The origin of morality in light of self-determination and its impact upon legislation

Underlying the thoughts and considerations that are to follow are two main emotions. For one, unease; a feeling which stems from a failure to understand how it is possible to support two contradictory ideologies, and still believe them capable of coexisting peacefully: libertarianism on the one side; socialism on the other. For another, anger; a feeling which stems from the lack of consistency with which current rules and conventions, which we are all expected to follow, are being made.

As can perhaps be guessed from the emotion unease, the area of focus for this essay is the delicate balance between exactly those two ideologies. More specifically: individual rights on the one side, and social rights on the other. Thus, the question which we will now attempt to address is where the line between these realms should be drawn, and consequently where the state is allowed to, indeed obliged to, intervene by restricting personal freedom, ergo self-determination.

Whilst considering this balance, it is vital to keep in mind the general necessity of a moral principle to be followed even in extreme situations — be it those which lie outside the scope of the imaginable, or those through which unfavourable consequences may arise — for it is these in which a feeling of discomfort may cause us to abandon it. Such universalism is often deemed dogmatic and considered socially irresponsible. We will try to argue against this: that in the theoretical groundwork of guiding principles, the functionality of the principle in all foreseeable circumstances is a precondition for its legitimisation, and that all problems which may arise from that point onwards must be addressed not by abandoning the principle, but by making changes to the system in which the principle operates.

By writing this essay we hope not just to offer solutions to our own inner disputes, but also to contribute several ideas as to how we could regain personal freedoms whilst maintaining equality.


Prior to discussing this balance between individual and social rights, we will look into the philosophical backdrop of the issue at hand. In doing so, we hope to allow an understanding of both the historical and social context of our work, which will offer clarity as to the root of our theory. Our focus lies primarily on the philosophy of existentialism, namely the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, a French philosopher and author of the previous century. We find it very important to state from the outset that, although deeply rooted in the atheistic existentialist standpoint (which we will from now simply call existentialist), our ideas diverge from Sartre’s philosophy once the broad premise has been expounded, in particular as a result of our modern, scientific understanding of the human body. Important differences also become apparent when the relevance of a subjective realm in search of an absolute truth is discussed.

Afterwards, we will show how we have used this existentialist core and progressed from it to map out a concept defining the qualities of humanity, born in theory with counterpoints located in reality, to serve as our basis for discussing the balance between individual and social rights.


Let us return to our feeling of unease. As aforementioned, its trigger is the conflicting nature underlying the values encompassed by libertarianism and socialism respectively. It is somewhere between these two ideologies that existentialism arises and functions.

The existentialist believes that, first and foremost, a man’s[1] ‘existence comes before his essence’. As Sartre claims: ‘man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world — and defines himself afterwards… Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.’[2] In this sense we are born as an individual with a tabula rasa[3], so to speak, free from any labels and conceptions which will warp this state. Sartre defines existence as a state in which ‘man first of all is the being who hurls himself toward a future and who is conscious of imagining himself as being in the future. Man is at the start a plan which is aware of itself.’[4] Sartre goes so far as to claim: ‘man will only attain existence when he is what he purposes to be.’[5] In other words, he postulates human self- awareness in the media matter and time. Man’s essence follows. This is what man wills himself to be; how he conceives himself from his position of existence.[6] Thus it is here where individuality evolves. As a direct consequence of man willing himself to be, ‘the entire responsibility for his existence [is placed] squarely upon his own shoulders… man is condemned to be free.’[7] Here, existentialism rules out divinity[8], whilst also preventing man from passing on the responsibility for his self (to a comparable entity such as the state). For many, this concept may seem burdening: the unyielding weight of responsibility being too much to bear. However, the existentialist claims that there is ‘no doctrine more optimistic, since man’s destiny is within himself’[9] and it ‘confronts man with a possibility of choice.’[10] Yet this choice must fulfil a certain criterion in order to be maintained in the context of society. Sartre portrays it as follows: ‘many people think that in what they are doing they commit no one but themselves to anything… But in truth, one ought always to ask oneself what would happen if everyone did as one is doing… If a man does not [ask himself that] he is dissembling his anguish.’[11] This describes the concept of universalism, demanding that each of these choices must be examined from a state of anguish so that humanity may regulate itself. In the absence of religion an internalisation of this responsibility is of greater importance; it illuminates the optimistic nature of existentialism, because it paves the way for a self-sufficient society, entirely independent of an entity of judgement.

In light of scientific developments over the past decades, however, Sartre’s definition no longer suffices. Rather than defining existence as an omnicompetent entity, we wish to limit its scope to the matter of which a human is constituted; encompassing the bodily and neurological functions which enable life to unfold. Now, pure existence is an inconceivable state, present as an isolated entity only in the realm of theory — for in reality, by nature of its being, existence is always coexistence. Therefore, we believe that there are two natural manifestations of existence: our dignity, and our instincts; collectively taken as the qualities of humanity.[12] Sartre’s original definition could thus be developed to ‘man’s existence, dignity and instincts precede his essence.’[13] But where do the entities of dignity and instincts fit into this order? They cannot arise a priori to existence, for nothing can precede it: there is no water to be held without the vase; no blood to be carried without the vessel.[14] Nonetheless, these entities are interconnected; in practical application separate yet simultaneously inseparable from one another. Sartre makes a claim with similar consequences with regards to the implications of existence: he is adamant that we shall not ‘treat all men, including the one philosophising, as objects, that is, as an ensemble of determined reactions in no way distinguished from the ensemble of qualities and phenomena which constitute a table or a chair or a stone.’[15] The difference of this ‘human realm’, as Sartre classifies it, to our qualities of humanity is that he ascribes it intrinsically to existence. We, on the other hand, reduce existence to bodily and neurological functions, thus infinitely bound to a pure material realm, yet maintain the difference of a human to a chair as a result of the aforementioned triad.


Let us clarify the purpose for this excursion, which lies in the nature of the problem at hand: the individual and social rights which we discuss in this essay are all conceptions of some sort. They are lines drawn in the context of society, thus human interaction a prerequisite for their relevance. In accordance with what we have just discussed — the logic which allows us to determine existence, dignity and instincts preceding essence, thereby also preceding all conceptions of society — it follows that our starting point is actually a state of absolute personal freedom. This signifies our innate entitlement to self-determination, thus individual rights, and must be respected in the following discourse.

There is an ancient saying that maintains its role as a guideline for an answer to our question, repeated and supported throughout history by many influential philosophers: ‘one man’s freedom ends where another man’s begins’.[16] Without much thought this sounds pleasantly simple and accurate. Yet life in our interconnected society leaves practically no act, at least none of any relevant nature for the ongoing discourse, without some kind of external effect — be it direct or indirect. This leaves the aforementioned statement lacking in depth, for it fails to take into account the complexity of our networks, whereby it becomes difficult to anticipate who, and to what extent, may be negatively affected by an action. Born out of this premise arises the guiding problem: in light of the potential negative effects our actions may have on other humans and our entire planet, how do we separate between potential effects which must be prohibited lawfully, and those which remain our own, personal moral responsibility to weigh up?

This separation could be made using a simple classification of 1° and 2° effects of harm. These serve to distinguish between a severity of harm that can be inflicted on another, and enables an appropriate reaction: lawful prohibition of 1° effects of harm; moral responsibility for considering, and perhaps preventing, the 2°. The underlying reasoning follows: in cases where an act causes a direct negative effect on another individual to an extent that is intolerable, it will be classified as 1° and thus be put under the state’s jurisdiction. As an example consider murder. The act of murdering another individual is universally classified as an act deserving prosecution, thus a 1° effect of harm.

In contrast, smoking may be considered a 2° effect of harm, as the harm caused to other people is only indirect: be it from the unpleasant odour that lingers on the smoker or in an extreme case the grief resulting from the death of a family member or close friend. In these scenarios it is not for the state to restrict our freedom; we would probably be outraged if it did. Instead, we can see it as our moral responsibility to maintain a certain level of personal hygiene, or to limit our smoking in an honest attempt to prevent deadly illnesses. However, in certain situations it must be the state’s duty to prevent an individual from smoking, in order to protect citizens from the potential 1° effect of harm: for instance unavoidable and consequently harmful passive smoking.

The example of smoking is useful for conveying the interchangeability in the classification of 1° or 2° effects of harm, always dependent on the circumstances: each schema — that is each action within an isolated situation, for example the act of smoking in the isolated situation of an aeroplane — must again be evaluated by a Kantian imperative[17], and then assigned to either member in the dualism of effects of harm.

Now on the grounds of the qualities of humanity that we have outlined, this balance between social rights and individual rights, thus between 1° and 2° effects of harm, must lie as far as possible to the side representing individual rights. Or formulated differently: there should be as few 1° effects of harm as possible, while still rendering a functioning society. This conclusion rests on two important considerations.

The first one we have discussed in great depth: a logic by which existence, dignity and instincts precede essence, and the consequences of this hierarchy — in particular the innate entitlement to self-determination.

Second, the conclusions that we can make having evolved the notion of existence through dignity and instincts: namely, the legitimisation of pursuing this philosophical construct as a result of it becoming a humanist theory; one which indeed enables man to live in a functioning society. The implications of dignity are crucial, as in practical application its presence demands respect in all directions of our symbiotic world. As a dignified being, man possesses the capacity for morality; a capacity which enables him to internalise the existentialist responsibility of examining, and thereafter reflecting on, each act through a Kantian imperative. It is this which ensures that we adhere not just to moral codes, thus preventing 2° effects of harm, but also to the laws which prohibit 1° effects of harm. Likewise, instincts encompass an integral aspect of man. As tools for survival, they enable and sustain our existence in the midst of other beings. In this instant, man realises that per definition, the content of his existence lies exclusively under his own control.[18] Man’s egoism, born out of this responsibility, is thereby vindicated. Once again, however, in light of our existence being a coexistence, our instinctive nature manifested in egoism must be restricted to a certain extent. It is here where the state arises and functions. Nevertheless: as a consequence of this self-sustenance, placing 2° effects of harm under the state’s jurisdiction is illegitimate. A certain criticism may be applied to the subjectivity of differentiation between 1° and 2° effects of harm. This concern is a valid one, for discussion and subsequent democratic agreement to precisely define the categories will need to be held. Yet what we are to gain from this theory lies not in the absolute manifestation of rigid borders, but far more in the creation of a common ground that can serve as a medium for greater consistency; one bound to the conclusions we have drawn from the qualities of humanity.

For this is the objective: for humanity, and thereby society, to regulate itself, taking as its starting point the maximum of personal freedom, subtracting thereafter the smallest number of personal freedoms necessary for a functioning society, namely all 1° effects of harm, and thereby legitimising, but simultaneously restricting, the coercive power of a state to an absolute minimum, this being a restriction to self-determination in the schemas resulting in 1° effects of harm.


Perhaps it would be helpful to contextualise this theoretical discussion with two concrete examples. Let us start with one that should sufficiently nullify any remaining doubts as to how an attempt to maximise personal freedoms can lead to a manifestation of socialist economic ideals.

The main tax system currently in use is one with progressive tax bands, whereby an individual is required to pay more tax as income increases; both in absolute terms and as a proportion of total income. A saturation of the latter is often reached between 35-50%. In light of the theory we have mapped out, is this form of taxation legitimate; is the government entitled to remove the individual right of earning endless amounts of money, or at least delay this process significantly? Or, formulated more coherently: can a lack of taxation be classified a 1° effect of harm? From the onset, we highlighted the restrictive nature of respecting individual rights due to the necessity of rendering a functioning society; one in which the dignity of each member is ensured. It follows that a tax system of some form is required, for each government depends on taxes as a source of income. Yet our theory is compatible with, indeed dictates, more, for the following reason: at around 50%, common highest rates of tax are insufficient at ensuring equality; in the past 35 years, inequality in income and wealth has stretched to unprecedented levels.[19] Thus there should be a reclassification of current rates of tax to a 1° effect of harm, ‘for at some point an income so unnecessarily lavish is reached that you begin living at the cost of others’[20] — countless individuals are unable to follow their goals as a result of the inequality of opportunity, and the consequent lower quality of life. It follows that the tax rates must be raised[21] to prohibit the occurrence of these 1° effects of harm. Nonetheless, as we do not believe in a 100% rate of tax, there will come a point prior to this at which the rate will have exceeded levels under which it can be classified as a 1° effect of harm, and thus no longer be under the states jurisdiction to implement. This hypothetical point could therefore become an upper limit, modifiable according to the circumstantial needs.

On the contrary, consider the discussion on the legalisation of drugs. The harm which any drug, from alcohol and cannabis to cocaine and heroin, has the potential to cause cannot be disputed; the scientific evidence for these substances’ adverse effects is overwhelming. However, in all instances, and with all of these substances, the harm caused is primarily to the individual consumer: it is the consumer’s liver which might fail; whose motivation may diminish; whose heart could stop beating. Of course, there could be ripples of effects which reach out into the individual’s social circle, but we simply cannot deny that it is the individual who is predominantly at risk. Thus
as drugs have the potential to cause only 2° effects of harm in the majority of schemas (for there are invariably isolated situations in which 1° effects of harm may occur, for example a pregnant mother consuming alcohol), let us draw certain consequences from this: as it is not within the state’s jurisdiction to prevent 2° effects of harm, what must follow is the legalisation of all drugs. Without doubt, there is a demand for strict jurisdiction to protect children, underage teenagers and unborn babies, to name no more. However, most judicial systems currently penalise drug use and possession indiscriminately. Thus, a system that more closely examines the direct effects of harm, whether 1° or 2°, would be more suitable for determining just drug laws.

This does not mean that we would welcome an excessive use of any substance, nor even a minimal use of some substances, for there are, undoubtedly, potential 2° effects of harm. Thus we would urge everyone to grasp this moral responsibility and ensure that these effects are prohibited. However, there is a profound difference between individuals fulfilling a moral responsibility as an autonomous agent, and the state enforcing it as a controlling agent, and in light of the qualities of humanity preceding essence, a difference which legislation must reflect.

Let us conclude by returning to the ideas of freedom and equality. They are two values which are often considered competitors, in the sense that more freedom results in less equality and vice versa.[22] We disagree with this on the grounds of the qualities of humanity, as finding this balance is dependent on the sum of all individuals, of humanity as a whole. We must rely on each other to internalise the responsibility of treading with reflection along the path of equilibrium between individual and social rights, so that both may excel.

Twyla Michnevich and Milan Röhricht


[1] Sartre refers to humans as ‘man’, and in the interest of stylistic consistency, we will do the same from here on. We include humans of all sexes in this term

[2] Jean-Paul Sartre – ‘Existentialism & Humanism’, 1946. [Translation by Philip Mairet for Methuen & Co. Ltd, 2007, pp. 27 – 30]

[3] The concept of tabula rasa has a long history in philosophy, where it defines the notion that humans are born with a blank slate; they enter the world left to be shaped by experience. Aristotle’s unscribed tablet and Locke’s white paper are all based on the same concept. Our use of tabula rasa, however, is slightly different from Locke’s interpretation, in line with what seems implicit from the existentialist standpoint: the crux of defining oneself lies in selecting and filtering the external influences that are thrust at us; the individual thus playing a higher role in this process than merely left to be passively shaped by his surroundings.

[4] Jean-Paul Sartre – ‘Existentialism & Human Emotions’, [Philosophical Library, New York, 1957, p. 16]

[5] Jean-Paul Sartre – ‘Existentialism & Humanism’, 1946. [Translation by Philip Mairet for Methuen & Co. Ltd, 2007, p. 30]

[6] Jean-Paul Sartre – ‘Existentialism & Humanism’, 1946. [Translation by Philip Mairet for Methuen & Co. Ltd, 2007, p. 30]

[7] Jean-Paul Sartre – ‘Existentialism & Human Emotions’, [Philosophical Library, New York, 1957, p. 23]

[8] Often described as a state of ‘forlornness’ in existentialist writing

[9] Jean-Paul Sartre – ‘Existentialism & Human Emotions’, [Philosophical Library, New York, 1957, p. 37]

[10] Jean-Paul Sartre – ‘Existentialism & Humanism’, 1946. [Translation by Philip Mairet for Methuen & Co. Ltd, 2007, p. 31]

[11] The existentialist definition of anguish is key to understanding the theory. We have taken out an extract from Sartre’s ‘Existentialism & Humanism’ which hopefully clarifies what this word, with respect to Existentialism, means precisely (pp. 33-34): ‘First, what do we mean by anguish? The existentialist frankly states that man is in anguish. His meaning is as follows – When a man commits himself to anything, fully realising that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind — in such a moment man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility. There are many, indeed, who show no such anxiety. But we affirm that they are merely disguising their anguish or are in flight from it. Certainly, many people think that in what they are doing they commit no one but themselves to anything: and if you ask them, “What would happen if everyone did so?” they shrug their shoulders and reply, “Everyone does not do so.” But in truth, one ought always to ask oneself what would happen if everyone did as one is doing; nor can one escape from the disturbing thought except by a kind of self-deception. The man who lies in self-excuse, by saying “Everyone will not do it” must be ill at ease in his conscience, for the act of lying implies the universal value which it denies. By its very disguise his anguish reveals itself.’

[12] Qualities of humanity = existence + dignity + instincts

[13] Note here that although the entities of the qualities of humanity cannot be separated from one another, each has its own set of immediate consequences over which its influence is strongest. Instincts to self-determination, for example, or dignity to universal respect

[14] It seems necessary to briefly discuss the Cartesian cogito. In following Descartes’ cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I exist), Sartre claims access to the ‘absolute truth of consciousness becoming aware of itself… for outside the Cartesian cogito, all views are only probable, and a doctrine of probability which is not bound to the truth dissolves into thin air.’ It is our view that there is a distinction to be made within this context. I think, therefore I exist is a formulation which leads to a truth in the realm of logic: you cannot think without existing, thus it is implicit that a being which can think must exist. If we are in search of an absolute, objective truth, however, not just one which is bound to and functions logically, then it becomes the existence which must precede everything. It is this existence which enables man to follow his essence, of which conscious thinking is a part; everything must follow on from this a priori entity. Such an objective state as the initial moment of truth from which man evolves must by now be a legitimate claim, for the scientific developments on which we rest in this essay have ensured it is no longer necessary to doubt everything, nor to take as truth only that which we cannot doubt. Thus leaving aside the chain of thought propagated by deconstructionists, it is our opinion that these subjective views are outdated. In the same way we must assume that a tree which may fall in a forest makes a loud noise, despite nobody being present to hear this noise and thus confirm it indeed occurred, we must also assume that man’s existence is existent prior to the cogito; prior to the cogito providing the subjective confirmation of an absolute, objective truth; one which must already be present before the cogito even develops, let alone be understood or utilised. In this sense, there is a problem in Descartes’ cogito ergo sum, and likewise with Sartre in following this: it will never lift the subjective reins on man, immuring him in his private or be it inter-subjectivity; incompatible with an absolute, objective truth. Thus, we must return to Kierkegaard, who highlighted a problem which Sartre has failed to solve: ‘x thinks; I am that x; therefore I think; therefore I exist.’ However, x is used as a mere ‘placeholder’ in order to separate the ‘I’ from the thinking being. In this way, the cogito has already assumed ‘I’’s existence as that which thinks, yet existence is not a conclusion of thinking; x must exist prior to thinking. Thus in Descartes’ formulation, who is doing the thinking; who is x? In following this reasoning, we arrive at our own formulation: I exist, therefore I may think. This formulation allows us to reach a logical truth, because a man who exists has the potential to think, but it also allows us to reach an absolute, objective truth, because it respects the ranking of existence preceding everything else. Likewise, Kierkegaard’s critique has also been addressed, for now it is clear who is doing the thinking; who is x: I, I who exist, have the potential to think, and so if I am thinking, then it is from a state of existence that I am doing so. Thank you, Nikhil Bullock and Radhi Shah, for the productive discussion on this issue

[15] Jean-Paul Sartre – ‘Existentialism & Human Emotions’, [Philosophical Library, New York, 1957, p. 37]

[16] Or a many number of variations of this, such as ‘one man’s liberty ends where another man’s begins’ and ‘the right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins’

[17] One formulation of the Kantian categorical imperative reads: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

[18] Although we realise that this is still being heatedly discussed, we are hereby assuming man’s capacity for free will, and hope that science will one day prove this assumption to be true. If this is not the case, then our whole metaphysic structure must be overhauled, anyway, thus we need not worry about the potentially detrimental effects for our theory should this assumption be false

[19] Jonas and Milan Röhricht – ‘Thoughts on a New Social Contract’, 1st edition in 2013, p.11. Jonas and I support this claim through several examples and a comparison of the changing Gini-coefficients in the same chapter. The book can be accessed through our blog Isolatarium.

[20] Jonas and Milan Röhricht – ‘Thoughts on a New Social Contract’, 1st edition in 2013, p. 6

[21] Jonas and I also discuss the rates to which we demand taxes be raised in this book, in particular see chapters 3 & 4

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s