Wherein does Wrongness Lie?

This article first appeared in Total Liberty.

by Wendy McElroy

Any theory of natural rights implies that there are natural wrongs. Benjamin Tucker, editor of the touchstone 19th century individualist anarchist periodical Liberty cared passionately about what was wrong. Indeed, one of Tucker's overriding concerns throughout Liberty was to discover and to express a clear answer to the question, 'what is wrong?'

On the second page of the first issue of Liberty, Tucker published an article entitled "The Anatomy of Liberty" which he began with the words, "Nine-tenths of life is spent in complaining of wrongs and trying to abolish them." Yet he concluded that not one in a hundred reformers were able to define what 'wrong' essentially was. Without a definition of the essential nature of 'wrongness', even well intentioned reformers were likely to become muddled and harm liberty instead of furthering it. Otherwise stated, if the goal of reform was to construct social structures that promoted the well-being of human beings, then it was necessary to have a precise understanding of what constituted such well-being.

Tucker stated the usual sense in which the word 'wrong' had been used politically, "The average standard of condemning a thing as wrong is that it works injustice to some class of individuals." He rejected this definition as scientifically without basis because, "[f]or the class that is injured perhaps a much larger class is benefited by the social practice complained of." Without a clear answer to the question 'what is wrong?', the bulk of reforms were doomed to be nothing more than expressions of class warfare -- that is, one class within society enriching itself at the expense of another.

Analyzing society through a strictly individualist lens, Tucker rejected the possibility of class benefits. He contended that all wrongs were committed against individuals, not against abstract categories of people:

"There are no class rights or class wrongs. A thing is right, now and forever, because it accords with the immutable law of our being. It is wrong, now and forever, because it is opposed to that law. What is that law as it pertains to human relations? is the problem of Liberty.... The law of liberty is spontaneous association by natural selection. The first condition of its normal operation is that the basic factor of social existence, the individual, shall be let entirely and absolutely free to regulate his life as experimental contact with other equally free individuals may seem to direct."[Emphasis in original]

Tucker's statement of right being based on 'the immutable law' of human nature that should be equally applied to all human beings placed him solidly within the Natural Law tradition. When asked his position on law and order, the younger Tucker answered:

"Law! yes: but what law? The law of nature as developed out of a rational analysis of social force and based upon the sovereignty of the individual, or some law manufactured for designing ends before we were born and without our consent?...As brave old Lysander Spooner says, it is absurd to talk about 'making' laws. Laws are, and the only right of a human being is to search after them and obey them for himself, leaving others to do the same, or contrarywise, at their own cost."

Tucker's commitment to Natural Law and to the fundamental question, 'what is wrong', was reiterated in an article entitled "The Philosophy of Right and Wrong". Here Tucker wrote, "the very first step in all reasoning looking to human well-being is to fix upon a correct scientific basis of right and wrong." Although he declared himself to 'very positive' of the natural rights basis of right and wrong, Tucker added a comment that presaged what would become Liberty's most explosive and destructive debate. He declared, "but we are fallible, and, if the history of human opinions teaches anything, it is that nothing in this world is a finality."

From June 30, 1885 to May 1, 1886, Liberty introduced in serial form a classic work of natural rights literature: "A Letter to Grover Cleveland: on His False, Absurd, Self-Contradictory, and Inaugural Address", by Spooner. During this period, regular contributors, such as Lloyd, felt free to proclaim without fear of contradiction, "Only to natural law is the free man responsible, and in his obedience to that law does his liberty consist..."

By late 1886, Tucker had abandoned Natural Law for an ideology called 'philosophical egoism,' which considered natural rights to be 'myths', 'ghosts' in the mind: it defined 'right' as might. Tucker seemed to take easily to philosophical egoism, perhaps because the it fit neatly into at least one aspect of the Sovereignty of the Individual principle espoused by his mentor Warren -- that is, the appeal to enlightened self-interest. Although Warren had maintained a Natural Law perspective, he had rejected altruism as a realistic basis for human action. Egoism must have sounded familiar to Tucker.

The debate that publicly ushered in his conversion was sparked by Max Stirner's pivotal work on law, property, and the State, which was entitled The Ego and His Own (in German, Der Einzige und Sein Eigenthum). Stirner, whose real name was Johann Kaspar Schmidt, had published Der Einzige in German in 1845 to a widespread but short lived acclaim. Although every aspect of 'Stirnerite egoism' stirred argument in radical circles, the claim that 'right was might' became the most controversial. Whatever a man had the might to do, Stirner claimed he also had the right to do.

As for traditional concepts of good and evil, the enlightened egoist realized that these were merely words with no reality behind them. Stirner wrote: "The divine is God's concern; the human, man's. My concern is neither the divine nor the human, not the true, good, just, free, etc., solely what is mine, and it is not a general one, but is -- unique, as I am unique. Nothing is more to me than myself!"

Philosophical anarchism proclaimed that the acting individual and no one else should be the beneficiary of his own actions. A man's own welfare should be his highest value, and the only 'law' he respected. All other laws devolved to nothing more than orders issued by those who were in a position of might -- artificial orders that had no authority to bind the self-enlightened individual. Such an individual had no responsibility but self-enjoyment.

Applying his theory directly to the concept of natural rights, Stirner observed: "Who can ask about 'right' if he is not occupying the religious standpoint just like other people? Is not 'right' a religious concept, i.e. something sacred...When Revolution stamped liberty as a 'right' it took refuge in the religious sphere, in the region of the sacred..."

Thus, with Stirnerite egoism came the rejection of right and wrong -- indeed, the rejection of any obligation whatsoever -- except as the individual voluntarily assumed it by subordinating his will to a contract. Even then, the egoist respected a contract only because establishing reciprocity with fellow human beings was in his enlightened self-interest. The act of contracting became the pivotal point in the egoistic social theory: through contract human beings voluntarily relinquished might (or their will) in favor of obligations to others. Society by rights was replaced with 'society by contract' -- a phrase favored by Tucker.

The conversion to philosophical egoism seemed to fill Tucker with social optimism. He wrote, "Mankind is approaching the real social contract, which is not, as Rousseau thought, the origin of society, but rather the outcome of a long social experience, the fruit of its follies and disasters. It is obvious that this contract, this social law, developed to its perfection, excludes all aggression, all violation of equality of liberty, all invasion of every kind."

In the late 1880s, interest in Stirner among American intellectuals had been stirred by the translations and popularization of his works that had offered by Liberty contributors the newspaperman J.L. Walker, the egoistic anarchist Steven T. Byington, and John Beverly Robinson, a publisher of the land reform periodical The Free Soiler. Walker had independently worked out the principles of egoism for himself some years before reading Stirner and, then, he was amazed to discover the remarkable similarities. Walker published the first twelve chapters of his pioneering work, Philosophy of Egoism, in the May 1890 to September 1891 issues of Egoism. Even before this series appeared, however, Liberty had introduced egoism through a number of articles by Walker and George Schumm, a close associate of Tucker. The American interest in Stirner constituted a rebirth for his philosophy. As Tucker explained in the Publisher's Preface of the 1907 edition of The Ego and His Own:

"The memory of Max Stirner had been virtually extinct for an entire generation. But in the last two decades there has been a remarkable revival of interest both in the book and in its author. It began in this country with a discussion in the pages of the Anarchist periodical, Liberty in which Stirner's thought was clearly expounded and vigorously championed by Dr. James L. Walker, who adopted for this discussion the pseudonym Tak Kak."