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The Moral Value of Liberty

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The following is an early essay of mine published in Nomos in spring of 1984. 


The Moral Value of Liberty

According to the view that there are no objective values, there are no ways in which one ought to act; there are simply ways in which one prefers to act. One may prefer to treat others as if they were valuable, but not because they are actually valuable. One may prefer to believe the truth that there are no valid values, but not because one ought to believe the truth. One may doubt the coherence of this point of view, one may even suspect that there is something in the world of objective value—then one ought to read this essay.

For my understanding of the nature of objective value and of the value of individual liberty, I owe much to the work of Ayn Rand and Robert Nozick. The whole view and some of the parts of the whole presented in this essay are only my own. But the view may also serve as an introduction and invitation to the recent work of Nozick on the foundations of ethics in his wonderful book Philosophical Explanations (1981).


The Birthplace of Value

A value which is valuable not purely as a means to further value beyond itself is termed by Nozick an intrinsic value. It is valuable in itself. Distinguished from intrinsic value is instrumental value. Instrumental value is instrumental to extrinsic value; it derives its value from value lying beyond itself, from the valuable end for which it is means.

In even the simplest organism, we see intrinsic and instrumental values. The life of an organism itself is of intrinsic value; the conditions required for its life are of instrumental value. In the simpler organisms, these values merely supervene the living action. They characterize and distinguish all living action, but in the absence of sufficient consciousness they do not draw the living action forth. The values displayed in the simple organism are achieved by efficient causes quite “blind” to the value they render.

Consider the butterfly. Butterflies of the Heliconious species H. hewitsoni deposit their eggs selectively on the shoots of the Passiflora species P. pittieri, selecting both this particular vine and the proper stage of its development. If the shoot is too young, the hatching caterpillars may devour the shoot before its leaves appear; if the shoot is too old, the leaves will be too tough. In either circumstance the young caterpillars would starve (Gilbert 1982). But the butterfly does not seek out the proper place to deposit eggs in order to produce progeny.

The actions of a relatively simple organism such as a butterfly, vital to itself and/or its species, are performed without the operation of final causes (sufficiently global to effect the result). The lives of human beings, however, spring largely from final causes. Because of our mode of consciousness, we are capable of being drawn towards ends extensive in scope and number. If life is not among our ends, if we do not make it an operative value of ours, then we shall tend to die on that account.

It is in a world of living things that value arises. The simple organism organizes itself into a highly interdependent system; the parts of the whole which it is produce each other reciprocally. Each part not only exists by means of the other parts but also appears to exist for the sake of the others and of the whole. In this pattern there is, as we shall see, something profoundly important for beings such as we. Organisms can operate for us as an intrinsic value; they can be of intrinsic value for us. Some things can be of intrinsic value for us, and in that very valuation we can be intrinsic value.


Objective Value

Objects of the self, including the self as object of its own reflection, can be of value for the self as subject. The self as subject and only the self as subject can be value. But just as the self cannot be the subject it is without having been subject to external objects, so the self cannot be the value it is without external objects of value to it. And just as the self cannot be the subject it is without also being the self-reflective object it is, so the self cannot the value it is without being of that value to itself.

Which things can be of objective intrinsic value? Robert Nozick has given good reasons to think that the objective dimension of intrinsic value is degree of organic unity. An organic unity unifies a diversity of what constitutes the parts of the whole. The degree of organic unity of X (an action, entity, event, or state of affairs) is a function of the degree of unifiedness of the unified material relative to a set of unifying relations, and a function of the degree of diversity of that material relative to a set of dimensions along which the materials differ or are similar. The intrinsic value of X is the sum of the degree of organic unity of the whole it is plus the values arising from the degrees of organic unity of each of its parts (Nozick 1981, 103–4, 415–24).

The phenomenon of organic unity appears not only in living organisms and ecological systems but also in the realm of art, in the structure of abstract theories, and in the functioning of machines and toys. A work of art, for example, by relation to its creation or contemplation, can be of intrinsic value because its organic unity contributes to the intrinsic value of the creation or contemplation.

Our lives, our selves are capable of immense intrinsic value. A familiar passage of Ayn Rand’s can here be seen in a new light: “Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy—a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values. . . . And when one experiences the kind of pure happiness that is an end in itself—the kind that makes one think: “This is worth living for”—what one is greeting and affirming in emotional terms is the fact that life is an end in itself” (Rand 1964, 29). The state of being giving rise to this happiness is not only valuable because it preserves the life of such a being; such a being is all the more valuable (and worth preserving) because highly organically unified.

That there be an objective basis for intrinsic value is not sufficient for the operation of value in the world. Nozick has taken an approach somewhat similar to Rand’s approach to bridging the traditional gap between descriptive fact and operative value. “We choose or determine that there be values, that they exist, but their character is independent of us. . . . The choice that there be value is reflexive . . . [for] it chooses that there be value in virtue of that very choosing that there be value” (Nozick 1981, 555–60). In addition, this choice is an instance of the policy of valuing value, of responding to value as value, “a policy that is reflexively and self-subsumingly brought into effect in that very choice” (560).

Although the character of the value so willed is not up to us, there is no one objectively correct set or weighting of values to be realized. The choice that there be value is made in the valuation of particular things, and not all values are compossible. We see, then, that within objective limits there remains room for creativity “in the weighting and balancing of different values, in forming a life embodying a new and original organic unity of diverse constituent values” (565).


Ethical Conduct

Utilizing the hypothesis that degree of organic unity is the objective dimension of intrinsic value, Nozick is able to explain how responsiveness to intrinsic value is intrinsically valuable. He further suggests that we might understand the notion of an act one prima facie ought to do, as an act that is responsive to some value. He holds, however, that value is also to be pursued because one is thereby being responsive to it as value. This suggests that value might be characterized as that to which one prima facieought to be responsive. In Nozick’s theory, value and ought each require support from the other notion (529­–31).

The moral ought is distinguished within the wider concept of ought by the kind of value giving rise to it. The characteristic of ourselves and of others in virtue of which both are owed ethical behavior is being a value-seeking I. This fundamental characteristic, an end in itself, is intrinsically and highly valuable.

From this characteristic arises the fundamental principle of ethics: Treat one who is a value-seeking I as a value-seeking I. Treat her as (or in accordance with her closeness to being) that value. Such responsiveness is only possible to one in one’s capacity as a value-seeking I. Only a value-seeking self can adequately queue and shape his behavior to another’s being one; only by exercising his own basic moral characteristic can he respond to that characteristic as that characteristic in another (or in himself). In treating another in ways morally responsive, he unifies himself with the intrinsic value she is; the intrinsic value of his life is thereby magnified. The person who treats another immorally places himself in a relation of disunity with her intrinsic value, thereby rendering the self he is less valuable (451–69).

In ethical interpersonal relationships which are not close, one must respond

“to the fact of another’s subjectivity, to her being a self, a value-seeking entity, a choice-making and meaning-seeking entity, but one need not respond to every modulation in the content or focus of these characteristics. Ethics responds to the fact that these characteristics are there, perhaps also to some general traits of their content, while more intimate relationships respond to the particular way these characteristics specify and express themselves. . . .

“But if, as I believe, there is a general principle calling for responsiveness to value as such, not merely the value embodied in the basic moral characteristic, then there will be differences in how we (are to) appropriately respond to different people. While these differences will not involve violating the rights all share in virtue of being value-seeking I’s, they might involve choosing to aid or save some rather than others in situations where not all can be helped.” (470–72)


The Right to Liberty

Individual rights are a class of moral claims for which enforcement is morally permissible. The deliberate use of force is prima facie anti-responsive to the basic moral characteristic of the recipient; there is a moral presumption against its use—any use. The true rights of individuals must be based upon moral claims sufficient to overcome this presumption, and force must be used only to effect these rights.

Since the rule of law entails the existence of general standing orders backed by credible coercive threats, we identify the activities of government (agents as government agents) which are morally permissible when we identify individual rights. A delineation of the morally proper sphere of individual liberty delineates also the morally permissible uses of deliberate force. Elsewhere I have presented the view that the proper sphere of liberty of interacting individuals may be discerned by reference to the circumstances of individuals presently incapable of interaction (Boydstun 1983). From that view it was seen that the fundamental right of each interacting individual is the right to full formal liberty.

Material liberty was defined as the extent of what an individual can in fact do independently of another. The right of full formal liberty was specified as the right of each against the reduction of his material liberty by another. It was then seen that from this fundamental right there flow rights against personal injury, rights to private property, and rights to privacy.

Were the legal uses of force restricted to the enforcement of these rights, individuals would be left fully free, within the realm of the possible, to respond to value and to become value. The life of each would be his own—his alone to destroy, his with others to love, to nurture, to glorify.



Boydstun, S. C. 1983, June. Political Liberty and Property Rights. Illinois Libertarian.

Gilbert, L. E. 1982, Aug. The Coevolution of a Butterfly and a Vine. Scientific American.

Nozick, R. 1981. Philosophical Explanations. Harvard.

Rand, A. 1964. The Virtue of Selfishness. NAL.




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