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INDEPENDENT COUNTRY
Individualism and Idealism
Moral behavior comes from the bottom up, not the top down.

by James Leroy Wilson
June 23, 2005

In a speech called "The Pragmatics of Patriotism"  given in 1973 to the U.S. Naval Academy, Robert Heinlein explains morality in terms of the evolutionary survival of the species - why we will fight for our own survival but die for the survival of others. While it is true that survival might not be the only value of morality, Heinlein created a great template from which to analyze moral action. Morality, according to Heinlein, has five levels briefly stated as individual, family, clan, nation, and humanity.

I am adopting and somewhat modifying or adapting Heinlein five levels of morality, because I think it explains well all moral conduct:

  1. Individual striving for happiness;
  2. Immediate relationships: family, friends;
  3. Communities in civil society: neighborhood, extended family, associations (congregations, service clubs, unions etc.);
  4. Social bonds beyond one's communities: nation, religion (not the personal/spiritual side, but the organization of doctrine and rituals);
  5. The welfare of the entire human race.

A possible sixth level, of transcendence, or spiritual union with God and/or creation or whatever, actual circles back to level one, of the individual who lives for and dies for his values. Heinlein explains the second level as sacrifices willfully and gladly made for the ones you love most. The third level includes such sacrificial actions as charitable contributions and volunteerism. It also includes the firefighter who will risk his life for the welfare of the community, even though he may not know the owner of the house he's trying to save. The fourth level, the level at which Heinlein honored the midshipmen, includes the virtue of patriotism, of sacrificing for and fighting for complete strangers. The soldier's life is lived at this level, and I would suggest that the missionary's is also. The fifth level is to sacrifice for the benefit of the human race. This includes new discoveries that broaden our horizons and creates new possibilities. Heinlein cites astronauts as an example. Pushing the boundaries of science and the arts tends to provide benefits not just to one nation or community, but to humanity as a whole.

What is striking about these levels of morality is that the higher one goes, from self-interest to humanitarian causes, the principles become more abstract, the consequences of action less obvious, and the greater faith one must place in other people and organizations. Placing trust in your parents or boss does not require that much "faith" because prior experience in the personal relationship have proved them to be trustworthy. Hence it is reasonable to do what they ask.

But soldiers, who live a "level 4" life, must have faith in the President. They must have faith in a lot of things:

  • That our political system is adequate in selecting the best person to become the most powerful in the world;
  • That the President's powers are necessary and legitimate;
  • That the President's orders reflect his judgment of the good of the country untainted by political or personal interests;
  • That claims of those who know him personally that the President is honest and smart are credible;
  • That the bureaucrats and advisors provide accurate information and good advice for the President, untainted by their own personal interests and ideological agenda;
  • That the ideals which the President espouses are worth defending.

A soldier must have faith that, when called to kill and perhaps die, he will do so only for a just cause, and with a clear conscience. That's just one example. A missionary lives a "level 4" life as well, a life of faith. The missionary must believe that if he is going to dedicate his life to converting other people to his religion, for both his own sake and theirs that religion better be right.

Another observation is that some people generate moral behavior according to their own preferences, values, and life lessons, and then project them to higher levels of morality. This comes about through discipline and the development of good habits of heart, mind, and body. Experience and examples provide life's lessons. People help their neighbor whose home burnt down first out of compassion, and second because they would want others to offer help if they had the same misfortune. Not out of a feeling of religious obligation, civic duty, or conformity to universal moral law.

But that is where others begin, with philosophical and theological questions like "What is Good," "What is Happiness," and "What is Justice." These are "level 5" questions, and their Answers are universal - they apply equally to every human being. And the resulting moral laws project downward. The role of the State is to shape civil society so that it conforms to these laws, and ultimately to make sure every family and individual does, too.

Level 1 "individualist" morality applies rules of thumb; Level 5 "idealist" morality just imposes Rules. The level 1 individualist honors the soldier as a patriot who will fight and die in defense of his country; the level 5 idealist honors the soldier as a crusader who will fight and die promoting the Causes of Liberty and Democracy. The individualist applies the Golden Rule and treats everyone he meets with respect, courtesy, and kindness; the idealist is committed to Equality and requires the individual to prove that he isn't a Racist.

The individualist believes in cooperation for mutual benefit; the idealist believes in coercion for social justice. The individualist believes that many laws is a guidelines; the idealist believes the law the Law. Which means, the individualist sees a difference between giving a 19 year-old after a day of work, and opening up the liquor cabinet for a junior high birthday party, but the idealist does not.

The individualist says Live and Let Live, whereas some idealists say something should be done about Greed and others believe something should be done to protect Marriage. The individualist believes law enforcement resources should concentrate on violence, vandalism, and theft; the idealist wants to eradicate non-conformist lifestyles and risky behavior. Individualists can see why people have differences of opinion, particularly on complex topics like immigration and the environment. Idealists question the motives of those who disagree with them. The individualist asks for reasons, the idealist appeals to authority: Click it or ticket? IT'S THE LAW. The individualist considers the circumstance, the idealist believes in Absolutes.

The idealist dreams of a Good Society; the individualist helps out his friends, family, and community.

The idealist mourns that our society is falling apart and not doing enough to address its wrongs; the individualist just wishes some people weren't so uptight.

Idealism doesn't make people feel better about themselves, it just makes them feel worse about other people. Morality that begins at "level 1," the individual pursuit of happiness, sounds selfish to the "level 5" idealist. But I think, deep down, even idealists examining their own lives will find greater satisfaction in the choices they have made for themselves, not the things they forced other people to do or were themselves forced to do. Even idealists prefer individualism when it comes to their own lives. We must remember that for morality to even exist, it must be freely chosen.



About the Author:
James Leroy Wilson blogs at Independent Country (http://independentcountry.blogspot.com). His article, The Government Wants You to Desecrate the Flag appears today at LewRockwell.com (www.lewrockwell.com/wilson-jl/wilson-james27.html).


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