This article was published in the Summer 1995 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation
The Foundations of Morality
by Henry Hazlitt
(originally published 1964)
reviewed by Richard Hammer

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I have been trying to think through my libertarian values and get them standing on a solid footing. To do this, I have been trying to fit together materials which include: economics, evolution and moral sentiments. Therefore when one of our subscribers recommended a book titled The Foundations of Morality by Henry Hazlitt, I had to read it.

I knew that I could respect the work because I know that Hazlitt understood economics; he is famous among libertarians for another of his books, Economics in One Lesson. Unfortunately The Foundations of Morality did not satisfy the particular curiosity which drove me to read it. But it did educate me in other ways.

Most of what Hazlitt gives the reader, in the book's 380 pages, is a survey and evaluation of previous work. Among the writers surveyed, who include Hume, Bentham, Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Kant, Mises, Plato, and dozens more, Hazlitt seems most impressed with Hume. The book is easy to read, and clear.

On the negative side, Hazlitt does not, to my notice, make a strong statement of his own. For what he covers the book seems longer than necessary and sometimes redundant. He spends perhaps half of the book refuting ideas which, from my already-libertarian stance, are not worth refuting.

A reader wanting to learn Hazlitt's view might best look in the last chapter, only six pages long. Here, on page 359, I noted Hazlitt's effort to give a name to our philosophy:

"There are two possible names for the system of ethics outlined in this book. One is Mutualism. ... But the name which I think on the whole preferable is Cooperatism .... " At one point I thought Hazlitt was going to make arguments which my curiosity has hungered to see. On page 286 we find: This was the idea I was looking for. But he did not go on to argue for this idea in a way that I sought.

Hazlitt embraces some use of state power. On pp. 266-7 (in a chapter titled "Freedom") a sentence snagged my eye. "The State must have a monopoly of coercion if coercion is to be minimized."

I could recommend to Mr. Hazlitt that he read The Enterprise of Law: Justice Without the State by Bruce Benson, or join the Free Nation Foundation. But the cruel force of time would strip my recommendation of value. Hazlitt, a predecessor upon whose shoulders we can aspire to stand, died in 1993 after a life of almost 100 years.

The Foundations of Morality, long out of print, is now available again from: The Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, NY 10533; 800-452-3518. D

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