Powers ’15: Principles of American ethics

Opinions Columnist
Thursday, February 13, 2014

A few weeks ago, President Obama delivered his annual State of the Union address, in which he urged Congress to raise the national minimum wage to $10.10. This proposal was quickly derided by the American right as another socialist attempt to redistribute wealth.

Practically speaking, I understand the liberal desire to shy away from the use of un-American phrases such as “wealth redistribution.” But despite the rhetorical drawback of this characterization, this position is easily morally defensible.

One hundred dollars in the hands of a homeless man certainly generates more happiness than it would in the hands of Bill Gates. If we believe a happier society to be a “better” society, then it’s an empirical matter to determine the optimal amount of wealth redistribution. Contrastingly, politically conservative individuals claim the non-negotiable right to the fruits of one’s labor.

The current controversy surrounding President Obama’s proposal has merely highlighted an underlying ongoing problem.

In the context of American politics, nearly all arguments are grounded in two attractive but often conflicting, moral systems: the preservation of rights and the maximization of the social good. It shouldn’t surprise us when we encounter intractable political disagreement. We can justify our views through these two contradictory principles, and nearly all individuals will invoke each of them at least once in the justification of their political positions.

This country was founded on primarily libertarian principles in line with John Locke’s work on the voluntary nature of social contract theory. In Locke’s work, government existed only through the continual consent of the governed, and laws were passed with the express purpose of preserving minimalist natural rights. Apart from the massively unequal distribution of rights away from minorities and women, late eighteenth-century America is probably the closest any society has ever come to the idealized society mentioned in Robert Nozick’s book, “Anarchy, State and Utopia.” The philosopher and political theorist antithetically paralleled the Marxist theory of justice, writing, “From each as they choose, to each as they are chosen.”

For better or for worse, this is not the America of today. What were once considered to be unalienable personal liberties have been eroded in the name of the social good. This utilitarian principle of maximizing the welfare of our society is used to justify countless government invasions of personal liberty, from NSA spying to stop-and-frisk to socialized medicine.

Political parties appeal to each principle when it suits them. Republicans defend the right to one’s own money while allowing torture in the name of national security. Democrats defend a woman’s right to choose while arguing that the poor would benefit if given the wealth of others. Of course, politicians attempt to phrase their position in terms of both principles in order to attract more voters. The purported social benefits of trickle-down economics as well as the right of the poor to a certain standard of living are both relevant examples. Rarely do these secondary arguments contribute to the motivating force of the position. Their sole purpose is to make it more palatable to the opposition.

Americans disagree not only on the means by which their government should achieve its ends but also on the ends themselves. Unless they’ve thought seriously about ethics and philosophy, most individuals’ intuitions regarding morality are at this superficial level. This is natural, as our emotions regarding issues like gun rights, drug prohibition, and same-sex marriage are much more tangible than those regarding abstract ethical principles.

It’s not possible to resolve a conflict of principles by debating the specific issues to which they apply. These debates will always be unproductive, because they will not address the underlying conflict of principles that is responsible for the apparent political disagreement. This is a common case of individuals unintentionally — and unknowingly — talking past one another rather than engaging with the actual issue.

Most people have no system for determining when each principle applies, and in what way. If an individual attempted to retroactively create a system using these two principles that would fit all of his intuitions regarding specific issues, he would certainly run into logical inconsistency. Further, this process would be entirely ad hoc. When we solve math problems we don’t find intuitive answers and then make up arbitrary steps to justify them. Rather, we make an intuitive set of simple rules first and examine the consequences that follow. Our treatment of ethics should work similarly.

We shouldn’t simply ask, “which policies are moral?” so much as, “what principles make a policy moral?” Obtaining a satisfactory answer to the former won’t be possible without first coming to terms with the latter. Americans should consider these fundamental principles when deciding their stances on political issues. For instance, under what circumstances should government restrict individuals’ autonomy over their own actions? Do people have control over and bear responsibility for their own well-being? What about the well-being of the other conscious entities around them or the potentially conscious entities within them?

If the history of the study of ethics is at all indicative of future progress, then these disagreements of principle will likely be just as stubborn as those of specific policies. But if we’re going to rely solely on our intuitions to try to effectuate important social, political and economic decisions, let’s at least do it in a logical manner.


Andrew Powers ’15 can be reached at

One Comment

  1. '`*-.,_,-*'`*~-.,.~*'*~ (2014) says:

    this reads like a preface to a polisci 101 textbook — but a well-written one. i don’t think u were going for original thought here, just setting forth some basic problems and their importance, and u did that well.

    ur right that polisci sh*theads are reluctant to acknowledge when they’re talking past each other and that they should try harder to track down their divergence in opinion, whether that’s theoretical considerations (‘this is what we’re going for’) or practical ones (‘this is the right way to get there’). i think that intelligent people often end up reaching that point organically, without invoking locke or mills or whatever. and while locke and mills are important, i don’t agree with u that that’s where we should start. 99.999% of the time it makes more sense to discuss our desired ends within the scope of an issue and then work our way down to more fundamental concerns if we need to.

    see, e.g., the andrews commons discussion. moraff’s like, ‘the $$ should be going to aid bc MISSION OF AFFORDABLE EDUCATION but brown just cares about the deep pockets’ and then commenters come in expressing their own priorities e.g. ‘no i think the important thing is investing in facilities efficiently’ (there’s some implicit deeper priority there but it’s not fleshed out, maybe it’s student qol or maybe it’s increasing the endowment idk). they’re not talking past each other, they’re clearly expressing what they find important. moraff might reply with ‘no the goal should be accessibility bc brown has _____ obligation to society bc a just society is _____’ (jfc i want to punch myself in the face for typing all that but i’m not going to delete it bc i wrote it)

    so yea u can carry that out until u get to the ~deep moral questions~ but like u acknowledged in the last para, things don’t become any clearer all the way down there. it makes more sense to work ur way down to where ur principles disagree, and either stop there (my vote) or start arguing about those principles. u really think we should start on such shaky ground? we’ll never get anywhere!! i get that it’s more logically consistent to establish basic moral principles first but no one can even get it straight in their own heads what fundamental principles they like. even if ur not a moral relativist u could believe that the ~ultimate truths~ of right and wrong are so complex that each issue involves different concerns — sometimes the utilitarian approach is right, sometimes the preservation of individual rights. it’s not post hoc rationalization unless ur being intellectually dishonest, like the people in ur examples. it’s a thoughtful analysis of ur intuitions in the context of a specific issue. if u do end up contradicting yourself somewhere along the way, you’ll realize that and rethink ur position.

    tl;dr: sure it’s important to keep the bigger questions in mind and examine the principles ur working with, but ur not obligated to start there… that’s just impractical

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