Wednesday, Feb 08, 2012
One can choose not to pay a fine, one can choose to drive without a license, and one can even choose not to walk to a police car to be taken away. But one cannot choose not to be subjected to physical force if the agents of the state decide to impose it.
Thus, a crucial element of the legal system–in a sense, the basis of the legal system–is intentional, harmful coercion. To justify a law, one must justify imposition of that law on the population through a threat of harm, including the coercive imposition of actual harm on those who are caught violating the law. In common sense morality, the threat or actual coercive imposition of harm is normally wrong, other things being equal, and such actions require a special justification. This may be because of the way in which coercion disrespects persons, seeking to bypass their reason and manipulate them through fear, or the way in which it seems to deny the autonomy and equality of other persons.
The central concern is the evaluation of our moral attitudes toward government: Are governments really ethically entitled to do the things we usually take them to be entitled to do? Are we really ethically obligated to obey governments in the ways we usually take ourselves to be obligated?
Questions of this kind are notoriously difficult. How should we approach them? One approach would be to start from some comprehensive moral theory–say, utilitarianism, or Kantian deontology–and attempt to deduce from the theory the appropriate conclusions about political rights and obligations. I, unfortunately, cannot do this. I cannot do it because I do not know the correct general moral theory, and I don’t think anyone else does either. The reasons for my skepticism are difficult to communicate and will not be adequately communicated here. They derive from reflection on the problems of moral philosophy and on the complex, confusing, and constantly disputed literature about those problems. They derive from the experience of seeing one theory after another run into a morass of puzzles and problems, and seeing this morass become ever more complicated as more philosophers work on it. I do not see any way to bring a reader to the state of skepticism about moral theory that I consider appropriate, apart from asking the reader to delve into that literature himself. Here, then, I shall simply announce that I will not assume any comprehensive moral theory, and I think we should be very skeptical of any attempt to arrive at sound conclusions in political philosophy by starting from such a general theory. Nor, for similar reasons, do I start by assuming any general political theory (though I hope to arrive at a political theory in the end).
What is the alternative? I aim to start from moral claims that are, initially, relatively uncontroversial. This seems an obvious plan. Political philosophy is a difficult field. If we hope to make progress, we cannot start reasoning from a contentious moral theory; still less can we begin by assuming a contentious political ideology. Our premises should be things that, for example, both liberals and conservatives would typically find obvious at first glance. We must then attempt to reason from these premises to conclusions about the contested questions that interest us. The process will no doubt be more difficult and more involved than this simple description makes it sound; nevertheless, surely this is the correct general approach. Yet, natural as it may seem, this approach is seldom taken up.
Some philosophers believe that in doing moral philosophy, one should rely only upon abstract ethical principles, refusing to trust intuitive ethical judgments about specific cases. Others believe, more or less, that only judgments about particular cases should be relied upon. Still others think that no ethical judgments can be relied upon, and that there is no moral knowledge. All of those views strike me as wrong. What seems right is that controversial ethical judgments tend to be unreliable, whereas obvious, uncontroversial ethical judgments–whether specific or general–tend to be reliable. As to those who believe there is no moral knowledge, I cannot take time to address their position in this book; for present purposes, I shall assume that we have moral knowledge, and that our clearest, most widely-shared ethical judgments are instances of such knowledge.
In contemporary political discourse, there is a vocal minority who advocate drastic reductions in the size of government. Often, they defend their views in practical terms (government programs don’t work) or in terms of absolutist claims about individual rights. But these arguments are not the main issue. I believe the true, underlying motivation is a broad skepticism about political authority: at bottom, the advocates of smaller government simply do not see why the government should be permitted to do things that no one else would be permitted to do. Even if you do not share this skeptical attitude, I would caution against simply dismissing the intuitions of those with differing ideologies. Human beings are highly fallible in political philosophy, and clashes of intuitions are frequent. If we wish to be objective, we must each give serious consideration to the possibility that it is we who have the mistaken intuitions.
My political philosophy is a form of anarchism. In my experience, most people appear to be convinced that anarchism is obvious nonsense, an idea that can be refuted inside of 30 seconds with minimal reflection. This was roughly my attitude, before I knew anything about the theory. And it is also my experience that those who harbor this attitude have no idea what anarchists actually think–how anarchists think society should function or how they respond to the 30-second objections. Anarchists face a catch-22: most people will not give anarchists a serious hearing, because they are convinced at the start that the position is crazy; they are convinced that the position is crazy, because they do not understand it; and they do not understand it, because they will not give it a serious hearing. I therefore ask the reader not to give up reading this book merely because of its conclusion. The author is neither stupid, nor crazy, nor evil; he has a reasoned account of how a stateless society might function. I cannot promise that you will find the account ultimately convincing. But it is very likely that you will find it to have been worth considering.