Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense (Evil to Him That Thinks It)
By Richard Girard
"Self-interest, or rather self-love, or egoism, has been more plausibly substituted as the basis of morality. But I consider our relations with others as constituting the boundaries of morality. With ourselves, we stand on the ground of identity, not of relation, which last, requiring two subjects, excludes self-love confined to a single one. To ourselves, in strict language, we can owe no duties, obligation requiring also two parties. Self-love, therefore, is no part of morality. Indeed, it is exactly its counterpart." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Law, 1814. Complete Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Memorial Edition; volume14: page 140 ; 1904.
There are times when I get hold of a subject, and I simply cannot let go of it until I have said everything I can think of to say on the subject. And Ayn Rand's quasi-philosophy of Objectivism definitely has me in bulldog with bone mode.
The quote from Thomas Jefferson above is my starting point today. Our nation's third President was a true polymath: an expert on broad areas of knowledge from history to economics to botany to law to agronomy to politics to literature. JFK was correct when he stated at a dinner for Nobel laureates that it was the greatest collection of minds the White House had seen since Thomas Jefferson had dined alone. When Jefferson donated his library to the Library of Congress to help replace the one burned by the British in 1814, there were some 6200 volumes in that collection. And he had read them all.
"But I consider our relations with others as constituting the boundaries of morality."
Let us examine this statement and its implications.
Do human beings who are on their own have any rational system of morality to practice or maintain?
The answer to this is quite simple: no.
If they are completely on their own, human beings have one overriding purpose: survival. This is driven (according to neuroscience) by the reptilian amygdala, not by the rational forebrain. A single human being (for example, stranded on a desert isle) is not a human being: he is an animal, seeking to survive, by any means necessary.
If it is between two people, one hopes that the system is not of one dominating the other, but rather a system of equals with defined if not identical roles and responsibilities, where fairness and individual ability are taken into account. If it is a system of involuntary dominance, there is a very good chance that the dominating individual will wake up one morning alone or dead, since such relationships have a tendency to become abusive, or that in an act of anger the dominant will kill the submissive partner. Either way, we can see that in a system of dominance, what Jefferson would say today is that the boundaries of morality are broken, and this may have been where his own guilty conscience was at work at the thought of holding slaves. In Jefferson's defense, he never had the money to free his slaves, even his own illegitimate children. Under the laws of the Commonwealth, his former slaves would have had to leave Virginia immediately, as a condition of their manumission, or face torture as well as once again become slaves. Jefferson, a brilliant politician with a poor head for business, never had the money to pay for the resettlement of his freed slaves, as his fellow slave owner George Washington did in his will. Without resettlement money, any slave he freed would almost certainly have ended up slaves in another state sooner rather than later.
When we consider groups of three or more people, some sort of moral system becomes increasingly necessary (even inevitable), in direct proportion to the total number of people involved. The more rationally based and flexible a system is, and the more equitably that it is created, maintained, and enforced, the more likely that system will survive in the long term.
"Egoism, in a broader sense, has been... presented as the source of moral action. It has been said that we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, bind up the wounds of the man beaten by thieves, pour oil and wine into them, set him on our own beast and bring him to the inn, because we receive ourselves pleasure from these acts... These good acts give us pleasure, but how happens it that they give us pleasure? Because nature hath implanted in our breasts a love of others, a sense of duty to them, a moral instinct, in short, which prompts us irresistibly to feel and to succor their distresses... The Creator would indeed have been a bungling artist had he intended man for a social animal without planting in him social dispositions. It is true they are not planted in every man, because there is no rule without exceptions; but it is false reasoning which converts exceptions into the general rule." --Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Law, 1814. The Complete Writings of Thomas Jefferson; Memorial Edition; volume 14: page 141; 1904.
Scientists are just beginning to discover the inherent streak of democracy in many animals, carnivores and herbivores, which exist in a herd or pack structure. Historians and anthropologists are rediscovering the underlying democratic institutions of peoples as diverse as the Iroquois Confederacy, the Celts of pre-Roman Britain, and the Saxons.
Thom Hartmann in his book What Would Jefferson Do? looks at the Iroquois as well as the Celts of pre-Roman Britain and the Saxons of early England, and their democratic institutions, in Chapter 3, "People and Events That Influenced America's Founders." Using the Roman historian Tacitus, and the Eighteenth Century English historian Paul de Rapin Thoyras (who both Jefferson and Adams agreed was the source of English history most free of Royalist taint); Hartmann examines the balance of power that existed between the people and their leaders among the Celts and Saxons. He also looks at the influence the democratic Iroquois Confederacy had on our Constitution, most especially in the creation of three separate but equal branches of government.