This article was published in the Autumn 1995 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation
More on Hazlitt and Morality
by Maribel Montgomery

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I am the subscriber who recommended to Mr. Hammer the reading and discussion of Henry Hazlitt's book The Foundations of Morality (1st ed. 1964; 2nd ed. 1972, Nash Publishing). He and Dr. Long both gave their opinions of the book in the last issue of Formulations (Vol. II, No. 4, Summer 1995, pp. 14[*] and 20[*] respectively). Both were more negative than I anticipated, and I am now taking advantage of Mr. Hammer's gracious suggestion that I submit my own comments for publication in this issue. I am happy to do so as I believe that Mr. Hazlitt accomplished his purpose, as stated in the preface, to "present a unified theory of law, morals, and manners." (1972, p. viii.) I will try to summarize this below. I am not going to refer here to any of the extensive analysis Hazlitt made of the work of previous moral philosophers except to say that his system of "cooperatism" cannot properly be categorized with any of them. I think the author's insights can be valuable particularly in recruiting new libertarians.

Hazlitt is best known for his small (218 page) book Economics in One Lesson (1st ed. 1946; 2nd ed. 1962, Arlington House Publishers). He was well aware from his work as a journalist that the average person is easily confused by technical jargon and abstract, convoluted explanations, so he condensed into one sentence the single lesson to which he said the whole of economics could be reduced, and illustrated it with numerous examples.

In a section of Notes at the end of The Foundations of Morality, Hazlitt stated (for Chapter 7, p. 365) that the single-sentence lesson for economics could "be widened to apply to conduct and policy in every field. As applied to ethics it might be stated thus: Ethics must take into consideration not merely the immediate but the longer effects of any act or rule of action; it must consider the consequences of that act or rule of action not merely for the agent or any particular group but for everybody likely to be affected, presently or in the future, by that act or rule of action."

It might appear from this single sentence that the rules of ethics could be framed only by a supernatural being with the powers of omniscience i.e., the God of most religions. But Hazlitt concluded (p. 358) that "Morality is autonomous. ... the appropriate moral rules ... and the nature of our duties and obligations, have no necessary dependence on any theological doctrine or religious belief." He said, also, that "It is a confusion of thought to think that ethics consists of the rules 'society' imposes on the 'individual.' Ethics consists of the rules that we all try to impose on each other." (p. 104.) "... social moral values are a product of the interplay of many minds including the minds of our long-dead ancestors. The individual is born into a world in which there already exists a Moral Law, which seems to stand above him ...." (p. 165.)

The first rules that a child must learn are how to get along in his family unit and other groups small enough to maintain personal conduct among the members. These are the rules of good manners. Hazlitt said that "manners and morals rest on the same underlying principle. That principle is sympathy, kindness, consideration for others." (p. 75.) Manners are, "in fact, the ethics of everyday life." (p. 77.) "Manners developed, not to make life more complicated and awkward ... but to make it in the long run smoother and simpler ...." (p. 75.)

The rules of manners generally are passed on to new generations without being written down. But written rules and then laws emerge as individuals interact within larger and larger groups of people. The attitude of consideration for others, equal to what one expects for oneself, must be retained somehow to substitute for the more powerful positive feelings based on personal knowledge of others. Hazlitt illustrated the transition from manners to laws by referring to traffic laws.

Crowds of pedestrians generally display manners spontaneously by the way potential collisions are avoided or resolved. If one accidentally bumps into another, he apologizes. The young and able-bodied give way to the elderly and infirm. Order is established at public events by the lines that form at entrances and exits, and those who try to get ahead of others already waiting are rejected, etc. Traffic laws for motor vehicles are based on the greater need to avoid collisions. Signs and lights are all placed with the goal of maximizing the safety of all, at the same time trying to minimize frustrations and leave each driver as free as possible to choose what he sees as the best and quickest route to his destination. Hazlitt said that "We may look with horror on another car speeding directly toward us on its left side of the road, though there is nothing inherently wrong with driving on the left side of the road, and the whole danger comes from the violation of a general rule." (p. 58.)

Would society be better off without this arbitrary rule? No, it is for everyone's good in the long run. If every driver obeyed the laws, there would be no need for law enforcement, but because there are always those who lose sight of their long-run interests while experiencing the emotions of immediate frustrations, some agency must be established to apprehend traffic law violators to protect the rest of us motorists. Hazlitt accepted this as the legitimate use of police power in our present systems of government.

Hazlitt believed that the end purpose of all law should be to preserve and enlarge individual freedom, and that laws of restraint should be consistent with the negative Golden Rule: "Do not do unto others as you would not want others to do unto you." The laws against aggression, theft, lying, etc., qualify as good laws, and government power to enforce them is limited to coercion only against those persons disruptive of the social order achieved by freely interacting persons. Hazlitt said that the difficulty with trying to use the positive Golden Rule as a guide for laws ("Do unto others as you would have others do unto you") is that "there is practically no limit to the benefits most of us would be willing to accept from others, at whatever cost to them." (p. 105.) In a Welfare State, the costs are hidden by the tax system.

Hazlitt said that "Morality can exist only in a free society .... Only to the extent that men have the power of choice can they be said to choose the good." (p. 268.) He championed free economic markets operating on the principle of the division of labor. He said that corresponding to the division of labor, there is a specialization of duties. "Because we have to assume the full duties and responsibilities of our particular job, we are unable to take over the duties or responsibilities of other jobs." (p. 201.) It is, therefore, not the duty of each individual himself to attempt to promote directly the maximum general happiness of all humanity. "... the best way to promote this maximum general happiness may be for each individual to cooperate with, and perform his duties toward, his immediate family, neighbors, and associates." (p. 194.)

Hazlitt believed that in these small groups, individuals learn from the consequences of their actions that "Social Cooperation is ... the means by which each of us can most effectively supply his own wants and maximize his own satisfactions. It is only the division and combination of labor that has made possible the enormous increase in production, and hence in want-satisfaction, in the modern world. Society is based on an economic system in which each of us devotes himself to furthering the purposes of others as an indirect mean of furthering his own." (p. 356.)

Hazlitt thus called his ethical system "cooperatism" to emphasize both the positive attitudes and actions that must prevail in small groups, the combinations of which, in turn, ensure the harmonious functioning of the total society. He said, "Thus 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." (p. 359.) D

[* Web Archive Editor's Note: "The Foundations of  Morality by Henry Hazlitt reviewed by Richard O. Hammer" and Roderick Long's comments in "Dialogue: Inalienable Rights and Moral Foundations"]

Maribel Montgomery is a retired community college faculty member in Psychology. She lives in Albany, Oregon.

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