The Shallowness of Secular Ethical Systems

This post is prompted by a recent offering from Irfan Khawaja, who styles himself an ex-libertarian and tries to explain his apostasy. Khawaja abandoned libertarianism (or his version of it) because it implies a stance toward government spending that isn’t consistent with the desideratum of another ethical system.

Rather than get bogged down in the details of Khawaja’s dilemma, I will merely point out what should be obvious to him (and to millions of other true believers in this or that ethical system): Any system that optimizes on a particular desideratum (e.g., minimal coercion, maximum “social” welfare by some standard) will clash with at least one other system that optimizes a different desideratum.

Further, the various desiderata usually are overly broad. And when the desiderata are defined narrowly, what emerges is not a single, refined desideratum but two or more. Which means that there are more ethical systems and more opportunities for clashes between systems. Those clashes sometimes occur between systems that claim to optimize on the same (broad) desideratum. (I will later take up an example.)

What are the broad and refined desiderata of various ethical systems? The following list is a start, though it is surely incomplete:

  • Liberty

Freedom from all restraint

Freedom from governmental restraint

Freedom to do as one chooses, consistent with traditional social norms (some of which may be enforced by government)

Freedom to do as one chooses, regardless of one’s endowment of intelligence, talent, effort, wealth, etc.

  • Equality

Equal treatment under the law

Economic equality, regardless of one’s intelligence, talent, effort, wealth, etc.

Economic and social equality, regardless of one’s intelligence, talent, effort, wealth, etc.

  • Democracy

Participation in governmental decisions through the election of officials whose powers are limited to those deemed necessary to provide for the defense of innocent citizens from force and fraud

Participation in governmental decisions through the election of officials who have the power to bring about economic and social equality

Governmental outcomes that enact the “will of the people” (i.e., the desiderata of each group that propounds this kind of democracy)

  • Human welfare

The maximization of the sum of all human happiness, perhaps with some lower limit on the amount of happiness enjoyed by those least able to provide for themselves

The maximization of the sum of all human happiness, as above, but only with respect to specific phenomena viewed as threats (e.g., “climate change”, “overpopulation”, resource depletion)

  • Animal welfare (including but far from limited to human welfare)

Special protections for animals to prevent their mistreatment

Legal recognition of animals (or some of them) as “persons” with the same legal rights as human beings

No use of animals to satisfy human wants (e.g., food, clothing, shelter)

It would be pedantic of me to explain the many irreconcilable clashes between the main headings, between the subsidiary interpretations under each main heading, and between the subsidiary interpretations under the various main headings. They should be obvious to you.

But I will show that even a subsidiary interpretation of a broad desideratum can be rife with internal inconsistencies. Bear with me while I entertain you with a few examples, based on Khawaja’s dilemma — the conflict between his versions of welfarism and libertarianism.

Welfarism, according to Khawaja, means that a government policy, or a change in government policy, should result in no net loss of lives. This implies that that it is all right if X lives are lost, as long as Y lives are gained, where Y is greater than X. Which is utilitarianism on steroids — or, in the words of Jeremy Bentham (the godfather of utilitarianism), nonsense upon stilts (Bentham’s summary dismissal of the doctrine of natural rights). To see why, consider that the blogger’s desideratum could be accomplished by a ruthless dictator who kills people by the millions, while requiring those spared to procreate at a rate much higher than normal. Nirvana (not!).

A broader approach to welfare, and one that is more commonly adopted, is an appeal to the (fictional) social-welfare function. I have written about it many times. All I need do here, by way of dismissal, is to summarize it metaphorically: Sam obtains great pleasure from harming other people. And if Sam punches Joe in the nose, humanity is better off (that is, social welfare is increased) if Sam’s pleasure exceeds Joe’s pain. It should take you a nanosecond to understand why that is nonsense upon stilts.

In case it took you longer than a nanosecond, here’s the nonsense: How does one measure the pleasure and pain of disparate persons? How does one then sum those (impossible) measurements?

More prosaically: If you are Joe, and not a masochist, do you really believe that Sam’s pleasure somehow cancels your pain or compensates for it in the grand scheme of things? Do you really believe that there is a scoreboard in the sky that keeps track of such things? If your answer to both questions is “no”, you should ask yourself what gives anyone the wisdom to decree that Sam’s punch causes an increase in social welfare. The philosopher’s PhD? You were punched in the nose. You know that Sam’s pleasure doesn’t cancel or compensate for your pain. The philosopher (or politician or economist) who claims (or implies) that there is a social-welfare function is either a fool (the philosopher or economist) or a charlatan (the politician).

I turn now to libertarianism, which almost defies analysis because of its manifold variations and internal contradictions (some of which I will illustrate). But Khawaja’s account of it as a prohibition on the initiation of force (the non-aggression principle, a.k.a. the harm principle) is a good entry point. It is clear that Khawaja understands force to include government coercion of taxpayers to fund government programs. That’s an easy one for most libertarians, but Khawaja balks because the prohibition of government coercion might mean the curtailment of government programs that save lives. (Khawaja thus reveals himself to have been a consequentialist libertarian, that is, one who favors liberty because of its expected results, not necessarily because it represents a moral imperative. This is yet another fault line within libertarianism, but I won’t explore it here.)

Khawaja cites the example of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) program that might cure cystic fibrosis or alleviate its symptoms. But Khawaja neglects the crucial matter of opportunity cost (a strange omission for a consequentialist). Those whose taxes fund government programs usually aren’t those who benefit from them. Taxpayers have other uses for their money, including investments in scientific and technological advances that improve and lengthen life. The NIH (for one) has no monopoly on life-saving and life-enhancing research. To put it succinctly, Khawaja has fallen into the intellectual trap described by Frédéric Bastiat, which is to focus on that which is seen (the particular benefits of government programs) and to ignore the unseen (the things that could be done instead through private action, including — not trivially — the satisfaction of personal wants). When the problem is viewed in that way, most libertarians would scoff at Khawaja’s narrow view of libertarianism.

Here’s a tougher issue for libertarians (the extreme pacifists among them excluded): Does the prohibition on the initiation of force extend to preemptive self-defense against an armed thug who is clearly bent on doing harm? If it does, then libertarianism is unadulterated hogwash.

Let’s grant that libertarianism allows for preemptive self-defense, where the potential victim (or his agent) is at liberty to decide whether preemption is warranted by the threat. Let’s grant, further, that the right of preemptive self-defense includes the right to be prepared for self-defense, because there is always the possibility of a sudden attack by a thug, armed robber, or deranged person. Thus the right to bear arms at all times, and in all places should be unrestricted (unabridged, in the language of the Second Amendment).

Along comes Nervous Nellie, who claims that the sight of all of those armed people around her makes her fear for her life. But instead of arming herself, Nellie petitions government for the confiscation of all firearms from private persons. The granting of Nellie’s petition would constrain the ability of others to defend themselves against (a) private persons who hide their firearms successfully; (b) private persons who resort to other lethal means of attacking other persons, and (c) armed government agents who abuse their power.

The resulting dilemma can’t be resolved by appeal to the non-aggression principle. The principle is violated if the right of self-defense is violated, and (some would argue) it is also violated if Nellie lives in fear for her life because the right of self-defense is upheld.

Moreover, the ability of government to decide whether persons may be armed — indeed, the very existence of government — violates the non-aggression principle. But without government the non-aggression principle may be violated more often.

Thus we see more conflicts, all of which take place wholly within the confines of libertarianism, broadly understood.

The examples could go on an on, but enough is enough. The point is that ethical systems that seek to optimize on a single desideratum, however refined and qualified it might be, inevitably clash with other ethical systems. Those clashes illustrate Kurt Gödel‘s incompleteness theorems:

Gödel’s incompleteness theorems are two theorems of mathematical logic that demonstrate the inherent limitations of every formal axiomatic system capable of modelling basic arithmetic….

The first incompleteness theorem states that no consistent system of axioms whose theorems can be listed by an effective procedure (i.e., an algorithm) is capable of proving all truths about the arithmetic of natural numbers. For any such consistent formal system, there will always be statements about natural numbers that are true, but that are unprovable within the system. The second incompleteness theorem, an extension of the first, shows that the system cannot demonstrate its own consistency.

There is the view that Gödel’s theorems aren’t applicable in fields outside of mathematical logic. But any quest for ethical certainties necessarily involves logic, however flawed it might be.

Persons who devise and purvey ethical systems, assuming their good intentions (often a bad assumption), are simply fixated on particular aspects of human behavior rather than taking it whole. (They cannot see the forest because they are crawling on the ground, inspecting tree roots.)

Given such myopia, you might wonder how humanity manages to coexist cooperatively and peacefully as much as it does. Yes, there are many places on the globe where conflict is occasioned by what could be called differences of opinion about ultimate desiderata (including religious ones). But most human beings (though a shrinking majority, I fear) don’t give a hoot about optimizing on a particular desideratum. That is to say, most human beings aren’t fanatical about a particular cause or belief. And even when they are, they mostly live among like persons or keep their views to themselves and do at least the minimum that is required to live in peace with those around them.

It is the same for persons who are less fixated (or not at all) on a particular cause or belief. Daily life, with its challenges and occasional pleasures, is enough for them. In the United States, at least, fanaticism seems to be confined mainly to capitalism’s spoiled children (of all ages), whether they be ultra-rich “socialists”, affluent never-Trumpers, faux-scientists and their acolytes who foresee a climatic apocalypse, subsidized students (e.g., this lot), and multitudes of other arrant knights (and dames) errant.

Atheists are fond of saying that religion is evil because it spawns hatred and violence. Such sentiments would be met with bitter laughter from the hundreds of millions of victims of atheistic communism, were not most of them dead or still captive to the ethical system known variously as socialism and communism, which promises social and economic equality but delivers social repression and economic want. Religion (in the West, at least) is a key facet of liberty.

Which brings me to the point of this essay. When I use “liberty” I don’t mean the sterile desideratum of so-called libertarians (who can’t agree among themselves about its meaning or prerequisites). What I mean is the mundane business of living among others, getting along with them (or ignoring them, if that proves best), treating them with respect or forbearance, and observing the norms of behavior that will cause them to treat you with respect or forbearance.

It is that — and not the fanatical (unto hysterical) rallying around the various desiderata of cramped ethical systems — which makes for social comity and economic progress. The problem with silver bullets (Dr. Ehrlich’s “magic” one being a notable exception) is that they ricochet, causing more harm than good — often nothing but harm, even to those whom they are meant to help.


Related pages and posts:

Climate Change
Economic Growth Since World War II
Leftism
Modeling and Science
Social Norms and Liberty

On Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Democracy and Liberty
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Fascism and the Future of America
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Accountants of the Soul
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Why Conservatism Works
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Defining Liberty
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Modern Liberalism as Wishful Thinking
Getting Liberty Wrong
Romanticizing the State
Libertarianism and the State
My View of Libertarianism
The Principles of Actionable Harm
More About Social Norms and Liberty
Superiority
The War on Conservatism
Old America, New America, and Anarchy
The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote
Society, Polarization, and Dissent
Social Justice vs. Liberty
The Left and “the People”
The Harm Principle Revisited: Mill Conflates Society and State
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined
Natural Law, Natural Rights, and the Real World
Natural Law and Natural Rights Revisited
Libertarianism, Conservatism, and Political Correctness
My View of Mill, Endorsed
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and Leviathan
Suicide or Destiny?
O.J.’s Glove and the Enlightenment
James Burnham’s Misplaced Optimism
True Populism
Libertarianism’s Fatal Flaw
The Golden Rule and Social Norms
The Left-Libertarian Axis
Rooted in the Real World of Real People
Consequentialism
Conservatism, Society, and the End of America
Conservatism vs. Leftism and “Libertarianism” on the Moral Dimension
Free Markets and Democracy
“Libertarianism”, the Autism Spectrum, and Ayn Rand
Tragic Capitalism
A Paradox for Liberals
Rawls vs. Reality
The Subtle Authoritarianism of the “Liberal Order”
Liberty: Constitutional Obligations and the Role of Religion
Society, Culture, and America’s Future