This is part of a series
Jun 2, 2017
Lysander Spooner’s Moral Theory
Smith discusses the influence of puritanism, the religious revival in the early 19th century, and Spooner’s disagreements with Christian ethics.
There has always been an influential strain of moral puritanism in American culture. As the great historian of New England puritanism Perry Miller wrote in Errand into the Wilderness (1956, p. 143), “Puritan opinion was at the opposite pole from Jefferson’s feeling that the best government governs as little as possible.” Miller continued:
The society of New England was decidedly “regimented.” Puritans did not think that the state was merely an umpire, standing on the side lines of a contest, limited to checking egregious fouls but otherwise allowing men free play according to their abilities and breaks of the game. They would have expected laissez faire to result in a reign of rapine and horror. The state to them was an active instrument of leadership, discipline, and, wherever necessary, of coercion; it legislated over any or all aspects of human behavior, it not merely regulated misconduct but undertook to inspire and direct all conduct.
Puritanism experienced a tremendous resurgence during the 1820s and 1830s (the Second Great Awakening), as great evangelical preachers, most notably Charles Finney, led emotionally charged revival meetings that could last for days. Western New York was swept so often by revivalist campaigns that it became known as the “Burned-Over District.” But this manifestation of puritanism differed somewhat from the earlier version. Finney rejected the traditional Calvinistic doctrine of predestination and argued that humans have some measure of free will. From this belief emerged the doctrine known as “perfectionism,” according to which people need not sin but could become morally perfect through an inner transformation.
Salvation, therefore, was not predetermined by God but could be earned, especially through efforts to eradicate sin from American society by working for social reforms. Quoting James Brewer Stewart from his superb overview of abolitionism (Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery rev. ed., 1996):
Like their eighteenth-century predecessors, powerful evangelists, such as Charles G. Finney and Lyman Beecher [father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852], urged people, even seemingly irredeemable sinners, to strive for holiness and choose new lives of sanctification….God was depicted as insisting that the saved perform acts of benevolence, expand the boundaries of Christ’s kingdom, and take on a personal responsibility to improve society. Evangelicals by the thousands flocked to the Tract Society, the Sunday School Union, the Ladies’ Benevolent Associations, the temperance and peace organizations, the manual-labor movement, and the Colonization Society. Seeking moral reformation…white evangelicals dreamed of a glorious era of national reform: emancipated from liquor, prostitution, atheism, pauperism, and popular politics, the redeemed would gladly submit to the leadership of Christian statesmen, not to the blandishments of that whiskey-drinking, gambler, duelist, bigamist, Indian killer, and unchurched slave-owner, President Andrew Jackson.
From this morally charged setting sprang New England’s crusade against slavery.
If the Second Great Awakening generated movements for human rights, such as abolitionism and condemnations of the treatment of Native Americans, it also spawned movements that violated individual rights, such as calls for the prohibition of liquor and Sabbatarian laws. Even when American Calvinism morphed into liberal Unitarianism the moralism often remained. Consider the position of Horace Mann (the “father” of the common school system) on Sabbatarian laws. Although Mann was a liberal Unitarian—and a Whig, of course—who didn’t believe Sunday to be any more holy than any other day, he still favored Sabbatarian laws. Why? Because forbidding work on Sundays would give people time to reflect on their lives. Mann was also a major figure in Massachusetts in the campaign for prohibition, before he decided that universal, free, and compulsory education via public schools was the best way to purify the values of Americans.
We see here a common problem with social reformers who believe they are doing God’s work. If God demands x, then it doesn’t matter whether x violates individual rights. The reform in question may be valuable from a libertarian perspective, or it may not. The reform may promote individual freedom, or it may violate that freedom. Sins cut across and trump the boundary established by a theory of rights, for rights are a human standard whereas sins are a divine standard. Hence if God demands that Christians eliminate sin, then the methods used, whether coercive or voluntary, may be irrelevant. Both slavery and drinking were serious sins from an evangelical perspective, so the state should outlaw both, according to most abolitionists. Perhaps some sins should fall exclusively in the domain of individual choice, but specifically which sins those should be was pretty much a crap shoot.
Fortunately, the abolitionist movement rested on more than religious fervor; it also invoked a theory of self-ownership. This gave abolitionism a focus and a philosophical foundation that appealed to people other than evangelical Christians. One of those people was Lysander Spooner, a deist whose first two publications—The Deist’s Immortality (1834) and The Deist’s Reply to the Alleged Supernatural Evidences of Christianity (1836)—were uncompromising criticisms of Christianity, including Christian ethics. There can be no doubt that Spooner’s dissent from the ethical views accepted by many evangelical Christians, including abolitionists, was largely responsible for the bright line he drew between vices and crimes.
Although Spooner never wrote a detailed treatment of ethical theory, his early deistic tracts indicate his adherence to a moral sense theory of the sort defended by eighteenth-century Scottish philosophers—an approach that became very popular in nineteenth-century America. Consider these remarks from The Deist’s Immortality (p. 4):
There is, in every rational being, a moral sense, or reverence for right. This seminal principle of an exalted character never, in this world, becomes extinct; it survives through vice, degradation and crime: it sometimes seems almost to have been conquered, but it never dies; and often, even in this world, like a phenix [sic] from her ashes, it lifts itself from the degradation of sensual pollution under which it was buried, and assumes a beauty and power before unknown. How many, whose virtuous principles had been apparently subdued by temptation, appetite and passion, have suddenly risen with an energy worthy an immortal spirit, shaken off the influences that were degrading them, resisted and overcome the power that was prostrating them, become more resolutely virtuous than ever, and had their determination made strong by a recurrence to the scenes they had passed. This has happened in multitudes of instances in this world.
According to this approach, which may be characterized as moral optimism, even thoroughly wicked people may be reformed through voluntary persuasion. No person willingly does what he considers to be wrong, so his behavior may be changed by persuading him of what is truly right. Spooner’s chief objection to Christian ethics is that it ultimately appeals to rewards and punishments (heaven and hell) as motivations to do the right thing. It is thoroughly selfish in the narrow, vulgar sense. Some of the moral teachings in the Gospels—many of which were probably never uttered by Jesus—are “very silly” partially for this reason. As Spooner put it in The Deist’s Reply (p. 17):
The [Christian] system throughout, is one of rewards and punishments—the most debasing, to men’s motives, of all imaginable systems. In it, right and wrong are not recognized as fundamental principles of action, but are made referrible [sic] to ulterior considerations of personal pleasure and pain. Jesus never instructed men to do what was right, because it was right; yet this was the true reason why they should do it. Nor did he instruct them to avoid what was wrong, for the reason that it was wrong: yet that should be the fundamental and principal reason in every man’s mind, because it is the moral reason. But the Bible, by the uniformity, with which it makes the selfish inducement, the promise of reward, or the threat of punishment, follow the moral precept, implicitly admits that the principal reason why we should do right, is, that we shall be rewarded for it, and the principal reason why we should not do wrong, is, that we should be punished for it. How much real honesty of principle, or how much of purely virtuous sentiment, can be infused into men’s minds by means of such mercenary inducements, I leave to others to determine.
So far as I know no attempt has ever been made to analyze Lysander Spooner’s ethical theory and how that theory was used to support his libertarian theory of rights and government. This project, insofar as it can be accomplished by considering Spooner’s scattered comments about ethics, must await my future series on Spooner. Here I only provided a brief indication of how Spooner’s moral theory and his rejection of Christian ethics contributed to his crucial distinction between vices and crimes. The state, like Christianity (in Spooner’s interpretation), relies on threats of punishment to combat vices. But this is a thoroughly improper method from the perspective of Spooner’s theory of a rational ethics.