Tuesday, November 17, 2009

An honest inquiry

In short: why do so many people who say that we shouldn't force people to "do good", say we should punish people who "do bad"?

Some musings, hastily thrown together, on a subject that I've been wondering about since the summer, provoked largely by my readings on educational and income disparity. The following is neither exhaustive nor particularly cogent, and is barely logically coherent; it is not intended to be any of the above, but rather merely to verbalize musings, provoke thought, and request further input:

One of the more convincing arguments against positive social welfare policies* that I have been presented, is that the enactment of such policies equates, essentially, to the litigation of morality: making good action compulsory for a society - as a whole and, by extension, as individuals - removes the potential for individual moral action. The argument presumes that it is valuable, if not inherently necessary, to allow individuals room for real moral choice; take, for instance, the case of welfare**.

In such a case, I've heard it argued, the government should not act to provide for unemployed or unemployable individuals, because it should lie on the conscience of every moral actor within the state to do so. For the government to dictate that state funds should be used for the provision of aid to such persons is suboptimal, because, in such a case, the government is now overstepping its bounds: instead of providing its people with a stable framework within which to make ethical decisions, the state is now making those decisions on behalf of the people. Essentially, the argument seems to run, legislating morality reduces the ability of people to make moral choices.

OK, I can ride with that, at least to a certain degree.

My question arises from the fact that, as far as I can tell, there exists a sizable population of those who would use an argument similar to that presented above to argue against positive social welfare policies, but, when confronted with a negative social welfare policy***, seem to believe that thusly legislating morality is unproblematic. For example, I believe (with little evidence beyond the personally anecdotal) that there are many people for whom generous welfare policies are repellent because they compel agents into action without moral choice, who, at the same time, oppose gay marriage, precisely because it is morally wrong.

This seems contradictory to me.

Is it? Is there some fundamental difference between positive legislation of morality and negative legislation? Perhaps gay marriage - or strict gun control, the death penalty, harsh enforcement of Reagan-era drug laws, etc. - presents a threat to the very structure of the rule of law in a way that large numbers of unsupported, unemployed citizens (or, to touch on a hornet's nest: "illegal immigrants") do not; and, as such, should be legislated against in a distinct way, being that one of the necessary components for a stable state be a code of law that supports its own enforcement, rather than being self-undermining. In such a case, I would grudgingly agree that, while suboptimal, the necessity of such negative moral legislation is manifest.

But I don't see this argument for negative moral legislation obtaining, at least not in a way that is clearly distinguished from the argument for the necessity of positive moral legislation.

To sum up: There are people who say that certain aid policies (welfare, Affirmative Action, etc.) are wrong, as giving people support decreases the need for individual agents to take morally praiseworthy action. Of those people, however, many argue that morally proscriptive policies (anti-abortion, outlawing gay marriage, etc.) are necessary. This seems contradictory.

I'm sure that I have friends & readers who have put in thought, and have well-considered insight on this particular issue. Please, your thoughts?

*i.e., those policies that actively work to provide recompense for the unduly disadvantaged, rather than to eliminate the conditions which lead to social inequality (in broad terms: think affirmative action, as opposed to abolishing slavery).

**Note: this is not the only, or even the best, argument against welfare. My intent isn't to pronounce a stance on Welfare-in-concept or the current welfare system, simply to outline a single stance I have seen articulated.

***"Negative," in this case not meaning "bad", but meaning "preventative", as opposed to "positive" meaning "constructive"

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