Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Basic Premise of Moral Philosophy

I'm kind of shocked that I've been arguing with people lately who deny this. This is moral philosophy 101:

If a fellow human being is in significant trouble, you have to help him out, even if his predicament is his own fault. If I'm walking on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee in wintertime and I see a guy about to go out on thin ice, and I warn him, and he goes out anyway, and falls through the ice, I can't just sit back and say, "I warned you. This is your own fault," while I let him drown. I have to do everything reasonable I can to rescue him. If I don't, I'm not just a smartass, I'm a bad human being.

That's why it is right that we as a society pay taxes to have search and rescue teams risk their own lives to search for, and rescue, even the idiots who ignored foul weather warnings.

So if some idiot 23 year-old kid with an overweening sense of his own invincibility decides to "risk it" and not get insurance, then yes, we, as a society, have to help him out if he gets cancer or crashes his motorcycle. We can't just say, "Sorry, kid. It was your stupid choice, and now you're screwed."


Arkanabar T'verrick Ilarsadin said...

I am going to attempt to refine your understanding of the libertarian position wrt the hypothetical you provide:

It should be society's place to provide for the foolish young man, but it is not the government's place to fulfill this societal function. One of the false points that libertarians sometimes neglect, and which many people cling to, is this idea that government is society. Government is a subset of society, namely, the subset of society that may legitimately initiate the use of force. But its legitimate functions are only those which involve legitimate use of force.

Is it justice for us (yes, you and I) to go and rob George and Mark to help the foolish young man pay his bills? If the answer is no, why then is it legitimate to do so if we but use the taxman and welfare bureaucrats as our proxies?

While libertarians have quite a bit in common with Randites, we and they are different. For the Randite, your choice to aid the young fool is immoral; for the libertarian, not only is it entirely acceptable to all, but so too are your words intended to persuade (not coerce) us to join you.

You may then ask "what about free riders?" I say, "Let them ride."

Jonathan Watson said...

Government is a subset of society, namely, the subset of society that may legitimately initiate the use of force. But its legitimate functions are only those which involve legitimate use of force.

Government is not a "subset" of society like any other organization is a subset of a society. Government is the deputy of all of society. The whole thing. St Thomas points out that the government is the whole community acting (and it seems to me government is the only such manifestation). The only reason it gets to wield the sword is that it operates in the name of the whole society itself for the common good. It's not just a part or subset of a society like any other part or subset.

Since, therefore, the proper purview of government is the common good of the whole community, anything that bears upon the common good is rightly its bailiwick. There may be very good, very wise reasons for relieving government (at least some levels of government) of some of its responsibilities for the common good (having local churches and communities do welfare work and such), but that does not mean that the community as a whole does not have the responsibility and therefore, as the representative of the entire community, the government has no "right" to use its might accomplish certain necessary communal ends. If the community has the responsibility, the government has the right.

The way you frame the argument - that enlisting the entire community to help the foolish young man pay his bills is theft - demonstrates that you are thinking of this only in individualistic terms, without considering that the community has the right and the responsibility both to help the foolish young man in his need and to punish him for his foolishness. That is justice.

Maybe this justice can be procured by liberal means (i.e. allowing him to suffer the "natural consequences" of his actions), but it must not be obscured that this is what we are doing (exacting justice), and a conversation still needs to happen to decide exactly which consequences we can allow him to suffer. A parent might allow his child to suffer a first degree burn as a consequence of disobedience when told not to touch a light bulb, but no good parent would ever allow his child to "suffer the consequences of disobedience" if such involved a cliff, a gun, or a raging furnace.