Exclusive Interviews
Tibor Machan on Morality, Ethics, Ayn Rand and More
By Anthony Wile - January 26, 2014

Introduction: Tibor Machan is currently Professor Emeritus, Department of Philosophy, Auburn University, Alabama, and holds the R. C. Hoiles Endowed Chair in Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics, Chapman University. He is also a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. Machan, who earned BA (Claremont McKenna College), MA (New York University) and Ph.D. (University of California at Santa Barbara) degrees in philosophy, has written numerous books and papers in the field of philosophy, including on issues surrounding the free market. Machan was selected as the 2003 President of the American Society for Value Inquiry, and delivered the presidential address on December 29, 2002, in Philadelphia, at the Eastern Division meetings of the American Philosophical Association, titled "Aristotle & Business."

Daily Bell: You are a philosopher and a professor. As the holder of the R.C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business & Economics at Chapman University in Orange, California, you deal with moral and ethical questions all the time. Today we want to ask you some. Let's talk about morality. What is morality? Where do ethics fit in?

Tibor Machan: Morality and ethics are the same, guidelines for human conduct. So it would be the morality or ethics of utilitarianism or altruism or egoism, etc.

Daily Bell: What is ethical behavior? Are there certain ethical behaviors that apply to business and commerce especially?

Tibor Machan: Ethical behavior or conduct is whatever accords with principles that people ought to follow, identified within the most sensible, rational school of morality or ethics. So, for instance, being honest or prudent, or generous or courageous would all accord with Aristotelian or eudaemonist ethics. If this school of ethics is the most rational, sensible one for guiding human conduct, then adhering to or practicing or following such virtues would amount to being ethical or moral. A good person would do so whereas someone with flawed moral character would not.

Daily Bell: Morality strikes us immutable whereas ethics strike us as personal. Comment?

Tibor Machan: Not so. Given that morality and ethics are two terms for the same thing, namely, proper human conduct, neither is "personal." (If either would be, that would render being morally or ethical good or bad something subjective and arbitrary.)

Daily Bell: Are human beings hard-wired for certain moral behaviors?

Tibor Machan: No. Morality or ethics presuppose that we are free to choose how to conduct ourselves, how to act.

Daily Bell: Are principles, and virtues character traits. Are they part of ethics?

Tibor Machan: Yes, principles would become character traits for a good human being. At first they would be taught to children and slowly they would begin to cultivate them for themselves.

Daily Bell: Are there different kinds of moral and ethical codes?

Tibor Machan: Different schools of moral or ethical codes are defended by different philosophers, theologians, etc. But in the end human beings only have one such school that applies to them, at least at the fundamental level, basically. So a good person is such anywhere and anytime. The details, of course, differ because of circumstances so, for instance, a parent would be negligent for failing to keep a young (dependent) child warm in cold weather but not in warm weather.

Daily Bell: Can one be ethical even if one has "lapses"?

Tibor Machan: Yes, one can be more or less ethical (or moral) because being free to choose how one acts makes it possible to do what is right all the time, most of the time, nearly always or never. One useful analogy is in medicine: One can be more or less healthy.

Daily Bell: Does one need to follow certain religious teachings to be ethical or moral?

Tibor Machan: No but a great many human beings draw on the ethical teachings of their religious faith, teachings that can, however, be philosophically criticized.

Daily Bell: Can a government be ethical?

Tibor Machan: Like any organized human institution it would be those who hold office who could be ethical or not. And if most of those who hold office turn out to be corrupt or venal, than the institution itself would have to be judged such.

Daily Bell: How about a nation?

Tibor Machan: Same thing except a nation may have basic legal principles (stated in a constitution) that are more or less sound for guiding community life.

Daily Bell: Corporations are invented by judicial fiat not by the market. Can corporations be ethical creations?

Tibor Machan: Corporations are established by human beings, as are clubs or orchestras or athletic teams. "Judicial fiat" is simply a denigration of this by those who disapprove of corporations. Or it means only that such organizations are not found in the nonhuman world, the wilds, but are established by people and as such can reflect the character of those who establish and maintain them. (Unfortunately, at the start most institutions were created by rulers – monarchs, tzars, et al. It took a while in human history for the demotion or replacement of such rulers and placement of ordinary folks in the role of creators.)

Daily Bell: Are free markets ethical or moral?

Tibor Machan: A market is a sphere of human economic activity and if those acting in the sphere act mainly decently, it can make sense to characterize it as ethical or moral; if the people fail to act ethically or morally in the market, then the market becomes morally tainted.

Daily Bell: Can war be ethical or moral?

Tibor Machan: Only if it is a defensive one, in response to aggression.

Daily Bell: Should we be morally opposed to the suffering of others? Of all others?

Tibor Machan: Makes no sense since much of human suffering isn't the result of human action or agency. No one is guilty of misconduct or malpractice if a virus attacks millions of people (unless human negligence was a contributory cause).

Daily Bell: Is there such a thing as goodness?

Tibor Machan: Just as there is such a thing as health, beauty, etc. It is a general condition showing people carrying on morally or ethically!

Daily Bell: Is there such a thing as justice?

Tibor Machan: There can be, if people acting toward one another do so decently, conscientiously and if the institutions they create and maintain follow sound ethical and political principles.

Daily Bell: How ought justice apply to society?

Tibor Machan: If the rights of those in society are properly identified and protected, the society can be said to be a just one.

Daily Bell: Is law enforcement more important than justice? J. Edgar Hoover thought so.

Tibor Machan: Law enforcement that fails to follow principles of justice (e.g., due process) is corrupt.

Daily Bell: How is it possible for people to spend years and decades in jail for crimes that are later decriminalized? Marijuana comes to mind.

Tibor Machan: Mistakes, venality or ill will and such are responsible.

Daily Bell: Is the state the repository of justice? Of morality?

Tibor Machan: The state is a bunch of people who have grabbed power over others without the permission of these others or with limited permission that has been corrupted. (A physician or athletic coach can also have power over others and then abuse it.)

Daily Bell: Is morality inherently personal?

Tibor Machan: It is, of course, persons who either follow or do not follow moral principles and in this sense morality is something personal but if it is a sound morality or ethics, it rests on objective facts, not personal visions or hopes or wishes.

Daily Bell: Are ethics personal?

Tibor Machan: Since ethics and morality are the same – only morality tends to address interpersonal while ethics mostly personal conduct, no.

Daily Bell: Can an atheist be moral or ethical?

Tibor Machan: Of course.

Daily Bell: Are churches inherently moral or ethical? What are the determinant factors?

Tibor Machan: Depends on the conduct of those who administer them as well as those who "belong" to them.

Daily Bell: What is the difference between conscience and reason?

Tibor Machan: The former is a depository of good character traits, the latter the faculty by which that depository is kept "clean" or functioning properly.

Daily Bell: Is the greatest possible moral good in life happiness?

Tibor Machan: Human happiness is the proper goal of the morally good life.

Daily Bell: Does true happiness result from doing what is best for the individual?

Tibor Machan: If you say "the human individual" then yes.

Daily Bell: Are moral guidelines and rules based on reason as opposed to emotion and faith?

Tibor Machan: The ones that are sound do but sometimes emotion and faith happen to sustain sound moral values.

Daily Bell: You have made it clear you've been influenced by Ayn Rand. Yet she was deeply opposed to the libertarian movement of her time – a movement we believe has had a big impact in the Internet era based on its fusion of free-market philosophy and economics. Ayn Rand didn't see it that way. Rand disapproved of the conduct of many libertarian luminaries and so didn't wish to be associated with libertarianism. But in substance her politics was entirely libertarian. Here, from pp.72-76 of Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q&A, ed. Robert Mayhew, are some quotes of hers. Please respond.

Rand: Capitalism is the one system that requires absolute objective law, yet libertarians combine capitalism and anarchism. It's a mockery of philosophy and ideology.


Tibor Machan: I have addressed this issue at considerable length in the book edited by Rod Long and me, Anarchism/Minarchism, Is a Government Part of a Free Country? (Ashgate,2008)

Daily Bell: Rand: Anarchists are the scum of the intellectual world of the Left, which has given them up. That's the libertarian movement. Response?

Tibor Machan: Not worthy of comment since it is an outburst, not a philosophical comment at all.

Daily Bell: Rand: Libertarians are a monstrous, disgusting bunch of people: they … want an amoral political program. Response?

Tibor Machan: I recall that back in the 1940s Rand called herself a libertarian. But more to the point, not everything that very smart and even wise folks say should be taken seriously.

Daily Bell: Rand: Project a society of millions, in which there is every kind of viewpoint, every kind of brain, every kind of morality and no government. That's the Middle Ages, your no-government society. Man was left at the mercy of bandits … Government is an absolute necessity if individual rights are to be protected, because you don't leave force at the arbitrary whim of other individuals. Response?

Tibor Machan: If one replaces "government" with "a sound legal system," Rand's point is on the mark.

Daily Bell: Here at the Daily Bell, we would tend to believe that there are underlying moral behaviors but that people might have different ethical codes. In our articles and editorials we've broached the idea that ethics can extend to investments. That is, one might wish to invest based on one's own code of ethics. Feasible?

Tibor Machan: Governments, like other human institutions, can be more or less civilized and soundly founded and run. No general attitude toward governments should be formed without extensive reflection and knowledge of history.

Daily Bell: Why do people believe that "green" investing is inevitably ethical, and even moral?

Tibor Machan: There have always been fads that have been embraced by even some smart people and "green" appears to be one of these. (Just ask: "Why do people join any one of hundreds of questionable movements?")

Daily Bell: Is it possible that most of what people believe is ethical and moral when it comes to investing is not?

Tibor Machan: This is not my expertise, sorry; but I know dozens of financial investors who are ethical.

Daily Bell: Is it possible that people are not thinking for themselves when it comes to moral or ethical investing?

Tibor Machan: Millions probably aren't very careful and prudent about these and dozens of other matters they should pay better attention to.

Daily Bell: Why hasn't there been more written about this issue?

Tibor Machan: Professional investing is quite new and difficult to master.

Daily Bell: Is monopoly central banking ethical or moral? Are its results – the society that flows from it – ethical or moral?

Tibor Machan: No coercive monopolies can be ethical or moral.

Daily Bell: Should free-market thinkers pursue their own ethical perspectives in a disciplined way?

Tibor Machan: There is no "one's own ethical perspective" any more than there is "one's own physics or mechanical engineering or arithmetic."

Daily Bell: Shouldn't people try to think through their assumptions when it comes to investing, as they do in the rest of their lives?

Tibor Machan: Yes, at least to the point of finding advisers who can be of help to them as with medicine or other specialties.

Daily Bell: Any other thoughts or comments on this issue? On others?

Tibor Machan: Well, I have now written some 45 books and whatever I have so say that might be useful would be in those.

Daily Bell: Any ideas for additional reading or viewing?

Tibor Machan: Ancient, Modern & Contemporary Individualism (Addelton Academic Publishers, 2014)

Influential Political Systems and Philosophers in History (San Diego, CA: Cognella Academic Publ.2011)

Rebellion in Print (Addelton Academic Publishers, 2011)

The Normative Defense of Free Market Capitalism; Did the Free Market Cause the Financial Fiasco? (Addelton Academic Publishers, 2011)

Philosophy with Meaning (Addelton Academic Publishers, 2011)

Why Everyone Else is Wrong (Springer, 2011)

Equality, So Badly Misunderstood (Addelton Academic Publishers, 2011)

Az Üzleti Etika Alapkérdései (Assumptions of Business Ethics) (Budapest, Helikon Kiado, 2010)

Generosita, Virtu civile (Italy: Liberilibri, 2008)

The promise of liberty: a non-utopian vision (Lexington Books, 2008).

Ayn Rand, Ihr Werk (Grevenbroich, DE: Lichtschlag Medien und Werbung Gm 2008)

The Georgia Lectures (Berlin, DE: Friedrich Neuman Foundation, 2007)

The Right Road to Radical Freedom (Imprint Academic, 2007)

The Morality of Business: A Profession for Wealthcare (New York: Springer, 2007)

Libertarianism Defended (Ashgate, 2006)

Kebebasan dan Kebudayaan. Gagasan tentang Masyarakat Bebas (Freedom Institute: Kedutaan Besar Amerika Serikat Jakarta & Yayasan, 2006)

Revisiting Marxism: A Bourgeois Reassessment (Hamilton Books, 2006).

Libertarianism, For and Against, w/C. Duncan (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005)

The Man Without a Hobby (Hamilton Books, 2004)

Objectivity: Recovering Determinate Reality (London, UK: Ashgate, 2004)

Neither Left nor Right, Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004)

Putting Humans First, Why We Are Nature's Favorites (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004)

The Liberty Option (Imprint Academic, 2003)

The Passion for Liberty (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003)

The Right to Private Property (Hoover Institution Press, 2002)

A Primer on Business Ethics w/J. Chesher (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002)

Initiative: Human Agency and Society (Hoover Institution Press, 2000)

Ayn Rand (Peter Lang, 2000)

The Business of Commerce w/J. Chesher (Hoover Institution Press, 1999)

Classical Individualism (Routledge, 1998)

Generosity; Virtue in the Civil Society (Cato Institute, 1998)

Why Freedom Must be First (Hoover Institution Press, 1997)

A Primer on Ethics (University of Oklahoma Press, 1997)

Private Rights & Public Illusions (Transaction, 1995).

The Virtue of Liberty (Foundation for Economic Education, 1994).

Liberalisme, Ethique et Valuers Morales (Institut Euro 92, 1993).

Capitalism and Individualism: Reframing the Argument for the Free Society (St. Martin's Publ. Co. & Harvester Wheatsheaf Books, 1990).

A Dialogue Partly on Political Liberty [w/J. N. Nelson] (University Press of America, 1990)

Liberty and Culture: Essays on the Idea of a Free Society (Prometheus Books, 1989).

Individuals and Their Rights (Open Court, 1989).

The Moral Case for the Free Market Economy (The Edwin Mellen Press, 1989, rev. [English] version of Freedom Philosophy).

Freedom Philosophy (AB Timbro, 1987).

Introduction to Philosophical Inquiries (Allyn & Bacon, 1977; University Press of America, 1985).

Human Rights and Human Liberties (Nelson-Hall, 1975, [2nd edition 2010]).

The Pseudo-Science of B.F. Skinner (Arlington House, 1973; Hamilton Books, 2006).

After Thoughts

We thank Tibor for this erudite and eloquent interview – and for his entire bibliographic history at the end.

Here is our take on ethics – which may differ slightly from the master.

We see morality as a kind of biological imperative. Most people seem born knowing it is wrong to kill, steal, etc. The Ten Commandments – a good part of them – seem to create a kind of universal tapestry of accepted behavior.

Ethics, on the other hand, seem to us to be slightly more personal. One can have a "code of ethics" – though we have never heard of someone having a "code of morality."

Here is a definition of ethics from Miriam Webster: "Rules of behavior based on ideas about what is morally good and bad."

One could say, when it comes to investing especially, that people's ethics – internal rules – seem to differ. Some are "green" investors and some are not. Some believe in markets; some believe markets are immoral.

When it comes to investing, in particular, it seems that people tend to adopt elite dominant social themes if they want to invest ethically. Here at The Daily Bell, we tend to believe that people can hold different ethical codes – and we choose not promote pre-digested ones.

We think bitcoin may not be what it seems to be and so we will not be promoting it. And likewise, you won't see us singing the praises of companies that have "carbon capture technology," no matter how sophisticated.

Perhaps we are blazing new ground here at the Bell, but if so it is overdue.

We would urge people to invest according to their own ethical lights – and to think them through. If you believe in the free-market, then let your economic life reflect it.

We'll be commenting more on this concept from time to time.

And thanks again to Tibor for his eloquent enunciation of the basics.

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