You have all these RULES, and you think they'll save you! -The Joker, from The Dark Knight
Warning, January 2016: This is a long blog, and in some ways a pointless one. I tried to write it in a way that you could understand the terms and topics without prior critical thought on the subjects, but that is nearly impossible in a blog-length publication and the entire point of the discussion - the necessity of shared values over rules and the underlying cracking of the foundation of freedom - certainly can't be shoehorned in there after the fact. If you're going to read this, take your time.
When I was younger, I generally thought acting right was a fairly straightforward thing, and it hardly registered that there would be conflicts over what constituted being good. Of course, I also went to church and there simply were no public arguments over the subject that I knew of. But it also didn't strike me as a problem when I came around to the postmodernist notion that morality is a cultural thing and highly variable, and that there was no absolute, universal morality. The cultural relativism of morality has always made perfect sense to me. But there are problems, as I would eventually discover. Knowing your morality is actually cultural regulations, conditioned into you, changes the game. People must now come to grips with the notion that what they believe holds no intrinsic legitimacy, except in the egoistic sense.
Philosophers dealing with the new postmodern situation lean heavily on a past imbued with organized religion to create ethical systems that are both functional and attractive. The attraction part is more important than the functional part for creating popularity, necessary in a democracy, which has left us with some strange systems; I'm going to go over some basics here by dividing them up between the ethics based on rules and the ethics based on values, aka honor. The relationship between honor and values might take some explaining, because it gets little play today, and I've basically had to think that through myself.
What is the wellspring of moral behavior? Many philosophers roll with the notion of utilitarianism, or its more sophisticated, very close sibling, consequentialism. They split these two notions up, but that's vaguely ridiculous: you want a condition that you value to come into existence in both cases. Really, what's the difference? Consequentialists obviously value an end-state, and this is presumably because that state creates utility. Action is taken and creates results; whether you say those results create positive utility or positive consequences is a semantics question, so I think consequentialism and utilitarianism are too similar to be separated. There are lots of hokey interpretations here, so I'm boiling it down like this: if you endorse or condemn behavior because the results of it are more or less of what you value, then your ethics are based on values.
Many people deeply misunderstand the concept of utilitarianism by supposing that it relates to goals as vapid as increased material welfare, which is basically an insult to the process of economic thinking. Economics need not dictate values; the reason it often focuses on material welfare is because that's what people demonstrably want. Were people's goals to change, economics could easily continue to function, just with different priorities; the market system, or any system which takes values into account, can incorporate anything in the realm of the possible.What changes is currencies and concepts, but they all must be evaluated. Economic logic is, then, simply logic. Von Mises' Human Action, the fundamental text on praxeology, says more on this.
What's important is the value system and the use of currency to relate it. Language, which is a currency, allows this by allowing people who know the same language to exchange their ideas, providing a medium. But language is intrinsically attached to subjective ideas in the mind and all language use is open to interpretation. If you want to pare down evaluation to something directly communicable with no subjective baggage, then the best way to do it is to use numbers. Hence, money.
Let me explain. Take all the bullshit you know about freedom, rights, and good versus evil, and put it to the side. Don't start an analysis by making value judgments. Just know that people make those judgments.
People take certain things to have value and be worth pursuit with action, and what defines value is inequality. Some things are more valuable than others; if they weren't, then nothing would hold any actionable value at all, and decisions would be impossible because of perpetually confounding opportunity costs. I'd say that values which do not provoke action are not values; they're delusional beliefs, used mostly for rhetorical manipulation. People say things about what has value all the time; what they say is far less important than what they do.
Values are subjective and getting people onto the same page in regard to what values are "true" is a matter of exercising power. This means manipulating by means of force, incentive, or rhetoric. Money, along with other currencies like language, is a tool that represents value in number form. You value something, be it material or conceptual, and you place an integer on it. And we look at people with respect to their value as well.
Obviously, we have the makings of power struggle here. Individuals are constantly trying to increase their value among others, through perception and usefulness; every king wearing fine robes and every CEO driving a Mercedes is sending a message. People with similar values form groups which identify themselves by their values, those groups become powerful if their values, that which drives them to action, empower their group. The currencies at play are attention, language, and money, each building on the others at times. Holding those currencies gives a person or group leverage to use over others, because when they are exchanged for whatever that person or group values, the relative plenty or scarcity of that currency defines the degree of power, based on inequalities.
This is how societies have always worked.
There's obviously more to it, but that's a basic rundown. Values are the core of societies, and without them, you just have a bunch of people in a mess. Trust and respect come with consistently high evaluation of one individual by others. Thus, we have honor. To behave in an honorable fashion is to behave in a way that is concerned with how others evaluate you. People think about what kind of person you are based on your actions, and they create expectations for you based on your past action, establishing the trust and respect, how much they think you are worth to a society they consider legitimate, meaning a society which operates roughly within the framework of their values. To use a term we're all familiar with, honor is a credit rating, based on everything you do in the presence of others, well beyond the financial. Since only those who know you can be reasonably good judges of this, then honor is intrinsically parochial. Proximity and perception make all the difference.
Deontology operates on the assumption that moral behavior can be encapsulated by rules. Think Immanuel Kant. Obviously, some rules propose to create a sought-after end-state, and they combine rule and value, ie rule consequentialism. But raw deontology insinuates something else. Rules from the alternate perspective are intended to be metaphysically correct strictures and not simply means to the end-state; they are rules endorsed by a higher power. Deontology's prefix is, after all, "deo"; religion is strongly implied. Think about it for a second: does truly living by rules as anything more than a temporal convenience make any sense if there is nothing beyond the material world? Of course not, but still people today subscribe to certain rules being simply "right" and assigning terms like "evil" to those who violate - or even consider violating - them.
Rules have the tremendous advantage of being straightforward strictures that otherwise allow the individual to explore whatever avenues they like. Rules encumber only to the degree expressed by the rule; to the degree that an individual can imagine it, you can see an understanding here that, so long as people stay within them, one can be set free by rules instead of being limited by them. If you consider the rules to be blessed, metaphysically correct strictures against evil that good people shouldn't want to break, turning any desire for this evil on the self, then one can make rules and liberty compatible. That is, provided the rules are agreed on by all and enforced objectively, and that is also provided that the rules actually work to resolve conflicts of interest. With those notions taken care of, rules can expand creativity and promote healthy change.
On the other hand, rules are frequently too general, have poor comprehension of people's ways around them, and seem arbitrary or nakedly irrational under many circumstances because of their proposed universality. In the situation where rules and values are in sync - say, when we both grant privileges to veterans who we believe earned them, or where we arrest people of obviously low value who are breaking the law - the rules and values reinforce each other and the rule is a convenience. But they say nothing about people's value to one another, and this may result in what some people perceive as unfairness, like when a good person makes a single mistake and the law cuts no breaks. The statue of justice holding the scales with a blindfold is foolishness: how do you judge someone if you don't look at who they are, what they've done, what patterns their lives follow, how much others care about what happens to them? In real life, judges take information about character into account in the courtroom, and most people will readily agree that they should.
We know that inflexible, blanket rules don't work well, even the basics, and thus all our rules have exceptions of some kind:
Thou shalt not kill: what about in self defense?
Thou shalt not steal: what if they stole from you first? what if you have to steal to eat? what if you're the government and taking people's money without giving them a choice - taxation - is necessary?
Thou shalt not rape: Please describe the point at which drunken consensual sex turns into drunken non-consensual sex, and explain how to enforce it without "drunk fucking" laws as stringent as drunk driving laws.
So many rules are stupid and sloppy. According to the Robinson-Patman Act, the government has outlawed what is called "price discrimination". This means that a manufacturer cannot sell a large chain its product at a low price, while selling a small chain the product at a higher price; the law exists because such practices are anti-competitive. But it also outlaws buyer's groups, where individual consumers get together to negotiate low prices for bulk goods. Really, buyer's groups are a great idea for cooperative individuals, allowing people to take advantages of economies of scale. Why are those groups outlawed then? Because buyer's groups are "discriminatory" towards those not in the group. The difference between buyer's groups and anti-competitive practices by the manufacturer is somewhat difficult to define, basically one of intention; another word for a buyer's group might be a "store" and Sam's Club would be out if it weren't seeking a profit from individual consumers. Other examples of price discrimination - the senior citizens' discount at the movie theater, for example - are intuitively moral goods. This happens a lot; there are endless details to every rule where authorities must really hack down to the most probable and improbable possibilities of behavior and calculate pro and con to determine whether a rule is a good idea, and in the process, they must accept that the rule will make the ideal outcome just as unlikely as not having a rule.
Have you heard of the Supreme Court justice who said that he didn't know what the definition of pornography was, but he knew it when he saw it? If you know how to deconstruct language with the slightest bit of probing interest, you can end up in this situation very quickly. Language is not exact; it is really only intended to operate within the context of what culture has dealt with before. Evidently, Wittgenstein broke new ground by saying this, although one wonders how arrogant a philosopher has to be to have any other opinion of language. But anyway, this facet of rules holds problems for creativity; unprecedented situations can wreak havoc on law, and while a "good" and creative person is your society's best hope for progress, an "evil" and creative person is its worst nightmare. Thankfully, most people aren't nearly as original as they like to think they are.
When it comes to human action, it goes either according to accepted behavior, or not. It can be encapsulated by the experience of society, or not. Society can create strictures and traditional responses for expected behaviors; the status quo desires predictability. If this sounds unpleasant to you, like oppressive anti-freedom, then think deeper. What do you want in your life? Constant change that challenges without letting up? Extreme variation? Not being able to get used to anything, get comfortable, understand the sequence of events? Few people want that. Most people have an affinity for the familiar, right down to their preferred aesthetic styles that remind them fondly of the past. Right down to the desires for a career and relationships that conform to society's accepted vision of what is good. Change is disturbing, quite literally, in a social context, like wrenches thrown into smoothly functioning machine parts.
To reject accepted patterns of behavior and strike out on your own is not only a risk to you but a risk to all those affected by you. Now, change is a necessary response to shifting environmental conditions, and thus creativity is necessary. There is no society with the absolute power necessary to completely control its environment and bring about absolute predictability... and humans aren't meant for it anyway. So we like change, to a degree. Young people particularly like change. The old prefer stability. So the rules get updated as conditions change, and this pattern of shifting regulation can be seen as correct in its own right, or as a tool for creating incentives.
Today, rules are beloved by liberals because they support the government, elected and ostensibly reflective of everyone's values equally, as a bulwark of power management. The government creates strictures, the necessary ones, just the ones needed to hold back to assholes, and let's everyone else do as they may. Beyond this creation of rules, it does not judge people's value. And as people change, strictures can be loosened as feasible, so long as the government is beholden to the popular. The vision is one of eventual growth of personal freedom, as the individual internalizes rules and drops the tendency towards "evil" behavior; I question this vision, given that no action is intrinsically evil in my view.
Liberals generally do not want to evaluate people, subscribing to the notion of equal and infinite value for all. That's at the core a Christian idea. This makes sense if you view people as a product of their environment and do not place one value system above another. I'm not at all convinced that people do this, or can do it.
Evaluating Rules and Values
What supports rules? What gives them power?
There are two options: one is force. The government compels adherence to the rules with the monopoly on violence. The other option is the values of the people being regulated. People must value the state of affairs the law aims to bring about to consider the law legitimate.
We absolutely need both. The Rule of Law cannot exist without honor and values.
Authors like Malcolm Gladwell have emphasized in popular writing the academic perspective that societies based on the rule of law are superior to societies of honor, but this fundamentally misconstrues the situation. Social order based on rule of law has a further basis in honor. You are not choosing between one and the other; you are building the rule of law - a broad administrative convenience - on top of a foundation of honor.
It's easy to lose sight of this today, in a world where we are not nearly as close to each other, or as dependent on each other as individuals, than in past societies. Our evaluations of one another are brief and shallow, and we keep a degree of space from one another that interferes with good judgment of character. This is, I'm sure, one reason for the loss of social capital noted by researchers like Robert Putnam. But if you look at the values society instills on its members as being oppressive, then you're likely to see advantages to relying on rules instead of honor. Rules are clear, and can be constructed to create a minimum of stricture on the individual, just enough to prevent anarchy. Values require conformity; you must always be concerned with what others think, minding your reputation, willing to change who you are.
But are these difficulties something we can do without? Can society function as a system without us evaluating one another? Do those evaluations have a greater importance than simply preventing anarchy? Can a society, in other words, function without commonly held standards beyond law? Because the more law tries to step in for evaluation by peers, the more oppressive it seems to become. The failures of our criminal justice system, in particular, become particularly onerous under this condition.
Values are hierarchical; those who are valued more by others have higher status than those who are valued less. That's in the definition. How we behave socially, our work, our relationships all affect how we are evaluated by others, and not everyone is equal. And one reason why people might be ignoring the difficulties of a society built on something other than honor is the desire to be liberated from hierarchy.
The law treats those who have not broken it as equal; more and more of society seems to believe - despite a solid cynicism surrounding the government that creates the laws - that this state of affairs is truly right in some way, that people are equal until the law has been broken. But that's ridiculous: anyone who's done right by people knows better than to think that the law encapsulates the value of the individual. But the law starts with equality, and as the moral influence of law expands, no form of coercion - not reputation, nor economic desire, nor ostracism - can be used to bring the individual to cooperate with society as a body, with its standards and values. The incentives fade. This idea of equality strictly benefits those who are disliked, even reviled, by the general public, even with good reason. And by undercutting the evaluations of people and leaving those who have earned respect with no recourse to empowerment, such reliance on law kills the potential for order and harmony, for people to come together under a broadly accepted values structure that makes a culture a culture. It promotes alienation.
You've seen the Dark Knight? If, upon catching the Joker, Batman and Gordon had been entrusted to evaluate the situation, they could have at least had the choice to say that the Joker held negative social value, was perpetually dangerous, and executed the bastard on the spot, Judge Dredd-style. This is exactly what people fear out of law enforcement because they assume the worst out of law enforcers and assume the best out of the oppressed "victims", but in that situation (and situations where public safety have to be weighed against the value of the life or freedom of the criminal are the norm in law enforcement), executing the Joker would have saved lives. The entire movie is about the weaknesses and vulnerabilities that rigid rules create to hamstring those who keep order. And the Joker is often right. In a broader sense, one wonders what kinds of conflicts can be expected in a world where the law prevents evaluation - in the form of anti-discrimination laws - instead of working in concert with it.
Law Built on Value
People need to value the state of affairs created by law, which means de-valuing the actions that the law proscribes as punishable. Try to imagine a world where there was no connection at all between people's values and the laws which regulate their actions. Imagine people looking at the activities described by law and seeing them as something other than bad. The laws would have to be enforced against most people despite their values, and that's a recipe for the perception of illegitimacy. Can this work?
Rules must change to adapt to circumstances; as an easy example, witness this year's rule changes in the NFL. Long-standing behaviors are having to be modified as evidence of brain damage and problematic play screws up the league; the changes must at once obey not only the principles of self-interested expedience for Chair Roger Goodell, but must also retain the facets of the game that are valued by others, and therefore, controversy over the changes exists. That's not surprising: in American law, Congress faces this every term.
So the people must trust those who create and modify the law. Likewise - even more importantly - the people must trust those who enforce the law, as the front line against chaos. By-the-numbers enforcement cannot work, as the law is so absurdly detailed and police power is so limited that cops regularly have to let some crimes slide and punish others. Every traffic cop knows this. So the cop must see to the spirit of the law, which is supposed to be a reflection of society's values. The image of the law as a systematic and entirely rational set of rules is absurd and easily dismissed by pointing out rules surrounding both drugs and child custody: the court preference for mothers, and the public opinion that drugs should be outlawed, are based on generalities that are not only poorly proven but based on popular and wrong conceptions of responsibility that, in a rational society, would be handled on a case-by-case basis.
I have to wonder if society would be better off with less law, less reliance on law, and more willingness to push their values through means other than government legislation. It might pull people back into their communities, and it might create greater incentives to be decent people.