An Atheist Perspective on Ethics and Morality: Liberty and Property

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
An Atheist Viewpoint: Liberty and Property, a Basis for Ethics and Morality

Can an atheist be a moral person? Can a person be an atheist and hold conservative or (in my case) libertarian views?

As an atheist and a moral being, I can say without reservation that an atheist can be, and many are, moral people, like my good friend Jillian Becker or the folks at Atheists for Liberty. There is a key difference. We do not base our morality on the concept or requirements of a higher power but on our own conscience, our own sense of right and wrong, and our own convictions, reasoned and arrived at through reflection, experience, thought, and consideration, while acknowledging that those values are the product of Western (and, yes, Judeo-Christian) and Enlightenment ideas.

Speaking for myself — and I presume to speak only for myself, in itself a moral decision — I do not need a higher power to tell me what the right way is to behave. I know the difference between right and wrong. I live a moral life not because someone or something else requires me to, but because I choose to do so, because it is the right thing to do. I have distinct ideas on how a moral person should comport themselves in a free, moral society. Moreover, I have very distinct ideas on how human society should conduct itself morally. How do I define right and wrong? Conducting yourself in a moral manner is right. Conducting yourself in an immoral manner is wrong.

On what things do I, as a moral person, base my morality? I base morality on that highest of human conditions, the only one that truly reflects the concept of natural rights: Liberty. I base morality on the fundamental right to the fruits of one’s own effort: Property.

Remember that: Liberty and Property.

For an individual who prizes liberty and property above all other things, what constitutes morality?


A moral person accepts responsibility for his or her own actions and decisions. If a person chooses to start a business and, in so doing, accepts personal financial risk, they deserve not only the fruits of their effort should they succeed but also the responsibility for the consequences of their errors in judgment should they fail. If a person chooses to have one, three, or nine children, they, not their neighbors, are responsible for clothing, feeding, and educating those children. If a person chooses to drink to excess or to use harmful drugs for recreation, then that person is solely responsible for any health issues that arise from their poor decisions. In simple English: “You got yourself into it. You get yourself out of it.” The result of responsibility is liberty. To put it simply: You are free to make your own decisions, to live your own life as you see best, because in the end that life is yours and no one else’s.

A moral person takes care of their family. This goes hand in hand with the principle immediately above, that of accepting responsibility for your own actions and decisions. Having and raising children is a choice, and in making that choice, you accept responsibility for the little lives that come along in that process. You accept the responsibility to house them, clothe them, feed them, protect them, and educate them. You may delegate some of those responsibilities – for example, most of us delegate responsibility for education to the schools, however unwise that may be becoming in recent years – but you cannot morally abdicate those responsibilities, and you cannot expect someone else to shoulder the burdens of those responsibilities. Children and the responsibilities that come with them are yours, the product of a choice you made, even if that decision was as fleeting as a one-night drunken hookup. That decision binds you for life in a way that surpasses even marriage – you can divorce your spouse, but you cannot divorce your kids. You never stop being a parent.

A moral person exhibits integrity. There can be no reliable social interaction without it. There is no higher esteem known than being someone with whom a person can enter into an agreement based on a handshake. Integrity is the essential harbinger of trust; trust is the essential aspect of human interaction, without which the very foundations of society crumble. Integrity and trust are essential in marriage, in family, in trade, and in social interaction. None of those things are possible without integrity and trust.

A moral person shows consideration toward others. It is popular in this degenerate age to equate ordinary politeness with weakness, but in fact, just the opposite is true. Good manners and consideration are unmistakable indicators of strength and confidence. A moral person considers the people around him and incorporates that consideration in his actions. A moral person disagrees politely but firmly when his or her opinions are challenged. A moral person does not take unfair advantage of others, nor does a moral person act carelessly or thoughtlessly. It doesn’t matter if you are driving, watching a movie, or eating in a restaurant; a moral person considers other people so that their actions do not intrude or cause discomfort or displeasure to others around. Now, with that said:

A moral person stands up for themselves and others. As noted immediately above, a moral person shows consideration, but consideration must come with a caveat: There comes a time when even the moral person finds himself interacting with someone who does not deserve that consideration. People who do not reciprocate that consideration do not deserve it. It is morally acceptable to object to an able-bodied person abusing a handicapped parking space. It is morally acceptable to object to rudeness, to foul language, or bad manners in public. A violation of civil interaction is an infringement of liberty and should not be tolerated, but it is the citizenry, not government, who is responsible for rules of personal conduct – and the enforcement of those rules.


A moral person produces. A moral person contributes to the market, be their produce physical goods or ideas. In other words, the moral person works. That work may be creative, it may be something the person loves doing, or it may be repetitive, low- or un-skilled labor. However, the key is productivity; any occupation that produces value is honorable and worthy. There are no lousy jobs, only lousy people. How does one define value? This is trivially easy. If someone is willing to pay you to do the job, you are producing value. The result of producing value is property. To put it simply: If you work, you gain.

In a society that prizes liberty and property above all other things, what constitutes morality?


In a moral society, any competent adult should be free to do as they please, with the only condition being that they cause no physical or financial harm to another. The astute reader will be quick to note that I do not mention “emotional” harm or any other such ephemeral folderol, and that is with good reason; emotional harm cannot be quantified or even rigorously defined. As an utter intangible, it cannot be used as a rational standard in any discussion of public policy. The free person should be encouraged to avoid causing unnecessary emotional pain as a standard of everyday living, but neither the government nor the people should be the arbitrators of behavior affecting such an ephemeral.

In a moral society, competent people are expected to support themselves. A moral society must not force free persons to labor longer and harder for the benefit of others who can produce but do not. Only government has the legal power to initiate force, and only government has the power to confiscate a portion of a free person’s income and wealth. (Yes, confiscate is the correct word; government compels taxation by the implied use of force. If you doubt that, stop paying taxes and see how long it is before agents of government, men with guns, come looking for you to either force payment or fling you into jail.) It is immoral for government to use that power to confiscate income and wealth for no better reason than redistributing it to the indigent — and it is perhaps the height of immorality for politicians to use that power to purchase votes, which is precisely how many political campaigns are run today.

In a moral society, the only acceptable form of financial interaction is free trade. In free trade, people exchange value for value, voluntarily, with both parties realizing gain from the transaction. This is how wealth grows in a society. If a transaction is conducted by force, that is robbery. If it is conducted by deceit, that is fraud. Any instance of the two should be punished. Other than that, markets, not government, must be the only arbiter of success in business. Why? Businesses can persuade the consumer, but only government can compel. Since they have this power, government must not be allowed to prop up failing businesses or even failing industries; government must not dispense favors in the form of subsidies to businesses or industries they favor or slap regulations and conditions on businesses or industries they disfavor. As there is a separation between church and state, so should there be a separation between the free market and the state.

In a moral society, no person should be compelled by the threat of government force to engage in business or otherwise associate with people they find morally objectionable. This happens today and is all the more egregious because it is so unevenly applied; it is acceptable for college campuses to have dormitories restricted to one ethnic group, but it is not acceptable for a Christian baker to refuse to cater a gay wedding. It is acceptable for a halal butcher to refuse to provide pork for sale, but it is not acceptable for a Jewish bookstore to decline to stock and sell Korans. We are either a free people or we are not, and increasingly in matters of freedom of association, it has become clear that some people, some groups are far freer than others — and this is not indicative of a moral society. If I were to open a restaurant, for example, I would likely refuse to serve patrons who refused to remove their headgear at the table, and that would be my choice — if I lost business because of it, on my head be it (pun not intended), but the choice — and the consequences thereof — must be mine alone. It is morally consistent, therefore, to assert the right of a businessperson to discriminate against patrons for any reason of their choosing and, in the next day, to join the throngs of protestors that form in the street in front of his storefront to shut the bigoted SOB down.


In a moral society, the products of a free person’s labor belong to themselves first. Government should only take what is strictly required for narrowly defined roles — such as national defense, border security, coining currency, dealing with foreign powers, and so on. Note that all legitimate roles of government have one thing in common: the protection of private property, which is the only legitimate role of government. This completes the two essential elements of a free, moral society: Liberty and property.

In a moral society, the free person has one right above all others: the right to protect their own existence. Your life is the most precious property you can ever possess, and so the rights associated with that life must be the ones we guard most jealously. Liberty and property are meaningless without life itself, and protection of life is a moral imperative. That translates in modern terms to the right to self-defense and, by proxy, the defense of others. We have military and police forces to aid in this moral imperative, but in the final analysis, it is the right and responsibility of all competent, free people to take responsibility for their own defense and the defense of their loved ones. For this right to have any meaning, a free person must have access to a reasonable means of self-defense. That means arms. There is, therefore, a moral right to possess and bear arms outside the home for purposes of self-defense and for defense of the community, and that right, as stated in the Constitution, shall not be infringed.


Personally, I do not need a god to tell me these things; I find these facts to be self-evident. I live by the moral standards I mention above, I advocate for those standards, and I think (I do not feel, I do not believe, I think) that these standards apply to us due to our existence as moral, thinking beings. Now, while I am an atheist, I would point out that I am not a militant atheist; that seems to be the province of the non-believing Left. I do not believe, but for those that do, my opinion is this: If your belief brings you comfort and meaning in your life, then more power to you; just because I do not share your belief in no way means I do not acknowledge that it has value to you. I respect your right to freedom of conscience and expect the same in return. I have never harbored the notion that I was smart enough to tell anyone else what to think. That, too, is an essential aspect of liberty. I will also say this: When I look around the world and see the state of many other places, of many other cultures, I’m satisfied to be living in a nation with a predominantly Judeo-Christian culture, and objectively, I can see how the Judeo-Christian ethos has been largely a force for good in the world – even as the Left disagrees.

Unfortunately, it is the nature of government to grow ever more restrictive, ever more intrusive, and ever more dominating. It is also in the nature of government to reduce liberty and, in so doing, to become ever less tolerant of individual moral decisions. That is the pass at which we find ourselves today, and if you are a student of history, an examination of other societies at similar times does not give one much cause for optimism.


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