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Unpublished article from 1991

COMMUNITY, ETHICS AND POLITICS

This article from 1991 was in response to an article by Vancouver Sun religion writer Douglas Todd called The Hole in the Heart of North America. It was probably submitted to the Sun but not published. I searched the Internet trying to find the original article so I could link to it, but could not find it.  The article below has been edited slightly from the original.

Do the ends justify the means? Surely this is one of the key issues an ethicist must consider. Intuitively, most people say no. We must not employ immoral or unjust means to accomplish an end, no matter how desirable. It is admirable to want material comforts for one's family. It is wrong to steal to attain that end. And most moral philosophers would agree.

Yet in his article "The hole in the heart of North America" (Saturday Review, April 27, 1991), religion & ethics columnist Douglas Todd trots out the views of ethicist Arthur Schafer; views that advocate admirable ends, but which extols immoral means to achieve them.

Schafer and Todd bemoan a lack of sense of responsibility in modern North American society. Particularly they decry our "obsession" with individual rights and freedoms and lack of "responsibility to family, community, country and the environment." The article correctly equates this focus on rights and freedoms with "the values of the marketplace" but mistakenly decries these values as "anti‑human, commercial values."

Tied in with this general denunciation of the marketplace comes a predictable attack on free trade and cross border shopping.

The flaw in Schafer's analysis is his confusion of ethics with politics and his failure to consider a fine point of meta-ethics.

Ethics is the branch of philosophy that examines how one should act to lead a good life. Such considerations include both questions of personal behaviour, voluntary interactions between people, and non-voluntary interactions between people. Politics, in a capitalist society, restricts government largely to acting as an agency of self-defence to enforce restrictions on non-voluntary interactions. Governments in capitalist countries prohibit murder, robbery, assault and fraud in all its variant forms. Ethical questions that deal with personal morals and voluntary interactions are left to individuals to decide for themselves. Government in a truly capitalist society does not enforce morality except to act as an agency of mutual self‑defence against aggressors.

Before continuing, let us examine a question of meta-ethics. Meta-ethics is the branch of philosophy that examines the foundations of ethics. Among other things, it asks what conditions are necessary for one to behave morally. In the areas of personal morality and voluntary (non-coercive) interactions between people, it is essential that individuals are free to choose whether to behave morally or not. Morality involves choice. When one voluntarily donates to a charity or volunteers to do work for a service agency or church, he or she may be acting morally. If a person refrains from smoking because he thinks it wrong to damage himself, he is acting morally. When people have the choice whether to adopt a certain behaviour or do certain things, they have the power to be moral human beings.

But suppose the government banned smoking? Would the person who now does not smoke because of the law be acting morally? The answer is no. He has made no moral choice. He is behaving in accordance with morality, but his action is devoid of moral content because his actions are not freely chosen. He is acting amorally at best. Without the ability to make a choice, people cannot act morally. They can only be amoral. (To clarify, morality refers to actions.  A moral action is a good act voluntarily chosen. An immoral act is a bad act voluntarily chosen. And an amoral act is one devoid of moral content - either because it does not matter (choosing to have a peanut butter sandwich for lunch is an amoral act) or because it is not voluntarily chosen (if one is forced to take an action, one is not acting morally or immorally but amorally.).

Now socialism differs from capitalism in what aspects of ethical behaviour it chooses to enforce with the coercive power of government. Socialism is a political philosophy that enforces what would be voluntary interactions between people in a capitalist society. Specifically, socialism does not merely want people to behave morally by voluntarily helping out those less well off through their favorite churches and charities, it uses the guns of the state to force its citizens to help those less well off through various state-run welfare schemes. The irony is, that while such socialism believes it is making people behave morally, in fact it creates an amoral society because it takes away the voluntary aspect of such interactions. A person paying his taxes is not being a moral person even though those taxes may end up helping some destitute person. The taxpayer has no choice. The state holds a gun to his head and says, "Pay up or else!" One could even argue that the taxpayer is acting immorally in that he exhibits cowardice and complies with the government instead of resisting such coercion. (Though as a law-abiding taxpayer myself, I prefer to think of the taxpayer's actions as prudent.)

Returning to meta-ethics briefly, a question to consider is whether ethical principles can be derived from study of the nature of human beings, from divine revelation or whether they should be based on polls (i.e. are ethical behaviours those that the majority of people say are ethical or are ethical principles based on something beyond that?) To formulate it another way, are ethical principles immutable or does might make right?

Most ethical philosophers would reject the notion that might makes right. Morality is based on something more than that.

Let's put this into a concrete example. Consider the moral injunction of the Bible, "Thou shalt not steal." Most ethical philosophers would agree on that. And they would agree that it is not because most people also agree that this is so. It is because something about the nature of the human animal leads us to this conclusion or, if we are religious, because God said so.

But suppose a gang of ten people accosted a single person in a dark alley and said hand over your money. Would the actions of the gang be moral because they are the majority in this situation? The answer is no. Stealing is immoral. It is a question of principle, not a question of numbers. Now suppose that the gang indicates a motive. Suppose the gang leader tells the victim, "We want the money to help a kindly old lady get a life-saving operation." Now would that gang's actions be moral? Again the answer is no. It brings us back to the point I first raised in this essay. The ends do not justify the means.

Let us consider one further variation in the search for a justification for theft. Suppose someone accosts another and says, "Hey, I like that watch you have there.. How about selling it to me?" The person accosted says no, at which point the accoster pulls out a gun and says, "Well I want that watch and I'm taking it. But look. The watch is worth about two hundred dollars. I'll give you three hundred for it but I'm taking that watch." Has the assailant acted immorally in stealing the watch? The answer is yes he has. Even though he gave the victim more than the watch was worth, the victim did not want to sell it and so he was robbed.

Stealing is wrong on principle. It does not matter whether a majority approve of it or whether the ends sought to be achieved by the theft are worthwhile or whether the thief gives something of value back in return to the unwilling victim. Theft is theft and is immoral.

Considering socialism again, here we have a situation where a very large gang ( a majority of the people in the country) accosts its citizens via taxation to take their money to serve worthy ends and yes, they even give you some services back (although unlike the watch thief, no where near the value of what they take from you.) Looked at in this light, socialism is not just amoral, it is immoral. It steals, justifying its actions by the spurious notions that might makes right (we're the majority), that the ends justify the means, ( we want to help the poor and disadvantaged) and they try to justify it by saying they will give you back something in return.

The free society that recognizes individual rights may not always produce the ends some ethicists like Schafer and Todd desire, but it does not employ immoral means to achieve its ends. It leaves people free to choose their behaviours in the personal and voluntary interpersonal area.

While the spirit of community responsibility exhibited by the Amish, an example Todd makes much of, is to be admired and perhaps emulated, it would be well to note that such societies as the Amish, the Mennonites, the Mormons and the Jewish Kibbutzim, all of which practice the ideas that Schafer and Todd admire, are voluntary societies. When Schafer advocates promoting such virtues by "straightahead coercive laws", he has stepped beyond the pale of civilized society into the realm of "might makes right" and the "ends justify the means". He is advocating the ideas that will destroy freedom and lead to tyranny.

Postscipt: In my original unpublished article, the words "straightahead coercive laws" are in quotation marks as I have them here and I assume they are quoted directly from the Todd column addressed. I could not find that article so I cannot verify it.

 

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