Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Government Versus My Government

Having a healthy fear of government is good. Most people on both sides of the aisle lack an appropriate level of skepticism toward their government. Still, there is a point where too much fear becomes fringe lunacy, and it is my opinion that someone like Ron Paul is past that point. The reason that Ron Paul is "fringe" while less moral politicians of both parties are "mainstream" is because the threat to one's life posed by too little government can often outweigh the threat to one's life of too much. That's why systems like feudalism existed, because people would rather live under an immoral government that protects their life from outside threats than a government that is afraid to infringe upon a few liberties and offers little to no protection as a result. So while there is a point where the absolute cost of too much government is too high, and revolution becomes the moral imperative, it is often safer to err on the side of more government than less up to a certain point. Someone calling for the end, at least on the federal level, of basically every government entity other than those explicitly in the constitution is on the wrong side of this point, which is why Ron Paul and libertarian politicians like him will never be voted into the presidency.

It is very common to hear people talk about "the government" as if it is an independent entity that they are fighting against, clawing with tooth and nail to inch out any civil liberty they can. To me, this is a huge misrepresentation of reality. There are two reasons why it seems intuitively obvious to me that the possessive "my government" or "our government" more clearly states what is actually going on. Reason number one is simple enough; we vote politicians into their jobs and can vote them out. Reason number two is slightly less so, although I already talked about it when I defined the purpose of government. Every day of our adult lives that we spend living in the United States; or almost any other country in the world today for that matter; is a day that we opted to not move to another country. We are passively choosing one government out of 100+ governments around the world that don't restrict emigration (without the freedom to leave, like in North Korea, there is obviously no choice to stay). Reading through my blog, you'll notice that when I refer to government, I will either use a possessive article or leave the article out entirely, and this is no accident.

I bring this up not to nit-pick semantics, but rather to illustrate that we, or people like us, created the American government, and likewise we can change it and deconstruct it as necessary. The slogan of this blog is "don't hate the player, change the game" because while you are entitled to judge a person's actions or a company's actions as immoral, it is not now nor has it ever been a given that we live in a world where everyone acts morally. This fear of immoral actors is exactly why we created government, to be monopoly on force that disincentivizes immoral action. So while I can judge a company or a person's actions as immoral, the fault really lies in the structure and policies of our government, which is supposed to protect us against immoral behavior if and when that behavior infringes upon our right to life. When that action does not infringe upon one's right to life, the fact that an action is immoral in and of itself is not sufficient to restrict it.
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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Defining Government

Now that we have a basic understanding of good and bad, it's time we turn our attention to government. What is government? Why do we need it? What should government have control over?

Looking up the word "governmnet" in a dictionary actually yields very little in the way of a definition. To understand what government is, we have to understand why we want/need it. Based on what we know about morality, and in particular about when it is moral to take immoral action, it should be at least intuitive if not obvious that the role of government is to protect us from the force of others, since the force of others infringes on the choices we can make in order to protect our own life. We know that force is the only way that force can be met, so we can define government as a monopoly on force.

When we create a government, we are creating a body that has the absolute jurisdiction in the realm of force. We are choosing to put limits on our ability to take forceful action against others in the hopes that the threat of force from this larger, stronger body; government; will provide a deterrent against other people taking forceful action against us. Feudalism came about as a result of people afraid for their lives seeking the protection of nobles with money, and so to has every government come about as a means of protection from threats. These threats can come from individuals within your clan as well as from outside your clan, so government must have the capacity to protect against both.

It would seem that giving a government absolute jurisdiction over the use of force would be counterproductive or maybe paradoxical, since force is exactly what you want to avoid, and in a world where there is only one government, where you have no choice as to what government you want to live under, this may be true. In the modern world, however, you do have choice. You have the capacity to choose what system of force you would like to live under, which in the long run creates competition between countries for citizens. And if there are no moral governments in the world, you have the right to band together and create one, like Americans did with the Revolutionary War.

So yes, the government is allowed to force you to pay your taxes by point of the gun, because you are choosing to live in the United States under the tax laws we have established here. If you don't like it, you can change it or leave. Me personally, I prefer to stay and pay taxes, although if our taxes went up to 60% or something like that, I may need to reevaluate. The government needs to collect taxes, because this is how it pays for itself, how it is able to create a monopoly on force that is stronger than any individual.

Protecting us from direct threats to our life is not the only role of government. Government also needs to protect us from indirect threats to our life, namely, threats to our ability to choose, and threats from others who are morally justified in taking immoral action, like the guy who takes a hospital hostage in order to get his son a heart transplant. It does this by mitigating externalities. In other words, government manipulates incentive structures in order to encourage positive externalities and discourage negative externalities. Externalities can come in the form of people driving drunk and hurting people driving sober, which may require cops out on weekends to catch drunk drivers, or nuclear waste from a power plant, which require regulation around their disposal to prevent nearby towns from getting sick. Where regulation is required, taxes on those goods and services need to be levied to pay for that regulation.

There are some cases in which the only way to mitigate the externalities properly is with the deterrent of the threat of force. This is where laws come in. Since it is impossible to put a price on life, murder is one example of this. However, when a law does more harm than good, i.e. costs more than its benefit (drug laws for example), this is an immoral law. Most things that are illegal today should probably be legal but regulated, which is why we so badly need Amendment #28.

Occasionally though, there are things that are so essential to life that not giving them away for free to the people who cannot afford them can create a situation in which that person becomes ethically justified in taking immoral action. In these cases, the only way to protect its citizens from the use of force is to cover the costs. I'll talk more about this in the future.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Ethically Required to Take Immoral Action

In my last post Defining Good, I discussed the idea that you are not allowed to infringe on someone else's right to life, with the caveat that you are allowed to infringe on another's right to life if it is in defense against their infringement on your right to life. This is an obvious example of when it is ethical to take immoral action that is of equal magnitude to the threat. But when else is this the case? In this post, I will flesh out the limits of this "loophole," so to speak.

From a strictly Darwinist standpoint, there is an obvious example. Is it moral to stand by your morals while your kids die? No. Obviously no. Your genetic material would die with them, and you would be filtered out of the gene pool. So it's moral to jump in front of a bullet if it saves your kid's life. It is moral to sacrifice your life for the sake of your kid's right to life. That will be our basic building block.

What are threats to your child's right to life? Well, there are quite a number, I suppose. Your child could end up not being born because you died before reproducing. Your child could die during child birth. If you are totally homeless and have literally $0, it is possible for your child to starve to death. Your child could be hit by a taxi at a time when you don't have the money to pay for the medical expenses to get her better. You get the point.

So my morality, as it is defined in my previous post, requires that it be moral for you to take immoral action when your child's right to life is being threatened. It would be the immoral choice to choose to stand by your convictions in that scenario, just as it would be immoral to not defend yourself when your life is being threatened. This caveat to Objectivism is what Ayn Rand missed the impact of, and this is why the free market economy state that she stood for is immoral. I'll get to that in future posts, stay tuned.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Defining Good

Life as a Standard of Value

"Cogito ergo sum" translates to "I think therefore I am." This is the basic philosophical premise that Descartes started off with nearly 400 years ago, and remains the foundation for all philosophy. It posits that the mere fact that I am thinking right now is proof that my mind exists. That I am alive. This is the only certainty in the universe. Since life is the only thing that we can be certain of, it follows naturally that things that keep us alive are good and things that kill us are bad. Human life is the standard of value.

In a 1973 essay, Theodosius Dobzhansky said that "nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution." What this means is that since evolution is the preeminent theory through which all empirical data in biology is to be evaluated, biology is essentially completely random and arbitrary  without it. Since morality is a subset of the study of how the mind works, it falls into the large umbrella of biology. Thus we can accept the theory of evolution as a basic premise of morality.

The human body has evolved to keep us alive and proliferate our DNA, and our brain represents our primary tool of survival. Over thousands of generations, our brain has developed a very complex system of heuristics in order to keep us alive. Generally speaking, those things that are pleasurable are perceived that way in the brain because they are helpful to our chances of surviving and reproducing; on the flip side, those things that are painful are perceived that way because they hurt our chances of survival and replication. That which makes us happy has evolved that way to improve our chances of survival. These are imperfect mechanisms however, and in order to be adaptable in the variety of environments that humans can live; from the arctic tundra where the Inuit reside to the Amazon rain forest where the Ache live and everywhere in between; humans have developed a rational mind that can determine when things that feel good are actually detrimental to survival and when things that feel bad may be beneficial.

With me so far? Good. So since the rational mind is an individual's primary means of survival, reason must be held as the tool with which all things in this world are to be evaluated. Our perception of happiness and fulfillment has evolved to keep us alive, so a rational application of the mind toward the end of achieving happiness for oneself and more importantly for one's kids is an individual's moral imperative.

Achievement as the Path to Happiness

Above we've established that achieving happiness is virtuous, but this is not prescriptive unless we outline how to achieve happiness. Here we're defining happiness as a long term state of well being, not as a short term emotion. It is a Boolean, meaning that you are either happy or unhappy, and there is no relative measure of happiness. The relative discussion of happiness applies only to people who are unhappy, i.e. not self actualizing in the sense that Abraham Maslow describes it. 

Have you ever heard of Maslow's hierarchy of needs? It is an attempt to define human motivation, and just as earlier I pointed to the theory of evolution as the preeminent theory of biology, I am going to accept Maslow's hierarchy of needs, at least in the general sense, as the preeminent theory of human motivation. In the linked wikipedia page above, there is mention of this idea of "self-transcendence," which was not included in Maslow's original hierarchy of needs, and I reject its inclusion, although its inclusion does not really change this discussion, as achievement is still a prerequisite to transcendence.

The first four levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs; physiological needs, safety needs, love and belonging, and esteem; are known as deficiency needs. Basically what this means is that these four needs have to be met at a basic level before happiness is possible. What's interesting about this is that most people consider these four needs as the only requirements for happiness, which is why most people are not happy. While the deficiency needs are prerequisites in order to go after self actualization, it is this fifth need that needs to be met in order to achieve happiness.

Self actualization loosely translates to "fulfilling one's potential." This is not some woo woo concept of destiny as much as it is about finding something that you love and becoming the best you can at it. For some people this will be about curing cancer. For others, it may be about athletic achievement, or writing a novel, or any number of other things. Some people may never achieve their goals, but happiness is more about the process of going after an actualized version of yourself than actually achieving it. When Stephen Hawking said that "we should seek the greatest value for our action," he was referring to self actualization.

Maslow said that "most of us function most of the time on a level lower than that of self-actualization. He labeled this the psychopathology of normality. When you see mention on this blog of people "settling" for mediocrity, I am referring to this psychopathology. In other words, a person who settles is someone who chooses to not self-actualize, but rather to accept the condition of an unactualized self. Someone who chooses to accept unhappiness.

On Coercion and Force

Why is freedom so valuable? Since each individual must evaluate what is an appropriate course of action for himself with his own mind; as these decisions can potentially mean life or death; coercive action that forces one to do or not do something is a threat to his life, and should be treated as such. Since it is immoral to threaten someone else's right to life (as life is the primary standard of value), it is immoral to force others into or out of any action. Force is the only defense against force, and as a defense is the only time when force is morally acceptable. Any attempt by someone else to force you to do something that you do not want to do must be met by force.