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The Scope of Ethics in Politics

While I'm on a roll blogging about ethics, arguing that it's broader than "interpersonal" behavior and in fact covers all chosen behavior, I realize I ought to say a little something about the intersection of ethics and politics.

I've written a bit about this topic before. Way back in 2005 I wrote a seven-part series of articles about ethical obligations in emergency situations:

In that series I stated that politics should not be used as a tool to enforce morality. But it was beyond the scope of that series to explain why. That's what I'd like to do now.

I've argued forcefully that ethics is a broader topic than simply "interpersonal" behavior. Politics, however, is fundamentally social in scope. A person stranded on a desert island would have no use for politics. To people living in a society, however, politics is highly relevant.

It's unsurprising that there is a relationship between politics and the ethics of interpersonal situations. But they are not synonymous. The relevant distinction is that ethics tells people what they should do, whereas politics tells people what they must do. Political dictates are enforced. If you break the law the government will force you to go to jail, or pay a fine, or mete out some other form of punishment. By contrast, if you break an ethical obligation but not a law, you may lose the cooperation and goodwill of others but you won't lose anything of your own (neither your freedom nor assets).

The frontier between ethics and politics is drawn by the answer to the question of what behavior should be compelled.

Different societies have placed that frontier in different places. In my earlier article I used Afghanistan as an example of one extreme:

The clearest example of a strong relationship between ethics and politics 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.

I believe the frontier belongs near the other extreme. There are many different arguments for this position, reflecting many different philosophical backgrounds. It's unfortunate that many of these arguments are negative, criticizing other positions and leading people to believe that freedom is merely the least bad among several horrible alternatives. I believe ardently in freedom; it is not "least bad", it's actually good — and I will make a positive argument for it.

Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle defined man as the "rational animal". Since his time, and largely thanks to him, the correctness of this definition has become obvious in almost every facet of daily life. The use of reason is the characteristic that best explains man's differences from the rest of the animal kingdom, and is most responsible for our success in this world. Given the scope of our accomplishments no short list of examples will ever seem satisfactory to establish the point. But I have to try.

The sciences have enabled a limitless stream of inventions that make mankind ever more capable, healthy, and successful. Consider the impact of the printing press, or the steam engine, or of automobiles, telephones, medicines, plastics, or computers. Our lives are completely transformed by technology: we live longer, healthier, safer, happier, richer, more fulfulling lives than our ancestors could even imagine. (And the rate of advancement is accelerating, not slowing.) We owe all of this to man's capacity to think.

But thought alone is impotent; its power to improve our lives depends on our ability to act on our thoughts. Alone on a desert island there are no artificial constraints on action — whatever is possible to do, you can do. In a social environment, however, the actions of one person can affect the ability of others to act.

A murder is the paradigm case. When the victim dies, their future thoughts and actions are irrevocably extinguished. When the killer goes to jail, their thoughts continue but their actions are highly restricted. (It is important to note here that the restrictions are caused by other people; they are not a fact of nature.) A thief restricts their victim's actions by denying them the use of the stolen property. An ordinary worker's actions are restricted (while at work) to doing their job, as opposed to whatever else they might desire to do.

It is revealing to consider the difference between employment and slavery. Both cases involve the employee or slave performing work, and the employer or master providing something in return — wages for the employee, sustenance for the slave. They are superficially similar, but fundamentally different: the slave was forced into slavery, but the employee's situation is voluntary.

In a fundamental sense these are the only two ways for people to deal with one another. In a voluntary agreement, each person independently thinks about the proposal, evaluates it as beneficial, and acts on that evaluation by cooperating with the others. By contrast, force is used to override a person's evaluation. They do not believe the proposal is good — that's why they didn't agree to it! Forcing them to act against their wishes is to render their thoughts impotent. They can no longer act upon their thoughts.

The capacity to think, and to act on those thoughts, is essential to human life. Everything from day-to-day decisions to the inventions that transform civilization depend on thinking. When force negates the efficacy of thought, it is blocking the essence of humanity. Force is anti-thought, and therefore fundamentally anti-human.

Early in this article I stated that the frontier between ethics and politics is drawn by the answer to the question of what behavior should be compelled. Based upon the fundamental importance of thought to human life, and the fact that force is anti-thought, my answer is that no behavior should be compelled — the goal of politics should be to remove force from human interactions.

This is not a blanket prohibition on force. Using force in self-defense — to protect human life rather than to destroy it — is acceptable. Jailing those who murder, or who attempt to murder, is a retaliatory use of force. Only the initiation of force is condemned on principle as illegitimate. That principle, of course, is the bedrock of libertarian politics.

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