I’d like to explain why I think that traditional Judaeo-Christian morality does not synch up very well with the principles of liberty and does not provide a beneficial cultural framework for a free society. In many ways, I’m not going to be saying anything particularly new here, as this criticism has essentially already been made by both Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand in their own respectively unique ways, although of course I’m going to be putting this into my own words and expressing it from my own perspective which is both similar to that of Neitzche and Rand and altogether my own. Unfortunately, most people and most libertarians for that matter are not particularly familiar with the substance of this kind of criticism of Judaeo-Christian morality or at least do not entirely grasp what the meat of the issue is.
The devaluation of the earthly
To start off, let’s consider the implications of the general concept of an afterlife in Judaeo-Christian tradition. According to this view, this life is only a test or a transitional stage. What ultimately matters is that which allegedly lies beyond. As a consequence, the life and time that we have on this earth in the now is devalued. The concept of the afterlife basically posits that the only real purpose of life in the here and now is to prepare for the afterlife. In the grand scheme of things, earthly matters are more or less characterised as meaningless or insignificant. The earthly may even be construed as immoral. Salvation is construed as laying outside of material existence and consequentially material existence starts to lose its meaning and significance.
The picture gets even more gloomy when we introduce the concept of original sin, which is basically a sweeping declaration of ancestral guilt for all of mankind. Apparently everyone is guilty from birth and “the flesh” is somehow inherently bad. And the most fundamental feature that makes us human, that is, free will, is characterised as the source of evil in the world. Yet while a free willing agent most certainly is capable of evil, free will is neutral to morality and could also lead to good. Furthermore, morality as such couldn’t exist without free will, as without agency there is no responsibility for one’s actions. Interestingly, the fatalistic implications of the notion of god as the first cause and watchmaker contradicts the concept of free will. The notion that god has a “divine plan” that will inevitably pan out throughout the course of history cannot be reconciled with the notion that human beings have some kind of free will.
Leaving the meaning and implications of free will aside (I’m leaning towards some kind of compatibalism on the general free will question at the moment), the implications of the concept of original sin and the afterlife are fairly silly. What’s implied is that since we are all inherently sinners, we must spend our entire lives paying off this debt we have allegedly incurred. Hence, we have a whole slew of unchosen positive obligations. We are supposed to feel guilty for being “of the flesh” and for having biological drives and psychological motivations. Allegedly it is an imperative that we strive to deny or suppress much of the fundamental characteristics of what makes us human in this life as a path to a guaranteed ticket to the afterlife.
The seven deadly sins
Consider the seven deadly sins: pride, avarice, lust, anger, gluttony, envy and sloth. Before I go into an analysis of these individually, consider this: has there ever been a point in your life when you did not feel any of these emotions at all? No, these are all traits that pretty much describe some fundamental aspects of what it means to be a human. And that leads us to another realisation: most of these are emotions or feelings, ones which all of us experience at some point or another, although of course they can be manifested in terms of agency. In either case, quite clearly the implication of this is that it is essentially impossible for us to exist as humans qua humans without “sinning”. Furthermore, all of these “sins” have one thing in common: avoiding them constitutes self-denial or self-sacrifice. It’s all meant to imply that that which has to do with the self is somehow evil.
Why is pride considered a sin? If anything, is self-esteem not a good thing? What is wrong with being proud of one’s accomplishments? Putting forth pride as a sin is a rather sweeping declaration that ignores the positive side of pride, that is, individual self-esteem based on one’s actual merits. Pride as such is not necessarily the same thing as narcissism. The narcissist is not proud of their actual self or their actual merits and accomplishments. Rather, they have created a fantasy world in which they have merits and accomplishments that aren’t really theirs. The narcissist does not hold themselves up, they push everyone else down. But should we therefore abandon pride altogether out of the fear of narcissism and essentially propose that all self-esteem and pride-driven self-improvement is evil?
What about avarice, which may be substituted with the term “greed”? We must first note once again that by itself it’s just a motivation or emotion, i.e., the desire to have more of something or to keep the plentiful amount that one already has. As realised in agency, it would mean the pursuit of more or the pursuit of holding on to what one already has. It is easy to see how the more socialistic interpretations of christianity may draw from this. But once again it is far too sweeping to consider this inherently immoral. Why is wanting to keep what you have immoral? Why is pursuing more immoral? Does the actual means by which one does this irrelevant, or should distinctions be made between various ways of obtaining plenty or hoarding what one has? Is there no distinction between claiming that which is others and merely pursuing more for yourself in a voluntary or mutual way? And by what standard does one determine how much is too much? Once again, this sin reduces to the notion that the self and its gratification is somehow evil.
What about lust, which is usually meant to imply sexual desire? Why is it immoral to have sexual desire, and how can one possibly be a human being without experiencing this in some form or another, especially when one is young? Is sexual desire not a fundamental biological drive within us? It certainly seems far to sweeping to consider all sexual desire immoral. While rape may be immoral, voluntary sexual interactions between adults isn’t. While promiscuous sexual interactions may be unhealthy for the individual in the long-term, it hardly makes any sense to proclaim it to be inherently evil. In either case, if everyone lived their lives as total prudes then the human race would slowly start to die off. There is, after all, a connection between sex and the propagation of the species. On an interesting note, this sin contradicts the dictum “be fruitful and multiply”, so obviously Victorian prudishness isn’t the only possible interpretation.
Why is anger considered a sin? Perhaps anger can be misdirected or lead to immoral behaviours, but it need not be so. Anger is an emotion that everyone experiences in one form or another at some point in their life. And how can one possibly not be angry at injustice or immorality? There are times when anger can be a rather good thing, a way for one to release pent up energy or frustration without necessarily hurting anyone else. It would be absurd to expect people, especially people that are in rather dire situations, to go through life smiling and being slap-happy all the time. And sometimes anger goes along with honesty. Sometimes the alternative to expressing anger or frustration is to lie to people just to keep a facade going. I’d rather be both angry and brutally honest to someone then to perpetuate a false sense of comfort which merely enables what is actually a bad situation.
Why is gluttony considered a sin? I find this to be perhaps the most silly of the seven deadly sins, since at face value it has to do with nothing but food, although of course it can be construed to imply that one shouldn’t take recreational drugs (although I’ve always thought that food is a drug in a sense). As a motivation or desire, gluttony simply means to want another cookie from the cookie jar. While eating or drinking too much can obviously lead to obesity and some major health problems, it hardly makes any sense to make minimalism in eating and drinking habits a moral imperative. Are we really going to call fat people immoral? I’d rather live in a free and prosperous society full of fat slobs who munch on junk food all day than an unfree and unprosperous society where everyone is surprisingly physically fit.
The case of envy is a bit more complicated then the others. Envy may be characterised as the desire to have something that someone else has. It is often used interchangeably with jealousy, but there is a bit of a distinction. Once again, taken simply as an emotion or desire to have something that someone else has, I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with envy. I want an extremely talented group of musicians to play with and lots of studio equipment and I don’t have it but Steve Vai does, therefore I suppose I envy the guitarist Steve Vai. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to try to steal his band or his studio equipment. It’s simply that he has something that I want and that I probably will never have. Should that stop me from pursuing my dreams and trying to obtain those things for myself? I think not.
What about sloth? Sloth may be another word for laziness or leisure. Of course I can easily see how this can be a bad thing in that a lazy person may be dependant on others and do little or nothing for themselves, hence showing a lack of responsibility and ability, but I would hardly consider it immoral. For one thing, some people are this way due to their nature, sometimes because of a very real mental or physical handicap. And even when a perfectly capable person chooses to be lazy, that is their prerogative. I’m not going to consider someone immoral for wanting to take a long break from working and spend their time in leisure instead. Surely it would be absurd to consider it a moral imperative that people be working and productive at all times. We’re human beings, not robots. I can envision a slave-master cracking a whip at a slave and calling them slothful for taking a break from the hard physical labor that they are forced to do.
All of these alleged sins can be and have been propagated in negative ways. Pride as a sin can be used to crush people’s self-esteem. Avarice or greed as a sin can be used to keep people poor or to discourage economic mobility. Lust as a sin can be used to keep the women for oneself or as a method of population control. Anger as a sin can be used to perpetuate dishonesty and to enable bad relationships. Gluttony as a sin can be used to keep people hungry, to essentially starve people. Envy as a sin can be used to discourage people from pursuing their dreams. Sloth as a sin can be used to foster compulsory labor. When they are taken to their logical conclusion and consistently applied, they amount to the total denial of self-interest, desire and personal well-being. Taken as absolutes, they would require people to be mindless automatons with no trace of humanity.
Altruism as slave morality
Let’s take a look at the concept of altruism. Altruism is posited in one form or another by most organised religions. It essentially proposes that the individual has an unchosen positive obligation to serve others and that their fundamental purpose in life is to serve others. On the flip side, self-interest is essentially demonised as immoral. This is a very warped view when broken down rationally. Unfortunately, criticism of altruism is often misunderstood because in most people’s minds altruism is the same thing as benevolence and empathy, but nothing could be further from the truth. Altruism as an ethic implies unchosen positive obligations. If an individual does not live up to this positive obligation they are viewed as immoral rights violators and they are supposed to be compelled to live up to the obligation. After all, an ethical theory without imperatives wouldn’t be functional. In either case, actually choosing to be kind or giving to other people is not fundamentally altruistic because it still involves agency and a genuine desire on the part of the person to benefit another. In true acts of kindness and giving, the emphasis is not on denying oneself but to benefiting another, and the benefit may even be mutual.
Altruism actually leads to nihilism, and the problem of nihilism is something that both Nietzsche and Rand were trying to avoid in their own unique ways (and while Nietzsche was in some ways an immoralist while Rand was quite clearly a moralist, Nietzsche nonetheless essentially proposes a form of egoism as his personal morality). The logical end of altruism is the total devaluation of the self to the point of absolute selflessness. Your life, your values and your property are deprived of value and meaning and you’re expect to act as if they don’t exist or don’t matter. Of course, from my perspective selflessness is impossible both ontologically and psychologically. The self follows from one’s very existence as an individual human being and a human being’s fundamental psychological motivations are inward and personal. However, the attempted implementation of altruism as an ethic does have very real effects.
The notion of unchosen positive obligations, whether it be to a deity, a family or an entire society, is inherently incompatible with negative rights and individual sovereignty. Every positive obligation, to the extent that it is not chosen or not a genuine debt, implies a negative rights violation as soon as it is enforced. The result is that people are coerced to associate with other people and to provide goods and services for other people. The individual is forced to sacrifice their own values, their life and their property, regardless of their circumstances and regardless of their consent. Altruism is at the heart of both communitarianism and dictatorship. In communitarianism, the individual’s life and values and property is sacrificed to “the community” or “the majority”. In dictatorship, the individual’s life and values and property is sacrificed to the dictator and more people can potentially be effected. In either case, in all cases altruism is the morality obligatory upon what amounts to slaves, sometimes subtly and sometimes quite blatantly.
It’s important to note that all of this self-sacrificing, self-denying morality has historically been encouraged by people in political and religious power to get the masses to be complacent or obedient. The masses are discouraged from pursuing their own values and bettering their own lives. What largely goes unnoticed is that this is used to benefit the values and lives of various groups of elites. The masses are encouraged to follow a morality of servitude, and when there are servants there are masters. This is what Nietzsche meant when he drew a distinction between “slave morality” and “master morality”. Slave morality functions as an ideology that masters or rulers can propagate on to get the masses to accept their enslavement to them as a moral imperative. The masters or rulers, of course, don’t actually follow slave morality. They are its beneficiaries. It is just a convenient mentality to propagate to the masses, an apologetic device meant to make it so that servitude seems like a moral imperative. In practise, the masses engage in self-denial to the benefit of a small group of rulers and associated elites. Hence, it’s a parasitic relationship.
If the principle of altruism were universally applied to all human beings, and of course it never is and it would be impossible to do consistently enforce it in the real world, the implication is that everyone is each other’s slave. Since this cannot be realised in practise, since it defies fundamental facts about human existence, motivation and behaviour, what one ends up with is at least two distinct classes of people: the masters and the slaves. Quite likely, the attempt to implement altruism will lead to more of a plural latticework of master-slave relationships while still not reaching the consistent extreme of enslaving everyone to each other. But usually the slaves outnumber the masters by far or a select elite of people function as masters to a much greater degree than anyone else does, and therefore altruism most often leads to some kind of oligarchy, even if it is a mildly democratic oligarchy. Altruism has historically been an apologetic and enabler of both religious and political tyranny.
Master morality, as I interpret it, amounts to hedonism and “might makes right”. Master morality should not be construed as the proper alternative to slave morality, nor is it necessarily the polar opposite of slave morality in a certain context. While master morality is not altruistic, master morality is most certainly not any kind of rational egoism. It is anomie or lawlessness, since the masters are not subject to their own rules. Master morality entails an outwardly oriented sense of self that justifies imposing oneself onto others, sometimes using altruism as a ruse or a mask to hide behind. Rational egoism involves an inwardly oriented sense of self that merely justifies being free from the imposition of others, being at liberty to voluntarily pursue one’s self-interest and values without restraint. The rational egoist proclaims that no one else may rule over them, but simultaneously they do not claim to rule over anyone else. Rulers don’t believe this or function in this way. They claim the right to rule over others while superficially and hypocritically trying to demand that no one else rule over them.
Judaeo-Christian morality essentially proposes slave morality as a solution to master morality. In its zeal to oppose hedonism and anomie, it provides a false alternative that only enables the hedonism and anomie of certain people while devaluing everyone else. A society that is dominantly filled with people who accept slave morality will not have the necessary mindset or attitude to resist the yoke of tyranny. It provides the perfect atmosphere for rulers to arise and dominate the naive masses. The cultural framework of a free society must contain the personal sense of value and purpose necessary for people to actively free themselves, otherwise their lack of confidence and their lack of any genuine sense of self-worth and personal value will enable tyranny. It is time to reject both slave morality and master morality to pursue some meaningful alternatives.