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Compassion, Dignity and the Individual - by Jim Peron []

Written by Subject: Philosophy: Libertarianism
Compassion, dignity and the individual

I firmly believe that the classical liberal view of government and civil society is the only truly compassionate view.

Liberal compassion acknowledges the worth of individuals but does compel us to charity when required. We understand that charity is not an entitlement. Nor is it charity when one over rides the choices of the individual involved.

In the debate on prostitution decriminalisation in New Zealand the Maxim Institute argue that that prostitution should be illegal because "Christian compassion" for prostitutes compelled such interference. The prostitute was making a "bad" choice and compassion required us to punish her for doing so by making her career choice illegal.

And while Christian conservatives have a fixation on C.S. Lewis they don't take his advice to heart. Lewis wrote: "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."

I have long argued that the collectivist Left wants to use state power to make people nice and the collectivist Right wants to use state power to make them virtuous.

The Left wants to use the strong arm of government to make us nice in that they want to ban "hate speech" , force everyone to "care" for the needy, and so forth. They are happy to infringe on basic rights such as property and freedom in order to force people to be charitable. The Right would do the same to stamp out sin and immorality. They want to regulate the private sex lives of adults, control the publications they read and the views they express.

As a liberal I often agree with the goals of each but not the means. I do think it is important to be charitable. I also know charity can be lethal if doled out helter-skelter. It destroys initiative and undermines a person's self-worth. i also think that people should be moral but often not in ways which fundamentalist Christians like Maxim think are required. I oppose hate speech laws but also despise hate speech. I think anything done by one person to purposely inflict pain on another is cruel and that includes saying vicious things.

There are people, some supposedly on the side of freedom, who are intentionally cruel to others. They are mean and unpleasant people and I think liberals ought to shun them. But I also think that controlling the opinions of others is the wrong way to go. Private sanctions are fine but state involvement is going too far. I may be compassionate for the victim of hate speech but I don't want to shackle the tongue or imprison the mind.

At the core of liberal principles is the idea that each individual has a right., the theologically minded call it a "God-given" right, to make their own decisions. We may cajole and persuade and argue. But we can't force and take control of their life. We can't strip them of the dignity that they deserve as a fellow human being. And that means they will sometimes make mistakes.

Perhaps they won't be nice to people when we think they should be. They may not help the sick, the lame and the halt. They may not say kind words to the widow or feed the hungry. They may even be unpleasant and cruel though I strongly suspect that means they are miserable and unhappy individuals. But none of us have a right to the gentle touch of a caring hand or the soothing words of friendship. The cruel among us earn their due with each unkind statement. I have never found a person who inflicts pain on others who was happy. They reap what they sow and always will.

The liberal has seen the role of government as limited to protecting the fundamental rights of people. That means protecting life, liberty and justly acquired property. it does not mean protecting us from the cruel statements of miserable people. It can not mean that we can force others to sustain us or even help us. Our rights can not come at the expense of others unless done voluntarily.

My needs do not impose an unchosen obligation on others. Others are not tools to my ends. I can not enslave them to work for my benefit. To do so requires me to force them to be servants. Forced charity is forced servitude. There is no servitude when one person willingly helps another. There is only servitude when coercion is used, when the servant has no other alternative but to do the bidding of his master. Nor is forced entitlements virtuous or charitable. The victim is not charitable to the mugger. He may had over his earnings but doing so is not a charitable act since he has no choice in the matter.

The threat of state coercion to fund charitable activities does not make anyone virtuous. If I were to empty your bank account and give the money to some worth cause neither you nor I are being virtuous. You have no choice and the matter and there is no virtue in giving away what belongs to others. Even if I happened to give the money to a legitimately good cause, unlike a huge percentage of state charity, there is no moral virtue in my act nor do you, as my victim, accrue such status for yourself. I would be a simple thief and you would be the victim. I would be a criminal but not virtuous.

I do not comprehend why people propose state involvement in such matters as private morality whether it comes to charity or "sin".

For me the basic rule I ask myself is whether I could do, on my own, what I am asking the state to do. If I saw a man raping a woman would I feel that I had the right to blow the bastard away, if that is what it took, to make him stop? The answer is a resounding yes. Not only do I think that I have the right to use force against such a cretin but I would question my own morality if I didn't do so.

Would I be morally justified in using necessary force to stop the theft of my neighbour's car? I would. There is much in the world that warrants the use of force. And protecting the life, liberty and property of others is justifiable.

But what have I done to others when I use force against them for other purposes? If a friend of mine needed surgery do I have the moral right to pull out my gun and rob a few banks to pay for it? Can I morally justify attacking others to achieve a noble goal? i can not.

Yet this is precisely what the Left and the Right want to do. They believe that they should be allowed to use state violence to force other people to be good. If someone is in need of a hip replacement the Left is willing to use violence to obtain that surgery. If someone is a prostitute or using drugs the Right is willing to use violence against that person to "protect" them from them self.

Both the Left and Right play a game over this violence. They each pretend that if they hire a third party to actually carry out the violent act that they are not responsible for it. I find this absurd. If I hire a man to kill someone I am guilty of the crime. If I pay thugs to rob old ladies who have just cashed their pension cheques then I am as responsible for the crime as the one who carries the gun.

But the Left and the Right both believe that if they hire the government to engage in violence then they are sufficiently removed from the unpleasantries of force to not be responsible for it. They may sanction such violence. They may demand more of it. But they are believe they are not responsible for it. I believe they are.

Both sincerely believe in that the tyranny they demand is for the good of the individual or for society. Both live with clear consciences and both, as CS Lewis noted, are prone to continue with such tyranny because they feel good about what they do.

Now those of you on the Left need to recognise that when you demand government welfare programs what you are advocating is that violence be used against peaceful people to force them to be charitable. You may not believe this is the case but ask yourself what happens when those who pay the bills decide they are sick of paying them. The government doesn't send them a nice letter saying they have noticed that their "contributions" have ceased. They send them a demand telling them that if they don't pay that armed men will eventually come along and do very unpleasant things to them. Your so-called charity is founded on acts of violence against others.

And those of you on the Right shouldn't get too full of yourselves either. You want to do the same thing. In some ways you are much worse. You are not prone to use such violence to try and bring some good to others. Instead you prefer to use violence to prevent others from seeking happiness in their own way. You wish to stamp out vice.

The magazine that gives someone pleasure you want banned. How is this done? Again you call in the men with guns, the men who are willing to break a few skulls along the way. You call upon individuals who use strong-arm methods. You would never think it appropriate for you to break down your neighbour's door so you can ransack his library and burn '"evil" books. But you cheer when your agents do it for you and comfort yourself with the fiction that you are not responsible.

Maybe you do know better. In fact i often think you do. Yes, I think it is good for people to care for the needy provided they are not harming the needy in the process or contributing to sloth. I do think people ought to reach in and give something to such causes and cheer when they do. I frequently engage in such acts myself and applaud others for doing so. I would say that charity is good! But such goodness is not a warrant for violence on my part or the part of my agents.

I happen to think that prostitution is very rarely a rational choice. Nor do I believe it is the "best" choice that someone may have. I would agree with those who think that prostitutes are probably making a wrong choice and will suffer because of it. But I am not willing to use violence against someone simply because they make bad decisions.

At the core of the libertarian values of liberalism is the dignity of the individual. I would argue that all other political philosophies must violate that dignity. Authoritarianism obviously does so. The Communist dictatorships of North Korea and Cuba are obvious examples. So were the cruelties of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Franco. But a more refrained form of violent interference with human personhood is not justified simply because it forgoes the extremes of these groups. The reason that the viciousness of dictatorships survives is because the premises on which they are built are accepted by so many.

Inside the idea that it is permissible to coerce charity or force morality is the seed that grows into the tree of tyranny. Such conclusions are the inevitable result of the premises involved.

Posted by Jim at 1:14 pm on 24/10/2005