Friday, 23 January 2015

Ten Ethical Laws

(Neil's Note: This is a substantial excerpt from the Ethics part of Honest Common Sense. I am publishing it here in order to provide a freely available reference point for my current best thinking in this area.)

When I look at the ways in which civil human beings ought to behave in a society, I identify what I call Ethical Laws.

I see ten interlocking Laws, which underpin each individual’s responsibilities towards others. I’ll name them:

  1. Law of No Harm.
  2. Law of Restitution.
  3. Law of No Criminal Intent.
  4. Law of Civilization.
  5. Law of Reciprocity.
  6. Law of Truthfulness.
  7. Law of Independence.
  8. Law of Contract.
  9. Law of Parenthood.
  10. Law of No Aiding or Abetting.
Some may disagree with my formulation. That’s fine; there are many ways to skin this particular cat. So, if you think you can write a better set of Laws, please do. For competition is one of the prime movers of progress.

So, here are the Laws I put forward as a candidate basis for the law. That is, for the code of conduct natural to civil human beings, observance of which divides the civil from the uncivil.

Law of No Harm

Do not do or threaten violence or intentional harm to others, or violate others’ rights or freedom, except as may be justified in the following circumstances:

  1. In self-defence,
  2. In defence of another, or
  3. In the execution of common sense justice.
My first Law is the Law of No Harm. It is much broader than the Zero Aggression Principle (ZAP) promoted by many of my liberty friends. It also allows for the implementation of a justice system, so solving what I see as one of the ZAP’s major problems.

It starts from the basic premise: “First, do no harm.” So in the first instance, you should never intentionally harm others. Not physically, or financially, or psychologically, or in the reputation, or in any other way. Nor should you do violence to others; nor should you stalk or harass them; nor should you even threaten violence or harm. You shouldn’t violate others’ rights or freedom in any way, either.

But I then allow for three specific circumstances in which it can be justified to do or threaten harm, even intentional or at need violent harm. Each exception arises from a different necessity. The first, self-defence against aggression, is necessary for survival. The second, defence of another against aggression, allows civil human beings to defend each other against the uncivil. And the third makes it possible to implement systems of objective, common sense justice and law; what I’ll call the rule of law and justice.

The justice these institutions deliver must, however, be objective; a false claim to be acting in the interest of justice is a very serious fraud.

Law of Restitution

If your conduct unjustifiably causes harm to others that was reasonably foreseeable, you must compensate them if they require it.

My second law is the Law of Restitution. This covers the situation where your action – or, in rare cases, inaction – has caused actual harm to someone. In most cases, this means that you have a responsibility to provide restitution.

I’ll note four things about my formulation of this Law. First, it’s about consequences. It applies whether or not the harm was intentional. Even obeying the law isn’t always sufficient to avoid responsibility for restitution if you damage someone unjustly – though it often does help.

Second, it doesn’t apply to damage done in justified acts of self-defence, defence of others, or the execution of justice.

Third, it only applies where the damage was reasonably foreseeable. Or, otherwise put: harm, of the kind which resulted from the action or inaction, could reasonably have been expected to happen. This proviso is necessary to minimize the danger from false accusations of harm. To use a metaphor, a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil should not be held responsible for a famine in China.

And fourth, a consequence of this Law is that if you do something which poses a risk to others, you must make sure that you’re able to compensate them if things go wrong. For example, if you want to drive a car and so pose a degree of risk to other road users, you must have insurance, or some other arrangement, whereby you can meet your responsibilities in case of an accident.

The flip side of restitution is that – subject to common sense justice – you’re entitled to compensation for any objective harm which is done to you. In practice, though, many of us will often choose not to pursue this compensation. That may, perhaps, be because it’s too small to be worth the effort. Or it may be in a spirit of civilized tolerance – accepting others’ small faults, in expectation of being able to offset that acceptance, if you need to, against any small harms you may cause others. For everyone makes mistakes, and we all sometimes have bad moments. Only if the harm we suffer is significant, or persistent, or apparently intentional, will most of us pursue compensation.

Law of No Criminal Intent

On crime and punishment, I take quite a conventional view. I don’t support the idea touted by some of my liberty friends, that there can be no crime without a victim. Instead, I separate bad acts into two parts. The first is the civil law part, the consequences of the act to a victim or victims. This part is covered by the Law of Restitution. The second is the criminal law part; the intent, the so-called mens rea or guilty mind.

I find it quite possible that a bad act with no, or small, civil law consequences can be a crime, even a serious crime. The planting, by an incompetent terrorist, of a bomb that fails to go off is an example. The actual damage caused is low; but the damage intended was very high.

So, I agree with standard jurisprudence that a crime is created by the combination of act and mens rea. And that it’s justified to punish the perpetrator, above and beyond restitution to the victims if there are any. Provided that the punishment fits the crime, both in kind and severity.

I do, however, add two riders. One, prison should never be used as punishment for an individual who isn’t a real danger to others. And two, the death penalty shouldn’t be used if there is any possibility at all that the individual might have been wrongly convicted.

I list six types of mens rea in my Law of No Criminal Intent:

Do not act towards others with any of the following:

  1. Greed (trying to take more from others than you are justly entitled to),
  2. Malice or intolerance,
  3. Irresponsibility beyond the bounds of reason,
  4. A desire to create or aggravate injustice,
  5. An unjust desire to violate rights or freedom, restrict choices or obstruct free trade,
  6. A claim that you have moral rights that others do not.
I’ll add three notes. First, the implementation of a justice system may require some violation of rights or freedom, or restriction of choice or free trade, against those that have caused or intended harm. That is why the word “unjust” appears in the Law.

Second, intent to disobey legislation made by politicians isn’t necessarily criminal intent. Indeed, such disobedience is often noble; a fine example is given by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

And third, many actions of politicians, government officials and their cronies today are real crimes. In particular, lobbying for bad legislation is a crime. Making bad legislation is a crime. Enforcing bad legislation is a crime. Violating rights to try to police bad legislation is a crime. And, per the last type of mens rea above, any claim of sovereign immunity or state irresponsibility is a crime.

Law of Civilization

Uphold the principles of common sense justice, human rights and freedom.

The Law of Civilization is the one which feeds back from Ethics into Politics. It lays on each of us, as part of the law, an obligation to uphold three Principles underlying all Civilization. That is, Common Sense Justice, Common Sense Rights and Common Sense Freedom.

This Law is one of the very few parts of the law which can impose mandates. For example, in a system of justice which uses trial by jury, it imposes an obligation to do jury service when reasonably asked. And to do it properly, with full attention to Justice with a capital J.

It’s important to note that the obligations this Law imposes are to the Principles themselves, not to any particular government or system which tries to implement them. You must uphold Justice in the round, not necessarily any one provider of it. And you must uphold human rights and freedom as principles, not necessarily some particular organization which aims or claims to protect them.

It’s also important to note that most acts of politicians today, and of many other state functionaries, violate this Law.

Law of Reciprocity

Treat others at least as well as they treat you.

My fifth law I call Reciprocity, or (acknowledging my debt to Confucius) Neil’s Golden Rule. It reflects that, not only must we uphold justice as a general principle, but we must also uphold it as individuals. For example, we must be polite to those who are polite to us. We should be friendly to those who are friendly towards us. And we must treat peacefully those who treat us peacefully.

What of those, that treat us badly? Each of us has the right to defend ourselves against them, with or without the help of others. We can shun or ostracize them, if we wish. And, at need, we have the right to bring them to justice, to claim restitution from them and, if appropriate, to get them punished for their crimes.

Furthermore, when individuals that have treated us badly also failed to show consideration for us, we are not obliged to show any more consideration to them in return.

But we always have the option to behave better towards them than they have done towards us. As with the Law of Restitution, we can choose to be tolerant, and waive some of our rights under the Law of Reciprocity if we so wish.

Law of Truthfulness

Never knowingly lie, deceive, mislead or bullshit, unless strictly necessary to defend yourself or another.

My sixth Law is Truthfulness. It requires civil human beings to be always truthful and straightforward, except in two circumstances, both of which run parallel to the exceptions to the Law of No Harm.

There are, indeed, circumstances where it’s OK to lie in self-defence. These can happen particularly when dealing with bureaucracy. As an example, back in 1983 my work took me to Indonesia, and I had to apply for a residence permit. One of the questions on the form was, “What is your religion?” At the time, I was in my hard atheist phase. But I was advised that to write “Atheist” in that box would probably get me refused a permit. This was because atheism at that time was in many Indonesian people’s minds equated to communism, which was greatly hated because of the attempted communist coup there in 1965. So I wrote “Anglican” in that box. After all, I had been a full member of the Anglican church for about 18 months during my teenage years. So it was a true answer; just fifteen or so years late.

Similarly, it can be OK to lie to those you think have no good intentions. If thugs come round asking for the person next door, it may not be a good idea to tell them where he’s gone for the week-end.

But, unlike the Law of No Harm, it is not OK to lie or deceive for common sense justice. For, if justice is not truthful, it is nothing. Disraeli was no fool! Thus the sting operations often used by police – for example, sending into a shop someone who is “legally” too young to buy cigarettes or alcohol – are violations of the law.

And violations of truthfulness can also bring into play the Law of Restitution. If you knowingly lie to someone, giving them reason to believe that what you told them was true, and as a result they suffer unjust harm, then you owe them compensation. Deliberate untruthfulness can even, if bad enough, violate the Law of No Criminal Intent.

Law of Independence

Strive to be independent in thought and actions, to avoid becoming a drain on others, and to take full responsibility for your own life.

My seventh law, Independence, reflects that each human being is an individual, not a herd animal. And that we must be ourselves, always aiming to live in our own individual way.

Each of us must cut our own path through life, economically and in all other ways. And we must also be independent in another sense; we must not voluntarily let ourselves become a drain on others. But the “strive to...” wording allows for a waiver if circumstances outside the individual’s control get in the way.

Law of Contract

Always strive to do what you have freely and knowingly agreed to do.

My eighth Law, Contract, is the basis of trade between human beings. If you make an agreement to do something, voluntarily and in full knowledge of what you have taken on, then you must always try to fulfil your side of the agreement. If the task becomes impossible, or not worth doing, for reasons outside your control, there may be scope for re-negotiation. But the basic rule is; don’t break your contracts.

Law of Parenthood

If you have children, bring them up and educate them to be civil human beings.

My ninth Law, Parenthood, applies only to those who have children. It is, I believe, accepted as conventional wisdom.

I’ll make several further points. First, having children isn’t just a responsibility, but a huge privilege too. For to be able to transmit your own qualities and characteristics to the future is an opportunity which only honest, civil individuals deserve.

It goes further. If evolution is, as we are told, Darwinian – survival of the fittest, and all that – then, by having children, you are claiming that you’re fitter to continue the race than those of us who have never had an opportunity to have children. Have you thought how insulting it is to people without children, first to claim that you’re a better person than they are, then to turn round and make major demands on them, like economic support?

Second, parents are responsible, until the children are adult, for the consequences of their children’s actions. This is because children are not yet fully moral agents. So, parents do have a right to control their children. But they should only do this in ways that are compatible with common sense justice, and without using force except in extreme need.

Third, parents have the responsibility to bring up and educate their children to become civil human beings; to obey the law. In the words of a professional philosopher friend, they must seek to make “a human environment of individuals who will be an asset rather than a liability to you, me and themselves.”

Fourth, they must do it without draining those around them financially, emotionally or in any other way. And fifth, those who can’t, or don’t want to, take on the responsibility of bringing up children, should avoid having children.

Having said all that, I feel a need to wade into the abortion debate. The crux of the matter is, at what point does an individual acquire the rights of a human being? At conception, at birth, or at some other time? For example, when a fetus becomes able to survive outside the womb, per Roe v. Wade? Or even when an infant becomes self-aware? This debate is so ferocious because, as in metaphysical debates, it’s impossible to prove that one or another assumption is correct.

I take what seems to me the common sense view, that an individual acquires these rights at birth. And that therefore, while abortion is not to be encouraged, it must be available as a last-chance option to avoid a greater tragedy. And only the parents – and most of all, the mother – can make that decision.

Law of No Aiding or Abetting

To the last of my Laws. Aiding or abetting crime is seen, in the conventional view, as itself a crime. And rightly so. Hence my Law of No Aiding or Abetting:

Do not knowingly aid, encourage or condone any violation of the law.

Otherwise put: don’t help others to break the law, or egg them on to do so. And don’t regard violations of the law as acceptable.

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