Monday, December 18, 2006

Ethical Anarchism

I've come up with a theory (really, a possible theory, since I've worked out almost no details) in political philosophy which I think may be original -- in the strong sense that no one has said it before. Better yet, if it is true, it is far from trivial. I also more than half suspect that it is true!

I call it "ethical anarchism." I am not really sure that this is what I should call it. It sounds like "ethical egoism," which is a sort of ethical theory. But what I call "ethical anarchism" is not a sort of ethic. It is a sort of anarchism.

First, as to nomenclature, let me say that this theory has nothing (necessarily!) to do with the idea that we ought to act now to abolish the state. In political philosophy, anarchism of whatever type is really a view about the value of the state or its moral justification. What we should do about it is a different question, though no doubt a related one.

It is a theory about the relation between two "realms," ie., two domains of explanation and justification, namely the moral and the political. In this sense, "the political" refers to matters that essentially involve the state.

First, before I tell you what the idea is, I need to clarify one point. I make a sharp distinction between law and the state, between rule by law and state rule. Failure to make this distinction is probably the single most potent factor that prevents ethical anarchism from being as obvious as a thunderclap. It also is one thing that makes the very idea of "the government of laws and not of men" seem counterintuitive to some people. What! Aren't laws made by men -- that is, by the state.? I say that, so far from being a creature of the state, rule by law in a certain way an alternative to state-rule.

In its broadest terms, law is the process of subjecting human conduct to the governance of rules. (Here you can see I am influenced by Lon Fuller, who defines it this way in The Morality of Law.) Sometimes states are mechanisms for enforcing the law, and sometimes they are sources of lawlessness and chaos. Law (often in the form of traditional norms of conduct) is much, much older than state rule. Law means standards. State means a certain enduring monopolistic concentration of force.

States have a very powerful mystique. People who are subject to them tend to attribute to them properties that strongly resemble the divine. The state is the creator of the difference between right and wrong. What it says, goes. It is much more closely associated with The Good than other human institutions (except for overtly religious ones). It represents public property, public spaces, and the public good. The rest is narrow, insular, merely "private."

Briefly, ethical anarchism is the thesis that all this is an illusion, a moral illusion (on the analogy of an optical illusion). More exactly, it is the thesis that no political concept has, in and of itself, any moral force whatsoever. If the state tells you to do something, that does not give you a moral duty to do it. If it calls you a citizen, that does not (by itself) morally entitle you to anything. If it calls you an enemy, that does not (same qualification) make you evil.

Another implication: No state, or officer of the state, has any right to do anything that private individuals couldn't do in relevantly similar circumstances. If I can't pull out a gun and stop you from taking an dangerous drug just because I know it is dangerous, then that same knowledge does not entitle the state to do the same thing (no drug-prohibition rights). If I can't forcibly compel you to fight Iraqis or Iranians, neither can the government do so (no conscription rights). If I can't coercively take money from you just because I would spend it more virtuously than you, then virtuous motives to not entitle the state to do the same (no taxation rights). This particular idea was already discussed by Robert Nozick. He called it "no emergent rights." No new rights emerge when private individuals combine to form a state. They don't suddenly get rights that no one had before. Ethical anarchism might be called "no emergent anything."

What makes ethical anarchism possible is the fact that political and moral concepts are isomorphic: both can be formulated as systems of requirements and ideals. Both distinguish between putative right and putative wrong. Both give reasons for doing things. Both give deeper reasons to back up those reasons. Thus it is possible to confuse the two, or to think that the authority of the moral automatically transfers to that of the political. Ethical anarchism says that this is an illusion. It is a form of nihilism. It amounts to realism about the moral and nihilism about the political.


Matthew said...

Regarding: "Another implication: No state, or officer of the state, has any right to do anything that private individuals couldn't do in relevantly similar circumstances."

The first thing that I thought of was that you seem to have stumbled on a kind of categorical imperative for the state: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time allow that it be acted on by the individual.

I find that the distinction between the moral and the political is all too often overlooked. I don't know how many times my morality has been questioned in response to certain of my political beliefs (e.g. that the state should not have the right to take from the rich and give to the poor). Sorry for the late post. What is the status of your work/thoughts on Ethical Anarchism?

Lester Hunt said...

"Sorry for the late post."

Oh, thanks for commenting! I am hoping to write a book on this subject, but it's looking like there is another book or two that I will have to finish before I can really get to work on that one. The one thing I've written that is most closely related to it is here:

It's just now being published in Italian. In it, I make something very much like your point about the "categorical imperative for the state."

And then there's this.