Morality: Open Question


Very simple question.

Is the morality of the individual the same as the morality of the State?

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8 comments
  1. As a practical matter, no.

    See, e.g., war and deficit spending in unusual economic crises like the current one.

    Whether it should be… I am inclined to think not, because a government can enact a policy meant to apply to a million or 300 million people that might have some negative impact in some circumstances, whereas an individual can strive to make all around him better off.

    May I ask what the practical implications of this discussion might be? I could of course be overlooking something, but I am, at first glance, unconvinced that a new conclusion on this question would lead me to a different opinion about, say, intervention in WWII or the desirability of a cap-and-trade system to restrict pollution. (Even if that’s true, it wouldn’t mean that this discussion isn’t at all worth having, of course).

    • pino said:

      As a practical matter, no.

      I tend to agree. Exactly to your point; the government does things that we wouldn’t expect from individuals.

      May I ask what the practical implications of this discussion might be?

      Well, the one most recent is the death penalty. I’ve mentioned that I’m against it, but only because we misapply it. For example, minorities are more exposed to that punishment than white folks. Further, the poor are targeted disproportionately as well. And don’t even get me started about the fact that we send innocent men to die!

      However, in theory, I would support the death penalty.

      I don’t think that a state is “immoral” when taking this action. An individual citizen, yes, but a State? I don’t think so.

      The larger issue concerns the State’s role in poverty and retirement and healthcare.

      I’m convinced that it is incumbent upon individuals to care for the poorest among us. The sick and aged as well. However, I don’t think that moral “requirement” exists in the realm of the State. Rather, the State’s role is to make sure that we are all treated fairly under the law. So, while it may be immoral for me to ignore the cries of the hungry child, it may not be immoral for the state to do the same.

      This whole thing started as folks try and bring the Christian Jesus into the equation as it pertains to poverty programs, social security and health care. I don’t find the two equivalent.

      I’m anxious to hear your thoughts.

      • I am very much on board with your point about the death penalty. I’m frankly uninterested in the “does a person forfeit their right to live by killing someone” question, because I have the same answer as you to the question, “can we count on eyewitness testimony and the incentives of police and prosecutors to be so sure we’re right about a verdict that we can execute someone?”

        I’m convinced that it is incumbent upon individuals to care for the poorest among us. The sick and aged as well. However, I don’t think that moral “requirement” exists in the realm of the State. Rather, the State’s role is to make sure that we are all treated fairly under the law.

        Here too, I am uninterested in abstract arguments about requirements of the State. (Again, I could be wrong to be uninterested, and even if I’m right, it doesn’t make this a wasted conversation). What we’ve seen is, states wind up ameliorating poverty for the worst off and elderly among them, because states can do the job more comprehensively than private charities. That is what the private charities who lobbied for such structures argued back as they were created. We came to the conclusion as a society that we were wealthy enough not to have our elderly die homeless in the streets. It’s a moral argument, but more so a practical argument.

        This whole thing started as folks try and bring the Christian Jesus into the equation as it pertains to poverty programs, social security and health care.

        I am unaware of historical evidence to support that assertion. Also note that wealthy non-Christian countries, like Korea and Japan, have anti-poverty programs as well, because they’ve had the same experience as the US.

      • pino said:

        We agree, death penalty sucks.

        What we’ve seen is, states wind up ameliorating poverty for the worst off and elderly among them, because states can do the job more comprehensively than private charities.

        I’m not so sure.

        Our programs don’t emulate the lessons we give to our children. Namely, get up early, study hard, get a job–or two, and go to bed early. I honestly feel that government programs perpetuate poverty, not reduce it.

        I am unaware of historical evidence to support that assertion.

        Nah. It’s more to do with my social networking friends kinda stuff. That Colbert billboard about Jesus and others that say, “Obama’s not a brown skinned socialist who wants to give away healthcare. You’re thinking of Jesus.”

        The idea that because I believe in Diety and yet don’t believe in massive government involvement should be seen as contradictory.

      • I honestly feel that government programs perpetuate poverty, not reduce it.

        Again, I’m unaware of evidence showing this to be true. For that to be true, we’d have to see poverty increase after the enacting of Social Security, of Medicare, of the Great Society. I don’t think that’s been the case. Now, it’s certainly theoretically possible that folks who were already in poverty have been “trapped” there by assistance… obviously that’d be tough to prove, but it’s a theoretical possibility.

        It’s more to do with my social networking friends kinda stuff.

        Obviously a person can, in good faith, believe in the truth of Christianity and the teachings of Jesus, and, at the same time, think that social programs affiliated with the government are an ineffective means of pursuing those goals. But those billboards and whatnot are just talking points, everyone has ’em, can’t let it distract from the empirical question of how these programs came to be, in the US & elsewhere, and what their impact has been.

  2. pino said:

    For that to be true, we’d have to see poverty increase after the enacting of Social Security, of Medicare, of the Great Society. I don’t think that’s been the case.

    See this chart courtesy of Dan Mitchell –Careful, he is of Cato blood!

    • Nice work– that is an interesting chart.

      I grew up having thought that the Great Society was just ineffective… then recall seeing that poverty rates in the 1960s really tumbled. I’d want to see more about the issue, and read a few different arguments on the experience of the US & other countries, but that’s definitely an interesting chart.

      I definitely am suspicious of Cato– they tend to lie a lot, and they come from the perspective of “I don’t like the government” rather than “how can we best solve problems”– but I don’t imagine they’d just make up data, either.

      • pino said:

        I grew up having thought that the Great Society was just ineffective… then recall seeing that poverty rates in the 1960s really tumbled.

        There will always be the bottom 10-15%. The cynic in me says that some of us NEED people to be “poor”. On the other hand, it’s hard to argue that someone is poor when they have a cell phone or satellite TV.

        I definitely am suspicious of Cato– they tend to lie a lot,

        Don’t worry, I’m suspicious of groups that say things I don’t believe as well 😉

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