Freedom in Mind

Chapter 11
Do-It-Yourself Morals

Can the inmates make the rules? That's what most people think about do-it-yourself morals: that you cannot put the inmates in charge of the asylum. On the other hand, when you release an inmate as cured, you do put him in charge of himself.

To be free is to be in charge of yourself. In the absence of coercion, control is self-control. You have to know right from wrong.

Telling right from wrong, they say, is too big a job for mere mortals. Moral rules are not to be interpreted, but simply obeyed. Well, unless you are on a jury, that is. Assisted suicide is one case among many in which trial juries are charged to interpret moral rules in relation to the law.

Regular wisdom is that you don't figure out a moral code, you choose to obey a moral code. You get moral credit for making a code yours, but not for deciding on your own code. On the other hand, if you don't want to be murdered, then that is already a decision that murder is bad—a start on your own moral code.

No matter where your moral rules come from, you have to decide to obey them. You have to choose when to obey them. You have to identify which moral rules are more important and which are less important. You have to form the habit of applying morals to everyday life.

In other words, unless you live with a moral consultant at your side, day-by-day morality has to be do-it-yourself morality. In fact, it's worse than that: you have to comprehend moral commandments before you can decide to obey them. Comprehension is a do-it-yourself process. No matter how good your teacher, you must have a will to comprehend, and a method. In the final analysis, it is up to you.

It was up to you as a toddler. You touched the stove, and got burned. Better not try that again. You told a lie, and got everybody upset. That was fun, so you did it again. But now they were really mad. They scared you. Telling lies could be like touching the stove—painful.

Something momentous had happened, which nobody noticed. By identifying a relationship between pain and lies, you created a standard of morality. Next thing was to use it. You hit your brother, and he said, "That hurts!" Bad, by your standard, so you told yourself not to do that.

"Lying is a sin!" your mother said. "You must never do that again!" Since you had a standard now, you could comprehend what she meant. Sin was like burning yourself on the stove, or hitting your brother. It was painful, so it was bad.

The rudimentary do-it-yourself standard enabled you to begin to get the idea of morality. Before you had the standard, when Dad said, "Don't do that," it was meaningless. You thought, "Don't do that why?" With the standard, you think, "Don't do that so I can avoid pain and sin."

Compare what a warden does to what a reverend does. A warden posts the rules, and says, "Obey them or else." He cares not a bit why the rules are obeyed, just that they are obeyed. A reverend, on the other hand, wants to improve your soul. He wants you to choose to follow the rules. He tries to teach you the rules not by rote, but as if you were forming them for yourself. He does not want you to think of his rules as a hand-me-down morality, but as a vital part of your life.

His problem is, he fails to connect his standard with your standard. He does not say that lying will ruin your life; he says it will make you feel guilty for displeasing the giver of the rules. Your standard is pain; his standard is guilt. Now you have two moralities, one based on staying free of pain, the other based on staying free of guilt.

A child has no problem with that. Personal morality becomes "practicality", and obeying rules becomes "morality". You go right on figuring out your own moral code, under a different name. You decide what is practical, and what you should do if that conflicts with morals.

The difference between the practical and the moral is the difference between your own do-it-yourself standards of conduct, and the standards of a moral authority. Whether or not you keep the practical in step with the moral depends on what you end up with as a standard.

The trouble with pain as a standard is that it is too narrow. Needles stuck in your arm are painful, but good for you. Braces on your teeth are painful, but good for you. Ice cream is the opposite of painful, but too much of it makes you sick. It's not just pain and pleasure that make things bad and good, but something deeper. At some age, you grasp that the deepest alternative is life and death. Since you have to do things to stay alive, the obvious standard for conduct is life. Choices are good that make your life better, and bad that make your life worse. By that standard, you should avoid pain usually, but not always.

This standard is such an improvement over whatever primitive standard preceded it that most people leave it at that. Their practical standard is the subjective one of "my life". Their moral standard is a mystical one like "the public good" or "God's word". Their life becomes a balancing act: enough subjective self-interest to get ahead, and enough mystical sacrifice to be moral.

The practical part of such a life needs freedom. It is in charge of itself. It owns itself and regulates itself according to its own do-it-yourself standard. The moral part of such a life wants slavery. It serves a collective or a deity. It is owned by a higher power and regulated by that authority according to an imposed standard. The life is split in two. It must solve the problem of reconciling the practical with the moral.

The solution we see all around us is: slavery no; slave labor yes. My paycheck is mine free and clear, except for the part that goes to somebody else. Since we reject slavery, we call ourselves free. Since we accept slave labor, we call ourselves bound by moral law.

A side effect of this solution is rather severe: self hatred. According to your practical standard, your moral side is trying to enslave you. According to your moral standard, your practical side is trying to shirk your duties. It's original sin, the fatal flaw, and the human condition: perpetual conflict within yourself.

If you want to accept this conflict, popular culture will encourage you. Television will show you all the self-conflicted heroes you want to see. Self-help books will tell you how to express both sides of yourself equally. Music and movies will present internal conflict as a thing of tragic beauty.

If you want to avoid tragedy by getting rid of this conflict, what you need is a single standard that will unite the moral with the practical. You might analyze your practical standard to see if it can be improved.

It is easy to see what's wrong with "my life" as a standard of conduct. My life is what I want to measure against a standard. I want a standard which will tell me how I am doing. At any particular moment, my life might be momentarily improved by an action which will, in the long run, damage my life. My do-it-yourself subjective standard fails because it mixes the short term with the long term.

Here's something to try: figure out a moral standard for your dog. But that's a bad idea. Your dog does not make choices, so it does not have any need for a moral standard. Your nature is entirely different from the nature of your dog. You need the standard because you make the choices. It is in your nature to make the choices.

Your dog survives by reacting to things. You survive by grasping the nature of things. Your dog sniffs its way through life. You reason your way through life. That's what was missing from your standard of conduct: it took account of your life, but not of your method of living.

Avoidance of pain as a standard of conduct was way too narrow. That's also the trouble with "my life" as a standard. It must be expanded to include my kind of life: the life of a rational animal. To see how I am doing, I must think of the life proper to a being who survives by reason.

By that standard, telling lies is bad not because it causes pain, but because it destroys my reason. It is not like touching the stove; it is much worse. It deliberately denies my nature as a being who observes and reasons. It pretends that instead of reasoning about reality I can fake reality.

By the standard of conformance to my nature, the highest virtue is rationality—handling reality by identifying it and sorting it out. The lowest vice is evasion—trying to handle reality by ignoring it.

By this standard, productiveness is a cardinal virtue, because it applies reason to the problem of staying alive and prospering. Stealing is a cardinal vice, because it substitutes looting for production, and wish for reason.

The standard of rational living is not subjective, but objective. It is not based on your feelings, but on your observations. To validate it, explore the nature of man. Decide what man's means of survival is. Watch individual men and compare how they do things to how animals do things. Does thinking help or hurt? Measure your own actions against the standard of actions proper to a rational animal. Do you live better in the long run by accepting the standard, or by rejecting it?

An objective standard of conduct is not only better than your old subjective standard, it is also better than any mystical morality standard. It is not derived from somebody's ideas about reality; it is derived from direct observation of reality. It does not come from what you feel people should be like, but from what you see that people are like.

Do-it-yourself morals are derided because they are assumed to come from subjective whims. That is, they are compared to a standard of where morals should come from, and found wanting. Should morals come from mystic revelations, or from reality? If you prefer mystic revelations, the question is: whose? There are so many sources of mystical morals. If you know that your source has it right, then you must regard all the other sources as subjective whims.

A bird does not prosper by using its sense of smell, and a dog does not prosper by trying to fly. An objective standard of conduct is based on the nature of the beast. If you try to live as a free man doing slave labor, then you are trying to prosper by using the standard of conduct proper to the nature of an ant.

Ants are regulated by their reactions to chemicals called pheromones. That is their nature. Your nature is to regulate yourself by means of reason. To live your own life, you must live by your own standards, derived from your essential nature. When your actions conform to your nature as a being who survives by reason, then they are moral because they are proper to you. And they are practical because they advance your life as seen long range, the way reason looks at things.

Without the objective standard, do-it-yourself morals are not moral. They are do-it-yourself whims. With the objective standard, do-it-yourself morals are another name for self-regulation. They put you in charge of yourself.

With the objective standard, you do not need an authority to tell right from wrong. Right is what conforms to the standard of man's life as a rational being. Wrong is what fails to measure up to that standard. Freedom, the absence of coercion, enables self-regulation by reason, so it is right. Slavery, the totality of coercion, swamps reason, so it is wrong. Labor is production guided by reason, so it is right. Slave labor substitutes force for reason, so it is wrong.

There are many who will never agree that man lives by reason, so they will never accept the objective moral standard. They think that man's means of survival is predation. They say that man is a predator, and the only hope is to restrain everyone by rigid rules. They agree that force is justified only in self-defense—but everything is self-defense. They enslave the rich in order to protect the poor. They put you to work for me, not because they like me, but because they fear you.

It depends on methods of thought. Do you decide how man survives by observing criminals, or by observing inventors? Do you make inductions by identifying causes, or by counting noses? Is pillage more characteristic of man, or exploration? Did man master nature by using an opposable thumb, or by using logic?

When conflicting standards cause self-hatred, they make men hate man. Commentators who hate man treat bad things as characteristic and good things as uncharacteristic. They forget that the norm of human affairs is not only cooperation but loving cooperation. When someone in the office needs help, people chip in. When someone at the construction site has an accident, people rush to help. There is no need to tell people they should value others; it is easy to see that they do value others.

Philosophers used to point to the lack of an objective moral standard, and say that morality was necessarily subjective. So they wanted the government in charge of morals. Then philosopher Ayn Rand showed how to use an objective moral standard to make morality objective. Now people measure coercive government against the objective standard, and find it wanting. When you can figure out right and wrong for yourself, and government officials can only plead, "Do what I say, not what I do," then coercive moral advice does not seem worth the cost.

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