Who Gets to Say?

An article recommended by a fellow blogger this morning got my attention.  It asks a simple but provocative question.  What are our moral obligations and who may tell us how to fulfill those?  Let’s start with an easy one.  Most sane people would agree that we are obligated not to molest others.  We can’t just take another’s possessions or harm another physically without some compelling and just reason, like self-defense.  (I’ll give you back the knife and your arm if you promise not to try to stab me again.)

For all our fascination with borderline cases, the core of our ethical system is fairly stable.  Don’t steal.  Don’t kill.  Don’t use your leaf blower at 4:00AM.  These are admonitions not to do certain things.  We also have a commonly understood collection of positive admonitions.  Help people in dire need, such as when they are drowning.  Treat people with dignity, at least until they prove they are utterly unworthy of consideration, like that guy who keeps trying to sell you vitamins.

The article raises the question of who.  That is, who gets to stop us from assaulting someone?  Unless you are a true anarchist, you probably believe that the state has a right to stop you.  Absent the state, the only mechanism to enforce a rule against molestation would be, well, you.  Or maybe some big-shouldered, grumpy friends.  Either way, we know that such a system would soon lead to anarchy, and not the good kind.  People with legitimate disagreements (is my Mojo Nixon music really too loud?) would wind up in a bloody fight.

What about “positive” rules, though?  A person callous enough to walk away from a drowning victim when he/she could clearly help would rightly draw despairing judgments from his/her fellows.  But does the state have a right to require that person to help?  What if the potential helper can’t swim?  If the current is too strong?  If the victim ran his leaf blower AND played Mojo Nixon at 4:00AM?

We have become a nation addicted to laws.  Every perceived offense provides ample opportunity for some energetic legislator to…DO SOMETHING!!!!  Someone say something mean about your ancestry?  No worries, that’s hate speech–there’s a law against that.  Out of shape?  Gotta make those nasty snack companies lay off the salt and sugar.  Not maximizing tax revenues for the city?  Get your butt off the property and let a car dealership go in there.  Eminent domain, saving cities from ruin daily.  We have people whom we have never met, with questionable intelligence and a clear deficit of judgment, managing everything from taxis to taxidermy.  Most times, the offending rules are not even laws, but bureaucratic regulations with the force of law.

For most of us, weaning ourselves off the hyper-regulatory state will be easy.  We just have to do what we have always done–manage ourselves wisely.  The bureaucrats and legislators will go kicking and screaming.  Please, we can manage steroids in baseball without your help and we can damn sure stuff an animal carcass.  Leave us alone.


Terry threw that last example in for the East Coasters who think we are all a bunch of toothless rednecks.  He wonders if they got it.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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