed under concept formation – see Philosophical Reflections 24).

As everything we do is based on choice, explicit or implicit, and those choices derive from our human nature which we all share, philosophy can and should inform all our choices, to some extent. The extent to which the informing is detailed and specific or broad and general depends on how much people vary in the area in question.

For example, as rationality is the fundamental virtue for a thinking being (and philosophy and moral codes apply only to thinking beings), the need to practice the virtues derived from rationality such as justice, honesty, integrity, productiveness and pride applies to all of us.

Less specific advice is found in Aesthetics, the philosophy of art. That includes certain principles such as the role of art as “food for the soul” that shows life as it can and ought to be (see Philosophical Reflections 21). However your response to art is highly personal, depending on many factors including your experiences and, I venture, the wiring of your brain. Thus, while philosophy can guide you in the appreciation of art and in understanding and improving your aesthetic choices, there is a lot of latitude in what you can justifiably enjoy as life-affirming and life-enriching art for you.

Similarly, philosophy can tell you the value of romantic love and sex (see Philosophical Reflections 22). But while it can guide you in what you should seek from those things and in the general criteria of choosing a partner (for example, someone whose sense of life embodies your deepest values), your choice of a specific partner depends on many unique personal factors in you and them.

Even less specific would be your preferences in something like sport, where only broad principles, such as the value to a rational being of health and the sight of human achievement, inform you. Given that, what sports you like to watch or do and which players you support is entirely a matter of personal preference.

Perhaps this principle is best illustrated by considering how philosophy informs even the most non-philosophical activities. Consider eating. There is a basic principle that food provides both nutrition and pleasure, and should be pursued accordingly if you value life and happiness. But whether you prefer Thai or French food, say, is entirely a matter of experience and genetics, with no philosophical significance whatever. If long-term health and short-term pleasure potentially conflict, all philosophy will tell you is to be aware of the conflict and choose in full knowledge of what and why your are choosing: in order to maximise your happiness over the course of your life.

Thus, philosophy informs all our choices – but above all it is concerned with reality. And the reality is that its precepts not only run the whole gamut from universally applicable to a matter of taste, but also determine what is universal or optional. And even matters of taste are always subject to the broadest principles such as the value of life, the pursuit of happiness, and how those are best achieved.

© 2005 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.