Wednesday, December 14, 2016

An Obligation to Provide for Those in Need

I recently watched a video of a debate between Roger Pilon (CATO Institute) and Louis Michael Seidman (Georgetown University) on "The Welfare State".

In it, one of the claims that Roger Pilon made was that charity is not an obligation - it is not something a person "has to do". It is something that people may do if they wish, and something that people may be encouraged to do, but it is not an obligation.

I believe that desirism would not support this conclusion.

Desirism does recognize the three-way division regarding the morality actions. There are obligatory actions, non-obligatory permissible actions, and prohibited actions.

It understands obligatory actions as those that a person with good desires (and lacking bad desires) would do.

Morally prohibited actions are those that a person with good desires (and lacking bad desires) would not do.

And there is a range of actions where people are free to exercise their own preferences. For example, what to wear, what to eat, who to invite to dinner, what to read, what to watch on television, when to go to bed, with whom to go to bed. People generally have no reason to demand that everybody like the same things.

In fact, in this realm of non-obligatory permissions, people often have many and strong reasons to want people to adopt a variety of interests. A diversity of interests (a) reduces competition and, thus, reduces the numbers of people who lose out and have to settle for second best, and (b) allows us to fill available niches. A good example of an area where a diversity of interests is a good thing has to do with the choice of professions. Rather than having everybody want to be engineers and having some people settle for being teachers, doctors, and construction workers - there are things to be said about having some people want to be engineers, others want to be teachers, and still others wanting to be doctors or construction workers.

In contrast, in the realm of moral obligation and prohibition, people generally have reason to use praise and condemnation to promote a common desire or aversion. People generally have many and strong reasons to promote in every other person an aversion to lying, breaking promises, theft, vandalism, assault, rape, and murder. Thus, these are identifies as morally prohibited actions - actions that violate the "rights" of others.

We also have reason to promote an overall aversion to extreme selfishness, cruelty, and indifference to the suffering of others. To the degree that these traits are universal within a community, to that degree each of us is better off. We certainly are safer in a community where others will come to our aid in times of need and will take a step (particularly a step that costs them little) to provide us with the means to avoid a great deal of suffering.

These facts would put extreme selfishness and indifference into the "morally prohibited" category - the types of traits that people generally have reason to respond to with condemnation and punishment.

Now, according to desirism, it is not the case that everything that is wrong is prohibited or deserves violent punishment. Many common lies and the breaking of many promises are acts that a person with good desires would not perform. People generally have many and strong reasons to promote aversions to performing these types of actions. However, it is not practical to have every instance of lying or promise-breaking fall under the realm of the criminal law. It is simply more practical to leave these violations up to private condemnation - the types of punishment that may not be escalated to the point of violence. This capacity to escalate a conflict to violence is what distinguishes criminal wrongdoing from the types of wrongs that justify only private non-violent punishment.

Similarly, we have reason to have a right to freedom of speech that restricts the responses to wrongs committed with mere words. Violence or the threats of violence is not to be considered a legitimate response to mere words - even words that a person with good desires (and lacking bad desires) would not say.

Similarly, practical considerations may make it the case that it is not wise to respond to a lack of charity with criminal punishment. However, it is difficult to determine what those practical considerations would be. A great deal of good can be done by taking $1 million from somebody who has $1 billion and using it to feed for a day 100,000 people who do not have enough to eat. Clearly, those who do not have enough to eat - and those who care about those who do not have enough to eat - have reason to join in the condemnation and the punishment of the person with $1 billion who will not provide $1 million towards this end.

One of the arguments against this type of wealth transfer is that it violates a natural moral law. However, desirism denies that there is a natural moral law. There are only the desires and aversions of intentional agents. Some people have an aversion to the forced transfer of wealth. However, like with any desire or aversion, we must then ask the question of whether this is an aversion we have reason to promote universally. The mere existence of an aversion is not enough to justify the claim that there is a "natural moral law" prohibiting that to which one is adverse. A person's aversion to interracial marriage, for example, is not sufficient to argue that there is a natural moral law that prohibits interracial marriage.

Another libertarian argument that might be used against this forced transfer of wealth is a slippery slope argument that says that, once we permit these forced transfers of wealth from those who have billions to those who do not have enough to eat, we will not be able to stop it. Society will slide down a slippery slope to the point to where there is no actual production of wealth as people generally spend all of their time engineering the forced transfers of wealth from others, rather than producing new wealth that will be taken from them.

As with slippery slope objections generally, there is a question to be asked regarding just how slippery the slope really is. If one argues for "no killing except in self-defense", one could argue that this exception will start us down a slippery slope to the point where people end up killing each other any time they judge it useful to do so - that to prevent society from descending down this slippery slope we must prohibit all killing without exception.

Similarly, a person can claim that we must prohibit all lying because, if any lying is permitted then society will begin down a slippery slope to the point where all lying is permitted and people completely abandon the moral principle to tell the truth. Telling a child about Santa Claus, organizing a surprise birthday party, or saving a dying elderly parent in her last hours of life from the grief that her son had been killed in an automobile accident that morning, would all be morally condemned according to the slippery slope argument. We would also have to condemn the person who lied to the Nazi soldiers about the fact that she was hiding a family of Jews in her attic or to the enraged boyfriend that the girl he wants to murder has gone to her sister's house on 7th Street.

Clearly, we can have exceptions without slippery slopes. There is no reason to believe that we cannot have an exception to the prohibition to taking the property of others without their consent when it is done to take $1 million from somebody who has $1 billion and using it to feed 100,000 people for a day who would otherwise starve.

Neither the natural law objection nor the slippery slope objection argue against these redistributions of wealth. The former fails because natural moral laws do not exist - only the conventions that people have reason to adopt or reject exist. The latter fails because we can clearly have exceptions without a slippery slope.

There is nothing to stand in the way of a moral obligation to charity - one that can be forced by threatening violence against those who do not contribute a certain amount of their wealth to those who are in dire need.


Doug S. said...

Possibly stupid question: should the "words don't get responded to with force" rule also apply to libelous or fraudulent statements?(I'm assuming that fines and damages awarded in civil lawsuits are enforced by force.)

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Libel and slander laws provide another example of an exception that does not provide a slippery slope. Desirism tends to dislike moral absolutes. Nothing, actually, is good of bad without exception. The right to freedom of speech allows for exceptions for inciting violence and known false or unsupported statements that harm distinct individuals.