Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Philosophical Anarchy

I have some questions in political philosophy for you.

Premise: you are a moral person (we won’t argue about that right now). Do you believe that we have a moral obligation to obey the law, because it is the law? If so, you can be said to believe in a political obligation.
But what is the basis of that political obligation? Perhaps we have consented to be governed by the law – although very few people other than perhaps those who have undertaken a citizenship ceremony have actually expressly ‘consented’. Perhaps we could be said to have given ‘tacit’ consent – such as keeping silent and taking no action and quietly complying. Or even ‘hypothetically’ consenting: a man rescues you from your sinking boat, and while you are unconscious he arranges for the boat to be repaired at a good price, then asks you to pay up later. Hypothetically, you would have agreed to the repairs, so are you now under a moral obligation to pay? (You wouldn’t be under a legal obligation).

The various arguments for political obligation based on consent start to look a little thin when closely examined. But promises and consent are not the only basis upon which political obligations can arise. Might an obligation arise through a principle of ‘fair play’?  It goes like this:

Suppose there is a mutually beneficial and just scheme of social cooperation, and that the advantages it yields can only be obtained if everyone, or nearly everyone, cooperates. Suppose further that cooperation requires a certain sacrifice from each person, or at least involves a certain restriction of his/her liberty....Under these conditions a person who has accepted the benefits of the scheme is bound by a duty of fair play to do his/her part and not to take advantage of the free benefits by not cooperating. (Rawls)

But this rule requires a lot of qualifications, because there are lots of counter-examples which challenge it. For instance, say the people who live in a neighbourhood decide on a garden beautification scheme and everyone agrees to give up one weekend a month to work on the communal gardens; except Jones, who doesn’t like neat gardens and prefers wild grasslands. He is still surrounded by the beautified gardens – does he have an obligation to work with everyone else? The ‘fair play’ rule would probably say ‘no’, since the gardens are of no benefit to him. But how about Jones’ roommate Smith, who loves the neat gardens, but still doesn’t want to work? Would he have a political obligation to comply?

It seems fair too that the benefits derived from complying should not be outweighed by the sacrifice that is demanded. Smith is away at work all week and so only has the benefit of the neat gardens briefly; yet he is required to give up one weekend a month of his time and effort. Perhaps it is an unjust scheme and therefore not within the definition.

Or take the example of a community decision to restrict fishing in the local lake because the fish stock is becoming overfished. Everyone is required to take only ten fish in the season. Can you ignore this and take fifty? Why not? You didn’t expressly consent to the rule, and you can’t be said to have voluntarily accepted the benefits (because there’s no way in which you could reject the benefits). Your non-compliance wouldn’t make much difference to the fish stocks if everyone else only took ten. So we’ll say that you are under no obligation to obey the rule. Would your answer be different if everyone else also ignored the edict?

How about something more serious: a remote town in a valley is threatened by bandits, and the townspeople come up with a plan of defence, involving lookouts and vigilante groups. Jones (again) doesn’t want to be part of it. He thinks it is a hare-brained plan. He’s wrong, and the plan is a good one, and objectively he benefits by being kept safe. Is he morally obligated to contribute? He didn’t voluntarily accept the benefits, so where could an obligation come from?

But let’s transfer this to the state, which provides us with defence, law and order, a functioning economy (well, in theory anyway) – the laws are there to protect us and keep things running, right? So – on the principle of fair play – in return we should obey the laws, like everyone else. But it is difficult to say that we all voluntarily accept the benefits of the state. Consider this:

...surely most of us do not have these requisite attitudes toward or beliefs about the benefits of government. At least many citizens barely notice (and seem disinclined to think about) the benefits they receive. And many more, faced with high taxes, with military service which may involve fighting in foreign “police actions”, or with unreasonably restrictive laws governing private pleasures, believe that the benefits received from governments are not worth the price they are forced to pay. While such beliefs may be false, they seem nonetheless incompatible with the “acceptance” of the open benefits of government. Further, it must be admitted that, even in democratic political communities, these benefits are commonly regarded as purchased (with taxes) from a central authority, rather than accepted from the cooperative efforts of our fellow citizens. (Simmons)

So what if you are not really convinced after all that there is a moral political obligation to obey the law – just because it is law? There might of course be other reasons why you choose to obey the law – prudent reasons, such as wishing to avoid being arrested, or not wishing to cause disruption; or personal moral reasons such as finding murder or stealing repugnant. Well and good – so why should we need to postulate ‘political obligation’? Can’t everyone just make up their own mind whether it is just or not to obey the law? If you agree with this (I do) then you are a libertarian and a philosophical anarchist. Note that this is not an invitation to open slather, because it presupposes that you are a moral person.

If we have blindly complied [with the state] in the belief that by doing so we discharged our obligations, we have erred doubly. For, first, most of us have no special obligation of obedience. But second, even if we had such an obligation, the citizen’s job would not be to blithely discharge it in his haste to avoid the responsibility of weighing it against competing moral claims on his action. (Simmons)

And what would the world look like if philosophical anarchy prevailed? Would it destabilize communities? If everyone decides for him or herself what is just, isn’t that too objective? Here’s an example to consider – based on a real case, ‘Die Robin Hood Bankerin’: some years ago a German bank employee, handling the accounts of very wealthy clients, began siphoning off a little here, a little there (which the clients never noticed as it was so little to them), and moved in total 6.7 million Euros into accounts of poor people. Every last Euro went to the poor, and she kept nothing for herself. Read the story here.

 Philosophical anarchy in action? Come to that, what about the original Robin Hood? Lots of questions for you!

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  1. Great stuff. Would love to tangle it up further (did time permit) with some socio-biology (an evolutionary approach to communal living that cuts across much of the rationalist and instrumentalist debate above).

    Or unpick the explicit/implicit social contract (yey Rousseau) with a Marxist perspective on the class struggle - property law (eg poaching) as being more about the institutionalised use of force to coerce and contain the poor than it is about notions of fair play.

    But i'm still too gob-smacked by the reductionist Simmons perspective that citizens simply purchase services from government with their taxes (been interviewing too many Tea Party Republicans?).

    If government is just another form of service provider, what moral obligation do we have to it? What moral obligation do i have to Harrods other than mutual adherence to commercial law unless 'business' lets me find a sharp way of circumventing it? On the other hand, if government is us, can we be said to be buying services from ourselves?

    Maybe when we pay local council rates for waste removal we may take something of that view. But when we pay taxes to the State as part of preserving the body politic, we are more than mere consumers. We are citizens. And as citizens in a democratic State we derive more than personal benefit - we actually get to participate in the act of government, not through our vote but also through our taxes.

    Arguably, in voting and paying taxes we collectively and individually take on some of the responsibility of government - its exercise of virtue and its burden of guilt. We vote for social welfare systems and we pay for social welfare systems. We vote for war and we pay for war.

    Or the trappings of democracy just a latter-day secular myth that replaced the myth of 'Christian Duty' to win willing compliance from a gullible populace in the interests of ruling elites? Hey, this field is ripe for conspiracy theories.

    Whatever, you must be having great fun. What a stimulating time! The ideas, the people, the places. Go, Annette.

  2. But let’s transfer this to the state, which provides us with defence, law and order, a functioning economy (well, in theory anyway) – the laws are there to protect us and keep things running, right? So – on the principle of fair play – in return we should obey the laws, like everyone else. But it is difficult to say that we all voluntarily accept the benefits of the state.

    You accept them, voluntarily or involuntarily, because that's the price of living in a society, and wanting to live in a society is part of human nature. If you find it so difficult to live within a society's laws, go someplace else where the laws suit you better, or go be a hermit somewhere where you don't have to interact with other people at all.

    Can’t everyone just make up their own mind whether it is just or not to obey the law? If you agree with this (I do) then you are a libertarian and a philosophical anarchist.

    You're also Neutral Good - or any alignment that's not Lawful Good really. Here's the Wiki page on alignments, I think you might find it interesting and relevant to your post. (Personally, I consider myself Chaotic Good.)

  3. Hi Harry - yes, lots of fun! I see that you want to find a moral basis for obeying the law and being a complying citizen. We philosophical anarchists (I'm one this week, at least) would not agree. The reason I try to act to preserve the body politic is prudence, self-interest and perhaps a moral sense of justice (I think). Not because 'it's the law'. But the socio-biology might be very interesting! And since you mention Rousseau and democracy, I have been inspired to add a 'page' to this blog for philosophy essays and have posted one about Rousseau. I feel this will be a page which requires an excellent red wine for full appreciation :-)Thanks for the comments!

  4. Hi Jess - that stuff on alignments is excellent! And I think you are right about 'Neutral Good':
    "A Neutral Good character is guided by his conscience and typically acts altruistically, without regard for or against Lawful precepts such as rules or tradition. A Neutral Good character has no problems with co-operating with lawful officials, but does not feel beholden to them. In the event that doing the right thing requires the bending or breaking of rules, they do not suffer the same inner conflict that a Lawful Good character would."
    I wonder if I can get away with quoting Dungeons and Dragons in an essay? Make a good footnote, at least. Thanks for the comment!

  5. I don't see why you couldn't quote it, it's actually become a pretty well known system of moral classification, even outside of Dungeons and Dragons (a game I've never played myself, I heard about alignments in another context). But then I used to quote all sorts of strange things in my own philosophy essays. :P