It is often difficult to determine the moral thing to do. Sometimes life kindly hands us situations in which our moral intuition can easily distinguish right from wrong, but other situations are less cut and dry. I’ve written on various philosophical perspectives that try to help us with these decisions in prior posts, but each of these frameworks has its shortcomings. When neither gut feeling nor academic consultation can provide a clear answer, it’s difficult to say what is moral or immoral with much confidence.
But one thing I am very confident about is that whatever moral code applies to one person’s actions ought to apply equally to the actions everyone else. Any pretext of equality among human beings demands it. Of course, the necessity or permissibility of certain actions may change according to the circumstances that surround the actor - but the identity of the actor placed in those circumstances shouldn’t matter at all. Holding some human beings to a different moral standard than others is hypocritical, vain, and elitist.
Never is this more important to keep in mind than when we’re evaluating the morality of government action. Government consists of people, and it’s critical that we hold those people accountable to the same moral standard by which everyone else is evaluated. Whatever God or moral arbiter of the universe you believe in cares not one lick who we appoint amongst ourselves as leaders, officials, or bureaucrats. The legality of their actions may change according to legislation or policy, but the morality of those actions remains the same.
One important implication of this truth is that we can test the morality of government action by imaging our reaction were a civilian to do the same thing. Unfortunately, such scrutiny is rarely applied. I suspect most people would agree with my concept in theory, but in practice they tend to grant government officials much more moral leeway than they would grant anyone else. Actions we find objectionable when taken by regular people are routinely permitted when taken by a policeman, judge, or enforcement agency acting on behalf of the state. This is especially true when the actions of government are distributed across many employees, such that it’s difficult to pin full moral responsibility on any one individual.
We mustn’t let that obfuscate the heart of the matter. Evil is evil, whether it’s done my one person acting alone or by a team of people working together. We cannot grant the gang of government a free pass simply because it’s tough to find any one person to blame. Truly, the blame lies not only with those actively involved in the enforcement of unjust policies, but with anyone who supports such policies and permits them to continue.
The best way I’ve found to illustrate this double standard is to ask people to imagine themselves in a world without a government. Next, I ask them to further imagine that in that world, they encounter somebody doing something which is illegal (or which they’d like to be illegal) in our own world today. Finally, ask them to imagine that in this world, they have the exclusive power to personally impose whatever penalty they advocate on this other person. In the absence of government, would they feel it morally justified to impose that penalty themselves? If there was no government to do it for you, would you enforce what you endorse?
Sometimes, the answer is yes; for example, most people would feel like a good Samaritan if they had the chance to stop a murderer or a bank robber.
Other times, the answer is no. If this changes the person’s mind about that policy, I’m pleased. But too often, people who admit they lack the intestinal fortitude to enforce their own laws refuse to withdraw their support for those laws, and that really peeves me. To me, advocating a policy which you wouldn’t feel right enforcing yourself is not merely irrational and ignorant – it is downright evil.
Take the example of marijuana legalization. There are 1000 reasons why marijuana should be legalized in all 50 states. Penalizing people under force of law because of their private recreational preferences is intolerant, authoritarian garbage. It is moral imperialism at its ugliest, most dangerous and most violent. But beyond that, it is a perfect example of the moral double standard people apply to the state.
I would now like to speak directly to those who support the war on drugs. Lest anyone should misconstrue my words, I am not calling you an evil person; decent people are frequently misguided into believing and supporting indecent things. But I am calling you a hypocrite and a coward. You are a hypocrite because, in all likelihood, you use or at least tolerate more deadly, addictive and violence-inducing drugs like alcohol, tobacco or caffeine on a daily basis. And you are a coward because you ask the state to do things on your behalf which you would feel morally uncomfortable doing yourself.
Before you cross your arms, close your ears and crawl into a cocoon of defensive indignance, I dare you to prove me wrong. All you have to do to make me eat my words is truthfully answer the aforementioned question: would you, in good conscience, do what you want the state to do yourself? Imagine you walk into a friend’s house party and see him selling pot to another friend. What would you do?
I can’t answer for you, but my guess is that if you find the use or sale of marijuana to be disconcerting, you might choose to leave the room. If it really bothered you, perhaps you’d choose to leave the whole party, or to distance yourself from those friends in the future. If you were feeling particularly bold and nosy, you might even scold those friends in front of their other guests, or threaten to tell their spouses, parents, relatives or loved ones. And I suppose if you were a real jerk, you might even call the cops to come and do what you couldn’t stomach doing yourself.
But I am supremely confident that you would not, in that situation, kick your friends to the floor, point a gun at their head, handcuff them, get them fired from their job, wrench them from their homes and families, and chain them in an isolated cage for the next 20 years, even if you had the means to do so. If you have any shred of decency, sympathy or tolerance in your entire body, doing that would make you feel sick and ashamed, because you would recognize that you had committed an act far more heinous and harmful than anything you’d initially taken issue with. You might prefer a society free of marijuana users in the abstract, but in real life you only advocate that society so long as the dirty work of physically extracting them is left to others – so long as the victims of your heavy-handed brutality are out of sight and out of mind.
And if I’m wrong, if you really would enforce what you endorse from start to finish with your own two hands, if you would gladly destroy people’s lives for so petty and baseless a reason without any objection from the little voice in the back of your head, then I take it back. You are not a coward after all; you are a monster.