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.


  1. Footnotes:

    1. This is what many famous political theorists such as Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke referred to as the “state of nature.” Hobbes felt that life in a state of nature would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (which has moral implications for our “results” framework), but noted that people could act according to their own will to preserve their own lives. He also suggested that man should “be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself,” reiterating the universality of the Golden Rule principle even among secular theorists. Locke observed that in a state of nature, people may “order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit,” creating a “natural right” to liberty. These men formed the ideological basis for enlightenment political thought and had a great deal of influence on America’s founding fathers.

    2. The principle of legitimacy has become such a universally accepted moral precept that many dictators hold corrupt, sham elections to at least give the appearance of legitimacy, in order to trick their subjects into supporting them. Without that ruse, people would know they are oppressed, become outraged and revolt. This is because of the same root sentiment that forms the basis of libertarian ideology: objection to having a subjective moral belief you do not agree with forcibly imposed on you.

  2. 3. The Golden Rule itself is ambiguous on this issue, depending on your culture’s translation. If we look back at the list of Golden Rule translations at the start of this section, close inspection of the wording reveals slight but important differences in the way each is phrased. On the one hand, most seem to govern actions specifically. Buddhism, the Chinese Religion, Christianity, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism and Zoroastrianism instruct the reader on action, using the phrases “do/do not” or “treat/treat not.” These golden rules taken in conjunction with the fact that nobody wants to be killed suggests the moral tenet “thou shalt not kill” – which governs actions. But the three others, the Baha’I Faith, Islam and Taoism, seem to insinuate an outcomes outlook with words like “desire/desire not for”, “wish for” and “regard your neighbor’s gain/loss as your own.” Gain and loss are outcomes, and we desire/wish for results. These golden rules taken in conjunction with the same fact that nobody wants to be killed suggest another moral tenet: “people shall not be killed,” which governs results.

    4. It should be noted that by ignoring criteria 2-4, I am ignoring one of the primary arguments of anarchists, who believe that the means of force and coercion wielded by government are in fact less effective at attaining the ends than alternate means available through the purely voluntary exchanges of individuals. That is a valid debate I will be sure to take up another day, but it is not what I’m interested in right now. For right now, I’m referring to cases where you are practically certain that the means will attain the ends, and that no other morally superior course of action or inaction can also attain the ends. As such, if you are an anarchist reading this, you may find the contents of this section are not mutually exclusive with your own beliefs.

  3. 5. It is important for me to define liberty, because not everyone has the same definition. It should be clear by now that I define political liberty as the freedom from force and coercion of others. It is not the freedom to accomplish whatever we please, or the freedom from hunger or disease or hardship. I feel mine is the only view compatible with the notion of inherent birthrights, the idea that we are only entitled to what we are born with. We are born with the freedom to act in whatever manner our brains decide, to choose between the courses of action available to us: to do anything we are able to do. We are not born with the ability to do anything we want to do. We are not born free from hunger, or free from disease, or free from hardship. We must use whatever abilities we have to provide for ourselves without infringing on the rights of others.

    6. When I spoke of “universal morality” before, I made sure to specify that “almost” everyone agrees with it. Unfortunately, there isn’t a thing under the sun that every single human being agrees on, even provable things like math or science. There will always be those who genuinely feel murder is okay, or who reject the right to property and feel entitled to take whatever they want from whoever they want. In such cases, I hold that the ends of life, liberty, and property desired by everyone else justify the means of oppressing those rare differing opinions.

  4. 7. Again, this doesn’t mean they always will, because conditions 2 through 4 of my criteria may or may not be met. We don’t know if the means will actually attain the ends, or if inaction or alternate action might also attain them in morally superior ways. But my assertion is that condition 1 is met if the ends are the minimization of things universally considered to be bad. And as such, to me it is at least possible that the ends can justify the means in these situations.

    8. Asserting these rights and defending these rights, which government should do, is very different from giving you these rights, which it is impossible for government to do. This is because life, liberty, and property are the only rights humans have inherently at birth, the only things they are “endowed by their Creator” with. Since the rights are already inherent at birth, they cannot be given by any human or group of humans. Governments can only take them; recognizing a right which somebody inherently has is not the same as giving it to them.

    9. And again, even in such situations, we’ve only discussed one of the four conditions required for the ends to justify the means! The three other conditions must be met also: the means must directly lead to the ends with a high degree of certainty, it must be very unlikely that the ends are attained via inaction, and there must exist no alternate means of superior morality that are likely to attain the same ends. Satisfying all four conditions is a tough standard for government to meet.