The notion that there is any inherent relationship between one’s views on moral philosophy and one’s views on political philosophy is an idea that I tend to be rather skeptical of. For example, political conservatives can be either devout Christians who cling to one or another conception of divinely decreed morality or materialists and moral skeptics. Likewise, political liberals can be found among both adherents of the Social Gospel and secular humanists. For those like myself who reject the state entirely, the question remains of what sort of approach to moral philosophy, if any, serves as the basis for our political perspective.
Much of classical anarchist thought is implicitly rooted in the egalitarian humanism of the likes of Jean Jacques Rosseau and the progressivist, evolutionary view of history formulated by G. W. F. Hegel and some of the social Darwinists, notably Herbert Spencer. According to this view, human nature is basically benign in its essence but has only been corrupted or stifled by less than optimal social institutions or miseducation. As human knowledge increases and social institutions evolve, true benign, benevolent, cooperative human nature will, according to this theory, eventually shine through. This kind of uniquely naive utopianism emerged during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a time of immensely rapid political, economic and scientific development. The achievements of that era unfortunately led to the foolish belief that virtually anything is possible so long as human beings maintain the proper commitment and apply themselves. Today, when we hear leftoids talk about their ideals of a “world without hunger” or a “world without hate”, and their constant rhetoric about “commitment”, “awareness” and “consciousness raising”, we know that the ghost of Rosseau walks among us. The problem, of course, is that not a shred of evidence exists to support this sort of outlook. There is no indication of human moral improvement, however defined, throughout the ages. The recently expired twentieth century produced some of the worst horrors in history-world wars, genocides and nuclear weapons. Is this any sort of improvement over the cannibals and practitioners of human sacrifice of ancient times?
Some anti-statists, such as the disciples of Murray Rothbard or Ayn Rand, attempt to justify their beliefs with some sort of “natural rights” theory. This is largely a more consistent and well-developed version of the Lockean philosophy employed by the American revolutionaries. According to this view, the inalienable right of individuals to life, liberty, property, pursuit of happiness, or whatever, has somehow been decreed by nature. While this may have been a useful myth at the time of the ascendency of classical liberalism, its seems on its surface to be little more than an arbitrary, quasi-religious, mystical doctrine that simply asserts what it wishes to prove. Historically, natural law doctrines have just as often been used to justify various types of authoritarianism, such as the “natural” superiority of some races of over others or the Catholic opposition to “unnatural” acts like contraception, than any sort of liberty.
Other anti-statists are utilitarians and defend liberty on the grounds that it produces the “best” results. While it is certainly important to be able to demonstrate that anarchism is workable in practice and that free market economics produces results most people would find favorable, utilitarianism as a moral outlook seems rather arbitrary as well. Why the greatest good for the greatest number? Why not the greatest good for the smartest, strongest, healthiest, most creative, most attractive or members of some particular racial or religious group? The Benthamite calculus involving the attempt to weigh the overall balance of pleasure over pain seems impossible to measure in the real world. Why prioritize pleasure? What about people who argue that “suffering is good for the soul”? And why should I care if everyone else is miserable so long as I’m happy?
Those who attempt to make a religious case for liberty seem to have the weakest position of all. Even if one accepts religious belief as legitimate, this says nothing about the problem of power. No religious denomination that has ever obtained political power has ever created anything even remotely approaching a free society. An occasional religious anarchist or libertarian can be found, but most seriously religious people tend toward theocracy more than anything else. Even those who support formal church/state separation usually believe that the state should legislate or regulate with regards to matters of personal or religious “morality” (abortion, homosexuality, drug use, pornography, etc.) Many espouse statist economic views and/or a militarist/imperialist foreign policy outlook as well.
The natural tendency of nearly all human beings is to favor themselves over others. Most people develop the views on politics, philosophy, ethics, morality, etc. that are most consistent with their own needs and desires and the interests of their peer groups or culture of origin. Most people exhibit very little capacity for independent thinking or moral perception beyond self-interest and the influence of peers and leaders. Because different individuals and groups have conflicting interests and value systems, social conflict inevitably results. Hobbes believed that the only solution to this dilemma was an all powerful state that would restrain the predatory inclinations of individuals and competing social forces for the sake of preserving order and civilization. The problem with Hobbes’ position should be obvious enough. Who restrains the restrainers? Hobbes saw the choice as one between chaos or tyranny. He opted for the latter.
I largely agree with Hobbes’ analysis but I reject his conclusion. There seems to me to be a third way between absolutism or disorder. I am referring to the “spontaneous order” described by Hayek that naturally accompanies freedom and decentralization. Because human beings are predators by nature, no one should ever hold power over another. Freedom allows individuals the means to cooperate with others for the sake of their own mutual self-interest without resorting to force or coercion. Anarchism is the political philosophy most capable of accommodating the greatest amount of value systems thereby minimizing the harm generated by social conflict. The idea of dispersion of power inherent in anarchism serves to erect a safeguard against the disasters that typically accompany concentrations of power. The result is a natural, organic order that tends toward the stabilization and harmonization of society. However, I do not regard this realization as grounds for any sort of objective morality. None of this has anything to say concerning the matter as to whether economic prosperity, social peace and individual freedom are desirable ends in and of themselves. The conservative icon Russell Kirk regarded liberty as defensible only as a means to “virtue”, however defined. Some argue that peace and prosperity breed weakness, mediocrity and selfishness. Mussolini maintained that war is good because it advances the strong and eliminates the weak thereby contributing to the overall improvement of the species.
Like Bertrand Russell, I tend to regard moral questions as matters of subjective individual emotions and opinions. Ultimately, existence is predicated on Stirner’s amoral war of each against all. Does this absence of any objective morality mean that “all is permitted” as Nietzsche insisted? While there may be no abstract, metaphysical, cosmic source of moral imperatives, human beings are still bound by natural and physical laws (though some postmodern thinkers seem to deny even this). Means have to be consistent with the ends one wishes to pursue. Machiavelli regarded “morality” as a matter of simple expedience in the maintenance of power. The flipside of this, and a matter of supreme importance for anarchists, involves those who would resist power. Here a type of “reverse Machiavellianism” comes into play where the moral means is that which furthers resistance to power. The implication of this is that our struggle against the state is neither moral nor intellectual but physical. Does this mean that “might makes right”? No, it means that “might makes might” with “right” being an individual value judgement. Those of us who have decided that freedom and anarchism are “right”, for whatever reason, need to acquire the might necessary to achieve our objectives.
This is a question that I struggled with for some years. When I first started out in this fight, I was a much more orthodox leftist than I am now and held views not unlike the Rousseauan-Hegelian perspective described above. When I became interested in free market economics, I was initially attracted to Rothbard’s natural rights theory but I eventually dismissed this as wishful thinking. The way I finally worked it out was when I watched a documentary on public television concerning the early 1960s trial of Nazi mass murderer and war criminal Adolf Eichmann. I kept asking myself what made me right and Eichmann wrong? Self-interest? I would not want to live under a Nazi state. Natural sympathy? I had a certain empathic regard for those exterminated in the ovens and gas chambers. Logical principles? I could see no basis for the extermination programs as far as matters of expediency were concerned. Yet Eichmann’s self-interest and sympathies were clearly much different from mine and irrationalism is a core tenant of Naziism. The theologian C.S. Lewis once remarked:
What was the sense in saying (the Nazis) were in the wrong unless Right is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practiced? If they had no notion of what we mean by right, then, thought we might still have to fight them, we could no more have blamed them for that than for the color of their hair.
Yet, as Noam Chomsky has repeatedly pointed out, the Nazi archives provide ample evidence of the Nazis’ conviction of the rightness of their cause. The key part of Lewis statement is “we might still have to fight them”. Questions of self-interest, natural sympathies and practical social considerations are in and of themselves sufficient reason to resist phenomenon such as Nazism. No objective morality is necessary. As mentioned, our struggle against the state is primarily physical in nature. If someone is motivated to fight the state because they believe in “natural rights” or that anarchism will produce “the greatest good for the greatest number”, then more power to them. Myths can be a source of inspiration in any conflict. However, the real issue involves the need for our anarchist popular organizations, intermediary institutions, citizen militias, economic enterprises, common law courts and other forms of self-mobilization to obtain the resources, influence and raw social power, in the Nockian sense, to bring down the state and prevent its return by violent means if necessary. All of the moral theory and academic analysis in the universe will be insufficient if we cannot physically resist our enemies.