Joseph Rowlands
Joseph Rowlands

The Ethics-Politics Connection

Objectivists hold that politics is grounded in ethics. Even in non-Objectivist thought, every political theory is based on some ethical premises. The welfare state is dependent on egalitarianism and the static view of life. Communism is dependent on altruism, collectivism, and materialism. And of course, Objectivist politics is grounded in Objectivist ethics.

I've always believed that the explicit connection between Objectivist politics and ethics was insufficient. If ethics really is the basis of politics, then we should be able to tie the two more closely together. Major concepts in ethics should have very specific implications in politics. This is a first attempt to approach this problem.

The most fundamental issue in Objectivist ethics is life itself. We try to live our lives the best we can, and we enjoy the process of living it. Life is the ultimate value, an end in itself. It's also the standard of value, the measurement by which we judge morality. If that's the case, we should also be able to judge politics by that standard.

If politics is the part of ethics that deals with the use of force, then the main concept in politics is force. So we need to ask ourselves how force affects our lives. Specifically, how does the initiation of force affect our lives?

It turns out that the initiation of force and life are opposites. We know that life is a process, and not just a state of non-death. So we seek to not just stay alive, but to enhance our ability to act. We try to increase our choices in both quantity and quality. Life as a process naturally hinges on our ability to take action.

The initiation of force hinders action. Theft removes our ability to make use of the products of our labor. Murder removes our ability to act at all. Maiming reduces our physical ability to act. The threat of force closes off avenues of action that would otherwise be possible. Every initiation of force limits our actions and prevents the process of living. It is an attack on our lives.

Let’s go to a related topic. The center of any ethical system is the concept value. Value permeates all ethical discussions. How do we know something is valuable? What is a value? Is it intrinsic or subjective or objective? How do we pick those values? How do we achieve those values? A proper understanding of politics, which is supposed to be rooted in ethics, must be affected by a value theory.

How are the concepts 'force' and 'values' related? How do they interact? As mentioned above, the use of force against a person is an attack on their lives. It interferes with the process of living by removing possible actions. And since actions are value-oriented, the use of force actually makes certain values impossible.

Every use of force has some cost associated with it, and that cost can be measured in the value lost. The implication of this is that you can judge any particular use of force by the values they destroy. This is why murder is usually considered worse action than mere theft. Theft removes some possible uses of property, but murder removes all possible values.

Measuring the value lost from force is important in a criminal justice system. It's only by understanding the extent of the damage done that you can try to formulate an appropriate response to an action. Measuring the loss is also useful in trying to move towards a free society. For instance, you might want to remove the most vicious laws first.

Objectivists often say that you can't separate politics from ethics, despite the wishes of many libertarians. But what would be the result if they tried?

Some people believe values are purely subjective. So in criminal justice, they claim that you can never be just, because you can't measure how much somebody values something. You can guess how much you value something, but that's not the same thing. You may have read this argument in an Austrian Economics book.

Another ethical theory might hinge around nature as the standard of value. In that case, animals would be considered to have rights, and humans could be put to death for the 'murder' of those animals. Or trees. Or slugs.

Another ethical theory might hinge around good or bad intentions. Then laws that violate rights aren't considered bad as long as they're created for the right reasons. Murders in the name of love are okay. And maybe hurting someone's feelings is a criminal offense.

Or maybe people believe that the will of God (take your pick) is the standard of value. Then murder is considered okay, while eating bacon is the most ghastly of crimes.

Some libertarians may try to side-step the issue of measuring costs entirely, because they don't have an adequate theory to support any particular conclusion. The result would be moral equivocation between semi-free nations and murderous dictatorships. It would result in moral condemnation of all immoral laws but at equal levels, regardless of the result. Laws that ended in death camps would be equally heinous as laws that restricted privacy.

We should now be able to see that there are very strong ties between politics and ethics. By making these connections clear, we can see the differences in views between Objectivists and those that would adopt just the politics. We can also understand concepts, like force, in a more complete way allowing us a more proper use and definition of the term.

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