Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ethics Part 2 - Rights and Responsibilities

If you haven't read Ethics Part 1 - The Non-Aggression Principle, I recommend doing so before reading this.

The Non-Aggression Principle is, arguably, the most basic ethical statement anyone can make. Any sane ethical system starts with this simple idea that using violence to get your way is wrong. However, for many people who understand the NAP, this seems to be where it stops. I have even heard statements to the effect that the NAP should be the only law in existence. I take issue with this notion.

Please, don't construe anything I'm about to say as an attack on the NAP. I'm not saying that the NAP is flawed or inadequate, because it isn't. But it can be taken out of context, twisted, and abused until it has been turned entirely on its head. I have even witnessed the NAP be used by certain idiots as a justification for violence against entire groups of people, in the name of 'defense'. I have also heard statements like "I owe you nothing, except non-aggression", and have encountered people who are so fiercely individualistic that they would say it's okay (or at least, there should be no forced consequence) to knowingly letting someone starve to death on their doorstep, when they themselves have abundance.

Again, this is not a problem with the NAP. This is a problem with crappy, narrow-minded thinking. To understand the NAP, you must understand some other basic principles as well. Without them, serious problems can come up when applying the NAP to real life. Let me propose a dilemma to illustrate:

Let's say a man is lost in the desert. He has no food and no water, and the sun is beating down on him. Without finding water soon, he will die of thirst. The only things he has in his possession are the clothes on his back and a loaded gun. He happens upon a vendor selling water, but the vendor is charging $10,000 per bottle. The man has no money, and the vendor will not take anything he has in exchange for the water. He only accepts cash. There is no other water to be had in a hundred mile radius. This creates an ethical problem for the thirsty man. Either he uses his gun and initiates violence against the vendor and take his water by force, or he dies. He must choose between acting ethically and forfeiting his life, or preserving his life and making himself a criminal. And for argument's sake, we will say that he has done nothing negligent or stupid to end up in his situation, life has simply thrown it at him despite his best preparations. So, what should he do?

Most of you, I suspect, would say he is perfectly justified in taking the water by force, up to and including the use of deadly force if necessary. Or, at least, you would excuse him if he did so. But, why? The only way, according to the NAP, that such a use of force could be justified is if it is a defensive act. So if we say that this is a justified use of force, then we must conclude that it was a defensive act. And if it is a defensive act, we must conclude that the vendor acted aggressively – that is, his refusal to give the man water or to sell it at a reasonable cost was a violent and aggressive act.

But how can that be? The water didn't belong to the thirsty man, it belonged to the vendor. He pumped it out of his own well, on his own property, using his own resources. He bottled it with bottles he bought himself, with money he earned himself. He loaded it into his own truck by his own effort and drove through the burning hot desert using fuel he bought with his own money. He doesn't owe anyone anything, does he? And if it weren't for his efforts the water wouldn't have been available at all. The product wouldn't have existed where it was needed. Yet many of us just justified killing him, and called it a defensive act. I've heard this same dilemma used before to try and discredit the NAP. Does it really show that the NAP is inadequate or inconsistent?

Hardly. Rather, it shows us that there are other consistent principles at work. A helium balloon floating into the sky does not disprove gravity, it merely proves buoyancy. And, gravity and buoyancy do not contradict one another, but rather they complement one another. And in the same way, the Rights-Responsibilities Duality complements and balances the Non-Aggression Principle.

What I call the Rights-Responsibilities Duality is the basic idea that for every right exercised there is also an equal personal responsibility that accompanies it. Or, as Spiderman's Uncle Ben put it, "With great power comes great responsibility."

We don't live in a vacuum. What we do affects other people, directly or indirectly, whether we intend for it to or not. We live in a universe where energy is a conserved value. In any given system at any given point in time it is finite. A world where the only types of human interaction are voluntary is unrealistic, even where everyone follows the NAP, because, unless the population density is incredibly low, human interaction is inevitable. What we do will always affect other people, for better or worse. And to exercise our rights in a way which inhibits others from exercising theirs is wrong.

Everything that we have was given to us. Either at the moment of our conception, during our development in the womb, or some time afterwards – even those things which we have earned through work were ultimately earned using energy which was given to us. We cannot claim that we have the right to receive from the universe those things which we need to survive. We can’t claim things like food, water, shelter, and medical care as rights. If we did, the universe would simply laugh at us and keep going on as it always has, regardless of what the little hairless talking apes on the tiny speck of a plant say, and we would get what we would get.

But it is the right of every person to seek those things out which they need or want. And it is our responsibility not to inhibit others from doing this, say, by hoarding resources to make them inaccessible to others. This is not a 'collective responsibility' that necessitates a massive centralized regulatory system, forced taxation, and entitlement programs. It is an individual responsibility for which we are individually accountable, though one can certainly argue that it is more efficient to carry it out as a (voluntary) collective effort. And the degree to which we carry this responsibility depends on how we exercise our rights, that is, how we influence the world around us and what resources are available to us. It also depends on what falls within our reach to do. To whom much has been given much should be expected, and to whom little has been given little should be expected. But, failure at this responsibility is negligence, which is violence, and should be dealt with accordingly.

There is a little more to it than this. For instance, it would be easy to surmise that we also have a responsibility to those who can't meaningfully exercise their rights to seek after what they need, such as the physically or mentally disabled, the mentally ill, children, and the elderly and infirm. Some might also say that we have a responsibility not to commit things like animal cruelty, which causes undue suffering on creatures that can clearly experience suffering. I would be inclined to agree with both of these statements. But before we can get much further down that rabbit hole, we need to understand a bit more about rights, what they are, and where they come from. And that deserves its own article, and a few other things should be addressed before that happens.

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