Against Moral Government

I don't like when people with political opinions -- most often people on the left -- talk about how fixing poverty is "a moral issue." I object at two points:
  1. These people tend to have no hesitation about whether such a thing is possible. Granted, a sensible "progressive" argument may be made, but I get the sense that people like Chris Matthews (whose proclamations about the government's moral obligations toward the poor tonight prompted this post) have no notion that moral agency is delimited where the scarcities and limitations posed by reality encroach. I may say that the government has a moral obligation to end poverty once and for all, but that doesn't make it so. Similarly, Chris Matthews may say that the government has a moral obligation to create an atmosphere on Mars, but saying so doesn't make it so.
  2. Institutions like governments don't participate in "morality" as I understand it; only individuals can be morally responsible. The rest is a matter for the pragmatists.
Regarding the second point: I'm more and more convinced that people use this kind of rhetoric in order to justify, to themselves, their own felt-but-not-consciously-recognized knowledge that they have arbitrarily limited their own circle of moral sympathy.


fenhopper said...

o come on. you're not even going to nod to my comment on the last post here?

i don't follow your objections on a couple few points:

people on the right speak of moral issues in as many arenas as people on the left. yes, the left tends to address poverty as an issue. but i hear plenty of right wing rhetoric arguing about the morality of "teaching to fish" and the morality of "saving little lives" and the morality of "defending marriage." really, if you're going to pick on the use of morality as a policy consideration, remember to look both ways.

the reality principle is a fine consideration when negotiating with a moral aim (dr freud?). but is anyone saying "try this one thing and wait for it to work"? it does matter if a policy wonk is really constantly investigating and searching for those details and tune-ups that might help a situation. those are pragmatic concerns. and some good things have been accomplished by those fools in washington. remember, gov't is not just a box of failure. even economically.

then, supporting or arguing for gov'ts role is an individual act. and it is a moral consideration. so it may not be fair to say that gov't-proper is a moral agent, but gov't is an instrument of individuals. this is the whole point behind "don't blame me for politician-A i voted for politican-B."

and so of course, likewise, those policies that are pursued by an individual are the moral responsibility of the individual.

and people's motivations are usually much more complex than we understand. it's kinda boring to me to guess at them. even chris matthews's. your closing thought strikes me as an irrelevant suggestion (of a type that i'm guilty of making too often).

all this said, i do have to come to grips with my own different reactions to the "this-is-a-moral-issue" arguments. when al gore made it in his powerpoint presentation, i cringed at the obvious rhetorical flourish looking to say "you have to agree with me whether you're right-wing or left-wing."

saying 'this issue isn't political' is usually a pretty good indication that it is. politics lie in the people who care, not in the nature of the issue itself.

then i like to say "i wish this wasn't political" (which is a little better right?) but i find myself appealing to the moral importance of rights and equality and so on when i talk about gay rights.

when morality becomes an issue for argument, it is safer when it's not be THE reason for policy, but A reason for action towards policy. a source of encouragement. and it should actually be an unnecessary reason.

see what i'm doing here? i'm trying to scoot towards your perspective.

Casey said...

I just saw your comment on the post below. Comment back there.

As for the Right: I save my breath because they're not worth it right now... I mean, do you really think I can't see Mike Huckabee with a critical eye? That morality I consider to be a sham so transparent that it's not interesting.

My view of history is more skeptical than yours, I suppose... for every happy fact of the 20th century you can show me, I've got a Howard Zinn book that says progress has been a mythology. And by now it's a truism to say that the 20th century was the bloodiest every. The idea that Washington has done good to American citizens is... well, it's "true" in exact proportion as Washington has done ill to American citizens.

Actually, the global warming example is a perfect one: is "Washington" (and here I mean the G8, the U.N., whatever) doing the right thing by fighting to save the polar bears? Yes. No.

So on one plane of reality, everything is "political," even gay rights. On another, today I woke up in a dorm room, ran on a treadmill, ate Subway, submitted a paper for publication, and watched some Call of Duty kill-streak videos on YouTube. If I happen to meet a gay person, I'll probably politely smile and upbraid myself later in the day for fake-smiling when I had nothing in particular to smile about, and then I'll wonder if I would've smiled the same fake smile to a straight person, or if I only showed the gay person my fake smile so that they know that I'm a sympathizer, and so on.

In other words, in another view, none of it's "political," because it's all far too particular for politics. So anyway, I see what you're doing... nudging to meet me half-way. Good.

But now I feel we've drifted too far from the point: who could imagine a more moral vision than Lenin's? Isn't that my point? Morality in government not only doesn't translate... it often translates in negative. The American government lost me whenever it shifted (1789?) from keeping laws out of my life to trying to make my life better by legislating for me.

The kingdom of heaven, man. You know where it is.

But yeah, obviously... I mean, we need "laws" and blahblahblah.

Here's what I think: what we need right now is not the Old Testament, but the new. That's why my Facebook message to you about N.T. Wright on Postmodernism is relevant here... can you legislate sin out of existence? The answer is a resounding no. What Western civilization needs right now is a rekindling of that perpetual inner-rebirth that allows agape to serve as a foundation for civilization. Law, Law, Law your boat, gently down the stream. That isn't the problem or the solution right now. People don't love each other. At other times in history, they have... a little more than now.

fenhopper said...

first: my fault

i have the annoying habit of 'fisking' arguments. and here i've tried to do it with the minor point that you say in your post that it's mostly people on the left. now, if you're point was that it's people on the left that bother you, well, then i just called you out incorrectly. because i grant that you can be aware of the same rhetoric from both sides, but currently annoyed more by one. and that has nothing to do with your political stand.

more important point on this fault of mine: it doesn't even really matter if you did for the moment see this as tendency only of the left. that's not your main point. (and if it is your main point, then you've just become hannity/olbermann. and i have gotten reeeeeally tired of all that.)

so i should have just jumped to your main point as i understand it: that morality could probably, for the sake of it's own cause, be ignored in politics. and definitely in policy. don't we agree on that?

my main point then was that it doesn't bother me that morality shows up in the rhetoric; it's that it's abused and used cheaply. like the discussion i had with ed abou family guy. i don't mind the fact that family guy uses flashbacks and locker-room humor. i just don't think it's done in any interesting way or with any elegance.

"can you legislate sin out of existence?"

nor is that the reason for legislation. you nicely dismiss your own conviction that we need laws. what do you mean by blahblahblah? no, seriously. what?

…so things don't go crazy? …so catastrophic extremes are lessened?

would several of your arguments for why some laws are just… necessary, be pretty easily be applied to why some other laws are supportable.

Casey said...

Well, it's my sense that "Law" in general and "law" in particular both tend to "corrode" over time. You can start with the Ten Commandments, but inevitably that leaves too much "un-legislated" (in the popular/mainstream/anti-anarchy view) and, inevitably, legislation begins to pile up.

That's why Jesus (always) shows up and says, "Okay, enough with the Law -- it's all in your heart anyway." And it's just that that is where I think we are... or should be.

At a very practical/pragmatic level, obviously, I understand that governments ought to strive to do their best (or, their "least bad," anyway)... so of course governments should try to manage/alleviate suffering due to poverty. And even more obviously, if government could fix poverty, it should.

So yeah -- now I think we pretty much agree. I just don't want to see the language of morality, which I see as useful if it is restricted to conversations about interpersonal relations, get conflated with politics.

In summary: more Grace, less Law. For now. And when Grace comes, remind me to start arguing for "Law," because I don't trust people to legislate themselves unless they're in a situation where there's too much legislation already.


Can I say something else? I'm sick of the government helping people who need it less than... me. For example: all of these efforts to help homeowners who can't pay their mortgages right now is keeping the price of homes artificially high. As a result, people like you and me can't even imagine ever being able to afford a house. Meanwhile, nobody wants to help renters with anything. Similarly with bank bailouts, auto bailouts, war plans, etc. -- none of it seems to be helping the people in New Orleans. So I'm not going to get all Kanye yet and say that Obama hates black people, but I'm close to throwing my hands up again and saying "The poor will always be with you..."

Kevin said...

Woe--lots of issues here.

But your underlying worry, I thought, is that the politicizing--which is to say, collectivizing--of morality is, in fact, a (literally) de-moralizing process.
It is, in this sense, de-moralizing by its tendency to shoulder aside morality as an individual concern, such that (as Fenhopper notes) one can delegate one's moral responsibilities to the poor by voting--and so never have to help the poor yourself--never have to face them--never have to get your own hands dirty.
That is to say, collectivization/ institutionalizaton of morality is, from the perspective of the individual, an OUSOURCING of ethics.

Or maybe 'Automation of ethics' is better (I've got something somewhere called "Can Morality Be Mechanized?"). But the question in either case is, what happens to morality so outsourced/ automatized? Is it MORALLY ADVANTAGEOUS to be able to hire strangers (politicians) to take money from other strangers ('the rich' or 'big business') and redistribute it to a third set of strangers ('the poor')? Or rather, is the sheer alienation of ethical labor (permit me to coopt Marx against himself for a moment) something BAD? Is automating ethical action like automating ditch-digging, where the labor saved is a pure relief? Or is it something absurd and atrophying, like hiring someone to dance for you, write music for you, learn to box for you, work out for you, love your neigbor for you? If ethics is a muscle to be developed/an individual skill to be enhanced in individually initiated interactions(as I think it is), then your worry is nothing less than that government 'morality' leads to individual moral atrophy. That the individual in such a system of ethical automation simply shrivels up--sits there motionlessly, tapping his 'Like' button or voting-- becomes morally weak, having left to others all the heavy lifting ("I hire you to care for others for me. That is how I care!").

And now (and this is your final point, I think) what is it to say of such a mass of ethical weaklings that their 'system' is ethical?

One point about fenhopper's thoughtful response bothers me above all: it is worth remembering that the machinery that we use to automate ethics is OTHER PEOPLE. From this it follows that, in the name of morality, one is USING OTHERS AS MACHINERY. In voting a certain way, we INDENTURE THEM to carry out our own (or the majority's) ethical ends. As fenhopper notes, "the government is an instrument of individuals". But now what has happened is that the government is a coercive force one can (whether Right or Left) wrest control of and use to make OTHER PEOPLE INSTRUMENTS to carry out ostensibly moral ends. But the point is that this is flat-out wrong--that one cannot make a system that bypasses individual action and responsibility to enhance it. And thus one cannot politicize/collectivize/institutionalize morality, insofar as morality is indigenous to individual action and responsibility.

"...policies that are pursued by an individual are the moral responsibility of the individual."

I'm not saying fenhopper falls on this side of the fence, but I see so many who think that supporting a moral policy is a moral act. But if this complaint about automation and the instrumental relation it sets up towards others is correct, it isn't. Instead, Marx is right: under these conditions a man is so alienated from his labor he is, over time, not made MORE ethical by this division of moral labor, but instead, becomes increasingly/ever-more alienated from ethics/his ethical self.

Ha--I love you guys. Looking at your posts today, I don't feel so bad that mine is ridiculously long.

fenhopper said...

"then your worry is nothing less than that government 'morality' leads to individual moral atrophy."

that's the worry i don't share. yes, i agree that the atrophy can occur. and when it does we really need to turn the focus to the individual's exercise of moral action. but i don't believe that the message of the new testament (in whatever capacity it's relevant here) is that there should be no law outside the heart. rather, i hear the message as 'don't rely on the law written down.' it's that reliance that i think we all agree is the problem.

and IF i was willing to hold that all support of gov't is a surrender of personal action or liability, i would, i think, be agreeing with you completely here.

but i'm not willing to hold that belief. and i know that many of the people who are supporting a governmental role towards a goal, or just away from a worse situation, are much more interested, and spend much more time working towards those goals with their own time, their own effort.

here is where i see some churches doing wonderful things. g-d's work. and i'm of course, much much more in tune with those congregations (yes, some of them are even SDA) that support full rights for homosexuals, and oppose war, and stand against the condemnation of islam, and speak out against torture, and are skillful enough do so without taking the gaze off the individual.

about those who need it less:

there aren't many people who need less help than i do. really. i'm covered in all sorts of ways and when it comes right down to it, i'm capable of doing ok. even if i don't get my hands on everything that i have at some point thought i'd get.

seeing people who need it less than i do get some help can be frustrating, and i know that i'm that person to a lot more who studied harder in school, worked harder at night, met all deadlines more responsibly, and polished all tasks more assiduously than i, and had access to fewer resources for survival and advancement. and i got the job/slot/money.

now if we have some say in who gets a certain proportion of help from the gov't, doesn't it make some sense to at least encourage those policies that direct a change away from the help-the-rich balance that you seem to be fed up with?

'cause the poor may always be with us, but that doesn't mean that every one of them has to stay poor, right?

or are you fed up with it for only moral reasons and that keeps you from "wanting" it then?

Casey said...

Great stuff, fellas. Honestly, I'm almost outclassed here... I can read your responses, and understand them. But I'm almost not smart enough to respond -- the careful distinctions are difficult for me.

At an emotional level, at this point in history, I'm more moved by Kevin's analysis than I am by Wishydig's. The old phrase about the road to hell being paved with good intentions seems more relevant to me by the week or month. So while I've heard plenty about how (for example) Obama's healthcare plan is going to cover and additional X-amount of people, I've heard almost nothing in explanation of how it works at a level of principle and actual-application...

Wishydig, you'll love this: Ayn Rand (ugh!) used to always say, "when you declare a right, you must account for who will bear the burden of that right -- always ask, 'a right at whose expense?' " (I'm really paraphrasing, not quoting). To declare that you believe everyone should have access to basic healthcare is one thing -- to be explicit about how you will pay for it is another. And it's that latter point that I have heard "glazed over" in an unacceptable manner.

Of course, you may answer, "Well, at rich people's expense." But then I will ask you about morality -- and this is why Kevin's argument is persuading me. Is it really "moral" for the government to play Robin Hood and take from those who make over $250,000/yr.? I need to hear more about that system of morality -- it's not Biblical as far as I can tell. Even the tithe, and Jesus' admonition to "give all that you have to the poor" take place in the context of voluntary participation.

So what I think the "left" misses is the moral necessity of recognizing property rights. Frankly, with my wife and I both working full-time and making what we make, I don't see how the government can morally justify taking 1/3 for those who need it more.

And the reason has to do with what Kevin called coercion -- who is indenturing me?

But all of this said, I am only leaning Kevin about 60/40 right now -- and if my argument here seems one-sided, my heart isn't in it. Anyone else? Or follow-ups?

NOTE: I feel like we're on familiar territory again, and I hope I haven't just made this "ideological." Pretty soon we're going to start asking each other exactly how many people starved to death in America the year before the government started taxing income (1913, I think?)... and then we'll all defer because we're not technocrats. And then we've gotten nowhere.

fenhopper said...

"Is it really 'moral' for the government to play Robin Hood and take from those who make over $250,000/yr.?"

"Institutions like governments don't participate in 'morality' as I understand it; only individuals can be morally responsible."

which of these do you want to let go of?

Casey said...

The first. Which was a rhetorical question anyway...

fenhopper said...

aren't they all rhetorical questions?

but the point would stand, even against a rhetorical question, that abandoning the moral argument as a reason for gov't influence, that there is no moral element to that policy. and nobody is forced to pay taxes. if you don't like 'em… get out.

i know that sounds dismissive and like the very stupid "USA love it or leave it" arguments, but i mean it only as an argument against the claim that gov't forces anything.

the advice to tithe was as a gesture that should be made to melchizedek, who earned it as a good steward and a fine priest. it was a way of making sure the just priest was able to provide his services.

i think this is an important point of departure. i'm looking at gov't as something that can do a job that is worth funding. and i'm hoping for reform of all the crap that goes on.

you don't seem to see gov't as capable of that job. perhaps you see it as bloated in response to nothing but ideology, fear and desire?

Casey said...

Fen, actually -- that's a great point. I wish it hadn't come so far down in the comments. I think that's fair: pay taxes or get out.

The problem is, where does a person go who wants to be even less taxes than the relatively tax-freest country on the planet? See, isn't it more realistic for me to tell you to move to France, or England, or Argentina, or China, or wherever else... the point is, somebody's gotta be the most economically-free country. For a long time, it was America. Now, it might be Estonia or Hong Kong or Singapore... and that's inconvenient to anyone who speaks only English and likes the weather here.

True, you could tell me to move to Singapore, but is it more realistic for me to simply stay here and fight for lower taxes and greater economic freedom?

You're right: important point of departure. It's not that I think there's no role for government... but I guess my feeling is that less could be more right now. It's a matter of what Nathaniel would call "kairos," I think. In another situation, I might rally to the "hey we need more government" position -- just not here and now.

But to revisit very briefly the original point: when I imply that it's "not moral" for the government to play Robin Hood, I don't mean to imply that it's "immoral." I just mean it's not moral.

So if it's outside of the domain of morality, as Kevin and I think it is (and that means even the Nazi regime might not be called "immoral," but only very dysfunctional and impractical and disappointing as an institution) -- then we need to talk about morality in another post, and practical dynamics in this string:

So now we're back to talking about which theory of political economy works best at creating/not-preventing the greatest/broadest amount of well-being.

Which I'm always happy to do.

fenhopper said...

that's a good point about "immoral" vs "amoral." gotcha. tho i'd say that the line between moral and amoral situations really is pretty arbitrary and becomes a moot point. one person's moral irrelevance is another's immorality. but we've established our (relative) concord on that, haven't we? at least as far as the rhetoric goes?

"is it more realistic for me to simply stay here and fight for lower taxes and greater economic freedom?"

and i think this might be the most important point that i'd like to make. i'd connect it to your other claim by pointing out that the weather and the convenience of knowing a language have been irrelevant to people who really had something to gain by moving to a "land of opportunity." or rather, who had a lot to lose by staying where they were.

there are people with no economic hope, and then there are people who live in the US, work at small liberal arts schools, drive a nice car (or two), play video games on systems that cost more than a couple hundred dollars, wear more different pairs of khakis in a week than anyone needs to own, buy shoes to match their jackets, and complain that the US gov't is too big and its ruining economic freedom.

(that was unecessary of me but i should leave it, right?)

let me try again:

things aren't that bad. and i don't think they'll get worse for us because of a tax rate that isn't even the highest in my lifetime for people making more money than i'll probably ever make.

so i'd say don't move to singapore, because you'll do better here. and arguing in the hopes of lower taxes is fine, but i'd say the fear that accompanies the argument is a bit much. it strikes me, at times, as a chosen victimization for the sake of a principle.

Kevin said...

Hi guys. Good stuff.


"Is it really 'moral' for the government to play Robin Hood and take from those who make over $250,000/yr.?"

"Institutions like governments don't participate in 'morality' as I understand it; only individuals can be morally responsible."

which of these do you want to let go of?"

This is a false dilemma, as there is no need to let go of either, insofar as we track normal English use of 'immoral'.

When one declares, say, a government or law which approves slavery as 'immoral', it simply means that the coercive mechanism of laws allows some people to use others as instruments. An immoral law is an institutional instrument enabling individuals to use other individuals as instruments. It is, in a perfectly intelligible sense, 'responsible' for legislating irresponsibility. Yes laws themselves do not 'take' responsibilities as people do; they do not act immorally. But that is what exactly no one means when describing as 'immoral' a government or law. No one. Such laws/institutions are set up to make immorality automatic, in the sense of my previous.

Not sure how clear that was, let me say the same thing somewhat differently: This 'dilemma' which you both apparently accept as a legitimate one, isn't. It isn't because we call a system that enables some individuals to act immorally towards other individuals 'immoral'. But this word nonetheless refers to the immorality of those ESTABLISHING and USING the coercive mechanism, not the mechanism itself. Of COURSE mechanisms like laws, and abstractions like states, don't themselves physically wack folks over the head and dump them into shallow graves. But this has nothing to do with the meaning of 'immoral' when applied to laws which encourage and/or mandate such behavior. Were one to take this dilemma seriously, one might as well claim that the Final Solution can't be called 'immoral' because it's not the kind of thing that makes moral choices/comes up with solutions. But it was an EXPRESSION OF individual immoral choices, and expresses the hope of ENABLING MORE of them in the future. So it was immoral.

Fenhopper, it is certainly open to you to defend your thesis by doing massive violence to ordinary language. But is that really where you want to go? At any rate, Casey, I just don't get why you let that go so easily.

That is why everything that follows that point in the thread starts to wobble for me--though thanks to you both for working on this stuff--important and enjoyable.

Kevin said...


"IF i was willing to hold that all support of gov't is a surrender of personal action or liability, i would, i think, be agreeing with you completely here.

but i'm not willing to hold that belief. and i know that many of the people who are supporting a governmental role towards a goal, or just away from a worse situation, are much more interested, and spend much more time working towards those goals with their own time, their own effort."

First, the issue hasn't been 'all' support of government. The issue has been redistributive government. Just saying.

Second, Fenhopper, you've already put 'supporting a policy' as a moral action--including supporting a policy to make someone else responsible for executing YOUR moral goals--you've put them in harness to what YOU and others like you think they ought to be doing--and the question you're gliding over is whether this moral imperialism is moral. And your argument does not address this at all. For the point was never that some who support such laws don't also help out on their own. It was something else entirely. For 'their own time' and 'their own effort' is NOT what is redistributed by the laws they support. So their personal industriousness has ZERO relevance for the judgment as to the morality of their harnessing the efforts of others by force. A mugger who tithes is still a mugger, tithing notwithstanding. For he uses violence to gain access to what is not his to do his 'charity'. He points his gun at his fellow human being, and, invoking fear, treats them like vending machines, then gets choked up over how much he 'does for people', when by THAT he means 'how much he forces other people to do for other people in the way and manner he sees fit...or else...' Perhaps you are willing to accept violence as the basis for 'charitable' exchange--perhaps for you, 'charity grows out of the barrel of a gun'--but now another word is being done violence to--namely 'charity'. Your compassion may lead you to put massive debts on future generations to help present ones.
But again, this is not an argument, b/c to point to people who help AND support such laws says NOTHING about the morality of supporting these broad-gauge threats. Nothing.

And threats, it is fairly easy to argue, don't produce moral action AT ALL. One can no more raise the MORAL level of the world by forced moral actions than one could use a forklift to raise the Christmas spirit. Why? B/c the law is there solely to threaten because the POINT of the law is to REPLACE liberty of conscious with self-interestedness ("Give you this much to whom I say or go to jail") Where such choices are already being made, the law is therefore pointless. So only when FORCE is at issue does the law have a point. When you threaten by law, all you do is appeal to self-interest--incredible since self-interest is usually supposed to be the problem with freedom/free choice.

Laws that create space for others to live life as they see fit, provided they do not violate other's similar 'negative rights' use threats ONLY on persons who threaten others FIRST. Proponents of positive rights get this backwards. They INITIATE violence in the name of moral good. But to do both (like the people you mention) is simply to show that one can do one good thing and one bad thing. The goodness of the first act (voluntary personal charity) in no way mitigates the badness of the second.

Kevin said...


The talk of 'if you don't like it, get out!' might strike some--ok, struck me-- as apalling, not 'fair'. America said that to the Indian, everyone in Europe at some point or other said it to the Jew, but a policy of dislocation-- to drive people from their land into various wildernesses b/c, while hurting no one, they won't live as you insist they must live...THIS is 'moral'? Not so much--and perhaps a third word done violence to.

fenhopper said...

kevin, i really appreciate your clear attention to individual points and the organization thereof. i'll try to present as clear a response to each:

point 1

i said earlier: "it may not be fair to say that gov't-proper is a moral agent, but gov't is an instrument of individuals."

i saw casey's argument as having started with the claim that the laws should not be evaluated on a moral standard.

in presenting the dilemma, i was simply making the point that gov'ts do in some way 'participate' in morality. it seems to me you agree.

fenhopper said...

point 2:

you have now introduced a claim that i did not make. my point was in response to the concerns of automation, in no way was i saying that a moral action makes all other actions equally moral.

my claim was that support of a gov't role towards an effect is not dangerous to the individual ethical muscle dedicated to the same effect.

and this remains compatible with your point that those who act only in response to laws will not be made into moral agents.

fenhopper said...

point 3:

there was some nuance, left opaque, to my claim about leaving. and casey made the point with an important difference: it's about doing it, not "loving" it. a citizen either obeys the laws or leaves, with the obvious option of refusing to obey and earning the consequences.

and at no point is the power of protest removed.

in fact i cringe at the "love it" part of the "love it or leave it" line, because appreciating a law is never required.

it is simply an observation that every citizen is in a position to evaluate options regarding laws they oppose. try to change the law while obeying it. try to change the law while disobeying it. make the law a non-issue by moving out.

and my point to casey was that everyone is free to choose an optimal response from among those candidates and they should all be a acknowledged as a part of the argument. clearly, casey is opting to obey while protesting, and in some way attempt to change the policies or halt the trend towards them.

i do not suggest he do otherwise.

Kevin said...

Evening Casey/Fenhopper. Helluva thread going here.

I don't think I need to revise anything as regards points 1 and 3, as we either somewhat agree, or are emphasizing different matters.

Only object to the response to point 2:

Note: I honestly don't know what to make of the 'all other actions are equally moral' clause, so I'll simply mark it out as extremely unclear, and slowly back away.

But a few things re: the rest:

1. Your response seems to ignore--or deny?--the problem of 'incentive' and/or 'the tragedy of the commons'. There is perfectly good--and massive quantities of-- empirical evidence that collectivizing moral responsibilities does precisely what you apparently deny it does--namely, dissipate that sense of responsibility in individuals. This is true whether the studies are economic in nature, or those found in the field of psychology, or the burgeoning field of 'empirical ethics'. And if collectivizing ethical responsibility (automating it will work here too) demonstrably has this enervating effect, it is difficult to see how to support your view that this automating/collectivizing has no effect on individual moral muscle. It looks like exactly what I meant by 'atrophy'.

Kevin said...

2. There is somewhat different but very related point to make here, but which I think is relevant. And that is the issue of DISPLACEMENT, where moral projects of a public nature push out private ones. Here's a quick and dirty version of how one such argument would go:

The idea that public/enforced 'charity' programs don't displace private charity PRESUPPOSES INFINITE RESOURCES, and this is just wildly false.

Suppose you pass a program which dictates I pay 3,000 per year to a recipient of your choosing (say, some charity, welfare program, what have you). This means that, for that fraction of life it takes me to generate that amount you confiscate, I am indentured to YOUR value system--i.e. am, quite literally, working for you. Now if I am working for YOU during that time, I cannot also be working for me--cannot use my money/time as an expression of MY values. This means you have interfered with the connection between my values and my ability to express them with the resources I have generated.

Now presumably, moral muscle is something that arises from the pursuit of moral intentions which have an individual as their impetus/origin. That is, moral muscle IS this acuity in initiating, identifying, and pursuing moral intentions that I myself create/craft. I MAKE moral intentions. Crafting these is constitutive of the 'craft' of morality. But now, in the Public takeover of moral action, the market for individual moral initiative is centralized, monopolized, and to that degree, destroyed. I cannot craft, scheme, organize, and pursue PRIVATE charitable pursuits, insofar as you have already taken from my my ability to do so, by taking the resources I had to engage in such pursuits.

And this is to say that, due to this interference with moral initiative--displacement of it-- you will get less of it, insofar as you make morality 'public' in this coercive and collective way. If I MUST pay in to your system, I am prevented from paying into my own--and from creating a system of helping others. You have a monopoly, with respect to those resources you have coercively collected for your own public projects.

So, your idea that collectivizing/centralizing moral activity does not kill incentive and initiative is no more valid in the moral realm than it is in teh realm of widget production. Public morality DISPLACES private moral enterprise, just as it does with respect to any other human activity. So, in a world in which individuals have finite resources, and MUST give them up to collective moral projects, to take over moral enterprise is an encroachment on the market for private moral initiative. They are natural competitors. Historical examples abound.

3. And all this does not begin to address whether you have the RIGHT to make my 'muscle' work for your moral projects--whether this indenturement of my moral energies is remotely moral--EVEN IF it somehow did not diminish my ability to engage the world morally at all (which, given 1 and 2, is a pure counterfactual--i.e. is false).

fenhopper said...

when i wrote: "in no way was i saying that a moral action makes all other actions equally moral," i was responding to what i understood you to be implying was my argument. specifically your following claims

"So their personal industriousness has ZERO relevance for the judgment as to the morality of their harnessing the efforts of others by force. A mugger who tithes is still a mugger, tithing notwithstanding."

"[T]o point to people who help AND support such laws says NOTHING about the morality of supporting these broad-gauge threats. Nothing."

"The goodness of the first act (voluntary personal charity) in no way mitigates the badness of the second."

as i then said, i was only making the point that support of gov't services does not necessarily lead to ethical atrophy, as it often accompanies personal initiative. i use anecdotal support for my view, and i understand that you're not convinced.

so regarding that dissipation of moral initiative: i'll search for economic treatments on the centralization of redistribution, and if you have some to suggest i'll happily look at and consider those. (this is a topic that casey and i flirt with regularly, tho not yet to probing depths.)

on the psychological effects: this is complicated enough to make cause/effect study provocative, but not conclusive. on the one hand we have a milgram-esque model that shows pretty clearly that personal liability is easily surrendered when authority offers a shield. on the other hand it's pretty clear that membership in groups often leads to the adoption of common goal. it's also pretty clear that gaining inclusion in a group by nothing more than a payment isn't effective at building common values. i'll give you that. but then does the goal of a gov't service include affecting the attitude of the citizen beyond keeping them willing to pay taxes? i've been arguing for gov't services as a tool of the citizen. those services have specific goals. i don't think that at any point i've argued that gov't services are necessary as a values model intent on changing the person. i'll have to look carefully to see if i've even suggested that might be a reasonable goal.

fenhopper said...

you write that "in the Public takeover of moral action, the market for individual moral initiative is centralized, monopolized, and to that degree, destroyed." i haven't suggested a takeover of any initiative. what i've suggested is a public contribution. the displacement of contributable resources in practical terms is an issue only when the amount paid voluntarily to the private sector is a maximized amount and any amount paid to the gov't must come from that line of the budget. in reality that's rarely the case. the reorganization of resource outflow can take many forms and the displacement argument then relies on a state of no flexibility to any line of the budget other than combined contributions to gov't and private charity.

paying any taxes into a centralized system already requires that we devote a certain number of our work hours to causes other than our own. causes that are counter to our own. and while you might call such centralization a monopoly "with respect to those resources…coercively collected" it's not a true monopoly since there are still hours to dedicate to chosen interests. is yahoo! monopolizing a specific percentage of online search engine activity? technically, yes. but is it misleading to call it a monopoly of websearch resources? i'd say so. if you are arguing that the gov't can take some, but it is now taking too much, then the argument has changed.

accepting then, that gov't services do draw on a pool of finite resources, the issue here then, it seems to me, is 1) how much of any individual's resources should be monopolized, or shall we just say appropriated, by the central government, and 2) (it seems absolutely vital) what should be the nature of gov't services? because the gov't is (obviously with a certain amount of failure) a representation and extension of the will of the people. it provides services that are generally accepted, even when the possibility exists that those same services could be provided by the private sector.

there is no imposition by gov't that is accepted by all. there is no policy that avoids the "indenturement of [individual] moral energies." we may dismiss those protestations that we deem so far outside the pale as to be irrational and bad faith departures from reasonable demands in the public interest. but it is certain that a majority has the right to organize and implement a gov't dedicated to acting out its values (even if not engendering them). that's what gov't is: a public instrument. not THE instrument. A instrument. and the minority has the right to argue against the resultant policies and attempt to effect change by becoming the majority.

so i'm not sure i understand how you're using your third point. are you suggesting that gov't should step away from any policy that does not have unanimous support? are you suggesting that a method of special exemption is necessary to avoid imposition of majority will?

Casey said...

Oh, I see: back to your point about the private-school teaching, khaki-wearing, honda driving beneficiary of American economics...

Just to clarify, Fen: You think that I'm talking solely about myself... right? But I'm not. I'm convinced that capitalism does better for the least among us than intervened proto-socialist economic structures.

Okay, now I'll go back to reading the explosive string...

fenhopper said...

i grant that i can now better see that's your main point, and (as i said somewhere up there) i suggest it changes the argument from the moral argument being irrelevant because of absence of a moral element, and to the moral argument being irrelevant because of the absence of an available moral effect.

i should have responded more carefully from the beginning.

so now we're back to 'does gov't distribution work' in mathematical terms.

and if it does, doe that take care of the moral side of the argument? my guess is that not all contributors here will say it does.

Kevin said...

Evening! Appreciate the thought put into your latest. Very helpful in identifying the different enthymemes with which we are both working.

Rough week. Little time. but let me pick out one main line of thought I see in your responses which I think gets us to an assumption that does alot of work for you, and about which I have doubts.

"paying any taxes into a centralized system already requires that we devote a certain number of our work hours to causes other than our own. causes that are counter to our own."

This might be a descriptive claim, not a normative one. But no matter: I want to say that the claim is flatly false in either case. Suppose, for instance, we take a strictly libertarian line. Does this mean that, say, the centralized contributions for a freeway construction project is 'coercive' and 'counter' to my purposes?
What is important here, to the libertarian, is what JUSTIFIES the coercive aspects of collection. What justifies is precisely that it is NOT in any direct way countermand my purposes--that the coercion is on behalf of projects that are at least indirectly supportive of my aims. The norm here is that insofar as coercion is imposed upon me, it's justification NOT be counter to my purposes. And this in turn stands on the simple ground that auto-nomy is what law preserves, not replaces. As paradoxical as the tradition sounds, auto-nomy is what law (the 'nomy') is FOR.

So given this theoretical backdrop, how about the example--how about freeways? Well, I suppose I might completely refuse to use them, use anything shipped on them, etc., and I would then AND ONLY THEN have a JUST objection to paying for them (see our tax-related arrangements with the Amish for more e.g. along these lines). But what's great about free ways is that ANYONE can use them to forward the pursuit of ANY value set. They expedite value-pursuits, but do not IMPOSE them. I might use the freeway to go to church. I might use it to go to the strip club. I might use it to do both--on Saturday night and Sunday morning, respectively. But it is just not right to say (as I understand you to say above) that this case of centralization/collectivism is like you or your group saying to me "Work hard then give me money that I'll distribute without any regard to your purposes, and in return I promise not to destroy you legally, physically..." what have you. SO the point I want to suggest you are missing is that centralization CAN make individual autonomy MORE efficacious; that THIS is THE moral justification for centralization; and it is so because it leaves us each to construct our own moral lives in the absence of moral imperialisms.

So the quote above of yours with which I began does not, I think, make the point you wanted it to--at least without massive qualifications you've yet to add.

This also should address the chimera of unanimity. The bill of rights' purpose is to establish the IRRELEVANCE of unanimity to the justification of certain powers of government. The powers subject to votes were at one time 'enumerated and few'. This is, in practice, no longer the case. But if the justification of coercion is that the purpose of the centralization is a kind of ecumenical expediting of value sets--the expediting of autonomy--then there is all the moral difference in the world between the centralizations and coercions I accept, and those for which you are presently arguing. If the POINT of centralized collections is the expedition of autonomy, then the redistribution of income by coercive collections not only fails to meet, but looks to be the opposite of, this normative criterion.

Kevin said...

"and while you might call such centralization a monopoly "with respect to those resources…coercively collected" it's not a true monopoly since there are still hours to dedicate to chosen interests....[so]if you are arguing that the gov't can take some, but it is now taking too much, then the argument has changed."

This is thoroughly unconvincing, with respect to the point at issue: the moral legitimacy of this 'partial' monopoly. If I must work for you/your causes for 5 hours each day on threat of violence, at which time you then let me go my own way, it seems preposterous to say that your authority is somehow morally legitimate, because, after all, I've got another 19 hours to blow as I see fit. If you mug me and let me keep a twenty, it is preposterous to suppose that I have been anything less than ab-used. Now if the amount of right I have to my own time is decided by you and your voting block, you may in practice take only take 20 or 50 percent of my time. But in doing so you have taken 100 percent of my RIGHT to it. By making how much of my life is MINE to direct YOUR decision, you have completely denied the postulate that this life is originally MINE to direct and decide. The same is true for the mugger and 'my' money. Nice of you to give me some time/money to myself; but this means YOU control my time and money--control ME--and I do not. There is, in this sense, no monopoly by halves. Rights, in this sense, do not do fractions. The principle by which you take 20percent is your RIGHT to do so; and once we have YOU deciding how much of 'mine' I get to keep, we have lost even the pretense that my time/life was 'mine' to begin with. And this infantilizes me. For even the portion you leave to me you ALLOW to me--you play the father figure, to whom I must beg an ALLOWANCE.

"is yahoo! monopolizing a specific percentage of online search engine activity? technically, yes. but is it misleading to call it a monopoly of websearch resources? i'd say so."

I would too--but not because of some argument of percentage (on which see above). Rather, I agree that this is an abuse of 'monopoly' because I can avoid yahoo almost entirely without being destroyed financially and (were I to resist) physically. 'Yahoo!' has, so far as I know, no armed enforcers. This case thus has zero relevance to discussions of the moral status of COERCIVE monopoly.