Ethics 101: Reciprocity

People have been arguing about how to deal with ideas of right and wrong for a very long time. Even now, reasonable people sometimes disagree about where exactly to draw the ethical line on some complex issues. After all, the world is a complicated place.

That being said, one idea has emerged over and over again in the quest to understand right and wrong from essentially every cultural, religious, and philosophical tradition: the ethic of reciprocity.

You may know it as the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do to you.” This basic mutual respect is the cornerstone of civilized behavior and the basis for cooperation and justice. It is natural law in practice.

When people who disagree choose argumentation over aggression, they are demonstrating a preference for mutual respect. Therefore, arguing against mutual respect is a performative contradiction. There is no civilized argument against the ethic of reciprocity.

Uncivilized people use aggression to get what they want. If you find yourself at odds with someone who refuses to abide by the golden rule, you cannot resort to argumentation to resolve the situation. It is in this circumstance that threat management becomes necessary and defensive force becomes justifiable.

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The Law of the Instrument

What is your favorite tool? Is it so familiar or compelling that you are tempted to employ it in all contexts? The law of the instrument illustrates this tendency.

Tools are designed for specific uses.

  • Law for legal issues
  • Reason and logic for conceptual issues
  • Culture and freedom of association for values and preferences issues
  • Organizational management for governance issues
  • Philosophy for epistemological and ethical issues
  • Persuasion and service for educational and spiritual issues
  • Property rights and markets for scarcity issues
  • Power for productivity and self-defense issues
  • Measurement and statistics for information issues
  • Compassion and contribution for relationship issues
  • Technology for practical application issues

It is tempting to think “only X issues exist!” or “I can apply my favorite tool to all issues!” or “if I reframe an X issue as a Y issue, my favorite tool will be effective!”

However, power can’t solve preference problems any more than organizational management can solve spiritual problems or technology can solve relationship problems or compassion can solve scarcity problems or measurement can solve ethical problems.

Next time you encounter a problem, consider the context before you grab a hammer and start pounding away.

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Natural Law in a Nutshell

Natural Law is the source of your rights. It does not depend on humankind, and it is universally valid. It cannot be voided or amended by kings, constitutions, or legislatures. It is the universe in harmony with reason.

It’s not a new idea. Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Thomas Jefferson, and many others have taught it in one form or another.

So what is natural law? In a nutshell, it is this:

  1. You own your consciousness, and by extension, your body, and your labor. This is sometimes described as rights to life, liberty, and property.
  2. All humans having those same rights, it is unjust for anyone to violate the life, liberty, or property of another. This is known in libertarian circles as the Non-Aggression Principle, or NAP for short.
  3. Everyone has the right to defend life, liberty, and property from aggression.

Every right humans have is simply an extension of this law of nature.

Natural law is the baseline for moral behavior, but it is not the highest form of law. Higher, spiritual forms of law also exist, and are practiced by those who seek to overcome the physical cosmos and transcend to higher states of consciousness. Jesus summarized the higher law as love demonstrated through service to others.

Some have tried to claim that coercive government is a legitimate tool to secure their rights. Ironically, the very idea of coercive government is against natural law. One obvious example is that taxation is simply legalized extortion, and violates your right to your labor.

That being said, organization, cooperation, and persuasion are in perfect harmony with natural (and higher) law. It is perfectly right and good for people to organize around common goals, cooperate in endeavors of mutual interest, and peacefully persuade one another. Indeed, this is the very basis for civilized society.

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Statist Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm syndrome is a psychological condition of traumatic bonding in which a victim comes to empathize with an abuser so much that they will identify with and defend them. It is evident in many who consider themselves compassionate and patriotic, as evidenced by the following statist hogwash. Here it is in all of its president-worshiping red, white, and blue glory:

Ode to Government

There are several false assumptions and logical fallacies at work there, so rather than address them one by one, I decided to just write a better version:

This morning I was awoken by my battery-powered cellular phone made by capitalists overseas, which was available at a very reasonable price even though government threatened both the manufacturer and me with violence if we both didn’t pay taxes to trade for it. The government threatens me with violence if I try to collect the rainwater on my own property, so I took the safe route and paid whatever the government monopoly charges for the rainwater they appropriated from me and my neighbors so I could take a shower in the home I’m told I own, but will be violently taken from me if I don’t pay property taxes to government, who considers itself the real owner.

As I looked out my window, I thought about how nice it is of private airline companies and private observation stations to provide data and observations to the National Weather Service. If all you want is distributions of that data, you can rely on the NWS. Alternatively, you can enjoy the free, private weather channel app on your phone or you can enjoy the privately engineered graphics used in various television broadcasts. If you really want to be serious (like aircraft companies do), you can insist on data and forecasting from private sources, as it is more accurate and comes with customized, rigorous, statistical probability analysis that takes into account micro-climate considerations absent from the simple data distributed by the NWS. While I was disappointed to see the NASA couldn’t manage to stay within their astronomical budget and filed for bankruptcy, I was encouraged to see that private companies like SpaceX are competing to provide better services to me and my neighbors without stealing our money.

For taste and medical reasons, I prefer to pour raw milk on my breakfast cereal, but the government won’t let my neighbors sell it to me. I don’t have time or energy to fight that battle myself, so I decide to just work around it, along with similar hassles like life-saving drugs that are withheld from the market, the approval of dangerous drugs, forced vaccination, subservience to big pharma and Monsanto, prohibition, corn and sugar subsidies, protectionist tariffs and embargos, and the general ongoing war to deny freedom of choice for things like soda cups larger than 20 ounces and food containing trans fats.

I was coerced to disclose and register the details of the private purchase of my car and pay taxes on it whether I drive it or not. But it’s nice to have a car to get to work, since the government train system in my city is far too expensive and inconvenient, despite being funded with money stolen from people whether they ride it or not. I get pulled over by a policeman on a motorcycle who says he’s giving me a ticket for not wearing my seatbelt as a government school bus with no seatbelts passes by filled with children. I’m glad there are private construction companies who specialize in building flat surfaces to drive on, but I’m stumped trying to think of a reason why the politicians should take credit for building the roads, when they simply take money from the drivers and give it to the construction companies who supported their election campaign.

The car I really want is a Tesla, but the government won’t let them sell cars in my state, even though their cars are virtually silent, have zero emissions, and perform better than most racecars. So, I fill my current gasoline car with fuel from a business I trust. I would rather not use increasingly worthless debt notes from a privately owned bank with the ironic and misleading name Federal Reserve, but if my neighbors and I try to use something of real value instead (like gold), the government will just steal it all with some kind of official order and require payment of taxes in inflated fiat currency instead.

On my way to work, I stop by the FedEx store to ship a package to a friend because in addition to offering a lower level of service, the US Postal Service is bankrupt despite their ability to rely on tax money to fund operations. Somehow I manage to get to work on time while relying on clock technology developed centuries ago before the US government even existed.

I’m also forced to fund the harmful prisons euphemistically referred to as “public schools”, but I am glad that we can afford to teach our children at home, even though it requires significant additional sacrifice.

I was glad to find that my house had not burned down or been robbed in my absence. I don’t believe in fairy tales about magical protection of the approval of absent, disinterested officials who demand I obtain permits to build on my own property, but I do have an insurance policy with a private company to protect me from loss in such cases.

While at home, I pay a private company to enjoy access to the multiplicity of privately owned computers connected together for mutual benefit called the internet. While the men who envisioned the packet-switching and routing technologies that made it possible were hired by the government using stolen money to implement them for government purposes only, people eventually built their own computer network service companies and helped people connect their home computers to their growing series of networks that created and followed the same protocols for mutual interoperability.

I choose to purchase catastrophic health insurance with a reasonable deductible for health emergencies, but I can see why some may choose a different kind of arrangement. Some people say Americans cannot afford to pay for medical care, but they seem confident that we can pay for it all in addition to more government bureaucracy to administer it. I find that dubious, given the fact that the government not only spends more than it steals from citizens, but it has sold current and future generations into debt slavery for the many trillions of dollars it has in debt and unfunded liabilities it accumulates while funding multiple unjust wars of aggression and claiming the right to send our children to fight and die against their will.

I don’t rely on media puppets to tell me what to think, and I consider it reasonable to suspect increased government intrusion into our lives would be problematic.

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I Am a Voluntaryist

I am a voluntaryist.

Voluntaryism: the doctrine that relations among people should be by mutual consent, or not at all.

I am also an anarchist and libertarian.

Anarchy: the absence of rulers [from the Greek an- (not) archos (ruler)].
Libertarian: a person who believes in the doctrine of free will and upholds liberty as their principle objective.

I’m also an agorist and capitalist.

Agorism: social philosophy advocating for civil disobedience via voluntary exchange without government permission.
Capitalism: private property ownership and free enterprise.

I see all of these as compatible. The common thread is that people have natural rights and should not be slaves or slave masters.

You own your life. The philosophy of liberty is based on the principle of self-ownership and non-aggression.

The opposite of voluntaryism is statism (involuntaryism). Statists promote violence and control of peaceful people by those who claim state authority.

None of this means that I don’t support and advocate for people voluntarily organizing and cooperating to accomplish things. In fact, I’m all for it.

Frédéric Bastiat once said:

“Every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.”

There are legitimate, effective ways of accomplishing worthy goals without resorting to authoritarian control.

Common objections I hear usually go something like this:

“But total freedom would be chaos! There would be no consequences for people behaving badly.”
“Nature abhors a vacuum! What would stop warlords from taking over?”
“Who would build the roads/schools/hospitals?”

The answers to these and other common objections to liberty involve a clear understanding of things like natural law, mutual consent, private property, education, persuasion, and free markets. Rather than attempt an exhaustive list here, those links explain in separate posts how voluntary solutions to societal issues are not just more humanitarian and ethical, but also more practical than coercion.

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Voluntary Law and Order

People are not all the same, and they make different choices because they have different values, circumstances, and levels of understanding. Sometimes those choices are peaceful and wise; sometimes they are not.

So what are the best ways to promote good choices and cooperation while preventing and providing resolution for conflict?

In answering such questions, it is important to recognize that there are unavoidable limitations. The idea of a perfect society where there is no conflict and all outcomes are equal is an absurd utopian fantasy, and so is the idea of a deus ex machina that can magically swoop in to make everything right. Imperfect knowledge and ability, conflicting interests, transaction costs, and other collective action problems will always be barriers to a perfectly peaceful and productive society.

In economic terms, there are markets for law and order just like there are markets for food and clothing. They are composed of scarce goods whose supply is in demand and which must be allocated among competing uses. Economic analysis of governance mechanisms offers tremendous insights, not least of all because it accounts for the crucial impact of incentives and constraints on human behavior.

History and reason show that private governance does an excellent job of protecting property rights and facilitating peaceful exchange. They also show that government interference distorts and obstructs justice.

Principles of Justice

Justice is the preservation and restoration of rights under natural law, and is required for peace and harmony in society. Justice is also the foundation upon which mercy and charity must be built. Victims may choose to grant mercy to violators to appease the demands of justice, but denying justice to victims leads to perpetual conflict and misery.

True justice is based on protection and restitution, not revenge. Two wrongs can’t make a right. Retaliation tends to escalate conflict and waste resources, often at the expense of victims. Restitution compensates victims, eliminates desires for revenge, and provides contrite offenders with a path to redemption.

Violations of natural law are always violations of property rights. This is obvious with typical property crimes like theft, but even your life and liberty are based on self-ownership. This underscores the importance of clear property rights because without them, there is no basis for victimhood or restitution. No property, no victim. No victim, no violation.

Rights violations in a free society would be treated as torts. Many offenses currently considered “crimes” would still be illegal, but compulsory puritanism would be unlikely. Proponents of victimless crime laws (e.g. laws against drug use or prostitution) are rarely willing to bear the costs of enforcing them.

Vices are those acts by which a man harms himself or his property. Crimes are those acts by which one man harms the person or property of another. Vices are simply the errors which a man makes in his search after his own happiness. Unlike crimes, they imply no malice toward others, and no interference with their persons or property.
Lysander Spooner

Read the entire essay at LivingVoluntary.com.

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