Liberty vs. Pragmatism


Liberty cannot be won by the rejection of principles. It can only be won by the insistence on principles, moral principles to be precise.

While Liberals’ and Libertarians’ focus is on the noble quest for the expansion of our economic freedoms and freedoms in general, the question remains how to reconcile this quest with the conventional morality of self-sacrifice and altruism. One way of answering this question lies in the appeal to compromise. If only we make some compromises with the statists and refrain from talking, or, probably, even thinking about morality, we will slowly turn the political system over to freedom and free market capitalism and then we can clear out what is the right morality and how it connects to this obviously correct societal organization of things. But is that the case? Can we really omit morality from the discussion of politics? If altruism is right, after all, liberty is wrong!

Ayn Rand characterizes pragmatism as the rejection of principles in favor of a focus on a small set of concretes. This, ironically, is supposed to be the superior way of dealing with the complexity of the world.

Is any old morality good enough?

Utilitarianism, altruism, egoism, subjectivism – is any of these good enough for the cause of liberty? A brief survey into ethics will yield the answer: As long as we, as individuals, decide that we want to live we will always need rational answers to a certain question. And that question is, “How does one decide, consistently, to live?” That approach to morality can properly be called egoism. The rest of the enumerated ethical ideologies are simply arbitrary proposals without any justification.

If I propose that the greatest good for the greatest number is the moral standard, the question that remains is not how to implement it. The question that remains is why that should be the moral standard. If I propose that self-sacrifice to others is the moral standard the question that remains is not how to implement it. The question that remains, again, is why that should be the starting point for ethics.

To complete the set, subjectivism errs on a more fundamental level, in the philosophical branches of metaphysics and epistemology, by rejecting the idea of an objective reality. Kant and his influence notwithstanding, the enlightenment has made this kind of thinking an absurdity for the modern thinker. In light of the topic, however, it has to be said that morality, too, has its foundation in the lower branches of philosophy and that any kind of subjectivism needs to be wholeheartedly rejected if one is to have a morality.


What makes the concept of freedom necessary is its enemy and the enemy of freedom is force. When one is free, one is free from force.

We survive by using our mind. Every tiniest meal that is cooked, every tiniest natural event that is deflected by us for our safety rests on our ability to conceptualize this agenda for the sake of our lives. If we want to live our lives and be happy, we cannot have people walking around robbing and murdering. Therefore, we need a forceful intervention (by the state). That is the only moral justification for the state to exist at all. The state equally must refrain from robbery and murder. Similarly, that is why anarchy can never be right.

The non-aggression principle, being a popular way to try to justify liberty and sometimes even anarchy, lacks moral context. Why is aggression bad? Is any old moral context good enough? We are at the initial problem of establishing fundamental principles that unambiguously connect our political ideas to reality.

It is about ideas

The battle for establishing political freedom in the real world is not a battle for political pull. The moral ideas that justify freedom are themselves what needs to win. Just as we have a necessity to think about producing food, we have a necessity to think about politics in the right way. This necessity should, and if we are ever to live in a free world, drive the political change. Politics need the right ideas. The sooner we realize this, the sooner freedom will arrive at our chambers of parliaments, congresses, senates.

And what will drive the recognition of the necessity for the right political ideas if not the recognition of the necessity for morality more broadly? The idea that everyone not only has a right to exist for their own sake, but that the only ultimate purpose of life is happiness will be the first domino that will fall in the chain of cultural change. A society that accepts man’s right to happiness brings about political freedom, freedom from utilitarian, altruistic force (or any force for that matter) all by its own fundamental conviction over the nature of the good. Let us stand for and spread that conviction.

Contrary to the pragamatists’ focus on action, the cause for liberty needs not polemics and compromise and “reforms” that are limited to the political realm. It needs ideas and, since politics is a branch of philosophy that rests on ethics, it needs moral ideas. The right morality will free our minds, unharness our abilities and our individual potentials and correct our political system simply because the right morality does not allow us anything less than that.


  • Denis Mijatovic

    Denis Mijatovic is a software developer and a former quantum physicist. He has a strong interest in philosophy and is a passionate student of Ayn Rand's Objectivism. He organizes and moderates a weekly discussion series on her literature in the Austrian Economics Center.

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The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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