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Ethics: Emergencies and Obligations - Part 3 - Ethics and Politics

This installment isn't directly about emergencies, but rather about the intersection of ethics and politics. The relevance will be explained in the next installment.

This was inspired in part by Rainbough Phillips's murder vs. morality post at Catallarchy.

What is the relationship between politics and ethics? Is politics simply an extension of ethics, such that "legislating morality" is natural, or is there a more limited relationship?

First, let's recognize that there are things in government that are orthogonal to this question and don't concern us here. Procedural rules, such as how to hold elections, we can leave aside. Things such as traffic codes that in the private sector would be described as user agreements also don't concern us. The focus here is on the criminal code.

The clearest example of a strong relationship between ethics and politics is is that of the former Taliban government of Afghanistan, explicitly ruling according to fundamentalist Islam. What Islam forbade the Taliban forbade, and what Islam required the Taliban required. Politics was an extension of ethics.

In nonfundamentalist countries, the same relationship is often assumed to hold, or desired to be held. Rainbough's example is great:

"There's nothing wrong with legislating morality. We legislate morality all the time. Murder is illegal and its immoral."

The difficulty with this particular statement is that it is technically correct. Most of the activities that are universally considered to be crimes are also universally considered to be immoral.

My snarky response to the murder example is, "Of course murder is wrong, but that is incidental."

If you accept the politics-as-extension-of-ethics idea, the paramount question for you is where to draw the line between what is so bad (good) that it must be forbidden (required), and what to leave to individual discretion. The Taliban drew that line over at one extreme. Enthusiasts for liberty could be understood as drawing that line at the other extreme. Some encourage this interpretation, by pointing out that freedom lies in the space between what is good and what is required, between what is bad and what is forbidden.

I'll surprise no one by saying I reject the idea of politics as merely an extension of ethics. There absolutely is a relationship between the two, but politics is not a mechanism to enforce morality. It is something quite different. (I say this with an unfriendly glare toward both the Right and the Left.)

Since this is not a political treatise, I'll abbreviate the discussion by simply saying that I agree with the political philosophy of the United States Declaration of Independence:

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, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Government exists to protect individual rights.

Murder is not illegal because it is wrong, it is illegal because it violates individual rights. Theft is not illegal because it is wrong, it is illegal because it violates individual rights. These and many more examples are straightforward.

Many laws are, unfortunately, grounded in the notion of politics as an extension of ethics. I regard all such laws as improper. Their implementation requires the violation of individual rights, making them antithetical to proper government. Laws against prostitution violate the individual rights of consenting adults. Minimum wage legislation violates the rights of employers and employees to trade.

Whether you believe prostitution or low wages or any of a myriad of other possible examples to be wrong is irrelevant. The only relevant matter is whether they violate individual rights. Returning to the murder example, murder is not illegal because it's wrong, but rather because it violates the rights of the victim.

To say it awkwardly: It's about rights, not wrongness.

When the debate is framed in terms of rights, the proponents of politics-as-ethics change their strategy, but their goal is clear as ever. They will mold society toward their vision of the good by inventing new rights. Thus, the government is still acting as advocate of their particular ethical system.

The invention is the idea of "positive rights". "Positive rights" impose an obligation on others. To make discussion easier, individual rights as understood by the Founders are called negative rights, because they do not impose an obligation on others.

The (negative) right to life prohibits action — murder. The (negative) right to free speech prohibits action — censorship. The (negative) right to property prohibits action — theft.

The (positive) right to health care requires action — caregiving. The (positive) right to an education requires action — teaching. The (positive) right to a home requires action — the creation of one. (Drat, there's no single English word for that.)

Rhetorically, I can't do better at refuting the idea of positive rights than Ayn Rand did. From her essay "Man's Rights":

Jobs, food, recreation (!), homes, medical care, education, etc., do not grow in nature. These are man-made values — goods and services produced by men. Who is to provide them?

If some men are entitled by right to the products of the work of others, it means that those others are deprived of rights and condemned to slave labor.

Any alleged "right" of one man, which necessitates the violation of the rights of another, is not and cannot be a right.

No man can have a right to impose an unchosen obligation, an unrewarded duty or an involuntary servitude on another man. There can be no such thing as "the right to enslave."

A right does not include the material implementation of that right by other men; it includes only the freedom to earn that implementation by one's own effort.

"Positive rights" violate negative rights. They're an attempt to usurp the very word "rights" to make it mean the opposite of its original meaning.

If you counter that negative rights are the problem, and that there would be no conflict if we simply did away with those pesky negative rights, you're wrong. "Positive rights" conflict inescapably. I owe the following example to an e-mail discussion I had last year with Jim, a retired philosophy professor.

Consider two people, but only one with a functioning liver. The other is close to death. Let us stipulate that there are no spare livers; they can only be obtained from otherwise healthy people. If the sick man has a "positive right" to life or to health care, any surgeon who comes by must treat him, as he is a slave to their needs. The problem is that while a liver transplant fulfills the obligation to the recipient, it creates a new obligation to the person who's just been deprived of a liver. If the dying person had a right to a liver, the newly dying person does, too. The surgeon must endlessly transfer the liver back and forth in a futile attempt to satisfy both peoples' "positive right" to life or to health care. But they cannot be simultaneously satisfied.

I don't mean for this example to be taken as an emergency or lifeboat situation for the purpose of ethical contemplation. I intend it simply as a vivid example of the problem of scarcity. If people have a "positive right" to X, but X is scarce, these "rights" cannot be simultaneously satisfied.

Yes, X is always something scarce. If it wasn't scarce, politicians wouldn't be angling to win elections by promising to deliver it.


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