Pierre Goodrich on Ethics and Responsibility in Less-Free Societies
By David Henderson
At a conference I was at on Friday, we discussed the late Pierre Goodrich’s Liberty Fund Basic Memorandum. Goodrich is the person who started Liberty Fund and devoted his sizable fortune to it. I feel grateful to him whenever I think about him. I never met him, although I did meet, and very much enjoyed, his co-author the late Ben Rogge.
In Part IV, “Ethics of the Individual,” he writes:
It seems self-evident that the government and society in which the Liberty Fund is created do not comply with the ideal of the Liberty Fund Basic Memorandum, Part I. Nor is it a society of the opposite idea. It is closer to the opposite than it is to the Liberty Fund ideal, but there are great areas of ethical choices and responsibility still left.
There are two controversial ideas in that short paragraph. The first is that U.S. society at the time he was writing, 1961, was closer to totalitarianism than to a free society. I disagree with that, but I want to focus on the second controversial idea.
That second idea is the implication that in an unfree society there is not room for ethical choices or responsibility. Au contraire, I think that even in a concentration camp there are ethical issues for the prisoners. But short of that, in a society in which government has immense control over us, there are many ethical issues that we, the subjects, would face. For example, you live in Nazi Germany and, let’s say, there is a law requiring that you turn in any Jew in hiding that you see. There is no risk, or very little risk, to you from not turning in Jews. Should you turn in Jews? I say no. That’s the ethical choice I would make. QED1.
Or even take American society, which, of course, is much, much freer than Nazi Germany. There’s a law requiring that people not employ illegal immigrants. You know of a firm in your city that hires illegal immigrants. Should you turn the employer in? I think not. Another ethical choice. QED2.