Posts Tagged ‘morality’

God and Moral Relativism

August 16, 2013 Leave a comment

On Political Prospect (formerly Real Reagan Conservative).


Morality and Government Part II

January 23, 2012 4 comments

There are two ways to think about government.  By far the most common is to think of government as a force over and above the citizens which has always just been there, which provides for them, which they are inherently bound and subject to, and which can be petitioned as one petitions God or a child petitions its parents for whatever they want by appealing to its morality.  This is a bad way to treat government and I’m sure my libertarian friends will agree.  The correct way of thinking about government, at least government among free people, is as a contracting problem.  Most people have trouble thinking of it this way because when they hear the word “contracting” they think of contracting in a legal sense.  This type of contracting requires a third-party enforcer (a government) to enforce the contract.  In the absence of a third-party enforcer, there is still the possibility for contracts but those contracts must be self-enforcing.  Consider some examples.

Contract 1: I come to you and ask for a loan.  You give me $100 today and I will give you $110 one year from today.  This contract is not self-enforcing because 1 year from now there is no incentive for me to pay you back.  I already got what I wanted out of it, why should I fulfill my end of the agreement?  If there is a third-party enforcer, it is in my interest to uphold the contract because if I don’t, then the enforcer will come and punish me.  But without a third-party enforcer, this contract will not be possible even if it would be mutually beneficial.

Contract 2: I am a farmer and you are a swineherd.  We agree that every autumn I will give you a portion of my crop and you will provide me with meat throughout the year.  This contract may be self-enforcing because the benefits to both parties are continuous.  This will be the case as long as the benefits to both of us from continuing the agreement are always greater than the benefits from breaking it.

The last post was intended to establish a framework for thinking about morality and ethics in the context of government.  The purpose of this post is to analyze the morality of a specific government action, namely taxation. [Editor: it actually goes a little beyond that…] In order to do this we must assume a few things.  Here’s the scenario we will consider: A group of people come together who want to form a libertarian government.  They believe it is immoral to initiate violence against another person.  So I aim to evaluate certain functions of government through this moral lens.  I’m not trying to argue that this morality is the one true correct morality but this post is intended for people who generally share my libertarian views. Read more…

Morality and Government

January 18, 2012 3 comments

This is a continuation of what I started in this post on morality and ethics.  The position I am disputing is that government shouldn’t tax because taxation is theft and theft is immoral.  Let me say up front, that a government which could accomplish its purpose without taxation would be ideal and I believe it’s possible that this could be achieved.  If we could start a government from scratch with people who all believed as Thomas and I do, we might be able to fund the government with only voluntary payments (to be fair this is exactly the scenario he was dealing with in his original post).  I won’t get into how that could be done but I’m not trying to prove that it’s impossible here. My issue is with the attitude that there is a universal morality which government must (or at least ought to) follow.  And if we have any interest in fixing this thing before it gets so bad that we have to rebuild a society out of the ashes, we can’t have that approach.  We are so far away from a national consensus that taxation is theft and should be outlawed altogether that if you adopt this position your only option is to wait for the collapse of society.   The real important thing is that the government be prevented from using taxation to redistribute wealth and manage its distribution.  This does not require a complete moratorium on taxation.

A government has no morals.  It has no morals because it is not a creature.  It is a tool created by people to perform some task.  Tools do not have morals.  A hammer can be used for building a house–a noble pursuit–or committing a murder–not so noble.  If I am making a hammer, I cannot imbue the hammer with a moral objection to murder.  There are however, some things I could do to make it more difficult to commit murder with my hammer.  I could remove the forks on the back or perhaps put a layer of foam rubber around the whole head except for the face.  If I really wanted to be sure, I could even cover most of the face leaving only a small hole in the foam rubber that would have to be lined up precisely with the nail on every strike in order to work.  These things, while making it more difficult for someone to use my hammer for murder would also make it less useful for building houses. Read more…

On Means, Ends and Ethics

January 5, 2012 3 comments

I promised I would write a post explaining why taxation is ok following this exchange on The Compassionate Conservative.

Thomas H.: Government can be funded through voluntary donation only. A lottery and payment for the protection of contracts are one way this can be achieved. These methods of raising funds, as well as private donations, would be enough to provide funding for a righteous system. The U.S. Patent system stands as an example of how this can be done.

Free Radical: A lottery wouldn’t be very profitable without a government-enforced monopoly which I assume you wouldn’t support. In fact this would just be the government competing in a market activity for profit which is a very bad idea. It would be better to just have taxes you just need to keep them from being used to redistribute wealth which is not all that complicated.

Thomas H.:  I agree with you about the lottery comment, but that doesn’t change the fact that taxation is theft by definition and theft is wrong.

But that ended up opening a big can of worms so I have to do a preliminary post establishing some things about morality.  I begin with the proposition that the ends justify the means.  However, most people who rely on this adage are not applying it correctly because they are not accounting for all of the ends.  For instance, if a man wants to bring about world peace, and goes about this by conquering the world leaving a trail of death and destruction in his wake and then claims that the ends (world peace) justify the means (trail of death and destruction) he is  mischaracterizing the latter.  The trail of death and destruction is part of the ends.  You may still claim that it’s worth it for world peace but you are weighing ends against ends.  If you must lie to accomplish something and lying harms someone else or harms your reputation, these are all ends.  Depending on your morals it may or may not be worth it, but again, it’s ends against ends.

If all of the ends of a certain course of action taken together are justified then the means are justified.  In fact there is no other way of justifying any means but the ends.  The thing that makes a hammer a good tool is the fact that it is a means of driving a nail (an end) that is relatively easy (another end) and inexpensive (another end).  You take all of these ends, put them together and if they are good, then the means (the hammer) are justified.  If you tried to drive a nail with a herring you would most likely find that, if you can manage to get the nail driven at all, it will be at a much higher cost than some alternative method, thus the herring is not a justified means of driving a nail.

Believe it or not, that’s basically economics, so let’s turn to ethics now.  For the purpose of this post, allow me to put forth two definitions.  These are not exactly the common definitions of these words but they highlight an important distinction for our purposes.

Morals: The sense someone has about what is right and wrong.

Ethics: A rule or set of rules a person uses to make decisions about their actions and behavior.

Morals are subjective and are beyond our control.  They can change but we can’t choose to change them.  If we had perfect information about all the ends which would result from a course of action, then we could evaluate the morality of them in relation to our own subjective morals and decide whether that course of action is “justified.”  If this were the case (perfect information), we would have no need for ethics.  But of course this is not the situation in which we find ourselves.

In reality the consequences of any course of action are usually numerous and either partially or entirely veiled in mystery.  Because of this it would be impossible to actually evaluate our actions based on the ends.  If someone were to take this approach to morality, they would almost certainly commit frequent moral transgressions out of pure ignorance.  In addition, in the presence of this ignorance, there are many forms of bias which are likely to creep into their decision-making.  For instance, they may tend to minimize the importance of potential but uncertain adverse effects on others and magnify more certain advantages to themselves, or they may favor current benefits over those which are far-off.  The bottom line is that, by adopting certain ethical rules, they may force themselves to make decisions which add up to a better life than if they tried to address the morality of every situation independently.  These ethics may not lead you to make the correct moral decision every time, it is enough that they cause you to err less often than you would without them.

For instance, take the boy who cried wolf.  This is a story about a boy who does not understand all of the implications of his actions.  He knows that lying causes amusing results in the short run but is entirely unaware of the long-term consequences for his reputation.  This condition applies to most children and that is the reason for the fable.  It is meant to teach children about this other consequence and ideally instill in them the ethic “thou shalt not lie.”  It is clear to most parents that if their child were to adopt this ethic they would end up better off than without it.  Of course if they could somehow grant their child complete knowledge of the consequences of every action they take, this would be even better, but in lieu of this, “thou shalt not lie” is a helpful rule of thumb.

Of course, the boy who is convinced to adopt the ethic “thou shalt not lie” may eventually get married and be asked by his wife whether or not she looks fat.  Assuming she does in fact look fat, a man who approaches each decision independently is likely to conclude that this is a situation where a lie is justified by the ends.  Alternatively, if he makes the decision based on an ethic against lying, he will not even attempt this calculation and will simply tell the truth.  The consequences of this may add up to something undesirable in this case.  However, if the cost in this case and other similar cases where he may make the “wrong” decision based on his ethic are less than the costs from the “wrong” decisions he would make our of ignorance when making decisions in the absence of the ethic, then the ethic is beneficial.  Similarly, he may find himself in a situation where the fate of the entire universe depends on him telling a lie, but this scenario is probably so unlikely that it is worth the risk. (In practice, of course, reason may often overrule an ethic in situations where it is sufficiently obvious that the result of breaking it will be more desirable than following it).

Notice that the boy who cried wolf has no moral aversion to lying.  If he did, then he would have no need for an ethic against it.  This too is representative of most children.  The things our morals relate to are all ends.  Admittedly I am defining “ends” in such a way that this must be true, so if a child did have a natural moral aversion to lying (which is certainly possible since morals are subjective) then not lying would become an end in itself.  But typically, we don’t have this moral naturally which means lying is a means to some other set of ends (known or unknown) which allow for some moral evaluation.  If someone did have a moral aversion to lying, then the ethic may not be necessary (it’s possible that this moral may come into conflict with another moral and if, when this happens, the complete consequences are unknown and tend to favor not lying, then the ethic may still be beneficial).  Indeed, the ethic often becomes a moral aversion to lying eventually and this is relevant to my ultimate point about government but you will have to wait for the next post to see what I mean.

It’s worth noticing that children, whose knowledge and reasoning capability are much less developed than those of an adult, rely most heavily on ethical rules.  Ethics are a way of taking some widom about the world that someone may not be able to completely grasp and put it into a form that is easy to understand.  It is not possible to explain to a child all of the possible consequences of lying, but it is possible to convince them that lying is bad.  (I think the largest cause of casualties among the ranks of objectivist types who decry all systems of ethics is that they eventually have children) As we grow older and wiser we often relax some of our ethics because we become more comfortable with our ability to make decisions individually without that guidance.   However, most of us still hold on to many of our ethics because our knowledge and reasoning ability always remain far short of perfection.

So to sum up, God (or nature or whatever you want to call this thing) has endowed us with some set of morals.  In addition, we have been endowed with the ability to reason but this is imperfect and cannot always inform us of all the consequences of our actions before hand.  This leaves a gap between where we stand at any moment and the ends which we ultimately wish to pursue or avoid.  “Means” are the various ways in which we can bridge that gap.  Our morals determine what we want to pursue or avoid but do not tell us how to get there.  Approaching every situation with the pure force of our own reason is likely not the most effective way to approach life so we adopt certain ethics which are rules of thumb regarding means designed to lead us more often than not to the ends which we find morally desirable.

Categories: Philosophy Tags: ,


October 8, 2010 1 comment

F.A. Hayek speaking about the works of Frederic Bastiat (read this!):

This is simply that if we judge measures of economic policy solely by their immediate and concretely foreseeable effects, we shall not only not achieve a viable order but shall be certain progressively to extinguish freedom and thereby prevent more good than our measures will produce.  Freedom is important in order that all the different individuals can make full use of the particular circumstances of which only they know.  We therefore never know what beneficial actions we prevent if we restrict their freedom to serve their fellows in whatever manner they wish.  All acts of interference, however, amount to such restrictions.  They are of course, always undertaken to achieve some definite objective.  Against the foreseen direct results of such actions of government we shall in each individual case be able to balance only the mere probability that some unknown but beneficial actions by some individuals will be prevented.  In consequence, if such decisions are made from case to case and not governed by an attachment to freedom as a general principle, freedom is bound to lose in almost every case.  Bastiat was indeed right in treating freedom of choice as a moral principle that must never be sacrificed to considerations of expediency; because there is perhaps no aspect of freedom that would not be abolished if it were to be respected only where the concrete damage caused by its abolition can be pointed out. 

The Conscience of a Libertarian

September 30, 2010 3 comments

I’m back baby!  While I’ve been away the republicans released their “Pledge to America.”  So let’s talk about the republicans and politics and the transformation that needs to occur if we are going to avert the coming catastrophe (insurrection…?). 

Begin by thinking back to last year’s special election in New York’s 23rd congressional district.  If you don’t remember, here is what happened.  The leaders of the local Republican party got together in a private meeting and nominated a progressive (Scozzafava).  The actual Republican voters didn’t want a progressive and lined up behind a conservative candidate (Hoffman).  When it became clear that Scozzafava had no chance of winning, she dropped out and threw her support behind the Democrat (Owens) who eventually won in a close election. 

At the time I had a take on this election that I never heard anyone else articulate.  The outcome was generally considered a victory for Democrats and the Obama administration but I actually consider it a minor defeat (although not as bad as it almost was).  You see, recently I have come to look at politics through a different lens.  Rather than seeing Republicans and Democrats as sincere enemies I see them as a sort of modern-day Condottiere who, having noticed that they possess a monopoly on combat, have no need to actually engage in the act but merely to present the appearance thereof.  This avoids unnecessary bloodshed as well as giving the monopolist the ability to predetermine the outcome of all the battles.

With this view in mind, look at the above mentioned election more carefully.  The reason there was a special election in New York’s 23rd district is that Obama had appointed the previous senator John Hugh, a Republican, as Secretary of the Army.  The narrative coming out of the media was that he did this because it was a seat he thought the Democrats could pick up.  But what would have been an even better present for Obama to find under his tree in 2009 than one more democrat in congress?  A Republican who would actually vote for Healthcare.  As we have seen, the support of one Republican is Obama’s idea of “bipartisan support” which he would have loved to attach to that bill but was unable to. 

This is what I think the administration had in mind for New York’s 23rd district.  The reason that district was perfect was that it was a traditionally Republican district that had become fairly “moderate” in recent years and more importantly where the republican party candidate would be chosen by a handful of party insiders in a smoke-filled room.  I think Obama actually wanted Scazzafava and assumed the Republican voters in New York wouldn’t look at her carefully enough to realize that she was a typical progressive and would just rubber stamp her because she had an R by her name.  To their credit, the voters figured it out and stood up to it.  They ended up with a progressive anyway but at least it’s a wolf in wolf’s clothing.

Now look at what is happening in Republican primaries all over the country (for instance Florida and Alaska).  The pattern is becoming pretty pronounced I’d say.  Plus we have the case of Delaware where not only is Mike Castle considering doing the same thing but for a moment after he lost in the primary, the GOP threatened to withhold funding from his victor Christine O’Donnell. 

All of this begs the question: what does the Republican establishment fear more than losing ground to Democrats?  Republicans and Democrats trade power back and forth all the time but the people at the top never go anywhere and the special interests that they pander to always seem to do alright.  The thing that could really overturn their proverbial apple cart is an influx of outsiders who don’t have ambitions of careers in politics but instead have a set of values that they think should be reflected in government, people who aren’t beholden to party leadership for their positions and their future, in short, people who aren’t easily manipulated in the name of political compromise and self-preservation. 

So in the end I’ll take pretty much any outsider over any establishment candidate.  Sadly in my state I don’t really have this option, but I would encourage those who do to hang in there and not cave to the Carl Roves of the world who insist that it is all about beating the Democrats and that every principal may be sacrificed to this end.  But that being said, in the long run you can’t beat something with nothing.  We cannot sustain a political movement based purely on “outsideness” we must find a platform we can unite over.

Here is what the Republicans have proposed in an attempt to bring the right back together under their banner.  Most of this is stuff I am in favor of (they support the most damaging part of the healthcare bill….) but none of it will save the republic.  They are the same kind of promises that Republicans have been making for generations.  Most of them will never happen even if the Republicans take control of the legislature, though they may blame it on “Democrat obstructionism” just like the Dems. do now.  But even if they actually did get this stuff done, the political state of the country would continue to decay, it would just not do so quite as quickly as it does when Democrats are in power.

The structural changes which could actually make a difference and would be widely popular such as term limits or an audit of the Fed are conspicuously absent.  But what we really need to discover first, if we are going to turn this thing around is not these things, it is some kind of moral foundation.  When I say this I don’t mean a personal moral foundation, I mean a political moral foundation.  In other words, a set of principles that we can accept as the basis for a philosophy of government. 

What we have now is a situation where political battles take place over issues with no overarching moral frame of reference.  Interest groups fight with each other over whom the government should favor at the expense of others.  The right and left try to use it to impose their individual moralities on each other.  The poor try to use it to take from the rich and the rich try to use it to take from each other.  All of these battles take the form of right vs. left and we have learned to see all issues with only the right and left as reference points. 

Instead of evaluating a policy by asking who gains and who loses and which one do I like more, we need to start asking the question “Is this consistent with my moral view of government?”  For instance here are political statements which are not based on a moral foundation:

You should never raise taxes on anyone during a recession.

The rich in this country don’t pay their fair share.

Government employees shouldn’t have such lucrative pensions.

Teachers should make more money.

These are all statements about who the government should favor and by how much in a given situation.  They make no statement about the relationship between the government and the people.  On the other hand here is a political statement which is based on a moral foundation.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Now consider this quote (paraphrase) which I have heard in a tea party commercial: “It’s time for a smaller, more caring government.”  There are two reasons why this will not do as a moral foundation.  First, advocating a “small” government is not a moral position.  How do you measure the size of government?  How small is small enough?  If it is “small” enough can it do whatever it wants so long as it doesn’t get too “big?”  These questions do not have satisfactory answers and therefore, “small government,” although the general sentiment behind it is something I certainly support, it is not enough to organize a movement around.

More importantly, the idea that government should be more “caring” is precisely the kind of moral nonsense that has led us to the point we find ourselves at now.  How can a government be “caring?”  Who should it care for?  Statements like this can be twisted to mean whatever anyone with any particular agenda wants them to mean.  What we really need is to stop treating government as something that should be “caring.” 

The idea that government should be caring is the ultimate collectivization of the altruist ethic and this makes it the most absurd form of altruism.  The idea that an individual should be caring implies that the individual should sacrifice their “self interest” for the sake of others.  But what does this mean for a government?  Can a government have a self interest?  The only thing that government can sacrifice for the benefit of someone is the interest of someone else.  This is exactly the type of moral confusion which we must avoid.  So I am putting forth the following moral platform. 

1.  Everyone has a right to their own life, liberty, and property and to the produce thereof and should be allowed to use them in whatever way they wish so long as it does not directly infringe on the same rights of others.

2.  The purpose of the government is to protect these rights.

3. The purpose of the law is to protect the rights of citizens from other citizens.  It should not be used to protect people from themselves or from roundabout effects of decisions made by others.  It should be as simple as is possible while accomplishing this purpose. 

4.  The law should be uniform and uniformly applied to all citizens.  This does not guarantee uniformity of outcomes or “opportunity.”

5.  Since taking from someone for the benefit of someone else violates the first person’s right to their own property, the government should never under any circumstances engage in the redistribution of property.  Nor should it be necessary in any circumstance for the government to weigh benefits to any person against costs to any other person.

6. The purpose of the military is to protect citizens from outside forces.

7.  This should be accomplished by the smallest and cheapest military possible.

8.  The natural check on the government is the threat of armed revolution.  This is one reason that the military should be as small as is necessary to ensure security from foreign invaders and it also means that the government must make no attempt at diminishing the collective military power of the people.

9.  The government has no business monitoring the behavior of law-abiding citizens.

10.  The above principles must not be compromised in any way for any reason, including convenience, economic efficiency, or physical danger.  The potential cost of lost liberty will always be far greater than the imagined benefits. 

This platform contains everything necessary for evaluating any political policy.  Notice that the moral foundation cannot be compromised.  If, for instance, we were to say “the government shouldn’t take from one citizen to give to another except in cases of extreme need,” this would be a worthless code because “extreme need” could mean anything. The original intent will eventually be eroded by continual and progressive compromise.  By building compromise into the foundation, you lay the groundwork for its eventual destruction.

However, there is another kind of compromise that is required here.  If we were ever to adopt a truly libertarian government it would require people on the left and right to both give up certain things that they would like the government to do.  People on the left would have to give up the redistribution of wealth, minimum wages, “safety nets,” gun bans, and government manipulation of markets.  The right would have to give up laws outlawing drugs and other personal behavior they consider immoral, government spying and other such “anti-terror” programs, subsidies to businesses (including farms), and other government manipulations of markets.

Personally I think we are coming to a point where most of the right, most of the center and much of the left can be brought around to this view.  There is certainly an element on the left which is fundamentally opposed to this moral platform.  They subscribe to a different platform, which holds that individuals are not responsible for anything, only collective outcomes matter and the government should have a right to do whatever is necessary to accomplish certain collective outcomes.  But these people make up a small minority in America (unfortunately they are largely in power right now). 

 The problem we have is that the majority have no moral political foundation whatsoever so they are constantly making what they consider compromises which lead to a system which confounds any attempt at moral comprehension.  As a nation we must realize that we cannot continue on without such a foundation and then we can have a debate about which one we want. 

The other side is doing everything possible to avoid this.  As an example of this notice that the Obama administration refuses to say whether the president actually is or is not a socialist/Marxist despite the constant stream of evidence dredged up by Glenn Beck to that effect.  This is because he has convinced the people on the left who subscribe to that moral foundation that he subscribes to it too but at the same time he has convinced the rest of us that there is no such thing as a moral political foundation.  This is why whenever he talks about it he just acts as though the very question is absurd and questions the intelligence of anyone who would consider it.  I suspect it is because they are aware of the fact on which our hope for salvation rests.  That if people actually realized that they need a moral foundation and began a national debate over what it should be, their side would not win.

Update: Right after I wrote this O’Reilly came on tv with these talking points.  By the way, the contrast between an unalienable right as I (and I believe the founders) conceive of it and the left’s idea of a right is illustrated nicely by the line “when workers were organizing for the right to organize…” (lol)

Upadate again: There’s nothing like a spelling error in the title, hope nobody noticed….(=