Right vs. Right

[Something I wrote a couple of months ago.]

While philosophers like Rand derive their politics (the theory of rights and their protection, rules governing relationships between people etc etc etc) from ethics, some derive it independently. That is, a “right” (right to life, property—that kind of right) doesn’t follow from a “right” (the opposite of wrong—an ethical judgment). Among the natural rights theorists who do that is Rothbard—he bases his politics on the self-ownership axiom, and rarely if ever concerns himself with ethics of the personal kind. (Both, however, rely on metaphysics when appealing to the “nature of man.”) And this is visible very clearly in the closing paragraphs of the fourth chapter of his “The Ethics of Liberty” where he writes-

We shall be speaking throughout this work of “rights,” in particular the rights of individuals to property in their persons and in material objects. But how do we define “rights”? “Right” has cogently and trenchantly been defined by Professor Sadowsky:

When we say that one has the right to do certain things we mean this and only this, that it would be immoral for another, alone or in combination, to stop him from doing this by the use of physical force or the threat thereof. We do not mean that any use a man makes of his property within the limits set forth is necessarily a moral use.

Sadowsky’s definition highlights the crucial distinction we shall make throughout this work between a man’s right and the morality or immorality of his exercise of that right. We will contend that it is a man’s right to do whatever he wishes with his person; it is his right not to be molested or interfered with by violence from exercising that right. But what may be the moral or immoral ways of exercising that right is a question of personal ethics rather than of political philosophy—which is concerned solely with matters of right, and of the proper or improper exercise of physical violence in human relations. The importance of this crucial distinction cannot be overemphasized. Or, as Elisha Hurlbut concisely put it: “The exercise of a faculty [by an individual] is its only use. The manner of its exercise is one thing; that involves a question of morals. The right to its exercise is another thing.

This independence is interesting for a couple of reasons, one of them being the necessity of the State. The Mises blog has this piece by F.A. Harper-

Do you enjoy riddles? This one challenges many students of liberty. Once we see the problem, lack of a solution will bedevil us until we can solve it logically to the satisfaction of our own conscience.

We want to answer this question: To what extent should politicians be enthroned to rule affairs in our daily lives? What should be the proper domain of political rulership—that is, government?

It would seem at first glance that the principle by which many answer is simple and easy to grasp: “People should be ruled only to the extent they are evil.” That is, they say, only evil acts should be restrained; good acts should be unrestrained, for men should be free to engage in all that is good. Seemingly easy, isn’t it?

But we should ask the next logical question: What precisely is good and what is evil? Only after we answer that will the political domain have been staked out with markers we can really see, should we accept the above seemingly simple guide. But that is not the question I want to pose here. I want, instead, to focus attention on a political paradox in the preceding question, for which an answer seemed so simple.

The Riddle
To see the paradox clearly, let us look at good and evil in their pure forms, as a chemist deals with elements before he deals with complex compounds. Let us first look at a society that is wholly good, and then at one that is wholly evil.

A society of wholly good men calls for no political rulership whatsoever. For there surely is no need of ruling men who are made in the complete image of God, as all of these would be. Political rulership has no tenure of office in Heaven. Since evil acts wouldn’t exist in such a society, control by government is neither called for nor proper. No man should control any other man to any extent. All would enjoy complete freedom, unrestrained. Only in another society where evil has entered the scene is any government deemed necessary, by this simple theory that government is a necessary evil to cope with the evil in man.

Where, How, and Why?
Now consider as the other extreme a society in which every man is wholly evil. Still using the same principle that political rulership should be employed to the extent of the evil in man, we would then have a society in which complete political rulership of all the affairs of everybody would be called for—a totalitarian dictatorship in the extreme. One man would rule all. But who would serve as the dictator? However he were to be selected and affixed to the political throne, he would surely be a totally evil person since all men are evil. And this society would then be ruled by a totally evil dictator possessed of unlimited political power. And how, in the name of logic, could anything short of total evil be its consequence? How could it be any better than having no political rulership at all in that society?

Here we see the political paradox I would pose: When society is viewed in terms of the two pure patterns in a moral sense—good and evil—we find that political rulership becomes either totally unnecessary or totally ineffective.

As people in society progress toward “good,” government becomes less and less necessary. As people in society progress toward “evil,” government becomes less and less effective.

Then at what point does government become most necessary and most effective? Why at this point and no other?

Does it make sense to say that when good and evil are compounded in society, political rulership comes to attain a virtue denied to it otherwise? Can one man make another man good by force at some precise point of a mixture of good and evil? At what precise point? How and why?

Fichte had a similar idea. From Copleston-

In his opinion the theory of rights and of political society could be, and ought to be, deduced independently of the deduction of the principles of morality. This does not mean that Fichte thought of the two branches of philosophy as having no connection at all with each other. For one thing the two deductions possess a common root in the concept of the self as striving and as free activity. For another thing the system of rights and political society provides a field of application for the moral law. But it was Fichte’s opinion that his field is external to morality, in the sense that it is not a deduction from the fundamental ethical principle but a framework within which, and in regard to which, the moral law can be applied. For example, man can have moral duties towards the State and the State should bring about those conditions in which the moral life can develop. But the State itself is deduced as a hypothetically necessary contrivance or means to guard and protect the system of rights. If man’s moral nature were fully developed, the State would wither away. Again, though the right of private property receives from ethics what Fichte calls a further sanction, its initial deduction is supposed to be independent of ethics.

One main reason why Fichte makes this distinction between the theory of rights and political theory on the one hand and ethics on the other is that he looks on ethics as concerned with interior morality, with conscience and the formal principle of morality, whereas the theory of rights and of political society is concerned with the external relations between human beings. Further, if the comment is made that the doctrine of rights can be regarded as applied ethics, in the sense that it is deducible as an application of the moral law, Fichte refuses to admit the truth of this contention. The fact that I have a right does not necessarily mean that I am under an obligation to exercise it. And the common good may demand on occasion a curtailment of or limitation on the exercise of rights. But the moral law is categorical: it simply says, ‘Do this’ or ‘Do not do that’. Hence the system of rights is not deducible from the moral law, though we are, of course, morally obliged to respect the system of rights as established in a community. In this sense the moral law adds a further sanction to rights, but it is not their initial source.

That one does not have any “obligations” towards the State hardly needs to be said. If I could point to the one statement, more than any other, uttered in the 20th century that I consider to be evil, monstrous, it would not be anything said by Hitler, or Stalin, or Mao; they were totalitarians, and admitted as much through their words and actions. The statement is JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you…”* An openly totalitarian person is much easier to deal with than a closeted one.

*Update: Er … fixed the goof up. If JFK had said what I attributed to him, I wouldn’t have labeled it evil.

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