I’ve got to hand it to the Humanists of the Palouse, their billboard is clever. It’s smart because “Good works in non-mysterious ways” is a play on the common religious retort “God works in mysterious ways”, of course, but it’s useful because it reminds us that religion is not a requirement for morality and good behaviour. But what do we mean by good? We all know, but it’s always wise to start with definitions. Here’s the common definition of good in the moral sense:
“possessing or displaying moral virtue”
Virtue is defined as “the quality of doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong”. Good, then, is the quality of doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong. Evidently the vast majority of people avoid violence and theft and instead cooperate with each other in order to get what they want, and so most of us are generally good. The number of us that choose force over cooperation is remarkably small, and represents a remarkably small percentage of the world’s population. A clear and simple ethical principle resides in the vast majority of human minds: violence and theft are wrong. How this came to be is a fascinating area of study, but is beyond the scope of this piece. In a nutshell, it’s either best explained by the biological process of humanity’s evolution as social animals, or by the invention of religion.
When it comes to what we should and shouldn’t do in our private, everyday interactions with friends and colleagues, then, the vast majority of us are of the strong conviction that violence is wrong. But, curiously, when it comes to what the government should do and should avoid doing the vast majority of people are very much in favour of using force against others; because, by definition, government is the use of force. This widespread advocacy of the use of government force against certain groups of people or the whole of society is evidenced by the fact that the number of laws and regulations being imposed upon society just keeps growing. If people were averse to using government force, then the number of laws and regulations would be diminishing.
In today’s world lobbying for government action is often resorted to by organisations like Humanist groups in an attempt to do public good, but this reveals the curiously contradictory ethical conviction that: private violence is bad, but public violence is good. It’s contradictory because there’s no meaningful distinction between public and private. The latter means individuals and the former just means many individuals. If aggregation changes the truth of the ethical principle that violence is wrong, then that means it is wrong to kill one person but good to kill many. This is not a principle because it is not universal (i.e. its truth depends on the number of people), and therefore it is not of any use as a guide to good behaviour. As a result of this schism between private and public morality, most people and organisations today find themselves pursuing unethical courses of action in the mistaken belief that they are ethical. Which is surely the greatest fear of anyone who desires to be and believes themselves to be good.
Ethics has one main goal: determining in what circumstances it is appropriate to use force, or in other words to establish that violence and theft is wrong and that therefore it is justified to use force to resist them.
The non-aggression principle, the underlying ethical principle of libertarianism/voluntarism/anarchism, establishes that the only just use of force is when one’s person or property is being or has been violated. In short, in defence of person or property. The non-aggression principle is a negative right, which means it doesn’t require any positive action in order to not violate it. At any given time and place, anyone who is not assaulting, stealing or defrauding (implicit theft) – in short not initiating force – is abiding by the non-aggression principle. You are abiding by it right now, in fact. Did you have to do anything? No, and neither did anyone else, which is also what makes it universal. Everyone can be not violating it at the same time. The same cannot be said of positive rights, which require someone (i.e. people who represent government) to do something in order to not violate them. Thus for positive rights to exist the initiation of force (coercion) is required, which is the opposite of the intended goal of ethics.
Today, we live in a world of numerous positive ‘rights’, formalised by laws and regulations, that all require coercive action on the part of government in order to not violate. For example, according to socialist democracies, poor people have a ‘right’ to financial support from government. Thus in order to provide to people that which they are morally and legally ‘entitled’ to government must take money from everyone under threat of force in order to fund the welfare system.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the epitome of the western world’s attempts to realise a better world through positive rights. All but two of the ‘rights’ declared within it require the government to do something, which means use force against people. For example, article 25 declares that:
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services…”
In order to not violate this collection of ‘rights’, governments have to do a heck of a lot. That of course means they need lots of money and we all know where the government gets its money from – our wage packets and the future wage packets of unborn tax payers. From this it is easy to see how positive rights are a disaster for ethics and society because they make committing coercive acts (I.e. taxation) a moral necessity. In other words, for the government not to steal from people would be immoral. Quite incredibly, morality is flipped on its head. But worst of all, this happens without society at large even so much as batting an eyelid.
In any human relationship where this ‘flipping’ of morality happens, that is, where the use of force/aggression is defined as good, that relationship is dysfunctional and self-destructive for all parties because violence that isn’t resisted or avoided is free to damage the minds and wither the souls of everyone it touches. This is why every civilised society’s relationship with government in human history has led to the former’s decay, debasement and eventual destruction, and the latter’s increasing tyranny (which is the opposite of the expected/desired outcome). Conversely, it is also why peaceful, voluntary exchanges of an economic and social nature lead to the fulfilment and betterment of all parties. The way we all choose to behave reveals that we know this to be true of human interactions, but we abandon this truth when ‘acting’ through government in pursuit of public good. There are more people than ever acting by proxy through government and governments are doing more than ever, largely because they are committed to not violating numerous positive ‘rights’ that generations of intellectuals of a socialist bent fantasised that everyone should have.
The major democracies are still growing, but for all of them a sudden contraction is coming. Of that there can be no doubt. The catastrophic debts of governments make this inevitable. The dysfunctional relationship between society and government is going to break down. The question is: will society realise that it is better-off without government and walk away? Or will it once again persuade itself that next time will be different and return to government only to be abused again?
Humanists rightly believe that good doesn’t need God. But it doesn’t need government action either. In fact, it requires its absence.