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The Foundations of Morality could be seen as an additional chapter to Human Action, by Ludwig von Mises. Mises adopted a utilitarian stance on ethical issues, but Hazlitt wrote a detailed explanation of what Austrian economics implies about utilitarian ethics. Social cooperation under the division of labor is moral because it makes improvements in human welfare possible. Hazlitt ignored all of the false comparisons that mainstream economists of the mid 20th made between real imperfect markets and idealized views of government. Markets enable people to improve their lives, while never achieving perfection. The market process is progressive, and government regulation leads to stagnation and even decline. Moral rules work to minimize conflict and promote social cooperation. "The system of capitalism is a system of freedom, of justice, of productivity". Hazlitt understood Mises and knew how to bring his economics into discussions of natural rights, act utilitarianism, and rule utilitarianism.
Hazlitt also brings the issue of time preference into the discussion of ethics. The idea that immorality derives from high discount rates is so simple that one has to wonder how nobody thought of it before Hazlitt (at least as far as I know). Yet this is a profound insight. Hazlitt is not remembered as a great scholar, but there are few scholars who can claim to have hit upon such an insight.
Whether you agree with Hazlitt or not, any reasonable person should admit that this is a well thought out book. This book is a must read for anyone interested in ethics and economics. Unfortunately, Hazlitt does not have enough of a reputation to get the attention he deserves. There is an abridged version for those who want to economize on their time, but either way, read this book!
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Henry Hazlitt was the author of 17 books. He is best known in libertarian and conservative circles for his outstanding, ECONOMICS IN ONE LESSON. He also wrote a fascinating book on ethics entitles, THE FOUNDATIONS OF MORALITY. This is a comprehensive work on the foundations of ethics. According to Hazlitt, the foundation of morality is social cooperation and from this principle he develops a variation of rule utilitarianism. Drawing upon the free enterprise tradition in general and the economic theory of von Mises in particular, Hazlitt argues that actions are good that promote social happiness, and the best way to achieve this is through the free enterprise system. Hazlit therefore rejects other approaches to ethics, such as natural law or religious based morality. The best portion of this work is how Hazlitt relates utilitarianism and self-interest. One argument against utilitarianism is that by making the social good the basis of morality, all self-interest and initiative is destroyed. But as Hazlitt shows, those acts that are in our own self-interest tend to increase the overall happiness of society. If all my acts had to motivated by a desire to save starving people in the four corners of the world, neither they nor I would be likely be any better off as a result. After he describes the foundations of ethics, he takes up some practical issues. For example, there are two outstanding chapters which discuss the relative morality of capitalism and socialism. This book contains a brief introduction by Prof. Leland Yeager, who has written a book on ethics from a similar perspective entitled, ETHICS AS A SOCIAL SCIENCE: THE MORAL PHILOSOPHY OF SOCIAL COOPERATION. For a different view on ethics from a libertarian perspective, check out Murray Rothbard's, THE ETHICS OF LIBERTY.
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Henry Hazlitt's "Foundations of Morality" is a book that presents a case for rule utilitarianism - the idea that the best way to judge whether an act is or is not moral is whether it follows a rule that, if followed by all, would lead to the greatest good for all. In other words, a rule utilitarian would judge whether or not it is good to pick up litter off the street, go over the speed limit, or loan money to friends, would be to ask whether, if everyone followed that rule, the greatest good for the greatest number would be achieved.
Hazlitt contrasts this with act utilitarianism, which is the idea that each act should be judged separately for its capacity to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. What's the difference? Take our example about whether it is moral to go over the speed limit. The act utilitarian might say that it is moral to go over the speed limit in some instances because there may be a greater good involved (quickly getting to a friend in need maybe). The act utilitarian would suggest that it is not moral to go over the speed limit because were everyone to do it, driving would become less pleasant for everyone. Therefore, even if there are individual situations where a greater good is satisfied by speeding, the act is still immoral because the greatest good is achieved from everyone following the traffic rules.
This leads to perhaps Hazlitt's main thesis: individual self-interest and social good coincide more often than we may think (as long as we see self-interest as long- rather than short-term). Some may say that my self-interest is to speed. Hazlitt would point out that over the long-term, though, EVERYONE including myself would benefit from EVERYONE following the 'no speeding' laws.Read more ›