A Moralist’s Moral Blindness

Bryan Caplan restates his version of the Golden Rule, which is that “we” ought to be treated just as “we” would treat others. (My take on Caplan’s earlier post is here.) Much as I like the Golden Rule, for its civilizing influence on humans, I am not a simple-minded moralist like Caplan and other libertarian purists.

Caplan objects to the “double standard” by which Americans, for example, would praise the killing of enemy civilians, were it a necessary act of war, but condemn the killing of 3,000 Americans by an enemy who proclaims his act necessary in the service of some objective. I wonder if Caplan would object to the “double standard” when faced with the prospect of his children being among the 3,000 Americans killed.

The Golden Rule also is known as the ethic of reciprocity, and for a good reason. For the Golden Rule to operate effectively, it must be accompanied by a reasonable expectation that your mundane acts of self-restraint and helpfulness will be returned in kind by persons whose lives touch yours, or with whom you share a bond of kinship or culture.

The Golden Rule simply doesn’t operate very well across personal, familial, or cultural boundaries, Caplan’s wishful thinking to the contrary. (Consider, for example, the rudeness that often prevails in anonymous encounters over the internet and on the highway.) And there is no inherent reason that the Golden Rule should operate well across those boundaries, just because Caplan (or any other intellectual) asserts that it should. Who died and left him (and his ilk) in charge?

There are other moral considerations at work, aside from reciprocity. One of them, which I discussed in my previous post, is the ethic of mutual defense:

[W]ho better to help you defend yourself than the people with whom you share space, be it a neighborhood, a city-state, a principality, or even a vast nation? As a member of one or the other, you may be targeted for harm by outsiders who wish to seize your land and control your wealth, or who simply dislike your way of life, even if it does them no harm.

If, like Caplan, you are willing to allow an enemy to obliterate some of your fellow citizens because you have obliterated some enemy citizens, you are not to be trusted. You might as well be an enemy.

More generally, Caplan’s moral blindness betrays his Rationalism. As Michael Oakeshott explains,

the Rationalist never doubts the power of his ‘reason … to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a ‘reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration….

… And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. (“Rationalism in Politics,” pp. 5-7, as republished in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays)

Thomas Sowell puts it this way:

One of the things intellectuals [his Rationalists] have been doing for a long time is loosening the bonds that hold a society [or a nation] together. They have sought to replace the groups into which people have sorted themselves with groupings created and imposed by the intelligentsia. Ties of family, religion, and patriotism, for example, have long been treated as suspect or detrimental by the intelligentsia….

Under the influence of the intelligentsia, we have become a society that rewards people with admiration for violating its own norms and for fragmenting that society into jarring segments. In addition to explicit denigrations of their own society for its history or current shortcomings, intellectuals often set up standards for their society which no society has ever met or is likely to meet.

Calling those standards “social justice” enables intellectuals to engage in endless complaints about the particular ways in which society fails to meet their arbitrary criteria, along with a parade of groups entitled to a sense of grievance, exemplified in the “race, class and gender” formula…. (Intellectuals and Society, pp. 303, 305)

Sowell’s attack is aimed at left-wing intellectuals, but it could just as well be aimed at libertarian purists like Caplan and his ilk.