Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Conscience of a Progressive

Ernest Partridge

Chapter Six

The Moral Point of View


In the previous chapter we demonstrated that in many readily identifiable circumstances, individuals acting selfishly can lower the prospects for all others in society, and eventually themselves as well. (“Good for each, bad for all”). Conversely, individual restraint and sacrifice on the part of each and every individual will improve the life quality and prospects of all. (“Bad for each, good for all”). For example, we are all better off if we all use antibiotics sparingly, and if we all install catalytic converters. The requisite “bads” – for example, observance of traffic laws and payment of fair taxes – can be quite tolerable in proportion to the social “goods” obtained thereby.

We have thus proven that there is such a thing as “public goods” and a “public interest” apart from summation of private interests. By implication, privatization and “the wisdom of the free market” are insufficient to deal with all public issues.

These general principles – “good for each, bad for all” and “bad for each, good for all” and the implied concept of “the public interest” – lead us to the threshold of a fundamental precept of both morality and progressivism: There are reasons, both rational and selfish, for being unselfish. The contradiction is only apparent and leads to fundamental moral truths.

Example: Military Discipline.

Imagine that in 1965, during the Viet Nam War, you receive a draft notice and are about to be inducted into the infantry. Your overwhelming desire, both selfish and rational, is to survive your two year tour of duty in “Nam,” and to return home sound of mind and body.

You are given a choice: you can serve as an egoist in a squad of egoists, or as an altruist in a squad of altruists. (We assume that a squad usually consists of twelve soldiers). In which squad will your egoist survival-obsession most likely be realized? History testifies that your best chances of survival will be as an altruist among altruists. Military training and indoctrination is based upon this assumption.

In other words, and to repeat: “there are reasons, both selfish and rational, for being unselfish.”

Let’s see how this works out.

The squad of egoists. If this is your squad, you are on your own: “When the going gets tough, the tough bug-out.” If one of the soldiers is wounded out in the open, well, better him than you. “Lots of luck, fella, but I’ve got my own skin to save.” And if you are the unlucky one, expect as much aid as you would be willing to give: i.e., none. Retreat under fire is especially dicey. Stay put, and you’ve had it. “High-tail it,” and you have a chance. But no one will cover retreat or draw fire while you skedaddle. Consequently, each soldier is picked off, one by one. Prospects for survival: very poor at best.

The Squad of Altruists: The Three Musketeers rule applies: “All for one and one for all!” The good of each is the good of all. Your buddy’s welfare is your responsibility and vice versa. As you will sacrifice for the good of the squad, you are confident that each soldier will do likewise. That’s the “social contract” that binds these soldiers into a single unit. If your buddy is hit in the field of fire, you will go out and attempt to bring him back, knowing that he would do the same for you. If the best prospects for retreat require that someone stay behind to cover the retreat, almost certainly sacrificing his life for the others, then the fairest choice might be by lottery. If you draw the short straw, then you will do your duty for the sake of the others, knowing that each of your buddies would do the same for you, had they been the unfortunate ones. Prospects for survival of any particular member of the squad: much improved. For the designated “hero” covering the retreat, almost zero.

Two remaining possibilities are of less interest to us, since they do not describe a generalized condition – the same for each affected individual. And generalization is a presupposition of a moral rule. “OK for me, but not for the rest of you” does not cut it as a moral principle. Even so, our account is not complete unless we deal with all possible combinations. And so:

An Egoist in a Squad of Altruists. This might seem the best arrangement for the egoist, since he benefits from the protection of the others without putting his own life on the line. In fact, the egoist would soon find himself in great peril, as the others correctly recognize him as a danger to the squad as a unit. Having refused to sign on to the pact of mutual protection, he would be justly denied that protection and would thus be exposed to greater danger. A more benign and likely outcome would be that, in accordance with fundamental human nature, he would absorb and adopt the ethos of the group and become an altruist.

An Altruist in a Squad of Egoists, is simply the victim of bad luck. He is willing to put his life at risk for the sake of the others. However, with no reciprocal motivation in his behalf from the others there is no “social contract,” thus he is entitled, however regretfully, to behave like another egoist. If he persists in his altruism he is either a saint or a chump – but in either case, he is in grave danger. His only other recourse is to attempt to “convert” the others to altruism, perhaps by explaining to them the self-interest advantage of mutual protection (altruism).

Returning to the opening hypothesis: If your overwhelming desire is the selfish and rational determination to survive your two-year tour of duty, that desire will most likely be realized if you do not act on that determination and instead treat the value of your fellow squad members’ lives as equal to your own and are thus willing to sacrifice your life for theirs. Assuming further, of course, that you are in the company of others similarly disposed. Put simply, there are selfish reasons for not being selfish.1

The Prisoners’ Dilemma.

Two political prisoners are brought before a magistrate, who presents them with this “offer.” If one will testify to the guilt of the other, then he will go free while the other will receive a ten year prison term. If each betrays the other, each will be sentenced to five years. And if both remain silent, each will receive a one-year sentence.

The prisoners are then led into an empty room to deliberate their decisions. They are assured that whatever their decision, will never meet again and will in no way affect each other’s lives.

This is the so-called “prisoners dilemma,” much discussed and much debated by economists, political scientists, and moral philosophers. Scholarly treatises on the dilemma can be very esoteric, utilizing advanced mathematics quite beyond my comprehension.2  However, our purposes can be served quite well if we keep it simple.

Here is the dilemma in tabular form:

                                                            B Informs                    B is Silent

A Informs

     5 Years Each

     A is  Released
     B  gets 10 Years

A is Silent

    A gets 10 Years
    B is Released

     One Year Each

Several important insights arise from this thought-experiment (cells identified like directions on a map):

1. The fate of each individual prisoner is not exclusively in his hands. He is hostage to the decision of another, and vice versa. Thus the libertarian doctrine of “Social Atomism” – each individual “the master of his fate” – is directly refuted.

2. The optimum outcome for an individual prisoner (SW and NE cells: no prison time) is not the optimum outcome for both prisoners – the sum of each (the SE cell: two years total).

3. The more likely that both individuals attempt to maximize their personal payoffs, the more they are likely to cause ruin for both. (NW cell).

4. “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” The best possible outcome for each individual (SW and NEW) is in conflict with the best outcome for both (SE).

5. The best outcome for both (SE) is the “moral outcome” – a function of mutual trust and altruism, and a mutual awareness that one’s trust and altruism are reciprocated by the other.

6. And yet the more that one prisoner (A) trusts the other (B), the greater the temptation for the other (B) to betray (A)

7. Lift the premise that neither prisoner will have contact or influence on the other after the decision is made, and the “dilemma” collapses. Once sanctions are introduced and the defector faces retaliation and punishment (e.g., “the rule and enforcement of law”) each prisoner will confidently accept the best solution for both (SE – one year each). (“Omerta” – the secret of The Mafia’s success).

8. The best available solution for both is seen, not from the point of view of the self-maximizing individual, but from the point of view of an “ideal observer” of the dilemma. (“The Moral Point of View”). We will have much more to say about this shortly.

“The prisoner’s dilemma” is nothing more than an idle “brain-teaser” unless it can be seen to have practical application. In fact, it has an enormous scope of application. Especially so, when we realize that the prisoner’s dilemma is not necessarily a two-party game.

For example, as any follower of popular TV crime shows such as “Law and Order” will recognize, the prisoner’s dilemma is found in that favorite device of the prosecutor, “the plea bargain.” The criminal collaborators are individually told: “if you confess before the others, we’ll reduce your sentence. Your pals are in other rooms right now and are being given the same offer. The deal goes to the first of you to confess, and your time is running out.” Because there is little honor among thieves, and thus scant prospect for the optimum solution for the culprits (SE), it is a very effective technique. An arms race is another application of the prisoner’s dilemma, as is “military discipline” as noted above. In fact, as you reflect upon it, you might notice that all the examples that we encountered in the previous chapter – the potency of antibiotics, the tragedy of the commons, catalytic converters, etc. – exemplify the core principle of the prisoner’s dilemma: the striving of each for the best individual outcome, is in conflict with the best outcome for all.

If all this is unbearably abstract, bear with me. At the close of this chapter, we will bring this home as we apply our findings to the current political contest between progressivism and regressivism.

The Hobbes Game.

You can see the prisoner’s dilemma at work by trying out the following exercise with a willing group of “players.” The example below involves undergraduate students, but there is no reason why, with suitable modifications, it might not be played with other groups.

Several years ago, about halfway through my teaching career, I quite accidentally and fortuitously came across an article by John Immerwahr titled “The Hobbes Game.”3  When I tried out the game in class, the results were so gratifying that I have routinely used the game in most of my introductory philosophy, ethics and political philosophy classes – which adds up to dozens of times.

Put simply, The Hobbes Game is an application of the prisoner’s dilemma – also, in effect, an experiment in how the dilemma “plays out” when experienced by a sampling of undergraduates.

Here are the essential rules of the game with my interpolated comments, as set down by Prof. Immerwahr but with numerous modifications that have accumulated over the twenty years or so that I have used it in class. First, the following rules are distributed to each student.


A Friendly Game for Those in a State of Nature

OBJECT OF THE GAME. The object of this game is to receive 20% of the final grade Players can make agreements, deals, and bargains with other players at any time; players may also break these agreements at any time.

STAGE I. GENERAL CAUCUS. Following questions to the "Umpire," there will be a period of up to fifteen minutes in which players can read the rules discuss the game among themselves, while the Umpire is out of the room.

The “umpire” of the game is, of course, the teacher. He leaves the room so the caucus which follows will be spontaneous and unaffected by the teacher’s presence. Notice that when the “umpire” leaves the room, no leader has been selected. Only after the game is finished will the caucus be discussed.

STAGE II. AWARDING OF THE GRADES. When the players of the game decide to end the caucus, each player will request a final grade by writing it on an index card. S/he may not show this card to anyone else. Grades will then be randomly matched in pairs, the pairing will be confidential. Then the grades will be awarded as follows, and displayed to all in the group.

1. If both players request an A, both receive a D.

2. If both players request a B, both receive a B.

3. If one player requests an A while the other requests B, the player who requested the A receives an A. The player who requested the B receives an F.

4. After the grades have been determined, each player will write his grade on the index card and display it to all other players.

The reader will immediately notice that the “payoffs” closely approximate those of the prisoner’s dilemma, as detailed above.

Now the game gets a bit complicated. There is no need to study the following rules carefully, since the point of “Stage III” can be stated very simply: This stage of the game provides sanctions that the group (“society”) can impose upon those who attempt to gain personal advantage at the expense of others (i.e., by awarding themselves A-s).

STAGE III. READJUSTMENT OF GRADES -- "FLUNKYA." Players can voluntarily give any part of their grade to any other player. (Fractional grades are allowed). Players may take grades away from other players by playing FLUNKYA. The rules for FLUNKYA are:

1. No one who has an F grade can play FLUNKYA.

2. Any eligible player can challenge any other player to play FLUNKYA by informing the umpire.

3. After a FLUNKYA challenge has been issued, other eligible players (with permission of the original parties) may join either side.

4. The umpire will decide the outcome of the challenge by drawing lots (colored poker chips out of a bag). There will be as many red chips as there are players on the side of the challenger and as many white chips as players on the side of the challenged party. If a red chip is drawn the challengers win, and vice versa.

5. The losers of the challenge will all receive an F. The grade points of the losers will then be distributed evenly among the winners.

The results of the game, in my experience, were not uniform. In some cases, a few students became “playful” and, by regarding the experiment more as a ‘lark” than a exemplification of a prisoner’s dilemma with a provided solution, grabbed for the big prize by awarding themselves A-s. However, they were usually brought down by the rest of the class in the “Stage III” challenges.

By far the most common result was an early agreement in the caucus that each player would choose a B, with all agreeing in advance that opportunistic A-graders would be punished with massive challenges. With every card displaying a B, it became impossible to proceed to Stage III, because there were no grade readjustments to be made.

After a few such results, I decided to “mix things up” by soliciting three or so students to act as “stooges.” Before the class, when they had no idea what was ahead, I would ask these volunteers: “In the exercise that follows, will you choose an A? You’ll know what this means early in the class. Some students may hate you for it, but I promise that at the end I will explain to all that I asked you to do this and all will be forgiven.” More often than not, had I not introduced the volunteer-stooges, all would have chosen B-s and the complete experiment would have been aborted.

Now let’s analyze what usually happened in The Hobbes Game.

In effect, early in the caucus, an instant community was formed with mutually accepted rules and sanctions. Specifically: (1) it was mutually acknowledged that the best possible outcome for an individual (an A) was highly unlikely, and would be accomplished by taking unfair advantage of another. (2) It was generally understood that cooperative behavior would securely yield the best prospects for each. And (3) it was decided that those who violated this common agreement would be severely punished

These decisions can be readily appreciated as we examine the “payoffs” from the point of view, not of self-interest-maximizing individuals, but of the entire group.

Note first the sum payoffs of the three possible match-ups (with A=4, B=3, C=2, D=1 and F=0).

B/B = 3+3=6; A/B = 4+0 = 4; A/A = 1+1 = 2.

The highest possible grade point average (GPA) for the entire class is 3, resulting from an undeviating willingness by all to choose a B. All deviations from this rule (i.e., due to some individuals attempting to achieve an A) reduces the class GPA below 3. “FLUNKYA” challenges usually further reduce the GPA.4

Prof. Immerwahr thus summarizes the lesson of “The Hobbes Game,” and of the prisoner’s dilemma in general: “Self-interested parties who act independently will choose options which are not the most favorable ones available. The most favorable outcome can only be obtained if there is some way to insure co-operation and trust among the parties.” By “most favorable” Immerwahr means “best for the group as a whole” or “the maximum group GPA.”5

Does this “game,” and the implied demonstration of the advantages of cooperative behavior for mutual advantage, have application in human societies in general, both simple and advanced? It appears, from the many examples cited in this chapter and the previous, that it does.

If so, then the libertarian-right doctrine of “good for each, good for all” must be profoundly mistaken – as a general and unexceptional rule. More precisely, it is not the case that all social advantage results “as if by an invisible hand” from the self-serving and self-focused activity of each individual. In many readily identifiable instances, the rule of “good for each, bad for all” applies – self-serving behavior of individuals (“each”) can have harmful effects upon society at large (“all”), and conversely mutual restraint, enforced by sanctions, can benefit the community as a whole – “bad for each, good for all.”

However, it is essential to note that the progressivist’s dispute with the libertarian is with the latter’s unyielding insistence that his doctrine of “good for each, good for all” has near-universal application, and that it is applied a priori without independent evidence of its advantages.  The principle “good for each, good for all” has wide application in many clearly appropriate applications, particularly in free-market competition. In a free society, the rule “good for each, good for all” must count for something, but not for everything.

{Pending: The Evolution of Altruism}.

The Moral Paradox.

These examples, in this chapter and the previous, point to a paradox that moral philosophers have recognized and articulated, all the way back to Aristotle: namely, that prospects for a gratifying life are greater when one does not directly pursue personal gratification. In other words, the single-minded pursuit of self-interest is self-defeating.

Consider first, the so-called “paradox of hedonism,” noted by the nineteenth century English philosophers Henry Sidgewick and John Stuart Mill.6  The clearest contemporary expression of this paradox that I have encountered is by the late American philosopher, Joel Feinberg:7 

Imagine a person (let’s call him “Jones”) who is, first of all, devoid of intellectual curiosity. He has no desire to acquire any kind of knowledge for its own sake, and thus is utterly indifferent to questions of science, mathematics, and philosophy. Imagine further that the beauties of nature leave Jones cold: he is unimpressed by the autumn foliage, the snow-capped mountains, and the rolling oceans. Long walks in the country on spring mornings and skiing forays in the winter are to him equally a bore. Moreover, let us suppose that Jones can find no appeal in art. Novels are dull, poetry a pain, paintings nonsense and music just noise. Suppose further that Jones has neither the participant’s nor the spectator’s passion for baseball, football, tennis, or any other sport. Swimming to him is a cruel aquatic form of calisthenics, the sun only in a cause of sunburn. Dancing is coeducational idiocy, conversation a waste of time, the other sex an unappealing mystery. Politics is a fraud, religion mere superstition; and the misery of millions of underprivileged human beings is nothing to be concerned with or excited about. Suppose finally that Jones has no talent for any kind of handicraft, industry, or commerce, and that the does not regret that fact.

What then is Jones interested in? He must desire something. To be sure, he does, Jones has an overwhelming passion for, a complete preoccupation with, his own happiness. The one exclusive desire of his life is to be happy. It takes little imagination at this point to see that Jones’s one desire is bound to be frustrated. People who – like Jones – most hotly pursue their own happiness are the least likely to find it. Happy people are those who successfully pursue such things as aesthetic or religious experience, self-expression, service to others, victory in competitions, knowledge, power, and so on.... The way to achieve happiness is to pursue something else.

Put simply: we don’t seek happiness, we seek things that make us happy.

Consider another example: two couples about to embark upon marriage. The first couple, Sam and Sally Smith, are two egoists who are determined to gain the utmost personal satisfaction from the other. The other couple, Bob and Betty Brown, are deeply in love, and care little for their own satisfaction. The foremost concern of each is for the well-being and happiness of their beloved spouse. It is not difficult to imagine which individuals are most likely to find personal happiness in their marriage.

Feinberg focuses upon a single individual, “Jones.” The marriage example involves the relationship of two individuals. We have discussed numerous examples of individuals as members of a group – a community. Here, the paradox has appeared time and again: constraint on the part of each individual yields benefits for all members of the community. A driver who forsakes his immediate advantage and yields to the traffic laws, traveling in the company of other law-abiding drivers, is more likely to reach his destination safely and on time. The soldier willing to lay down his life to save his buddies, in the company of others so dedicated, is more likely to survive combat. Michael Scriven expresses this “paradox of morality” supremely well:8

Each citizen's chances of a satisfying life for himself are increased by a process of conditioning all citizens not to treat their own satisfaction as the most important goal. Specifically, a system which inculcates genuine concern for the welfare of the others, it will be argued, the most effective system for increasing the welfare of each individual. Put paradoxically, there are circumstances in which one can give a selfish justification for unselfishness.

Perhaps this is what Jesus had in mind when he said, “whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” (Matt: 16: 24-26) It is a precept that is found in all the great world religions as well as throughout the history of moral philosophy. But not, sadly, in the social and economic philosophy of the libertarians, nor in the policies of right-regressives.

The Moral Point of View.

In these two chapters we have seen, repeatedly, that an individual’s determination to “look out for Number One” and to act from that egoistic perspective, frequently works to that individual’s disadvantage. The soldier who cares only for his own survival is in greater danger. The more the prisoner is determined to get out of jail free the less he is likely to do so. The herdsman who puts still more sheep on the overstocked commons, is hastening the day when ruin is visited upon the entire community.

In all these cases, the individual’s “best interests” are defeated when he persists in taking only his own personal needs and goals into account – when he adopts what moral philosophers call the egocentric (or “agent-centered”) point of view. And yet, this is a point of view enthusiastically endorsed by the oracle of the libertarian-right, Ayn Rand:

“The basic social principle ... is that just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not a means to the ends or the welfare of others – and, therefore, that man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.”9

“The Right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action – which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life.”

The egocentric point of view is implicit in the regressive’s unyielding faith in the unfettered free market: the dogma that the optimum society emerges, “as if by an invisible hand,” through the transactions of self-serving (“utility maximizing”) individuals. “Good for each, good for all.”

The egocentric perspective fails because political and economic problems are not problems of individuals, they are problems of groups, and therefore the interests of all affected individuals must be taken into account. With one prisoner, there is no “prisoner’s dilemma.” The solitary soldier faces no choice of egoism vs. altruism. The catalytic converter case demonstrated that without the coercion of law, single-agent “volunteerism” does not work.

And yet, in all the cases that we examined in these two chapters, we found solutions – which, at the cost of constraints upon each individual, yielded advantages for the group: “bad for each, good for all.”

To understand just how we found these optimal solutions to the combat soldier’s choice, the tragedy of the commons, the prisoners’ dilemma, and the other examples, let us imagine a neutral observer who treats each affected person equally and who is motivated with a benevolent interest in finding the best solution for all the involved parties. He would convince the soldier that his best prospects for survival would be to act as an altruist. He would convince the prisoners that the best solution is to opt for good and secure decision (one year each) rather than seek the best but unattainable result (freedom for one, ten years for the other). And he would counsel the herdsmen to adopt Garrett Hardin’s solution: “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon,” whereby the fertility of the common pasture might be sustained.

In fact, no such neutral observer is necessary, for each moral agent is quite capable of adopting the point of view of the hypothetical “unbiased benevolent observer.” Indeed, we did just that as we found solutions to the aforementioned problems, whereby constraints upon each resulted in benefits to all – the soldier, both prisoners, and all the village herdsmen. To cite still more of our examples, the astute moral agent would, as a “the benevolent observer,” perceive that all would benefit from antibiotics if these drugs were not prescribed for inconsequential ailments, and the same observer would notice that the common airshed would be cleared if each motorist were required to install a catalytic converter on his vehicle.

The perspective of the “unbiased neutral observer” has a name – in fact, numerous names, since it is one of the most familiar concepts in the history of political theory and moral philosophy: “the impartial spectator” (Adam Smith), “the ideal observer” (John Stuart Mill), “the general will” (Rousseau), “the view from nowhere” (Thomas Nagel), “the original position” (John Rawls), and my personal favorite, “the moral point of view” (Kurt Baier, Kai Nielsen and many more).

The moral point of view assumes that a morally mature individual possesses a cognitive capacity which just might be unique to our species: the capacity of each of us to recognize in others the personal qualities – emotions, aspiration, values, consciousness – that we immediately experience ourselves. From this capacity arises the sentiments of empathy and benevolence that David Hume and Adam Smith believed to be the foundations of social morality. It is also the basis for Thomas Jefferson’s affirmation that “all men [persons] are created equal.” Of course, Jefferson did not mean by this that all persons are equivalent – identical in every respect. What he meant was that each individual is, as a member of the human community, of equal worth, equal political standing, and entitled to equal rights.11  (We will examine this capacity in Chapter 11).

Thus, if I recognize that I am a person in a community of other persons, each counting as one and none as more than one, I can be a hypothetical “spectator” of myself as one equal citizen among many. As such, I might find solutions to difficult issues of morality and public policy that would be insoluble were I to take the perspective of “economic man” – the self-serving “utility maximizer” in the regressive’s revered “perfect market,” or were I “John Galt,” the perfect egoist and the hero of Ayn Rand’s novel, “Atlas Shrugged,” and not coincidentally, also the hero of Alan Greenspan and other individuals who formulate and execute the US economic policies.

From “the moral point of view,” I see myself as one of many residents of Los Angeles who drives a car in a sea of polluted air. I am one of many potential patients who may some day urgently need a potent antibiotic. I am one of many herdsman owning sheep in a common pasture being utilized at carrying capacity. I am a prisoner whose desire for release counts no more or less than that of my fellow prisoners. From this point of view, I realize that if I act “selfishly” I will do so to the disadvantage of all others (and eventually myself), and because these others have the same rights and the same worth as I have, I am not entitled to exploit them for my own advantage.

The moral point of view, and the entailed principle that “my rights and my worth count no more and no less than that of any of my fellow citizens” (i.e., “all men are created equal”), is the foundation of liberal democracy. It is likewise a cornerstone of Christian ethics, as expressed by Jesus in The Golden Rule: "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you ..." (Matthew 7:12). It is a universal precept, found in all the great world religions.12 

Thus we confront the religious right with a radical proposal: progressivism is fundamentally and demonstrably more “moral” than so-called “conservatism” (regressivism). Indeed, as I will argue in this chapter and Chapter 14, progressivism is even more “Christian” than regressivism, if we take the moral teachings of Jesus quite seriously.

This is so because the regressives have little use for the moral point of view, despite the fact that it is familiar, and even compellingly obvious in the experience and behavior of ordinary citizens. Unfortunately, the oligarch, the “master,” is not disposed to take the moral point of view, for to do so, he would be required to treat “the masses” as his equals.

Progressivism, Regressivism, and the Moral Point of View.

With the moral point of view, we have arrived at the fundamental justification of government and the foundation of progressivism. It is impossible to overstate the significance of the moral point of view, which is why we have devoted two entire chapters to the development, articulation and defense of this essential concept.

Ideally, governments are instituted to act in behalf of all members of a polity while protecting the rights, privacy and personal integrity of each citizen, and it does so by adopting the perspective of the “ideal benevolent observer and legislator.” Problems that are insoluble from the perspective of each individual, are solved from the perspective of the “ideal observer” as rules are laid down and enforced by a governing body that benefit the public at large – what Garret Hardin called “mutual coercion mutually agreed upon.”

For example:

  • Even with a technological solution at hand, an appeal for voluntary installation of pollution control devices by each motorist will fail, as each motorist correctly recognizes that such an act is irrational – an additional expense that yields no benefit for the individual or for the public. Yet, if shown the public advantages of enforcement, a majority of citizens will likely approve of such a regulation.

  • The desire of each motorist to travel with speed and safety is enhanced by traffic laws, and the entailed the requirement that each motorist submit to traffic signals. The appropriate agency to enforce traffic laws – which enhance the freedom of movement of all by paradoxically constraining the freedom of each – is government.

  • Similarly, it would be useless and thus irrational for an individual herdsman to limit the size of his herd if there were not constraints upon others. Yet failure of all to submit to constraints will lead to ruin of the common resource, and thence of the community at large. Because few of us are herdsmen, we may fail to appreciate the full force of Hardin’s example of “the tragedy of the commons.” But many of us fish and hunt and enjoy wilderness for hiking and boating. Fish and game stocks, and the wilderness experience, can only be sustained if they are “rationed.” Hence licensing and use permits by agencies of the government. (Libertarians will argue that privatization is the answer to the tragedy of the commons. We will address that proposal in Chapter 8).

And so on, with our other examples.

It is no idle coincidence that there is no industrial society without a government.

I would urge once again that by arguing for the necessity of government, I am not proposing despotism. The optimum government functions at the “mean point” between total control at one extreme (despotism), and no control at the other (anarchy – Thomas Hobbes’ “state of nature”). A favorite argument of the regressives is to suggest that advocacy of some governmental ownership, regulation and control is tantamount to advocacy of total ownership, regulation and control – i.e. “communism,” or at the very least, “socialism.”

It is a persistent fallacy that we will return to time and again in this book.

The wisest rebuttal that I have heard, came from a Russian friend, a professor at Moscow State University: “Under communism, we had control without freedom; with the fall of communism, we had freedom without control, only to discover that without control there is no freedom.”

Essential to our argument for the moral point of view, is the recognition that there are “public goods” and “public interests” (namely “of all”) apart from the interests of private individuals (“of each”), which are represented in “free markets.” In other words, that there is a “common wealth” in the commonwealth.

Nothing more starkly delineates progressives from regressives, than the recognition of legitimate public interests by the former, and a denial of same by the latter.

To be sure, the libertarian recognizes some public goods – three, to be exact, and no more. These are the protection of the individual’s fundamental rights to life, liberty and property, to the libertarian, the only legitimate functions of government.13

The progressives recognizes many additional public goods. Among them: a clean and flourishing natural environment, a cultural endowment of arts, literature and science, the domestic tranquility that arises from mutual respect and tolerance (what John Rawls calls “civic friendship”), allegiance to and trust of a just political order based upon “the consent of the governed.”

So the progressive insists that it is the proper function of government, not only to protect the rights of individual citizens (at times from a “tyranny of the majority), but also legislate and the regulate “the public interest” and “public goods” to the benefit of all citizens.

A radical proposal? Hardly. These are the founding principles of our American democracy. Here’s the evidence:

  • We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That, to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. (The Declaration of Independence, 1776)

  • We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. (Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, 1787).

Note especially that the Constitution recognizes that the legitimate functions of government include “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, ... promote the general Welfare.”

The implementation and refinement of these functions of government constitute the “conservative” heart of the progressive agenda.

Yet a significant faction of the regressive-right endorses Grover Norquist’s goal to shrink government "to the size where you could drown it in a bathtub" – which sounds very much like a proposal to eliminate the government that The Founders agreed is “instituted” to “secure [our] rights .. deriving [its] just powers from the consent of the governed.”

And these regressives dare to call themselves “conservatives”!

There is not now, nor has there ever been, an advanced industrial society without a government, or even with the minimal “night watchman” government proposed by the libertarians – a government which functions only to protect the individual’s life, liberty and property (by means of the police, the military, and the courts).

Mr. Norquist’s society, with all other governmental functions and services effectively abolished, is not the sort of society that you and I would want to live in. Nor would Grover Norquist or his fellow regressives, if they were to take the trouble to think through the implications of their proposal.

As we shall see in the next chapter.


  1. The best defense of this “paradox of morality” that I have encountered is Chapter 7 of Michael Scriven’s Primary Philosophy.  (McGraw-Hill ???).

  2. See William Poundstone: Prisoner's Dilemma, Doubleday, 1992.

  3. John Immerwahr, “The Hobbes Game,” Teaching Philosophy, 1:4 (Fall, 1976), p. 435. It appears that “The Hobbes Game” has not been widely adopted, which is a pity. A Google search yields just four citations for “Hobbes Game” and “John Immerwahr and Hobbes Game.” (Excluding here citations to the comic strip “Calving and Hobbes”).

  4. Once the grades of a losing group in the challenges are acquired by the winners, the grades of each winner usually exceeds A (4). Since A is the largest possible grade, the surplus points taken from the losers are “lost” to the GPA.

  5. Ibid, 435.

  6. "But I now thought that this end [one's happiness] was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness[....] Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness along the way[....] Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so." John Stuart Mill, Autobiography in The Harvard Classics, Vol. 25, Charles Eliot Norton, ed. (New York: P. F. Collier & Son Company, 1. 1909), p. 94.

  7. Joel Feinberg, “Psychological Egoism,” Reason and Responsibility, (Belmont, CA: Dickenson, 1978). P. 533.

  8. Michael Scriven, Primary Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), p. 240.

  9. Ayn Rand: "The Objectivist Ethics," p 30.

  10. Ayn Rand: “Man’s Right,” The Virtue of Selfishness, op. Cit., 110.

  11. Notwithstanding, of course, the oft-noted hypocrisy of this pronouncement, coming from a slave-owner, and ratified by a Congress numerous members of which were also slave-owners.

  12. For a list of "Golden Rules" (and variants) from history and from other culures and religions, see Edward Babinski's website "The Golden Rule and Christian Apologetics."

  13. William Bayes enunciates the libertarian’s triad of essential rights (life, liberty, property( with admirable clarity:

The freedom to engage in any type of enterprise, to produce, to own and control property, to buy and sell on the free market, is derived from the rights to life, liberty, and property ... [but] when a government guarantees a "right" to an education or parity on farm products or a guaranteed annual income, it is staking a claim on the property of one group of citizens for the sake of another group. In short, it is violating one of the fundamental rights it was instituted to protect...

All that which an individual possesses by right (including his life and property) are morally his to use, dispose of and even destroy, as he sees fit....

Where do my rights end? Where yours begin. I may do anything I wish with my own life, liberty and property without your consent; but I may do nothing with your life, liberty an property without your consent... (Bayes, William W. 1970). “What is Property?,” The Freeman, July 1970, p. 348).

Copyright 2005 by Ernest Partridge