Consider: Suppose we have an ethical obligation to ensure that other persons are sufficiently well off. Suppose we are obligated to help the poor, the indigent, the starving, the disaffected. What follows? Think hard. Are you thinking yet? If you think it follows that the government should be in the business of fulfilling these obligations, you've missed a few premises, and have failed the test. You have failed it miserably.
Take this second test: Suppose it is established that human beings need (not want) food and shelter. It is not something we could do without. What follows, my friend? In particular, what follows about the role and function of government? If you answered, "uhm, nothing just yet. I need a few more premises." Then you get an "A" in good reasoning. If you answered "New Government Program!" Then you are an imbecile. Maybe imbecile is too strong. It probably is.
But don't worry. You're in excellent company. Just about everyone thinks that this follows. But it doesn't. It's a non sequitor. I called it an enormous non sequitor. I called it this not because it is terribly obvious that it doesn't follow (although, when you think about it, it is terribly obvious), but because so many people are busy making this giant mistake.
When we talk about "our" ethical obligations, we can mean this in one of at least two ways. The first is to read "our" as a distributive, not collective, thing. Suppose we have five people. Me, you, Sally, Betty, and Sam. We can say that it is "our" responsibility to feed the hungry. Reading this as a distributive thing, this means that it is each of our responsibility to feed "the hungry" (not necessarily all of them, and the extent to which this is our responsibility is left unanalyzed for the sake of argument). I have this responsibility, so do you, so does Sally, Betty, and Sam. The second way of reading this is as a collective thing. Thus, Sally feeding the hungry satisfies our collective obligation to feed the hungry. "We" have fed the hungry when Sally has fed the hungry.
This is an important confusion. It is important because, supposing something like feeding the hungry is each of our responsibility, we are liable to feel satisfied that we have fulfilled our responsibility when somebody else has. We are liable to move from the distributive to the collective, and ignore the fact that we haven't fulfilled our responsibility at all. Fighting for a new government program is a way to shirk, not uphold, our ethical obligations. It's a way to avoid having to deal with the actual beneficiaries of the program. You can go to marbled and fancy government buildings, rather than to the corners of run-down neighbourhoods. You won't be on the hook for distributing the food, the money, the shelter. You can go home and feel satisfied that you're paying your taxes and, therefore, doing your part. But you're not. You're not, you're not, you're not. You are shirking what you take to be an ethical responsibility and obligation. Go out and help, don't call your representative.
Monday, May 07, 2007
Peter over at Adventures in Bowling Green, has an excellent rebuttal-to-a-misunderstanding-of-libertarianism post today that deals (in part) with communities and libertarianism, which I love to read Peter's views on, as - quite frankly - he's thought about it more than most people. Here is an excerpt that I really enjoyed. Click on "post" to read the rest.