Thursday, July 28, 2005

Moralizing for Power

James Leroy Wilson had a post several weeks ago ( that I have been thinking about ever since. In it, he compared people who impose top down rules based on ideological principles (level 5 reasoning) with individualists who follow rules of thumb informed by actual social interaction (level 1 reasoning) from the bottom up. The latter moral reasoning process is generally more consistent with liberty than the former.

It sometimes seems to me that just about every so-called moral rule that anyone claims to be acting under is really a thinly veiled rationalization for a power grab by someone. When you bring a moral problem down to the level of actual human interaction, it looks very different than it does from the lofty tower of principle.

Take abortion, for example. When someone says that a fertilized egg is a moral person that the state must protect, he is really saying that women should be subject to being compelled to bring pregnancies to term and that women are not entitled to control their own bodies or to decide what health risks to run. He is saying that the government should interfere in and second guess the most intimate and private decisions about pregnancy and health care. He is saying that he would, in effect, hold a gun to a woman's head and force her to carry a pregnancy to term. This says a lot about where he or she thinks a woman belongs in the social pecking order. The ostensible concern for the egg, blastocyst, embryo, fetus is just a smokescreen. Who could really look someone in the face, someone they loved, and tell them that while you know that they are unwilling to run the health risks of a pregnancy you are more concerned with the abstract principle that an unsentient blob of protoplasm has "civil rights"? Who could seriously tell someone that they loved that their self ownership, their sovereignty as a person takes a back seat to some arbitrarily contrived principle applied to something no more human in any meaningful sense than a tumor?

Take the recent case of the Nebraska man charged with statutory rape of the young woman to whom he is now married and who is carrying his child. I don't know the facts of the case, but the individual circumstances don't seem to matter to the state of Nebraska. All that matters to the state is that the man had sex with a woman who was not yet of an arbitrary age of consent. The principles of "childhood" and capacity to consent trump the actual circumstances of this family. A man will be taken from his wife and child and imprisoned just for the sake of these abstract principles. A family will be destroyed just so the state can demonstrate its power.

Take just about everything that government does. The government itself is an abstraction that deploys legitimizing abstractions by the truckload, all to get, keep and expand power. What loving person would throw a child into an incinerator on the basis that it might promote democracy in Iraq? The US has incinerated lots of Iraqi children on that lofty principle. Would you drive your neighbor from his home by force and steal his property to pay for your child's education on the basis that society benefits from educated children? That's precisely the threat that homeowners live under, that if they do not pay property and school taxes their homes will be taken from them and the proceeds used to pay for their neighbors' children's schooling and other "public" purposes. You can't honestly plead "social contract" while looking someone in the eye.

Every time someone pontificates about some universal moral principle, we should subject it to reality testing. Could you act on the principle with a straight face to the detriment of someone you love?


bkmarcus said...

The Non-Aggression Principle is a fairly lofty abstraction (at least according to some people) and yet it doesn't produce any of the ill effects you describe above. Maybe the problem isn't abstract principles; maybe the problem is the wrong abstract principles.

Vache Folle said...


The non-aggression principle can be lofty but I also think that it is, by its nature, very down to earth. It is decidedly NOT about getting or exercising power over others, and it can be derived from the bottom up rather than the top down.

Perhaps amenability to btoom up derivation can be used as an indicator of when an abstract principle should be suspect.