The Foundations of Political Morality

My essays discuss what should and should not be done. All discussions of “ought” must be founded on a base morality. My personal morality follows a layout akin to Maslov’s hierarchy of needs: preceding obligations trump descendant obligations.

The most primal need is the survival of myself and my immediate family. Securing the safety and survival of myself and my family trumps everything else.

Outside that circle is the survival of my community. In the modern world my community encompasses coworkers, college friends, hometown friends, and extended family.

Once the survival of my community is secure, the next obligation is to act with justice towards all. By “justice” I mean the old school definition: “to each his own” or “promises shall be kept”. Property held by others and commonly seen as legitimate through a process of prescription, should be respected. The life and liberty of other people should be respected. The obligation to act with justice does not trump survival. If someone else owns large tracts of property while I am peniless and starving, I should look to my own survival first, even if that means stealing.

The next obligation is to respect the norms of the communities that you live in and visit. If you visit a conservative Muslim community, you should not wear shorts and a tank top. If you live in a community where swearing in front of children is frowned upon, do not drop f-bombs at the local playground. Again, this obligation is trumped by the preceding obligation. If you live in a community where you are expected to incerate yourself on your husband’s funeral pier, you do not have a moral obligation to follow that custom to your own demise.

The next obligation is that of charity. The obligation of charity is greatest towards those in your own family, and lessens as you go outward towards extended family, close friends, coworkers, acquaintances, neighbors, fellow city residents, countrymen, humans, primates, mammals, animals, and plants. The obligation is highest towards those closer to me for several reasons: a) I know them well and can target my acts of charity for maximum effectiveness and accountability b) these are people who are in my community, and what goes around comes around c) my family and group are most likely to have values and culture that I wish to reproduce into the future d) I can experience the satisfaction of seeing the results of my charity.

My final obligation, when the obligation of survival, justice, and charity have been met, is to make the most of my life. I don’t have a precise definition of what this means. It is different for different people. For some people it might be raising a family. For others it might be pursuing a career of scientific or technological advancement. For others it might be working an ordinary job during the day and crafting a work of art by night. For others it might be contributing to the community, organizing events, and making society function. In a word – my goal is to achieve Eudaimonia. “Making the most of life” does not mean maniacally driving myself into the ground trying to achieve a single goal. While some may succeed that way, many others only create misery for themselves and those around them. “Living well” is a matter of balance.

In my own life, my obligation of survival is easily achieved. Acting with justice is easy – especially since it is reinforced by the law. My obligation of charity I consider fulfilled via taxes. While this tax money has not eliminated poverty, the type of poverty that exists in my community is not solvable via me donating my time or money. Thus I have the luxury of concentrating on Eudaimonia, which for me means living a balanced life of working hard at my day job building great software, and in my spare time competing on the athletic field and committing myself to intellectual inquiry and truth seeking.

Political Morality

Political morality is the moral underpinnings of a large group acting as a whole. The prescriptions on this site rely on a political morality as their foundation.

What is the hierarchy of political morality?

a) First, is the survival of the “in-group”. The in-group is the group collaborating to create the policy in question. If a presidential candidate makes a proposal, the “in-group” is all Americans. If the leader of a world-wide, revolutionary political party fights for a policy, the “in-group” might be the revolutionary leaders or it might be the people of the world as a whole.

b) The second obligation is justice towards all people, both out-group and in-group. Again, by “justice” I mean the old school definition: “to each his own” or “promises shall be kept”. Property held by others seen as legitimate through a process of prescription, should be respected. The life and liberty of other people should be respected.

c) The third obligation is to work towards the benefit of the in-group.

d) The final obligation is to work towards the benefit of the world.

In my own life, little threatens surival of me or my in-group. Even in the worst case in which violent thugs overrun my neighborhood, I can move to a safer place. Anyone who reads my blog is also very likely pretty secure.

Since I do not have to worry about my own survival, or even my own comfort, I have the luxury of focusing on d) working towards the benefit of the world.

Thus I write the essays on this blog from an essentially universalist point of view. The universalist point of view becomes even more prominent when I discus very long term problems, such as demographic change, Malthusian limits, and global warming.

How do I reason and think about universalism? Despite my right-wing leanings, my approach is basically Rawlsian. I think to myself: “Imagine that reincarnation exists. Imagine that after we die, we get randomly reincarnated as the next baby born into the world. What kind of world do I want that to be? This perspective may seem absurd. But I’m not Christian, so I don’t believe in any sort of Christian afterlife or reward and punishment. The reincarnation thought experiment is the only tool I have for reasoning about the future.

Perhaps my politics could be described as “post-communist” rather than as “reactionary”. (Or how about “post-communist reactionary”?). I was raised in a communist world and went to communist schools [1]. My proposed constitution included a large dose of egalitarianism and even democracy (though a very different type of democracy than we have now). As Foseti points out, we all think and talk like communists/progressives, not as 19th century conservatives or reactionaries. We think about plans for fixing the world. When we propose restoring traditional solutions to modern problems, we do so not because of tradition, but because we examined these past solutions and found them more reasonable than our current ones.

There are still a few open questions that I am working through. I placed “acting justly”, I.E., respecting others person and property, as a greater obligation than the obligation of working towards general utilitarian/”make the world better” goals. But what if the original distribution of property is so skewed that a lucky few live in lavish luxury while the masses live in destitute subsistence? Are the destitute masses morally forbidden from taking action to create a more equal distribution?

I would say that the burden of proof must be very high in order to justify a forceful wealth redistribution [2]. If the distribution is grossly unequal, the wealthy aristocrats are forsaking their own moral obligations of charity (and their obligation to help others achieve Eudaimonia), and the masses have an organized plan with leaders of strong character, then a forceful move towards redistribution could be moral. The burden of proof must be high, because the procedure is so dangerous. Many revolutions have promised land redistribution, but due to the inherently lawless nature of the act, the wealth often ends up in the hands of frauds and criminals, with the masses even more destitute than before.

The same question applies to the obligation to obey community norms. At what point are the norms so oppressive that is more moral to disobey them? Again, the burden of proof for disobedience is high. To justify disobedience, the norm must on net cause human suffering. You must avoid the fallacy of Chesterton’s fence by verifying that the norm really does not have valid, redeeming qualities. Genital mutilation, sati, and foot binding warrant disobedience. In most cases though, even if you find a norm oppressive, it is better to secede and form your own community without the norm, rather than to flaunt it within your community. If you think the monogamous morality of a Christian community is too oppressive, then form your own free-love community, and prove that your alternative lifestyle can work. Do not simply tear down a long standing, traditional morality without forming new institutions that work prove themselves to work with human nature.

While I take a universalist approach, that does not mean I wish all societies to adopt the same norms. If tomorrow a gang of Amish captured me and forced me to live in their community as a farmer and to forgo my internet, blog, and kindle, I would be quite miserable. But if I was born and raised in an Amish society, I might find the life quite satisfying – perhaps even better than my life now. Thus from the reincarnationist point of view, there is no reason to be an evangelical proponent of my native liberal-cosmopolitan culture. I am glad that both the Amish exist and that the SWPL espresso cafes of my home city exist. Perhaps you could call me a “universal particularist”.

[1] By “communist” I don’t mean the current definition, which means “Stalinist”. I include under communism everything from communes like the Oneida community to Stalin’s Five Year plans and Mao’s collective farms, to New Deal Socialism-lite, to European “social democracy”. Communism is a system where society is collectively regulated by a caste of bureaucrats or intellectuals who rule in the name of the people with the purpose of enforcing equality.

[2] Note – I have a nonstandard definition of wealth redistribution. I do not consider something like the Medicare tax that taxes working people to pay for healthcare for the old to be “forceful wealth redistribution”. The U.S. government is a corporation that charges rent (taxes) on its real estate. It pays out the profits from those taxes to its owners (major voting blocks). This is not “wealth distribution” any more than any other corporation paying dividends is engaging in wealth redistribution. My definition of “forceful wealth redistribution” means that the government is breaking promises.