from The Psychology of Liberty
by Wes Bertrand © 2000, copylefted 2007

Freedom—An Ethical Issue

When psychological processes lead people to a realm in which trials and tribulations of human relationships are the overriding issue in life—rather than life itself—it indicates that we have drifted off ethical course. Ethics is the branch of philosophy dealing with the theoretical aspects of morality and moral codes. While morality has been explained throughout this book as the application of the laws of reality to ensure individual survival, we must delve into the topic further. Since morality has to do with values and virtues, it also has to do with how people should behave toward each other.

Many college ethics classes focus on the forms of morality that deny the importance of the self. Morality can be an emotional topic, and sometimes critical analysis may be lacking. For instance, an ethics class might not elucidate the essential flaws in moral codes such as John Stuart Mill’s (or Jeremy Bentham’s) utilitarian ethics or Emmanuel Kant’s ethics of duty.

In the classroom, one may even encounter a lack of recognition of what most moral doctrines really ask of the individual. Instead, most of the doctrines might be upheld with somewhat equal plausibility. Because virtually all the doctrines presented are just variations on the same general theme, the theme of self-sacrifice, it is no wonder that few can decide which doctrine is “best.” As a result, students normally leave an ethics class bewildered or dissatisfied. This definitely does not bode well. After all, we need to rely on some code of values and virtues to guide our actions, some system of identifications to assist in determining good and bad, right and wrong.

As mentioned much earlier, values are things one acts to gain and/or keep. Virtues are the ways in which one acts to gain and/or keep values.76 These definitions are simple enough and not really an issue of dispute for most people when discussing morality. The controversy usually arises when one attempts to discern what these values and virtues should be and who or what they should serve. Do they primarily tell us how we should deal with other people, or do they reveal how we should deal with reality and ourselves and then, secondarily, other people?

Thus a main question for morality is this: Is one’s life the ultimate standard of value, or are other people’s lives? By what standard do we judge one’s actions to be good or bad? If one chooses others as the standard, then who are these people, what ideas do they hold, and more importantly, how or by what standard do they judge morality?

Codes of morality are necessarily devised in existence. In fact, no ethics could ever be formulated unless reasoning beings existed and survival was the underlying driving force in their activities (the pursuit of values). The basic choice for anyone, then, is either to honor reality-based survival and well-being or to mostly ignore their significance—and search for something supposedly more important or more essential.

This sort of search, of course, is in vain. Reality is needed to verify the ideas and actions that ensure survival and a healthy mental state. We can only correctly determine right and wrong, good and bad, when we first look to reality and the conditions for life itself. Only after we have done this can we determine how people should treat and deal with each other.

So, to survive healthily and happily we must take reality seriously and as a primary. Only a reality-based ethics abides by the laws of nature, which includes human nature. With an ethical system rooted in and derived from reality, instead of other people, we can determine an objective value system. With an objective value system, we neither encounter nor create any large or irreconcilable conflicts of interest or clashes of behavior.

Since values must relate to dealing with reality so that mental and physical benefit are ensured, logically one’s own spiritual and material values take precedence. Values such as reason, logic, authentic self-esteem, enlightened self-concept, active mind, brilliant sense of life, and productive achievement (purpose) can be considered primary. Virtues are the complex ways we sustain and improve these and other values. Thus, rationality, integrity, independence, responsibility, honesty, productiveness, and so on, can be considered primary virtues.

Other values and virtues arise from these primaries. Values such as love (in all its forms) and friendship, and virtues such as empathy, understanding, benevolence, generosity, and goodwill, flow from primary values. Also, many material values promote pleasure and quality of life. Ultimately, all reality-oriented values and virtues mesh and interact as a sum total of what a human being deems essential in life.

In contrast to an objective code of morality, however, a social-based ethics typically admires only derivative virtues—such as caring, concern, benevolence, compassion, hospitality, generosity, helpfulness, politeness, friendliness, and kindness. Indeed, these are important and desirable virtues. But a social-based code of morality hampers formulation of the primary values by which these virtues can be maintained.

If the primary values—such as reason, purpose, and self-esteem—are bypassed, a society of lasting kindness and goodwill becomes less likely. We already know what happens in the realm of politics. For people to be genuinely benevolent and respectful of self and others, their minds must not be placed on a sacrificial alter in homage to authority and the collective.

If we treat human relationships as an irreducible primary, we do not do justice to human beings or to reality. Such a practice only adds confusion to ethics, and it can foster neuroses that are overlooked as normal human behaviors. In all its endless variations, a social-based ethics can also be called a morality of dependence; nearly everything about ethics is stated in relation to others.

That morality concerns principally how we should treat other people is a very persistent idea. For instance, some uphold obedience (“discipline”) and socialization as the greatest goods for the child’s development. But these so-called virtues plainly are no replacement for development of a rational mind. The adult yearning for children to be altruistic, empathetic, and caring signifies somewhat flawed interpretations of these terms. Young children usually spontaneously see the alleviation of distress of others as important; they commonly see helping others as the way to make the situation better—so that all can enjoy further activities. In contrast, many adults see helping others as an end in itself; they see it as a means to artificially tie people together—so that the natural helping attitude of children is replaced with insincerity and duty (and guilt from potentially being too selfish). Since these adults obviously were children once, what happened to their initial mindset?

Essentially, adults can lose the confidence they had as small children. Early on, children are not frightened of the unknown and the uncertain. They have yet to become preoccupied with self-doubt (and all the complex ways of avoiding this feeling). If the independent and assertive attitude gets minimized in a culture, demands or requests for sacrifices—as well as desires to be taken care of—become the recurring themes.

A social-based ethics is normally accompanied by the sacrifice of self to others or the sacrifice of others to self. Particular emotions follow from this respectively: shame, guilt, humility, and servility (and corresponding resentment) or anger, avarice, hostility, and disrespect (and corresponding cruel indifference).

No matter how much efficacy one tries to attain, one is never enough with the dependent morality. Being good enough (or having moral certainty, for that matter) becomes hard to establish, both consciously and subconsciously, because this personal judgment has been deferred to others. One’s worth depends chiefly on how one deals with others. Because it is tied to others, it must be constantly proven and defended. Thus, one will seldom look to reality—and to the self—for validation and acceptance. Thoughts of one’s mortality and objective reality will no longer seem to be of much concern. Additionally, most of one’s accomplishments primarily will be gauged in relation to the accomplishments of others.

Since a morality derived from how people should treat each other tends to disconnect itself from reality-oriented values and virtues, it tends to disconnect individuals from their own lives. Yet very few in our culture can escape the pressures placed on us to twist our mind and perform this kind of disconnection. No doubt most of us have been affected by social influences to unduly appease, satisfy, impress, please, placate, help, or forgive others.

From childhood onward, most individuals are admonished for being “selfish.” Despite their feelings in this matter, most are often instructed to anticipate the expectations and guess the needs of others—so that they can be socially appealing, polite, and acceptable. The rule is not to observe reality and act accordingly, but to observe others and act accordingly. Sometimes, even adoration is directed at a person who attempts to become selfless. A person must disregard the rational needs of self to fulfill supposedly higher goals—such as the needs of other selves.

Yet, acceptance of the services of a decidedly selfless person is, of course, also being selfish. Apparently, then, there must be only givers and no receivers. Perhaps if one tries to accept a giver’s offerings with total selflessness, then it is not being selfish. Maybe if one discounts personal desires and satisfaction, then one can never be selfish. Clearly, this sort of ethics can turn into a contest that subverts the nature of a human being to experience enjoyment and happiness. After all, to not benefit selfishly from a pleasurable activity is impossible.

In modern usage, selfishness is mostly a pejorative term. It probably has always been one. Selfishness is viewed as an insensitive (or even wicked) attitude only concerned with benefits for oneself. Being selfish entails disregarding others (or not sharing with them) and, especially, not considering the psychological harm done to them.

However, in reality, every individual ought to be exclusively self-interested. His or her own values are primaries. If one practices rational self-interest (or enlightened selfishness), one is naturally considerate of the views and needs of others—that is, when appropriate. Individuals of high self-esteem factor in the interests of others when they are involved. One’s self-interest in social contexts is thus furthered. After all, conflict, deception, and thoughtlessness are rarely conducive to getting one’s needs met or desires fulfilled.

So upon inspection, we discover that selfishness is an anti-concept; it mixes valid and invalid meanings. It seeks to deny that a person must—by nature—be selfish, or self-interested. The motives for using “selfish” to describe inconsiderate behavior tend to be more unsettling than simple semantics.

A society that continually upholds selfless action as the good and selfish (or self-interested) action as the bad, fosters many expectations or demands or wishes about how people should act and treat others. This can generate a psychology of peevishness when others do not exhibit a sufficient amount of humility, servitude, obsequiousness, or groveling in order satisfy the requisite norms. People perhaps seek the assurance that they are not the only ones participating in a dependant code of morality. They might conclude that to sacrifice one’s true ambitions, interests, and integrity (and resent those who have not), is much easier than to uphold a reality-based system of values with self-esteem as a foremost goal.

Inconsiderate behavior definitely involves disrespect of self and others. It may indicate a lack of self-understanding and self-appreciation (lack of self-respect), which reflects itself in a social context. Moreover, a petty self-absorbed attitude (i.e., narcissism), regardless of whether it offends others or disregards their context, is certainly a phenomenon of the insecure. It exhibits a lack of a fully-formed and confident self.

What is the appropriate response to these kinds of behaviors? If the relationship is important, one attempts to understand the person’s psychological context, discover the underlying causes, and help increase his or her awareness. If the relationship is not important, one respectfully asserts one’s interests and leaves it at that. To merely label someone’s attitude or behavior as being selfish may be easier, but it is neither accurate nor helpful. Incidentally, this applies to any superficial label; labeling is disabling.

Rather than accuse others of being selfish, we need to appreciate and admire genuine acts of self-assertion. Rather than claim that the world seems to be disintegrating because people are not selfless enough, we need to integrate a logical code of ethics—one that remedies value-system deficiencies. A noble civilization must dispense with name-calling and examine the code of morality that encourages it.

 

A moral code that embraces most things other than independence and that extols “caring” as one of the highest virtues has other dire consequences. Such an ethics induces guilt and teaches people to be altruistic—that is, willing to sacrifice their time, money, and effort for any person or persons desiring to put a claim on them. This is all thought to make the world a better place. Proponents of this moral code rarely ask why individuals seem to always need help from others and what causes unwarranted dependence.

Since everyone is in need in one way or another, need is therefore context dependent. But ethics can be turned into a game designed to rationalize deficient behavior. It can be designed to deny two principles: that help given to anyone should be sincere rather than dutiful, and that self-sufficiency is a beneficial virtue. Those who are not able to function completely on their own obviously have a different metaphysical situation. Compassionate individuals and charitable organizations are free to assist them. They are free to determine when (and why) people genuinely need help.

Most current existential assistance (particularly that provided by groups) is inadequate for effecting true change—no matter how beneficial it may be for the short-term. Whether many of the accomplishments of humanitarian organizations throughout the world (for example, the Peace Corps) are all that valuable for the recipients (especially for the long-term) is debatable. Whether those who work on the ground level of these organizations agree with many of the directives given to them to essentially meddle in others’ affairs is also open to question.

The problematic, political nature of the business creates these problems. The corrupt systems of government and welfare-States throughout their regions of work contribute substantially to various humanitarian failures and inadequacies. Unfortunately, aid organizations typically concede the same premises about the rule of people. At best, they advocate Democracy, in which non-objective law presides and people remain locked in their impoverished situations.

The real reasons for such desperate and dire conditions as in third-world countries, and even in developed inner cities, have to be directly dealt with. The plight of indigent people can only be remedied by instituting the values of liberty. Capitalism’s dramatic changes would empower individuals. Economic growth, rapid innovation, and technological advances would be the real keys to helping those in need (whatever their particular needs might be). And these forms of assistance would never ask for sacrifices.

In contrast to altruism, rational self-interest asks for independence and a world in which people view help as a dignified exception, not as a sanctified right. Herein rests the dependent morality’s stranglehold on people’s lives: Rather than being kind and compassionate, continual altruistic service verges on plain cruelty. It keeps otherwise competent individuals, albeit in alleged need, relegated to a perceived state of inability, helplessness, and hopelessness. So long as these individuals are encouraged to be dependent rather than self-sufficient (i.e., so long as they are given disincentives to become independent), assisting them ought not be called “moral.” To stifle positive psychological and economic change in society is not moral.

What is moral is the promotion of Self-Governing Capitalism, which is the only system beneficial to everyone’s rational self-interest and particular level of ability, or inability.

 

As noted, the general theme of sacrifice can be found in every social-based ethics and dependent code of morality. Not surprisingly, sacrifice is mentioned commonly in political and in religious contexts. In order to comprehend with clarity this widespread doctrine, we must once again define our terms. It is the multifaceted usage and implications of the concept that are of concern.

The following definition—which will be called the objective definition—is immeasurably helpful in understanding the concept. Sacrifice is defined as: the giving up or relinquishing of a higher value in favor of a lower or lesser value, or even no value at all.76 Clearly, any rational person would want to avoid such an act.

As one might suspect, the objective definition can conflict with the usual way sacrifice is meant to be interpreted and applied. A common dictionary meaning is “to give up a valued thing for the sake of something more important or worthy.” This suggests that sacrifice is something one ought to do. Even though it might entail a loss of something important, one attains something supposedly better.

Yet, because of the various connotations that accompany the common meaning, sacrifice can be used very ambiguously. For example, it can mean merely the abandonment of one value for another, with no distinction made about which value was more important. It can mean the relinquishment of a great value for a supposedly greater value, for instance a “societal” value. It may describe a change or rearrangement of one’s hierarchy of values, that is, letting go of past values. It can also describe the acquisition or preservation of genuine values at the expense of time and effort. Lastly, it can describe “selfless” actions done in the name of country, community, group, or family. There simply is no end to the equivocation of the term. It is basically a result of a society that has chosen no objective reference or guide by which to judge virtue.

When it is used indiscriminately for so many types of behavior, “sacrifice” is plainly an anti-concept. It obfuscates rather than clarifies. The objective definition avoids such confusion, since it does not follow that sacrifice entails giving up some lesser value for a greater value. Sacrifice means giving up a higher value for a lower value.

The relinquishment of any value in favor of a lesser value or non-value sets a rational organism against itself and its capability to survive. Sacrifice is a descent along the path of decay, which if left unchecked and not reversed, will lead to debilitation or even death. The complete sacrifice is the annihilation of the self for some purportedly higher value.

However, the anti-concept of sacrifice can be used to connote an image that one is performing a glorified duty that transcends any individual value. The person preaching sacrifice usually gives little recognition to the fact that the only moral values are individual values, no matter how many people espouse or practice them. Yet those who ask for sacrifices often know full well what people must give up. To obtain sacrificees, they depend on misguided value systems.

No greater cause exists than the achievement of one’s own values. Any attempt to refute this is self-contradictory—it is attempting to live outside oneself, in the minds and expectations of others. Therefore, striving for rational values is not a sacrifice. Acting in self-defense is not a sacrifice. Participating in a cause that cultivates or protects individualism and human rights is not a sacrifice. Safeguarding and providing for those we love and value is not a sacrifice. Compromising with those who share our principles and standards is not a sacrifice. Assisting those in need on the basis of their struggle to be virtuous (e.g., independent) is not a sacrifice. Following our greatest ambitions is not a sacrifice. Honoring the self is not a sacrifice.

Any value that is worth the struggle to attain ought not involve sacrifices. To contend otherwise implies that one’s lesser values are just as important as (or actually more important than) one’s greater values; it implies that life is not a progression of achievements, but rather a difficult game of trade-offs that involve losses much of the time. Here, the sense of life sadly speaks for itself. The doctrine of sacrifice reflects an attitude of self-pity—a view that life is an uphill battle.

That we must relinquish formerly important values to pursue newly important ones requires mental flexibility. We have to prioritize what we value. This is a sizable issue in parenting, for example. A prevalent idea is that parents supposedly sacrifice themselves and their desires for their children. If one truly values one’s children more than the values one relinquished to have them, one happily accepts the responsibilities of parenthood. Logically, one does not make sacrifices to do this. Any actual sacrifices, however, reveal a different story. Parents might then search for a scapegoat for their own choices.

Some parents may say that their goal in life is to give their children a better life than they. And so, sacrifices need to be made. To squelch a part of one’s self is supposedly all right because one benefits others in the process. The effects of this viewpoint tend to be twofold. First, it allows parental life to become stale, mundane, or even awful. Parents do whatever work, not because they personally desire it, but mostly for the benefit of their children. They make the age-old sacrifices that substitute for achieving self-esteem, realizing ambitions, and attaining happiness. Second, it creates a neurotic psychological tool (in line with the dependent morality) known as unearned guilt. Parents may seek to have their children feel guilty about their reliance on parents for sustenance. Often they expect their children to make sacrifices in turn. In addition, parents may have hopes (or demands) of achievement for their children despite their sons’ or daughters’ interests.

Normally, children find this whole situation perplexing and frustrating. They may form antagonistic relationships with their parents. They might rebel against the demands placed on their time and labor (and not live up to parental expectations). Or, they might spend a good deal of time trying to be the perfect child. Being perfect may entail making payment on the debt one incurred with one’s supposedly selfless parents.

The greatest contradiction here is the belief that sacrifice—either espousing it or indulging in it—is beneficial for anyone. In terms of personal evolution, sacrifice is nothing but a side-road leading to a dead-end. And it demands further sacrifices from others to avoid recognition of this. Eventually, no one has a real self; just selfless thoughts and actions for others remain (who also have no real selves). Not surprisingly, feelings of resentment, contempt, envy, jealousy, and guilt become predominant, which are the ancient masks for insecurity and diminished self-worth.

To constantly show examples of self-sacrifice—and claim the good in it—will rarely engender authentic respect and admiration. Only by pursuing our highest values will we encourage children to pursue their highest values. In the process, we will be able to provide for them greatly.

 

An ethics devised solely from human relationships has no direct reference to reality. Judgment of what is good and what is bad—and also what is right and what is wrong—becomes mere opinion. Morality becomes subjective and relative. As a result, people may take actions that could never be objectively deemed life-generating and life-sustaining.

In addition, various types of short-range hedonism that are destructive of long-range values are sometimes considered to be self-interested actions: Life is about indiscriminate pleasure, some say—irrespective of its mental and physical consequences. Predictably, the life and well-being of the individual are viewed at times to be expendable. A mixed bag of contradictions, fallacies, and non sequiturs tends to reinforce unhealthy attitudes and actions.

What also keeps this deterioration of logic intact are rationalizations. One rationalization (which is taught to students frequently) declares that objectivity does not exist; only the subjective and the relative exist. Those who have habitually upheld contradictions fail to inspect whether this declaration is an objective one. They typically proceed to claim that there are no absolute truths. Whether this is an absolutely true claim apparently makes no difference either. The fallacies of self-exclusion and stolen concept simply go unnoticed.

Rationalizations of this sort permeate our culture implicitly too. They exist as the untold and unstated agreements between those who believe that contradictions are okay, mainly because they make them feel better. Some may find it disturbing to see behavior and thoughts objectively, because objectivity protects no one from his or her pretenses or possible shortcomings. Instead, objectivity illuminates proper values and acts of virtue and restores well-being.

A psychology that rationalizes its unhealthy practices is in a precarious position. Defensiveness and techniques of intimidation may be used as support. Conversely, guilt, shame, and humility help to maintain deficient practices. Since issues concerning self-concept are not confronted, such behavior reinforces itself and solidifies.

Various psychological patterns can take their toll on a person’s will to understand: chronic mistaken evaluation of situations; large reliance on emotions for cognitive guidance; and submission to particular influences to disown the self and renounce moral certainty.

Such practices usually commence in childhood. With pressures to conform to adult expectations and the prescribed manner of dealing with people, a child sooner or later can become quite distanced from reality. Losing sight that reality can be one’s closest friend and safeguard is part of the process of fearing the judgment of others and doubting one’s mind to interpret facts.

Reality can be comforting when one’s relationships with others have become disorienting and unpredictable. A certitude and strength is gained by accurately identifying and interpreting reality. Apart from all the lunacy, inanity, and senselessness that may occur among people, physical reality will always have its own stability and certain properties: Reality will never uphold or enforce contradictions.

But fears of parental rebuke and rejection can lead a child to doubt his or her own assessment of the world (that may oppose theirs). The fateful step is taken when the child places faith in others judgment and rulings, rather than continues to question the propriety of their values and behavior.

Conformity to a flawed ethical system is furthered by praise and rewards, both emotional and physical, for appeasing significant others. This can be appealing. The child may succumb to a secure feeling that he or she will be taken care of by others—others will provide the necessary interpretations of reality. All that is required of the child is agreement (even if only subconsciously) with this state of affairs.

As a consequence, autonomous characteristics may come to be seen as anomalous or even unappealing. Some may even believe that there is little to gain from and offer to others (in an emotional way) who either do not display obedience or do not project an air of superiority. Additionally, a repressed fear of upsetting others can lead to a hatred of them. Such a fear can turn the child or adult into someone who wants to control the consciousness of others. In a vain attempt to be emotionally satisfied, manipulative or tyrannical behavior can be part of the psychology also. The dependent or social-based ethics renders its twisted forms pseudo self-esteem.

As one matures, such instances of dependence are supported by the culture. One can find a plethora of advice-givers, counselors, decision-advisors, leaders, commentators, pundits, holy men/preachers, gurus, and even psychics, who want to filter and interpret reality for others and guide their way. However unwittingly, many of these various filterers fail to honor the nature of human consciousness. Individuals are fully capable of making sense of the world on their own. They need no one to stand between them and reality. This only diverts the task of independent thought and judgment.

In order to have invigorating and healthy relationships we must take reality and our own well-being as primaries. Doing so provides us a sound standard of judgment by which to determine good and bad, beneficial and harmful. Objectivity in ethics allows us to see the light of day and, if need be, adjust our values accordingly. A rational moral code is definitely a dramatic step forward for our species, whose members have tended to deny or misinterpret their individual worth and greatness.

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