Sunday, June 14, 2009

More Thoughts on Harry Browne's How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World

I've finished reading this book. I like Browne's assertion that the individual is the only legitimate judge of how he or she shall live. But I disagree with him on some points.

1. Consequentalist morality.
Browne asserts that morality is entirely relative to the individual, and that such a system works:

Neither do I have to worry about whether anyone is "getting away" with anything. I am not the world's policeman. I know that everyone will experience the consequences of his own acts. If his acts are right, he'll get good consequences; if they're not, he'll suffer for it. The consequences are the only standards that matters -- and I'm certainly not needed to impose those consequences. (349)

This strikes me as incredibly unrealistic. Under this moral system, if a thief breaks into your house and robs you, he hasn't done anything wrong so as long as he doesn't get caught and face consequences.

At minimum, a moral code requires individuals to respect each others' lives, liberty, and property, because...well, because people have a right to live, live as they choose, and have stuff so as long as it doesn't infringe on other people's rights to do likewise.

2. Marriage.
Harry Browne rejects marriage as a concept. He thinks that no relationship should be a permanent commitment, but only at the consistent mutual desire of all of the parties involved. To an extent this is true, but he envisions love as an uncontrollable emotion that can either come and go. But love can be an action verb, a conscious decision made between consenting parties. Marriages can be crushing and soul-consuming, but they don't have to be.

3. Children.
I see the decision to be a parent to be a permanent commitment over a lifetime. I may not always financially support my daughter for her entire life, but I will always love her, and I will certainly support her until she is able to take that responsibility for herself. Browne proposes that if a parent grows weary of a child, simply place that child up for adoption and be free. In his understanding of parenting, a parent is not morally required to remain in the parent-child relationship indefinitely. Browne himself had not seen his own daughter for nine years at the time that this book was published, and he was okay with that, because it was an acceptable price to pay to get free from his marriage. As he sees it, the desire to be free is cause enough to abandon spouses, children, and anything else that impedes one's personal freedom.

I disagree. The desire to be free does not provide justification to abandon all commitments of responsibility.


JD said...

That has got to be the most selfish attitude on life I have ever heard.


John said...

He would take that as a compliment.

psychodougie said...

the thing with chaps like this is if they are actually able to practise what they preach. are they seriously able to be so detached from their wife, their children, their friends (if that is even a category he would acknowledge)

i include people like dawkins and co in this - their philosophy might work on paper but lived out is meaningless - how do they not just top themselves?

Johnny said...

Thanks for devoting some attention to Harry's great book, which I've read so many times that I practically have it memorized.

When I first read the book, I had the same reaction as you to Harry's definition of morality, and I saw it as maybe the biggest weakness of the book. I also addressed it in my review, for Lew Rockwell:

In hindsight, Harry didn't do the best job of explaining himself, because since then, I have heard Harry's tremendous 1966 lecture series which spawned the book; it's available at; my very lengthy review is here:

Harry discusses this concept at much greater length in the course. He did not believe that the morality of an act was determined by consequences which may or may not occur; he believed that there was a natural justice to life (karma, if you wish) that automatically imposes consequences for actions, and if someone does bad things, he WILL suffer bad consequences.

Further, Harry believed that adopting this mentality was freeing, because it means you no longer have to worry about whether bad people get their due, and you certainly don't have to go about trying to cause someone to get their due through your actions (which could bring you consequences you don't like). In fact, you don't even necessarily even have to know who the bad people are; all you need to do is worry about protecting yourself and those you care about from them, then rest assured that in the long run, everyone gets what they deserve.

And, if it appears that people are getting away with doing bad things, recognize that you don't see everything that happens to that person, nor do you know what's inside his mind. He could very well be suffering consequences you don't know about.

More importantly (and more freeing for you), if he really hasn't suffered any consequences from his actions (yet), then what possible reason would he have to listen to you when you tell him he "shouldn't" be doing what he's doing? If he changes, it will be due to him eventually running into the consequences of his actions; it won't be due to your preaching.

When you say a moral code must include people respecting each others' lives, liberty and property (which I also got as a weakness in the book; the course clarified it), it's important to recognize that as YOUR moral code; it doesn't have anything to do with others, because they are not you. The fact that there are murderers, thieves, etc. in the world is de facto evidence that not everyone accepts your ideas of morality. You can certainly feel that they "should," and that they'll suffer bad consequences if they don't, but that doesn't create an obligation on their part to agree with you -- even if you're right.

I think you need to read the chapter on children again. This is not an easy question, but justifying abandoning all commitments and responsibility is the opposite of what Harry advised; he acknowledged the responsibility to provide for your children.

The overall point he made was that children deserve a home where they're wanted, and if a person can't provide that, it might be better for the child as well as the parent if he were adopted.

Thanks again for writing about Harry's book.


Johnny Kramer

Johnny said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johnny said...


The word selfish is probably the most ironic word in the English language, and it's one that everyone should strike from their vocabulary. Everyone is selfish; the only thing that varies between people is what makes them selfishly happy. No one does anything unless they feel they will either gain something or prevent a loss. Mother Theresa was no less selfish than Gordon Gekko. When someone calls you selfish, it's because you're not giving him what he selfishly wants.


Johnny Kramer

Johnny said...

Here's a classic article of Harry's along these lines from around 1965.



By Harry Browne

American Way Features, Inc.
Your Future Is In Your Hands

Isn’t everyone selfish?

Yes, if being selfish means being concerned with one’s own welfare. This includes the man who lives to help others ~ whether he does it to gain entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven or to enjoy the feeling of having done “something good.”

But individuals display different degrees of selfishness.

And so the real question is: are you selfish enough?

The man who steals is only a little selfish. He cares so little about himself that he’s willing to risk his honor, his reputation, or even his life, for a few months’ pleasure.

And the man who tries to “use” people by taking advantage of them isn’t very selfish either. He cares so little for himself that he doesn’t take into consideration the long-term consequences of his acts.

The most selfish man is the one who cares about the desire of other people.

He takes the time and exerts the effort to understand what others need and want. He is truly selfish in efficiently making it possible for them to have what they want or need.

The rewards to this man are great. He earns the most money, because he supplies what people want and are willing to pay for. People choose to be his friends because he
respects them.

Selfishness is not “greed.” Greed is the desire to have something that one has not earned. Any attempt to get what others are not willing to give is greed ~ and must
eventually end in failure.

The selfish man knows that all individuals are seeking their own happiness. He makes it his business to help them and they gladly do business with him. He profits by such exchanges and can have more of what he desires in life.

Now, what about you?

Are you selfish enough?

Are you constantly looking for ways to provide real value to others in exchange for what you want from them? Are you developing your personality in such a way that others will want to associate
with you?

When you see an opportunity for gain, do you take into consideration the long-term
consequences of your acts?

If so, you’re efficiently selfish.
And your rewards will be great ~ because people will want you to associate with them, and want you for a friend.

The greedy individual who attempts to mislead people will finally be rejected by everyone. No one has to employ him or associate with him ~ and no one will.

But if you provide true value in exchange for what you want, your services will always be in demand.