Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Evolution of Moral Consensus


Imagine a country that is fiercely divided on the definition of personhood. There is a group of contested things that half the country claims are human beings, and have rights like any other. The other half claims they are not human beings, and do not have rights. Therefore, the second half asserts that as human beings themselves, their own rights trump those of this non-human group. The first half of the country passionately disagrees. Fierce arguments arise on a national scale because both parties believe the stance of the other takes away somebody’s rights.

Due to the subject of my last post, most readers are probably envisioning 21st century America’s debate over abortion. But could not this same paragraph summarize 19th century America’s debate over slavery?

Let me be clear that I am not comparing being pro-choice with being pro-slavery. There are obvious differences, and they are not analogous practices. What is analogous is the situation facing government. That’s what I’m comparing; two countries divided on a moral issue pertaining to rights, who has them, what counts as a human being and who is or isn’t a protected member of society. If only half the population believes a certain group has rights, should government protect that groups rights? If so, it would seem I can’t be pro-choice. If not, it would seem I couldn’t have been anti-slavery during the mid-1800’s. What gives? How do I distinguish between the two issues? And beyond those issues specifically, this same situation is bound to arise again; when it does, what is the best solution from a government perspective? My goal today is to answer that question in general terms.

The guiding principle I’ve laid out regarding governance is the standard of universal morality. Without a nearly unanimous consensus that something is more wrong than the force and coercion required to ban it, it should not be banned. But for the majority of human history, no such consensus existed regarding slavery. The implication that seems to carry is troubling. Was it wrong, therefore, to force racial equality on others? Was the Civil War unjust? Was the government ever right to permit slavery? Even entertaining those thoughts seems horrifying by today’s standards.

The root issue here is that moral consensus evolves over time. We all recognize this. But at the same time, we’re uncomfortable with the idea that our rights themselves can change. By definition, natural rights are supposed to be eternal; if it’s my right today, it was my right 100 years ago and will be my right 100 years from now. We prefer to imagine that our consensus has evolved around the rights, not vice-versa; our actual rights haven’t really changed, we claim, we simply have a more wholesome and worldly understanding of them today than we did in the past. The notion that our rights might be different today than they were yesterday or will be tomorrow is unsettling, because we like to think of our current moral consensus as uncontestably sacrosanct. As such, we see no problem with using that perspective to judge who was right or wrong throughout history. We’re comfortable with the notion that the vast majority of people in colonial times were simply wrong about slavery, just as they were wrong on the Native Americans or women’s suffrage. Slavery is something our modern consciences unilaterally object to, so it must have always been immoral, and forcibly preventing it must have always been okay.

This is an easy conclusion to reach now, because hindsight is 20/20. But unfortunately, foresight is not. In the present, dismissing the views of large swaths of the population is far more risky. This is because for every lasting shift in society’s moral consensus, there’s been another temporary fluctuation that didn’t last. Take prohibition, or the Know-Nothing Party, or the Trail of Tears, or Jim Crow laws, or the Mexican-American War, or the Japanese Internment camps, etc. Today, we recognize these things were terribly unfair, but at the time they occurred each received some degree of popular support. Only in retrospect can society detect which moral causes would be fleeting, and which would continue growing until universal support is reached. Had the standard of consensus necessary for government to impose law been higher, the injustice might have been averted. But when the government enforces fickle majority whims on everyone, oppression often ensues.

So what’s a government to do? From my perspective, the most just course of action is to wait until a large consensus is reached before imposing one’s morality on others. This prevents temporary and fickle social whims from becoming mammoth injustices, but it merely delays (without preventing) lasting social consensus from being adopted into law. From a consequentialist viewpoint, the potential for unjust outcomes is the same either way; whether those outcomes are being enforced by government or tolerated by government is irrelevant. But from the idealist standpoint, it is far better for government to wait until it’s nearly certain its own actions are just. The responsibility for the morality of an action lies with an agent; therefore, it is better for the agent of government to patient and err on the side of caution***; that is, the side of inaction. Until a near consensus is reached, we cannot assume that the ends justify the means.

What does this mean for the abortion and slavery comparison? I see two implications. Firstly, the comparison illustrates the distinction between government action and government inaction. Unlike abortion, slavery was not an action by other agents which government passively tolerated; rather, government actively partook in the practice itself.  This was to such a degree that without government’s participation, slavery could not have survived nearly as long as it did. On the federal level, this was through things like the Fugitive Slave Law or the 3/5ths compromise; on the state level, it was through capturing runaways or publicly killing any slaves which revolted against their masters. Without the use or threat of government force to apprehend runaways, kill rebels, and protect masters, slavery would have crumbled. True neutrality and passivity on the issue would have allowed this to occur. But by officially recognizing slaves as property, government was taking a side on the matter and actively imposing one subjective moral framework over another, something my framework does not permit.

Abortion, by contrast, requires no such participation****. Deciding to permit abortion did not involve taking government action; it involved ceasing to take an action which was already being taken (namely, forcibly preventing people from having abortions). After a certain point in the 20th century, there was no longer consensus regarding the morality of the practice in question, and so government became passive in the face of that practice. People may now do as they like to their fetuses before a certain date.

But this is an inadequate distinction, because it still doesn’t establish that black people have rights. Today, we know that black people have rights, and that they’ve always had rights. Defending those rights requires government action; that action is just, and it has always been just. But those rights have not always been universally accepted, and while they weren’t, my moral framework would not have government defend them. For example, without a near consensus that the black person had a right to life, the government I advocate would be powerless to stop a white person from killing a black person, or beating him or chaining him or threatening him into submission. In the absence of consensus, how can these injustices be avoided?

The unfortunate truth is that they can’t, because we can’t know if they’re actually an injustice. At no point in time was slavery okay, but there were points in time where slavery was widely viewed as okay by the standards of the times. Those standards were wholly, flatly, completely wrong, but at the time, there’s nothing the government could have done about it. Government can only reflect the views of the governed. Government can only be as right or wrong as the governed. Morality can only be judged by the cultural norms of the time, and government cannot adapt faster than those norms. As such, there were points in time where slavery or similar injustices needed to be tolerated by necessity, or else the government would cease to be legitimate and cease to function.*****

When we look back at the horrors of history, it is right to feel outraged. But unless the government was the agent actively conducting the injustice, it is not right to funnel our outrage at the government. We need to reallocate that blame to the real culprit: society itself. These things happen because human society is deeply flawed, and a legitimate government can only be as good as the people it governs.

And when we look towards the future, it is right to advocate for social change. But unless the government is the agent actively conducting the injustice, it is not right to use law as the mechanism to bring about that change. We need to refocus our efforts on changing minds, rather than changing law, because the changes have to happen in that order. Legislation is a tempting tool for implementing our moral views, because it’s the fastest way to get our way. But the purpose of government is not to make all of us live by whatever morality the majority holds; it’s to enforce whatever morality all of us hold.

My next post will discuss how governments ought to be constructed for that purpose.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

My new thoughts on abortion


Part I: My first flip-flop

About a year ago, I wrote a post using science to justify a moderately pro-life stance. My argument was that the question of when life began was not a moral question, but a scientific one. After quoting Jefferson’s Declaration, I wrote that “if the rights of all created men are to be defended, it is necessary for the government to define when a man is created.” I argued that science, unlike partisanship or religion, was a neutral tiebreaker for making that determination. After consulting scientific definitions of life, I concluded that a fetus undeniably meets all of those definitions after the first trimester; therefore, I deduced that abortion should be legal before then, but illegal after that time.

Today, I see major flaws in that argument. I now recognize that it is impossible to reduce an issue with as many moral implications as abortion law to scientific study. Science can be used to help form our own individual beliefs if we so choose, but there is no evading the reality that abortion is an inherently moral issue. Science and morality do not operate on like terms, because words have different connotations in different contexts. The scientific definition of life is not the same as the political definition, just as the political definition of “force” is not the same as the scientific definition. As such, it doesn’t matter when life scientifically begins, because that definition was not the one referred to in our Declaration or constitution. Words used in a philosophical context are not bound by their scientific definitions. And unlike a science textbook, a philosophy certainly has no consensus about when life begins; that is a highly subjective, opinionated definition.

This week, I wrote an entry called “Governing Morality”, in which I argued that government should not be in the business of enforcing those opinions on everyone. Laws restricting abortion, like all law, requires the use or threat of force on other people. In the abstract, wielding that force is wrong. It can only be justified if there is almost universal consensus that the ends pursued by the governance justify the means employed by it. Everyone agrees that people have a right to life, but not everyone agrees on when life begins; murder is universally held as wrong, but abortion is not universally held to be murder. The morality of abortion is highly subjective. Therefore, to prevent a woman from having an abortion is to forcibly impose your hotly contested personal opinion about when life begins on one who disagrees with it. It is authoritarianism, and in principle, I believe it to be wrong.

In this way, my approach to the issue of abortion has flip-flopped. A year ago, I felt that science could serve as an objective arbiter on a moral issue, and used that cop out to justify the use of force on the many who have moral qualms with the scientific definition. Now, I feel that science is irrelevant to the discussion, and recognize that there is no universal, one-size-fits-all way of determining when life begins. My personal beliefs on abortion have not changed, but my tolerance of disagreeing beliefs has increased. The factors I considered in forming an opinion then are not the same as the factors I consider now.

Part II: Policy implications

But applying this change in approach to policy is tricky, because it does not negate the necessity of drawing a line somewhere. If a mother wishes to shoot her healthy child in the head the moment after it is born, we cannot tolerate that disagreement in opinion. There is a nearly universal consensus (excluding Peter Singer…) that infanticide is murder. Where that consensus begins is where tolerance becomes a larger sin than the force and coercion of law enforcement, and where the ends may justify the means. The trick is determining where that universal consensus begins. First term abortion is clearly a subjective and polarizing issue; post-birth infanticide is clearly not. The turning point between the two is anything but clear.

In searching for that point, two things become apparent to me. Firstly, just as science cannot tell us an objective answer to this question, neither can math. Listing a slew of pregnancy date cutoffs with their corresponding poll numbers (which naturally vary based on the wording of the poll) is not very helpful to forming policy. As I said in my earlier post, there is no magic number. Drawing this line is itself a subjective moral decision, varying based on how tolerant each of us is willing to be, and how heavily we weigh the forced oppression of others as a moral wrong.* All I can offer on such matters is my own humble opinion, by identifying which combination of tolerance and governance I personally am most comfortable with.

Secondly, it seems silly to choose any one date on such a dicey and inexact timeline as the absolute cutoff point. There exists no 60 second window after which abortion is a mortal sin, and before which it’s perfectly okay. This is why strict, arbitrary, across-the-board cutoffs at birth, inception, or various trimesters are so problematic. If you can’t kill your kid the hour after it’s born, is it really any better to kill it the hour before its born? If abortion is okay on the last day of the 13th week, is it really any worse on the first day of the 14th week? Most people don’t think so. It seems some sort of scaling mechanism might be in order. What about an initial deadline, followed small grace period charging a steep fine? Just as with air pollution and the carbon tax, imposing a cost on the undesirable activity forces economization. The added cost may cause those considering an abortion at the margin to reconsider, while the proceeds of the fines could go to fund reproductive health awareness programs. Or, if there are concerns about this restricting poor people disproportionately, perhaps substitute community service for the fine?

Admittedly, these solutions are messy, hastily constructed, and problematic. It’s impossible to make everybody happy, but compromises like this risk making nobody happy. The law lends itself to black and white, easily definable and easily enforceable distinctions, and to do it any other way is a major headache. But that doesn’t mean the convenient solution is the most just. A little creativity should be able to avoid establishing one hard and fast deadline.

If I really had to use dates, I would pencil in a line around the end of the second trimester. If I were charged with drafting legislation to my state’s Congress about where the specific line must be drawn, I would make the initial deadline the end of the 24th week, with certain exceptions being allowed up to an extended deadline of 26 weeks. My reasons for this are varied. I have limited scientific knowledge of how tiny little cell clusters turn into cute little babies. But do know my moral opposition to killing gets progressively stronger the closer the former becomes to the latter. And according to this chart, after the 24th week the fetus has a 50% chance of survival, with viability being very likely during the entire third trimester.



I also have limited statistical knowledge of how many abortions are desired after certain dates, and therefore of how many would need to be forcibly prevented by the state. But I do know that according to this Ezra Klein interview with an abortion doctor, less than 1% of all abortions occur after 13 weeks. And lastly, I have limited knowledge of the opinions of 300 million Americans. But I do know that according to this Gallup Poll taken in June 2011, 79% of even pro-choice respondents felt abortion in the third trimester should be illegal. That puts the overall percentage of Americans who oppose third trimester abortion at around 90%, a figure approaching the universal consensus I’d need to justify the oppression of the rest.

Part III: Response to defenders of third-term abortion legality

Even so, the number of people who support third-trimester abortion is far greater than the number of people who support murder. As such, some may say that by banning any abortion at all, I’m being inconsistent with my uber-tolerant libertarian philosophy. Some libertarians agree with them. Did I not just finish a blog entry denouncing moral imperialism? Yet in some important ways, I feel abortion is different from the other moral majority issues I’ve cited. Unlike most modern political debates, it is not a question of what rights people have; rather, it is a question of who those rights apply to. Unlike homosexuality, drug use or money management, third trimester abortion is not an issue of each person doing as they please with their own bodies and their own property. It is an issue of doing as one pleases with what may or may not be someone else’s body. Unlike those issues, it is not a victimless crime. Restricting liberty is never ideal, but it’s not always the greatest possible wrong.

Ardent pro-choice advocates argue that restricting even one of the choices available to women at any time is a greater moral offense than killing a fetus the day before it is born. I find their argument unconvincing. One strategy is to cite isolated worst-case-scenarios involving desperate teen mothers and helpless victims, and then to conflate the exception with the rule. The classic example is when the mother’s life is endangered by the pregnancy. Of course abortion should be legal in such situations, just as it’s legal to kill an adult who poses an immediate threat to your life. Most state laws banning third-trimester abortion have built in exceptions for this scenario. But in any other scenario, abortion is not a need; it is a want. Cases of rape or incest don’t change that. Yes, both are awful. Yes, I feel terrible for rape victims. But no, that does not make it okay to wait until the child is viable to abort. In either case, the victim should still know they are pregnant long before the fetus becomes a viable child.** All women have a right to choose. They just don’t have a right to take as long as they please on the decision, because doing so kills a living human being.

Some argue that late-term abortion restrictions disproportionately harm women at the extremes of the reproductive age who aren’t expecting pregnancy. Perhaps that’s true; as someone who will never be pregnant, I can never know exactly how long it might take to tell under those circumstances. But it's irrelevant, because it has nothing to do with the rights of the child, and when those rights originate. Some argue that any abortion restriction disproportionately restricts poor women who don’t have access to medical resources or education. That may also be true, but it is also irrelevant. The education level of the agent has no effect on the morality of the agent’s decisions, and legally ignorance is no excuse for any other crime. It is not ideal that poor women know less about their options and may take longer to know what to do or where to go, and it's not ideal that old or very young women aren't expecting pregnancy have a truncated decision making window. It is less ideal that living human children be killed due to that delay. Lastly, some argue that certain mental and physical handicaps in the fetus may not become apparent until the third trimester. That is certainly true. So be it. There is nothing oppressive about being unable to kill your child simply because you found out its retarded. Who among us would walk up to a handicapped person and tell them to their face that they have less value than other people? Mental or physical handicaps do not decrease the rights of adults; why should they decrease the rights of the unborn? The vast majority of people rightfully reject these justifications.

When life begins is a highly subjective moral issue with wide-ranging opinions. I do not believe government should force such opinions on others when it can be avoided. But unfortunately, if government is to defend the right to life for anyone, it must define when life begins for everyone. While no consensus can be built about when life begins, almost everyone can agree that life has begun by the start of the third trimester when the fetus is most likely viable. To about 90% of Americans, the ends of saving that viable child’s life during the third trimester justify the means of forcibly preventing a medical transaction between doctor and patient. That's high enough for me to satisfy the universal morality principle. The start of the third trimester is as early a line as I can draw while still respecting the individual's right to choose; it's as late a line as I can draw while still respecting the individual right to life.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Bipartisan Hypocrisy on Moral Imperialism


Okay, now let’s apply my “Governing Morality” post to real-world political issues. On most modern political debates, Americans seem to be split somewhere near the middle. Those things on which we all agree aren’t very interesting to talk about (at least not for non-politics nerds!). In the mainstream, nobody is debating whether we have a right to property, or whether murder should be illegal, or things like that. The issues you’re likely to hear about in the news are limited to those which are controversial and contentious. This is where my feelings on universal and subjective morality come into play. There is certainly nothing near consensus on issues like gay marriage, welfare, taxes, the allocation of federal spending, or whether we should be at war in the Middle East. Yet law legislates on these things anyway, often by slim majority votes (or in the case of war, without any congressional approval at all).

The reason is that there is a pervasive attitude in American politics that in any moral disagreement, the government (read: wielders of force) ought to be the final arbiter of who is right, and who is wrong. For too long, we have been unable tolerate disagreement. We have been unable to live and let live. We are not satisfied by doing with ourselves and our own property what we may. We feel compelled to use law to force our opinions on those who disagree, to issue official mandates that it’s my way or the highway. When we happen to be in the majority, we fight tooth and nail to keep the law as it is so that our opinions are validated; when we happen to be in the minority, we fight tooth and nail to change the law to our way of thinking so that our opinions cease to be oppressed. But what we don’t do often enough is float the idea that maybe, there needn’t be any law on such matters.

The result is that today, we have way too much “moral majority” crap from both parties. The government’s nanny-state intrusions in our lives only embody our society’s intolerance and moral imperialism. Take gay marriage. Half the country wants the government to hand out shiny marriage certificates with all sorts of tax-breaks only to straight couples. The other half wants the government to hand those badges to both straight and gay couples. But neither side seriously considers the possibility that the government doesn’t have to hand out any licenses at all! Why can’t marriage be private? Why can’t everyone live with whoever they want, and call themselves whatever they want? If you disagree that two men can form “real marriage”, or that two women can be married, or that three men, two women and a goat can be married, then YOU don’t have to recognize it! YOU can teach YOUR kids that that is wrong! YOU don’t have to invite those people to YOUR wedding! If they find a church somewhere that is willing to proclaim them husband and wife, or husband and husband, or rooster and hen, YOU don’t have to go to that church! All you have to do is refrain from wielding force to harm that couple, no matter how badly you feel like punishing them for their sins.

Stop snickering, anonymous liberal reader, because you’re next. In this year’s State of the Union, Obama called for “an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” It’s a common tagline of the left. Such flippant reiteration of the word “fair” assumes that everyone agrees on its definition. It is an assumption the President knows to be false. The majority of Americans might agree that people deserve a fair shot in theory, but they have vastly different notions about what that fairness entails. And as the recurrent battles on taxation show, opinions regarding how much people ought to give to those in need, or for the “common good,” are every bit as much of a subjective, personal moral belief as abortion or homosexuality. On those latter issues, Democrats are the first to complain about conservative moral imperialism forcing everyone to submit to a moral code that only half the country accepts. They demand the right for each woman to choose for herself if abortion is wrong, or for each individual to choose for himself what sexual behavior to engage in. They are right to do so. But they then reject the right of each citizen to choose for his or her self how much to give to charity, and to which charities, by taking that money by force for liberal causes. What a hypocrisy it is to coerce unwilling taxpayers to adopt an equally subjective moral framework of what fairness entails?

I don’t care how badly you want me to give my money to a knocked up teenager in the ghetto. Or to fund an art museum, or NPR, or a sports stadium, or anything else 55% of the populace may desire. You personally may feel these things are valuable to society, which is why YOU are free to donate to them. You personally may be appalled and disgusted by a billionaire who only gives 10% of his money to charity instead of 50%. Or one who chooses to give to a different cause than you do. Tough shit! It’s not your money! The solution is not to hold a gun to his head and tell him to fork it over. Nor is it to hold a vote, win by a slim margin, and say “Ha! Most people agree with me, so that makes you wrong! Just sit there in your wrongness and be wrong, fat cat!” That is a tyranny of the majority; the definition of moral imperialism.

Partisans on both sides of the aisle rightfully protest the oppression of the other party, but only when their ox is the one being gored. Only Libertarians oppose both versions of moral imperialism on principle. Only Libertarians protect everybody’s rights equally, regardless of whether they agree with our personal opinions or not. It’s none of my business whether you choose to have sex with a man, a woman, several men and women at once, or a plastic replica of a lesbian hermaphrodite midget. That’s your body and your property, which means you get to decide what the most moral way to use it is. As such, it’s also none of your business how much of my money my moral beliefs tell me is “fair” to give to others, no matter how old or poor or sick they are. That’s my property, and only I get to decide what the most moral way to use it is. Law on such matters is an opinion with a gun, and that force is unjustified, illegitimate, and oppressive.

Party Philosophy


My two posts were mighty abstract, so I figured today I’d apply them to some more real world political examples. First, let’s apply the actions vs. outcomes post regarding the two main philosophical perspectives. Which major American political party tends to identify with which framework?

It’s my experience that on domestic issues, liberals are usually more results-oriented, and Republicans are usually more actions oriented. Take for instance the issue of welfare. Liberals usually support or want to increase welfare, because they feel the results of the action are superior than the results of inaction: a more just distribution of wealth, or stimulus to the economy due to the higher probability the money will be spent by a poor person than by a rich one. Republicans usually oppose or want to decrease welfare, because they feel the act of wealth redistribution is immoral: forcibly taking money from someone who’s earned it and giving it to someone who hasn’t is wrong, they say. Of course, both sides also offer arguments on the other perspective (for example, perhaps a conservative will argue that redistribution of wealth decreases the incentive for wealth creation). But it seems the bulk of the conservative argument is about action, and the bulk of the liberal argument is about results.

Another domestic example is the question of abortion. Conservatives are usually pro-life, while liberals are usually pro-choice. From an actions standpoint, one might view the action of abortion itself as wrong. This is the line of argument most social conservatives use; the act itself of taking a developing human life is immoral to many people. By contrast, liberals are much more likely to cite the negative societal effects of illegalizing abortion (back alley abortions, overcrowded orphanages, increased poverty in families, increased crime, increased chance of broken families, increased demand for limited resources, etc.). Once again, each side offers arguments from the opposite perspective (for example, perhaps a liberal would argue that killing a fetus is not immoral because it’s only a few cells and life begins at birth, or that forcibly oppressing a woman’s right to choose is truly the most immoral action), but the primary arguments of each side are from the opposite perspective.

Interestingly, however, it seems to be the opposite on foreign policy issues. Conservatives tend to be more hawkish and war-friendly, while Democrats claim to favor more peace and diplomacy. War itself is full of killing, destruction of property, and other actions that would clearly be immoral in the abstract, but which are orchestrated in order to attain morally superior world outcomes. To support war is to say that the ends pursued by it justify the unfortunate means necessary to attain them; to oppose war is to say that’s not the case. Just as on domestic issues, each side offers arguments from the opposing side too: a conservative might say killing is less immoral when it’s a “bad guy”, while liberals may cite blowback as evidence that war abroad only causes more threats to the ends of security in the long term. But in general, each side predicates their justification or condemnation of the action of killing itself from the opposite of their domestic stance.

What does this observation mean? Nothing, really. One might argue that it illuminates ideological inconsistencies of the two parties, but I wouldn’t go that far; the stances listed are generalizations of the party platform, and I don’t want to cluster all Republicans or all Democrats together under the same labels. That would be collectivism! I just thought it was interesting to view politics from this perspective. It’s amazing to realize how just about every moral debate can be placed into context with one question: do the ends justify the means?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Governing Morality: Identifying Where Tolerance Ends


Part I - An Opinion with a Gun

“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; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

With these eloquent and famous words, Thomas Jefferson laid the moral foundation for the entire American government. But at the time he wrote that Declaration, those “truths” were not as self-evident as they may seem today. For the majority of human history, people believed otherwise. Nobody recognized equality, nobody had articulated the concept of unalienable rights, and governments were not instituted to secure them. There were, however, other pervasive beliefs about how the law should work. Instead of justifying the right to rule through the consent of the governed, many leaders in 1776 cited their ancestral bloodlines. Centuries before that, those in power cited religion; many claimed to have special instructions from the Gods, or else to be Divine entities themselves. Entire classes of people had ruled over others by citing racial superiority, or by enslaving conquered peoples as spoils of their military victories. And even before official governments had been invented, early man travelled in packs led by an alpha-male – likely chosen based on nothing more than brute physical strength.

But whoever came to power and however they did it, each of these governing systems had two things in common. Firstly, they were each based upon some form of morality. And secondly, they each operated exclusively through the use or threat of force. Somebody somewhere felt that X was right, and Y was wrong, and they enforced that perspective on others. Instituting any form of government requires that enforcement, because governance is not a passive activity. Law does not permit people to do things, because in the absence of law, everything is permitted. That is not to say that in the absence of law people are actually able to accomplish anything, or that they are free from forceful oppression from other sources. But it does mean they can act in whatever manner they choose without being uniformly restrained from doing so on the basis of the action itself (see footnote 1). Any law is, of necessity, a decision to forcibly restrict that liberty to some extent.

The trouble is, not everybody will agree with those decisions. One moral tenet expressed in the Declaration quoted above was the concept of legitimacy. A government is called legitimate if it operates, as Jefferson put it, “with the consent of the governed.” In today’s world it is widely accepted that governments ought to be legitimate (see footnote 2). But of course, we know that government can never really get the consent of ALL the governed. For government to work, it must govern everybody who lives within its territory; for any sizable territory, it’s practically impossible to get each and every resident to agree on who should govern, or in what way. It's even more impossible to get them to agree on what the specific laws they are subject to should be! This is because the underlying morality of any law is an inherently subjective and opinionated matter.

"To contend that consent is the moral justification  for government is to lay the groundwork for anarchy." - William Goodwin

My last post (which can be read here) gave examples of situations in which intelligent, rational, broad-minded people can disagree on what the moral thing to do is. Of course, sometimes moral differences form because not everyone is intelligent, rational, and broad-minded; but more frequently, they form because not everyone is like-minded. Our moral values are shaped by a vast array of religions, creeds, cultures, parental influences, social upbringings, experiences, interests. Each individual molds his or her own unique perspective in accordance with an innumerable number of these variables. That diversity of thought is a beautiful thing, but it also makes consensus very difficult to come by. Often, these perspectives clash with one another, and while that’s okay, the only solution the law has to offer for these disagreements is to pick one opinion as right, and another as wrong. And that means governments have to use force or the threat of force in order to get the disagreeing faction to comply. This is true for any form of government whatsoever; there are no exceptions to this rule.

Pick a law, agency, or program, and I will tell you how it operates by force. Police and military activity are only the most visible examples, because they wield the force that is necessary for all other government functions to operate. The most common example is the process by which government is funded. Since government has no money at its inception, these funds come from taxation. Taxation is not optional. If you do not pay your taxes, you are first fined, and then have a lien placed on you that destroys your credit score and takes your money anyway, without deductions. If you go long enough without filing, eventually you are kidnapped, jailed, and/or have your belongings repossessed. Paying ones taxes is not a voluntary, free choice. It is a coerced choice, with the coercion happening due to the threat of government force being wielded on you in the future.

No matter the program and no matter how innocent is appears, it must use this inherently coercive system if it is to remain a state function. Fighting fires, paying for healthcare, treating water, student aid, funding scientific research, welfare, building roads or parks or schools, subsidizing farmers, hiring teachers, forecasting the weather, etc. – all of it must be funded. And the moment any of these things cease to be funded by coercive taxation, they cease to be government utilities! That’s the distinction between the public and private sectors: the private sector must ask for funds voluntarily (via either donation or purchase), while the public sector just takes what it wants. Whatever moral outlook justifies the action or program, and no matter what percentage of the population agrees with it, that outlook must be forced on somebody else. The law is an opinion with a gun.


Part II - Universal Morality

“Lay not on any soul a load that you would not wish to be laid upon you, and desire not for anyone the things you would not desire for yourself.” - Gleanings, from the Writings of Baha'u'lah,  Baha'i Faith

“Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” - The Buddha, Udana-Varga 5.18, Buddhism

“One word which sums up the basis of all good conduct . . . loving kindness. Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.” - Confucius, Confucian Analects 15.23, Chinese Religion

“In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” - Jesus, Matthew 7:12, Christianity

“This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.” - Mahabharata 5:1517, Hinduism

“Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.” - The Prophet Muhammad, Hadith, The Qu’ran, Islam

One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated.” - Mahavira, Sutrakritanga, Jainism

What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary.” - Hillel, Talmud, Shabbath 31a, Judaism

Regard your neighbor's gain as your own gain and your neighbor's loss as your own loss.” - T'ai Shang Kan Ying P'ien, 213-218, Taoism

Do not do unto others whatever is injurious to yourself.” - Shayast-na-Shayast 13.29, Zoroastrianism

As subjective and difficult as moral decision making can be in context, there do seem to be certain moral tenets on which almost everyone can agree in principle. Take for instance the Golden Rule. Some variant of this sentence is found in almost every religious text or secular belief system on earth. The faiths listed here have been practiced for thousands of years in totally separate parts of the world. The cultures which practiced them usually had no communication with one another. And yet each group has passed down remarkably similar moral codes from one generation to the next for millennium. The thematic overlap between the Bible, Torah, Qu’Ran and other major religious texts is so enormous that one would think the stories originated from the same root source. The names, places, and details may vary, but the same core messages arise independently wherever humans walk the earth. Since the beginning of recorded history, billions of people from every conceivable background have consciously agreed to try to live their lives in accordance with an almost identical set of core beliefs. It seems that there is a certain fundamental, universally shared sense of morality, a sort of emotional instinct that unites people around a common understanding of right and wrong.

The one example provided above, the Golden Rule, is merely a summary of many smaller ideals which also receive nearly unanimous support. For instance, almost everyone agrees that killing and stealing are wrong. So is kidnapping, rape, beating, and violence in general. Wielding force on others (violence) is held to be wrong, as is using the threat of force as a tool to obtain compliance (coercion). These things are incompatible with the Golden Rule; nobody wants these things to be done to them, so we agree that they oughtn’t be done to others either. Within these stipulations, there is also a precedence of wrongs; for instance, almost everyone agrees that killing is more wrong than punching, which is more wrong than name-calling, etc. Sometimes the order of precedence can get blurry, but in general this universal morality extends to a basic understanding of just how wrong each taboo thing is. If everybody followed these rules, no government would be necessary, because everyone would be treated fairly, justly, respectfully, and kindly.

Unfortunately, that does not happen, because humanity is flawed. People are often selfish, ignorant, confused and wicked: too weak to abide by the morality they profess. And when that happens, the good guys are placed in the same sticky situation I described in my last post: they must identify the lesser of two evils. They must decide whether they themselves should actively partake in something immoral in order to minimize the immoral outcomes of humanity’s flaws. They must interpret whether the moral code we all agree upon in the abstract is designed to govern their actions, or if it’s designed to optimize overall results (see footnote 3). They must choose between the moral frameworks of deontology and consequentialism. They must determine if the ends justify the means, and not everyone will agree on when that is. This is one of the reasons that the universal moral consensus we’d reached in principle dissipates in context.


Since all government wields violent force and coercion, and all such force and coercion are held as immoral in the abstract, any government action of any kind can only be justified by the consequentialist framework. To believe that governance ought to occur is to believe that the ends pursued by governance justify the means of force and coercion. The whole of politics is determining for which ends that is the case. If you favor big government, you usually feel they are justified, and if you favor small government, you usually think they are not justified. The purpose of the next section is to present my wholly subjective libertarian opinion on which ends justify the means of governance.

Part III: Justifying the means of governance

"If we continue to teach about tolerance and intolerance instead of good and evil, we will end up with tolerance of evil." - Dennis Prager

In my last blog, I articulated a set of four criteria which must be met if the ends are to justify the means. For anyone who needs a refresher, they read as follows:
  1. The ends must be of such dire importance that forfeiting the opportunity to attain them is a greater moral offense than the means required to attain them.
  2. It must be relatively certain that the means will directly and infallibly lead to the ends.
  3. It must be relatively certain that inaction will not lead to the ends.
  4. There must exist no alternate means of lesser immorality which might also lead to the ends.
The first criterion is by far the most subjective. Criteria two through four deal with the certainty that various courses of action or inaction will bring about the ends. On those matters, the level of certainty which must be met depends on the specific circumstance. For the most part, this post will ignore them. (see footnote 4). My core objective in this section is to identify which ends are of sufficiently “dire importance” to meet the first criterion.

To me, the answer is the ends of life, liberty, and property (see footnote 5). This is for two reasons. Firstly, any action which damages those ends also, by necessity, involves force and coercion. Therefore, the agent is weighing like against like; the severity and quantity of the force and coercion wielded by government can be directly compared to the severity and quantity of the force and coercion prevented by the ends. If the latter exceeds the former in the precedence of wrongs, the ends can justify the means. And secondly, since the force and coercion prevented by the ends is also almost universally considered wrong, the opposition to their prevention is minimized, maximizing the legitimacy of the government’s action (see footnote 6).

This means that on the Venn diagram above, I side with the consequentialist interpretation. I believe that the ends of minimizing the use of force and coercion on whole can justify the active use of force and coercion to a smaller degree (see footnote 7). For instance, in order to minimize the total number of people killed, sometimes governments must kill would-be murderers. In order to minimize the total amount of property stolen, sometimes governments must coercively steal tax dollars to fund a police force. In order to minimize the violent force wielded on others, sometimes governments must wield a little force themselves. And in order to maximize freedom from oppression, sometimes governments must coerce others not to coerce you. My contention is that absent better ways of accomplishing the same ends, it is good that these things be done. On issues of universal morality, the number of people whose differing opinion is oppressed is minimized, which maximizes the legitimacy of the power being wielded.

In wielding that power, government recognizes life, liberty, and property as universal rights (see footnote 8). It asserts that if these three outcomes are in jeopardy, the agent whose action stands to jeopardize them is irrelevant. Regulating only ones own actions on these issues protects these rights from only one threat. But it is morally insufficient to protect life from just one murderer, or property from just one thief, and liberty from just one oppressor. Rather, these ends ought to protected from murder, theft, and violence themselves, because we have rights to life, liberty, and property themselves. These are the three things humans are innately born with, and the use force to take them is the most fundamental and universally acknowledged injustice. Minimizing that injustice is the only ends which warrant the means of governance.

But that’s it. We have no other natural rights beyond those three. There are no other ends which meet my first criterion, because no other actions besides those which directly restrict life, liberty, and property initiate the use of force on others. Therefore, they cannot surpass the use of force on the universal precedence of wrongs. This means that even if another objective is almost universally desired, the means of force and coercion government must use to attain it are more immoral than the objective not being attained. Beyond the defense of those rights, the agent is not comparing like against like; it’s wielding force and coercion to prevent an outcome that does not involve force and coercion. And additionally, if it doesn’t involve force and coercion, there probably is not a universal consensus that the outcome is immoral. This means governance on such matters is using means which nearly everyone agrees to be wrong in the abstract in order to prevent outcomes which only some people believe to be wrong in real life. On such issues, universal moral consensus is replaced by widely subjective moral opinion.


On this second Venn diagram, libertarians like me assume the idealist interpretation, because the ends do not justify the means of force and coercion. This is because the same two factors which justified the use of force and coercion to defend life, liberty, and property are now reversed. Firstly, whatever threatens the ends no longer involves force and coercion, but the means required to secure the ends do. This makes the means disproportionately immoral according to the precedence of wrongs. And secondly, it is likely that the ends are only desirable to some people, making power wielded on those who disagree illegitimate. On such subjective moral opinions, we are only justified in governing our own actions.

Part IV: Libertarian Legitimacy

“Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one” – Thomas Paine

Way back in part one of my argument, I defined legitimacy as governance “with the consent of the governed.” But then I admitted that no government or act of governance can ever really get the consent of all the governed. In part two, I made the case that there exists a nearly universal moral consensus on some things. But I was careful to use the term “nearly” universal, because there’s practically nothing on which everyone in the world agrees. And in part three, I continued to distinguish between universal and subjective morality; now I must confront the recognition that there are not always neat lines between the two. So far I’ve operated on the presumption that 99% consensus counts as universal, while 50% agreement is subjective. But what about, say, 80%? What % of the people’s support must be there to make a govt.’s use of force legitimate?

The trouble is, drawing that line is a subjective moral evaluation in itself. There’s no objective turning point at which tolerance of disagreeing opinions becomes tolerance of evil. And in presenting my own opinion on the matter, I won’t pretend I’ve found some magic number. There is no fixed percentage which must be met in all cases, and part four will not try to draw that line. Instead it will describe what variables are at stake when considering where to draw it for particular issues. What are the implications on natural rights at the margin? And what are the mechanisms government can use to set that bar?

The ideal standard is one which is high enough to protect minority rights, but reachable enough to enable very strong majorities to be heard. Different groups have different preferences based on which objective they view as the most important. In general, Democrats set the bar lower than Republicans, because progressives value making “progress” (however they define it) more highly than they value the protection of the minority’s universal rights. The lower the standard of consensus required for law to pass, the easier the standard can be met and the quicker the so-called progress can be made. The trouble with this is that people will obviously disagree on what counts as progress! The liberal fusion of collectivism and moral imperialism is flawed in that most morality is not collective, but individualistic. The majority on one issue is not the same as the majority on another issue, and the result is that everybody starts oppressing everyone else according to their own subjective views of right and wrong. Without restrictions on the decisions the majority is allowed to make, everyone’s rights are in jeopardy.

Republicans are slightly better on this count, because as “conservatives” they usually oppose to the rapid changes liberals seek. They usually desire a higher bar of consensus to prevent those changes from taking place (although they still won’t hesitate to justify the coercive powers they like with slim majority support). Further insight to these different approaches can be found in the party names; Democrats favor more of a democracy, while Republicans favor more of a Republic. A true democracy sets the bar at 51% - pure majority rule. I feel this is far too low, because it produces a tyranny of the majority, which is a very poor defense of minority rights. Pure democracy enables the government to act swiftly and decisively, but it doesn’t ensure it will act wisely; a government which can do much good quickly can also do much bad quickly. A republic, by contrast, has lots of checks and balances that slow things down and place limitations on the sorts of laws the majority is allowed to pass.

But Libertarians set the bar higher than all of them. We place government with the highest burden, and view it with the most suspicious eye. We say that more than a simple majority or even a strong majority is required to forcibly incorporate a belief as law. We say you need damn near everyone. Unlike progressives, we value the preservation of the minority’s universal rights as a higher moral priority than the enforcement of the majority’s subjective opinions. The higher the bar is set, the more tolerance is given to opposing perspectives and the less force is used to oppress them.

Of course the bar also cannot be 100%, because some people genuinely feel murder is okay, or theft or rape or child molestation. 99.99% of people on earth probably agree these things are wrong, but there will always be those who do not. If these things are to be made illegal, those who disagree must have their opinion forcibly oppressed. I think that’s okay. As a Libertarian, I cherish liberty and encourage tolerance of differing lifestyle choices. But I also recognize that beyond a certain point, tolerance must end, and liberty must be restricted. We must not be free to murder, or free to steal, or free to forcibly harm other people. The key thing is that determining where that point lies requires nearly unanimous agreement that something is intolerable. Only then do the means of force justify the ends of stopping the practice (see footnote 9). Only then is the power truly legitimate. Only then must tolerance of other opinions end.

In summary, libertarians weigh the initiation of force on others as the most fundamental moral offense. Furthermore, we recognize that all governance is merely an opinion with a gun, wielding force to impose moral opinion on those who disagree. Despite this, my brand of Libertarianism does not eschew government entirely; it is okay that some morality be enforced. We simply wish to whittle it down to the morality upon which almost everyone can agree, so as to minimize the number of people who have force wielded on them by others. Because we view the use of that force as the most fundamental and universal wrong, it should only be used to combat even larger initiations of force by other agents so as to protect natural rights.

Human sinfulness puts philosophical agents in a bad situation. Government is the art of making the best of that situation. Within its just scope of defending natural rights, it is the least immoral option, a necessary evil. But outside of that scope, it is an illegitimate and immoral use of force on other people. In that case, it’s simply evil.