Should We Enforce Morality?

Years ago, back in 2004, I wrote a few articles under “On Enforcing Morality” making the case that the government has a limited role. I tried to be sympathetic to conservatives but I don’t think I pulled it off.

Today, I am older, more conscious of my mortality.  And with a mortage and a toddler, I plenty of worldly interest in reducing crime and providing a safe, innocent environment for children. I can now better reach out to social conservatives because I am one, to a degree.

Rest assured I still disagree with the insane War on Drugs and certain other failed attempts to enforce morality. But I have a nifty new bag of ideas to enforce morality which do have a decent chance of working. I intend to add them to the Enforcing Morality book in the near future. In the meantime, you can use this entry as a place to comment on the first rewritten page (the intro).

Am I now scaring off civil libertarians needlessly? Or have I achieved the proper balance?

8 Replies to “Should We Enforce Morality?”

  1. I think there are 2 main problems with this new page for people like me, for whom liberty is the first value:

    1. It accepts to readily the utilitarian notion that the ends justifies the means. I understand that you intend to demonstrate that the means your average moralist employs will not achieve the ends they desire, but as I am not a part of that target audience, I cannot comment on how effective that will be. The problem for me is that I see morality as a check on utilitarianism. Our reasoning, our sense of what can work, can be faulty, which means we must check our reasoning against an inherited body of tried-and-true rules of behavior, which is how I define “morality”, from time to time.

    I don’t know if you intended this, but the intellectual journey that began with my discovery of your own writings, through those of others like Henry George, is that it isn’t enough to see a conflict between the moral position and the utilitarian position, and just discard one or the other as untenable. This is the error just about everyone makes with regard to political values. Most people hear things like “taxation is theft” and “property is theft” and dismiss it out of hand since it does not agree with their ideas about what works. Most libertarians, on the other hand (including many conservatives) dismiss the conventional wisdom out of hand, and just assume that that any outcome of what they perceive as a moral act must be the correct outcome, regardless of what was intended (hence the continuing support for the drug war). It does not occur to them that a massive and growing gap in wealth distribution (with the associated disparities of political power), or an increase in street violence associated with the drug trade, could possibly indicate a failure of moral reasoning.

    But unrestrained utilitarian thinking is worse: while unrestrained moralism can lead to a decaying status-quo, unrestrained utilitarianism, given power, is what results in real horrors. If one believes in Malthusianism, is unrestrained by morality, and has the power to implement one’s desires, government mandated infanticide can be the result. If one believes negative traits are reliably passed from generation to generation, one is unrestrained by morality, and one has power, government-mandated sterilization can be the result. If one believes a particular subculture or immigrant culture is the source of many evils, is unrestrained by morality or lack of power, Final Solutions can result. Simply put, I see utilitarianism (which I define as utility-based thinking unrestrained by morality) as that arrogant belief that if one believes a particular policy can achieve its stated objective, it must be right, regardless of who gets hurt in the process.

    I’m not accusing you of this. However, your writing, of late, suggests it, and many, particularly newer readers, could easily get this impression.

    When I first read George, I was most impressed with how he managed to justify his suggested program from a logical position, a utilitarian position, and a moral position separately. I think the fact that he accomplished this accounts for much of his popularity during his lifetime.

    2. There was a #2… really there was. I should have outlined this reply before delving into ramble #1. >.<

  2. I think there are 2 main problems with this new page for people like me, for whom liberty is the first value:

    1. It accepts to readily the utilitarian notion that the ends justifies the means. I understand that you intend to demonstrate that the means your average moralist employs will not achieve the ends they desire, but as I am not a part of that target audience, I cannot comment on how effective that will be. The problem for me is that I see morality as a check on utilitarianism. Our reasoning, our sense of what can work, can be faulty, which means we must check our reasoning against an inherited body of tried-and-true rules of behavior, which is how I define “morality”, from time to time.

    I don’t know if you intended this, but the intellectual journey that began with my discovery of your own writings, through those of others like Henry George, is that it isn’t enough to see a conflict between the moral position and the utilitarian position, and just discard one or the other as untenable. This is the error just about everyone makes with regard to political values. Most people hear things like “taxation is theft” and “property is theft” and dismiss it out of hand since it does not agree with their ideas about what works. Most libertarians, on the other hand (including many conservatives) dismiss the conventional wisdom out of hand, and just assume that that any outcome of what they perceive as a moral act must be the correct outcome, regardless of what was intended (hence the continuing support for the drug war). It does not occur to them that a massive and growing gap in wealth distribution (with the associated disparities of political power), or an increase in street violence associated with the drug trade, could possibly indicate a failure of moral reasoning.

    But unrestrained utilitarian thinking is worse: while unrestrained moralism can lead to a decaying status-quo, unrestrained utilitarianism, given power, is what results in real horrors. If one believes in Malthusianism, is unrestrained by morality, and has the power to implement one’s desires, government mandated infanticide can be the result. If one believes negative traits are reliably passed from generation to generation, one is unrestrained by morality, and one has power, government-mandated sterilization can be the result. If one believes a particular subculture or immigrant culture is the source of many evils, is unrestrained by morality or lack of power, Final Solutions can result. Simply put, I see utilitarianism (which I define as utility-based thinking unrestrained by morality) as that arrogant belief that if one believes a particular policy can achieve its stated objective, it must be right, regardless of who gets hurt in the process.

    I’m not accusing you of this. However, your writing, of late, suggests it, and many, particularly newer readers, could easily get this impression.

    When I first read George, I was most impressed with how he managed to justify his suggested program from a logical position, a utilitarian position, and a moral position separately. I think the fact that he accomplished this accounts for much of his popularity during his lifetime.

    2. Not so much a liberty thing as an economics thing, but this just looks ignorant: “But ceteris paribus is Latin mumbo-jumbo for “I don’t give a hoot about the consequences of my actions,” or definition 2: “I don’t have a clue about economics or political science.”” I don’t know if you’re really as ignorant as that statement suggests, or if you’re simply failing to contextualize it in terms of its usual usage in your experience. But the only place I’ve heard those words used is in context of an economic thought experiment in a classroom setting. “Ceteris Paribus” indicates the idea “if it were possible to do a laboratory experiment in which we had two economies with only one variable were changed, this, I believe, would be the result.” I don’t know who you’ve been hanging out with that use “ceteris paribus” in the manner you suggest. But out of context it’s downright embarrassing, particularly given the amount of respect I generally have for your writings. Lacking the context, it almost looks to me like you are rejecting the Economics profession wholesale.

  3. Daryl, thanks for the feedback. I’ll have to sleep on this, probably several nights, before I make corrections.

    Regarding point 1: My point is not entirely utilitarian, as in utility functions. It is (mainly) in terms of the non-initiation of force which is the core libertarian moral value. Private immorality is not always as victimless as advertised.

    But if the point does not get through properly, then a rewrite is in order.

    As for point 2, I am still riffing off of Stephan Kinsellas use of ceteris paribus to prove we should be anarchists regardless of the consequences. (Modern liberals do the same thing for handing out welfare checks or jacking up taxes.)

    But perhaps that point needs to made in a separate article (or merely a blog post).

  4. I’m not very familiar with his work (though I think I once heard an interview on the subject of intellectual property). Could you provide a link illustrative of this abuse of the terminology?

    Best to obliquely reference only works you can expect your intended audience to be familiar with. Heh.

  5. OK, I have updated the article taking into account your most helpful critiques. I hope I haven’t made it boring in my attempt to be more balanced.

  6. Personally, I agree with Reagan in 95% of the time or more “Government exists to protect us from each other, when government oversteps its bounds is when it protects people from themselves.” On occassion, with something really messed up like Bestiality I am prepared to support a legal ban simply because its wrong, but usually I will have to have a logical reason it will hurt someone else.

    That said, I think you have the right ideas in general, and I think that the philosophy of libertarianism that says “We have a right to sin and that’s all there is to it” is WAY off (I am a libertarian myself.) I also think the religious-rights arguments that “Freedom to sin is false liberty” is also wrong in the legal sense. I think libertarianism and social conservatism can be employed by the same person, though its a careful balance.

    In any case, both economic and social freedoms are important for libertarianism. In any case, I don’t know why you call yourself a “Leftist Libertarian.” You aren’t really leftist, leftism is in general about mass downward redistribution of wealth, whereas you, like most right-wing libertarians, support equal opportunity.

  7. The best way to enforce Morality is to segregate immoral acts from the public as a whole. For instance you dont outlaw drugs, gambling, and prostitution all together. The best way to enforce vice law is to desginate those acts to a certain zone. IE:Red light district..And create local laws against it in neighborhoods,in public, and in advertisement. However vice which is enjoyed in private locations or in the privacy in your own home should be acceptable and tolerated. Because the government does NOT have the power to regulate your private behavior of a individuals. However, government DOES HAVE the right to regulate public behavior that threatens the health, safety, and well being of the public (public being the keyword). For instance, its not okay to run naked in the streets, however its perfectly fine to do so in your own home or at a nude beach or private club… Vice should be segregated, not PROHIBITED!!!

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