The scope of normative ethics
The universe is an ongoing sequence of events. Every event is an effect of something and a cause of something else at the same time. An event describes the movements of objects within specific limits. Objects are atoms or combinations thereof. The nature of an object is a complete set of rules about what specific effects specific events involving that object will have on it. (For example: An apple, let fall, will drop to the ground.) The total collection of all events and the natures of all objects I will refer to as reality.
Humans are objects within the universe. They possess the ability to utter statements about events and the natures of objects. These statements are beliefs. The total of all those beliefs that match reality is referred to as truth. The pursuit of truth is what we commonly refer to as science.
Science enables humans to understand what events enable objects to let their natural faculties come to full fruition, and what events are destructive to them. The former are referred to as good, the latter as bad.
By virtue of the fact that humans are objects in the universe, a human being, too, has a nature. Specific events affecting a human, will have specific effects. A human action, or simply an action, is an event consciously precipitated by a human. A group of humans, connected via actions, is what we refer to as society. To discover which actions are good and which are bad for human society, and thus to establish a set of rules that is universally applicable to every human being at any given point in time, is the objective of normative ethics.
Every human being, man, once born, possesses full ownership, meaning control, over his body. This is an irrefutable truth. Anyone who tries to refute it would be exerting ownership over his own body in the very process. This self ownership is in the very nature of man. It is a necessity for the development of his faculties.
The desire to stay alive, too, is in the nature of man. Whoever tries to refute this truth would be doing so while being alive. If he didn’t want to live he would have no business arguing the point in the first place. If he were to shoot himself he would cease to exist and no ethics would be necessary to determine what would be good or bad for him. Thus life becomes the most commonly pursued good among humans.
But man cannot survive without utilising the land around him. In fact, he cannot even exist without it. The existence of man would be unthinkable without his environment. Even if he was not consuming anything, wearing anything, or putting his hands on anything, at the very least, and before anything else, he needs to occupy standing room.
He possesses the ability to fully comprehend and memorise cause and effect of specific events involving specific objects, the ability to reason. Thus he can obtain and retain knowledge. He possesses the unique ability to first and foremost let his reason guide his actions. The animal’s actions are, on the contrary, first and foremost guided by its instincts. Action guided by reason is referred to as rational action while action guided by instincts is reflexive action. This is what we mean when we say man is a rational being. He can apply his knowledge to objects and events that he has already memorised, or infer from the nature of certain known objects that similar unknown objects will have a similar nature, and put this knowledge into action.
Once the desire to live is satisfied, man strives for objectives beyond that. At any given point in time, he feels uneasy about something. This uneasiness is a purely subjective phenomenon and differs from person to person. It may also be more broadly referred to as “that which makes man act” in case the term uneasiness causes misunderstandings. He thus always acts in order to remove uneasiness. In fact, every rational voluntary action is only performed because man feels that it will improve his condition. He would never perform a rational action that he’d deem detrimental to his own perceived condition. The fact that men aim at objectives and employ means to attain them is, again, irrefutable. Whoever sets out to refute its correctness would be aiming at an objective, employing means to attain it.
The scope of political philosophy
Man can thus employ his reason to utilise the scarce land around him by applying his acquired knowledge. He can mix his labor with this land in order to create consumer goods or factors of production. He utilises those goods in order to remove perceived uneasiness.
When he utilises and transforms unused land, he obtains ownership over new objects. Ownership over such objects is called private property. Thus his self-ownership over his body is extended to ownership over material objects. He can utilise those objects as means to his ends. By the virtue of this he shows that this procedure, too, is in the very nature of man.
Other men can do the same thing. They can then, if they so desire, enter into exchange transactions. All these acts are performed voluntarily and enable men to extend their scope of removal of uneasiness and let their natural capabilities come to fruition. All property obtained via initial appropriation (homesteading) or voluntary exchange is considered to be justly acquired property. During an act of voluntary action both parties enter because each of them prefers to own the good to be obtained to the one surrendered. They both attain the objective aimed at. By the virtue of this, these acts are to be considered good.
But when one man obtains ownership over goods owned by another man without that man’s consent, or alters their condition in any form, or physically harms that man’s body, all acts of aggression, he only removes uneasiness for himself, but adds to the other man’s uneasiness. Thus, this act cannot possibly be in line with a normative ethic which is supposed to spell out universal rules applicable to every human being. If, furthermore, all people were to perform such acts on everybody, mankind would at once cease to exist. Such an act can thus not possibly be considered good in any way.
But the fact that some men desire to perform such acts makes it necessary (for the preservation and further development of mankind) for the attacked to perform violent acts of defence. A right is defined as a defensible claim to an object, meaning a claim that, if necessary for the preservation and development of mankind, may be defended violently. Man thus has a right to the ownership of his body and his justly acquired property. The absence of aggression or threat thereof against his body and property is referred to as liberty. That part of normative ethics that ultimately deals with questions of the proper use of violence in different cases is called political philosophy.
Morality really falls under the sphere of political philosophy. It defines which binding behavioural rules about inflicted behaviour are logically inconsistent and/or can in no way be universally applied to all humans at all places and at all times. It defines such rules as immoral.
A binding behavioural rule is a statement about what a human should or should not do. A binding behavioural rule about inflicted behaviour is a statement about what one man should or should not do to another man. Example: The rule “One person should rape another.” could in no way be applied to the latter person while the former performs the act. It thus qualifies as a binding behavioural rule about inflicted behaviour that is not universally applicable, viz. immoral. The same goes for acts like murder and theft.
Abstaining from immoral behaviours can be referred to as moral. All rules that we intuitively perceive as immoral can be successfully examined via this rationale.
The nature of government
The idea that man has a right to defend his property and his body is not a mystical or arcane one. It is, in fact, commonly understood. Most people agree with it and condemn those who initiate aggression against others. There has, however, throughout history been one type of organisation, which has, again and again, been able to aggress against individuals with impunity and with support by public opinion. This organisation is referred to as government. It obtains goods by aggressive means, also known as taxation. This is the inherently unethical, anti-social, or simply bad nature of government.
Nowhere has the essence of the State as a criminal organisation been put as forcefully or as brilliantly as in this passage from Lysander Spooner’s No Treason where the actions of a robbing highwayman are compared to the government’s modus operandi:
It is true that the theory of our Constitution is, that all taxes are paid voluntarily; that our government is a mutual insurance company, voluntarily entered into by the people with each other…
But this theory of our government is wholly different from the practical fact. The fact is that the government, like a highwayman, says to a man: “Your money, or your life.” And many, if not most, taxes are paid under the compulsion of that threat.
The government does not, indeed, waylay a man in a lonely place, spring upon him from the roadside, and, holding a pistol to his head, proceed to rifle his pockets. But the robbery is none the less a robbery on that account; and it is far more dastardly and shameful.
The highwayman takes solely upon himself the responsibility, danger, and crime of his own act. He does not pretend that he has any rightful claim to your money, or that he intends to use it for your own benefit. He does not pretend to be anything but a robber. He has not acquired impudence enough to profess to be merely a “protector,” and that he takes men’s money against their will, merely to enable him to “protect” those infatuated travellers, who feel perfectly able to protect themselves, or do not appreciate his peculiar system of protection. He is too sensible a man to make such professions as these. Furthermore, having taken your money, he leaves you, as you wish him to do. He does not persist in following you on the road, against your will; assuming to be your rightful “sovereign,” on account of the “protection” he affords you. He does not keep “protecting” you, by commanding you to bow down and serve him; by requiring you to do this, and forbidding you to do that; by robbing you of more money as often as he finds it for his interest or pleasure to do so; and by branding you as a rebel, a traitor, and an enemy to your country, and shooting you down without mercy if you dispute his authority, or resist his demands. He is too much of a gentleman to be guilty of such impostures, and insults, and villainies as these. In short, he does not, in addition to robbing you, attempt to make you either his dupe or his slave.
Thus economic policy, if it wants to attain its objectives, can do nothing but limit the extent to which matters are organised by government and the scope of its intrusion into the lives of individuals within the territory it oversees, or ideally completely abolish the institution of government itself. So long as the government confines its activity to the protection of individuals against aggression and theft only little harm can be inflicted. Every expansion of governmental powers, however, will inevitably expand the use of unethical and destructive action within society.
Make use of the following additional resources to expand knowledge and understanding of the topic covered in this unit.
The entire unit, including all additional resources, can also be downloaded as a workbook to be used offline.