Thursday, February 09, 2012

Morals, Ethics, Law, and Force

Some folks have a particular problem of reasoning, that makes them do something I (and other libertarian types), find quite irritating.

There are three sets of "rules" for life if you will:

  • Morals
  • Ethics
  • Laws

Morals are those things which are right or wrong, because your conscience tells you so. They are internal to the self (though they of course may be built on, and guided by, the teaching and precepts of others; morals are by their nature, internal).

Ethics are the rules that are set before you by an organization or entity, to which you belong; but which are not subject to coercive force. Rules of professional conduct for example.

Laws are the rules which are set forth by a state (or other governmental entity), and which are enforced with the coercive force of the state; up to and including physical restraint and violence.

The problem I'm speaking of is the foundation for the most dangerous words in any language "there ought to be a law".

A lot of folks... probably just about everyone, on some subjects at some time in their life... have a problem confusing that which is or should be legal or illegal, with what is or should be ethical or unethical, or what is or should be moral or immoral.

This is a reasonable thing to be confused about. In a free society, that which is illegal should be illegal because it is either immoral or unethical; malum in se, it is bad because it is bad.

All too often though, things are illegal simply because they are illegal; malum prohibitum, it is bad because it is prohibited.

Taking this precept, the people who have this problem I find so irritating, then extend it further, to its inverse. They believe that which is immoral, or unethical, should also be illegal.

That doesn't necessary follow.

Yes, anything illegal should be immoral or unethical (or both); but not everything immoral or unethical should be illegal. Only those things where the coercive force of the state is absolutely required to correct or protect, should have the force of law behind them.

For example, most personal behavior which is immoral or unethical, should not be subject to the coercive force of the state. Infidelity is a matter between you and your partner, not you, your partner, and the state.

Unfortunately, for many, this impulse is uncontrollably strong. They simply cannot accept that what they believe to be immoral or unethical behavior, can be allowed to happen; and in their world view, we must use the coercive force of the state to stop it.

I simply cannot abide this view.

It is, in all seriousness, dangerous.

Giving the state the power to prohibit anything someone believes is immoral, would be disastrous to liberty. Who is the arbiter? Certainly not the majority, who are more tyrannical than any dictator. Certainly not an elect few. No-one has the wisdom, never mind the authority, to make such decisions, and any attempt to do so is tyranny of the highest order.

We must simply accept, that people will behave badly, illegal or not. They will do and say things we find disgusting, or reprehensible. We are not required to put up with them doing so around us, we can exclude them from our lives and our property (I'm all for shunning and exile); but we can't bring the coercive force of the state to bear on them.

That's the ugly side of liberty. Believing in liberty, means believing in liberty for everyone, even the immoral, and the unethical.