Montreal, June 24, 2007 No 231




Dr. Edward W. Younkins is a Professor of Accountancy and Business Administration at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia.




by Edward W. Younkins


          A social system such as capitalism is a system of relationships and cannot be moral or immoral in the sense that a person can be only individuals can be moral agents. However, a social system can be moral in its effects if it promotes the possibility and likelihood of moral behavior of mindful human beings who act within it. It follows then, that because the formation of a social system is an act of men, there is a moral imperative to create the kind of political and economic system that permits the greatest possibility for self-determination and moral agency. Capitalism is that system.


          A number of thinkers have commented on the different senses in which a system can be said to be moral and in which an individual human being can be said to be moral. For example, in his The Morality of Law, legal philosopher Lon L. Fuller distinguishes between what he calls the "the morality of duty" and the "morality of aspiration."

          Fuller explains that the morality of duty begins at the bottom of human achievement and establishes the fundamental rules that are necessary to have an ordered society. He says that the basic rules impose duties regarding what is necessary in order to have social life. According to Fuller, natural rights create a universal enforceable duty with regard to just conduct but not with respect to good conduct. In the morality of duty penalties take priority over rewards and objective standards can be applied to deviations from adequate performance. It is not the function of the morality of duty to compel a man through the law to live the good and virtuous life of reason. The law, through the enforcement of natural rights, can only create the prerequisite conditions necessary, but not sufficient, for the attainment of one's personal flourishing in society. Securing the social order through protected natural rights places restrictions on the means a person can use to pursue his happiness.

          Fuller points out that the type of justification that characterizes judgments of duty does not apply with respect to the morality of aspiration. He says that the morality of aspiration is reflected in the Greek philosophy of excellence, challenging ideals, and the Good Life. It follows that the morality of aspiration exists at the highest rank of human achievement. Fuller notes that the ancients properly saw that the word "virtue" belongs in the vocabulary of the morality of aspiration and not in the vocabulary of the morality of duty. In the sphere of the morality of aspiration, a person makes value judgments and praise and reward take precedence over disapproval and punishment. It is clear that virtuous conduct far surpasses the realm of natural rights which are neutral regarding the variety of ways in which a person could choose to pursue his happiness.

          In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith's idea of justice approximates Fuller's idea of the morality of duty. Smith thus sets justice apart from all of the other virtues. In addition, both Herbert Spencer's "law of equal freedom" and Robert Nozick's "framework for utopia" emphasize the importance of negative freedom so that each person can pursue his happiness as he sees it best for him to do so. Also, although Ayn Rand promulgated what Fuller would call a morality of aspiration, derived natural rights and all of Objectivism's other moral principles by way of ethical egoism, and did not use the word "duty," she still spoke of natural rights that must be respected by every human being.

          Most recently, in their book, Norms of Liberty, Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl explain that liberalism is not an equinormative system and that metanormative and normative levels of ethical principles are split because of their different relationships to self-perfection. This two-level ethical structure consists of metanorms (i.e., political norms) and personal ethical norms. They maintain that natural rights are an ethical concept not concerned directly with human flourishing. Natural rights are concerned with context-setting and regulate the conditions under which personal moral conduct can exist. Natural rights, as metanormative principles, are based on the universal characteristics of human nature that call for the protection and preservation of the possibility of self-directedness.

"Capitalism is a political and economic system in which an individual's rights to life, liberty, and property are protected by law. It is the system most able to make personal flourishing possible."

          We could say that natural rights are derived by reason and supply a comprehensive principle that applies universally to all persons and to all acts. These natural rights provide a context of self-directedness in which human actions take place and determine the moral principles that establish what is permissible within that context. The doctrine of natural rights informs people as to what restrictions they must accept. These deontic restrictions are correlative to the rights of others. Natural rights can, therefore, be viewed as moral prohibitions against imposing specific forms of treatment upon other people. They provide a sphere of defensible authority for individuals to live their own lives according to their nature as individual human beings. Because natural rights cannot secure themselves, securing natural rights becomes the primary and central concern of the political and legal order. Politics and law should be concerned only with peace and security and should be separated from personal morality.

          Common features give rise to universal standards. It follows that natural rights are based on the common aspects of human beings whereas each life to be lived is the life of some individual person. This implies that the ultimate justification of an ethic of flourishing individualism is agent-based endorsing each person's pursuit of his individual well-being or eudaimonia. We can properly say that the doctrines of natural rights and human flourishing are complementary systematizing principles within an ethical framework that is rational because it contains both of these coordinating and integrating components. Based on the nature of man and the world, natural rights can be identified and an appropriate political order can be instituted.

          Capitalism is itself only a means and leaves it to the individual to decide the types of goals to be pursued. The intellectual basis of capitalism is that the individual is free and has certain inviolable natural rights. Within a system of capitalism, the proper role of government is simply to enable people to pursue happiness on their own. Happiness cannot be given to people they must attain it through their own efforts. The government cannot supply more than the prerequisite conditions.

          No economic system can make good men or make men good. The best that an economic system can do is to allow men to be good. Morality requires the freedom to be immoral. Capitalism, the system that maximizes this freedom, cannot guarantee a moral society; however, it is a necessary condition for one. Only when an individual has choice and bears responsibility for his actions can he be moral. Choice (i.e., free will) is the foundation of virtue. Morality involves choice and the use of practical reason in making that choice. Capitalism is consistent with the fundamental moral principles of life itself and, compared to other economic systems, is the most conducive to the use of man's free will, which makes moral behavior possible. Capitalism is the only social system that is in accord with the central role that practical reason plays in the moral lives of persons.

          The highly individualized and self-directed nature of personal flourishing requires that practical reason be employed by a person confronting the particular and contingent facts of his concrete situation and determining at the time of action what is, in those circumstances, good and proper for him. Capitalism is the only system that protects and permits such conduct and therefore is a system compatible with human flourishing.

          Capitalism is a political and economic system in which an individual's rights to life, liberty, and property are protected by law. It is the system most able to make personal flourishing possible. By securing personal freedom, capitalism makes the successful pursuit of individual happiness more likely. A capitalist society can be viewed as a just society because all individuals are considered to be equal under the law.

          Capitalism is derived from a worldview that holds that: (1) man's mind is competent to deal with reality; (2) the purpose of natural rights is to protect self-directedness; (3) it is morally proper for each person to strive for his personal flourishing and happiness; (4) the only appropriate social system is one in which the initiation of physical force is forbidden; and (5) it is not necessary to first reach metaphysical or religious agreement to agree on the desirability of an arrangement in which people do not use violence or fraud to injure others or deprive others of their legitimately held possessions. Capitalism is the only moral social system because it protects a man's primary means of survival and flourishing his mind.