The State as Ethical Agent

Another post!  I have started my master program, but I’ve been busy.  I plan to update once a week on Friday or Saturday.

I just had an interesting conversation with another person in my program.  We were talking about whether it was right to sacrifice an (essentially) unlimited number of people for someone that you love.  His very strong inclination was that he would make such a sacrifice, without really caring whether it was right or not.  I felt that the right thing to do would be to sacrifice a loved one for an immense number of other people.

What I would like to talk about in this post is not that issue exactly.  I’m rather inclined to think, when it comes to problems such as the one I describe above, that we will never reach a real solution.  We will continue to develop and invent moral systems to help us in making challenging choices, but (in line with my general theory of autonomy) the most we can do is be invested in the process.

The new ground that I want to cover today is the the government as an ethical actor.  In certain ways a government can be considered strongly analogous to a human actor.  Fortunately governments mostly have the same moral concerns as we do.  Governments do not have individualistic attachments however.  Though a government can have priorities and biases, it must have a significant amount of corruption to be attached to individual people.  Though government has only so much power to act ethically based on the limits of our ethical theories, it can apply these theories in an inhumanly impartial way (though in a democracy it remains strongly tethered to public opinion).

A government is still limited in that it must maintain its working parts to function – in a sense it is maintaining itself by maintaining its people.  Extreme utilitarian maximization (focus all money on healthcare and military, maybe) will exhaust a government/country in the same way it exhausts an individual, since a government is comprised of individuals.

This is a very, very rough idea.  I’ll work on it some more, and see if I get anywhere with it.

Let me know what you think,


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3 thoughts on “The State as Ethical Agent

  1. That is, I think, an extremely relevant question in this day in age, when on the one hand a large percent of our ruling populace is barking mad, and another large group is preaching the Gospel of Ayn Rand.

    Here’s my perspective; government as an ethical agent is a sort of cobbled together means of solving the tragedy of the commons. I know you’re in the master’s program so you’ve probably heard of it, but just in case (or for those who haven’t), you have a bunch of shepherds who are sharing a plot of land that doesn’t belong to anyone in particular, but is shared in common. One shepherd discovers the principle of rational self-interest and realizes if he breeds a bunch of sheep, he will make more money. Since the commons isn’t noticeably depleted, what does it matter, right? Another shepherd sees this and thinks “Gee! If he can do it, so can I” and so he does. Still, with just two shepherds, the commons isn’t noticeably affected. But once you have a large amount of shepherds doing this, the commons gets gobbled up, goes brown, and everyone (who were each merely following their rational self-interest) suffers equally. I hear tell this is pretty much what happened to the people on Easter Island, only with them it was through logging.

    So basically, in a society where everyone (in theory) is following their rational self-interest, there needs to be a group whose individual self-interest is (in theory) protecting the common good and preventing the tragedy of the commons. If we simply let libertarians have at it, the collective individual self-interest (yes, I actually just said that) might improve society in the short term, but it will burn up our “commons” (say, the environment, or the consumers/workers) in the long run and thus lead to the rational dis-interest of the collective whole, corporate or the average Joe Schmoe. The government exists because while we may (or more likely not) be rationally self-interested in the short term, we have absolutely no conception of what would be our rational self-interest in the long term, because each and every one of us has labelled that, in a rational and self-interested sort of way, some other poor bastard’s problem.

    And that is my Dos Pesos!

    • I agree, the government is in large part a way of solving the tragedy of the commons. The element I’d add is that it is also a means of pooling resources, under the assumption that a single entity can undergo large projects such as making a coordinated army or building roads or the like more efficiently then many small groups.

  2. Very true. It’s hard to imagine how Libertarians would solve the problem of collective efforts such as infrastructure and armed forces, though Neil Stephenson had a rather creative, if somewhat dystopic, view of it in “Snow Crash.” Excellent novel, by the way.

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