Ethics on the Continuum


(Copyright Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes)

I’m braving the world of ethics! Well, sort of. Now, I’m still laying groundwork here, so we’re not getting into specifics, or even my own position and defense on the question of ethics, but merely continuing with framing these questions up in a way that offers them clarity in a political sense.

(And contrary to any suggestions otherwise raised by the satirical Calvin & Hobbes cartoon above, I highly value ethics!)

To start this post, I need to offer quick clarification. There has been a good deal of debate and discussion in some academic circles as to if there is a difference between ethics and morality, and if so, what it is. I’m not getting into that, though I don’t find those distinctive arguments useless, at all (there are excellent arguments out there that I am inclined to agree with). For my purposes, however, they’ll do just fine being used interchangeably. (Morality is often defined as a standard of right and wrong values, and ethics is often defined as the moral principles that guide an individual or society.) After all, it is not words that matter if the meaning behind them is clarified.

But, to continue…

A couple of posts before this dealt primarily with the liberty v. totalitarianism continuum in light of economics. The state can have more or less control over the resources used in production, the means of production, and the distribution of goods and services, falling anywhere along the range. The last post looked more broadly at the terms authoritarianism and libertarianism and their juxtaposition framed between totalitarianism and libertarianism.

So why bring up ethics? Again, I’m laying groundwork. Many a traditional conservative will happily smile and nod in agreement with any assessment of economics that frames it between liberty and totalitarianism, asserting with confidence that we most certainly must move to the right. And then, if it is suggested that the same move toward liberty is applied in the realm of ethics, let the condemning begin! To suggest this must be to advocate prostitution and drug abuse, they declare.

And likewise, the liberal will boast of their dedication to the allowance of gay marriage and other issues that are often condemned by the conservative right. (See? I do use the terms from time to time, but in their necessarily vague “tends-to” ways.) In fact, this was largely a driving force behind the liberal movement of the 1960s and 70s: “Get the government out of our personal lives!” And yet, all the while, government taxes and distribution safety-net payments are welcomed.

Wait! Do not throw the metaphorical stones at me, just yet! I am no advocate of prostitution or many other issues that are morally or ethically wrong according to the Bible, and I will reconcile that with a position that advocates broadly for liberty! Don’t leave the blog just yet.

I mention all this here to ensure that the ethical viewpoint is not neglected from the paradigm I have offered. To be sure and to be surely redundant, my personal viewpoint on ethics and morality transcends any discussion of liberty and totalitarianism. We are not, in this post, talking of what is right and wrong, but only about what control the state has over determining and laying law for what they consider right and wrong. Many U.S. state (and federal) laws have historically disallowed sodomy and gay marriage (both now struck down by the Supreme Court as of 2005¹ and 2015², respectively). Obviously, that would be further to the left of the continuum than to the right. Many Islamic countries allow for and even put in legal code that a woman who is not loyal to her husband can and/or should be put to death by her husband (without being able to testify, meaning suspicion alone is sufficient). Clearly, that also is more toward the left than the right, as well.

My own personal views on the state’s control over what is considered right and wrong have certainly not been without their own turbulent times, and I will return to that narrative and my own conclusions in time. For fear of having too many long posts in a row, let me leave you with a quick preview of what I have learned: greater allowance for authoritarianism in ethics, even for those actions and beliefs with which I agree, provides for greater allowance for authoritarianism for those actions and beliefs with which I disagree. In simpler terms: If you let the state legislate against something you consider immoral, you have also given it the power, with or without your consent (yes, even in republicanism), to legislate against something you consider right. Any student of history knows that, historically, governments–republican or hereditary or otherwise–do not trend toward less power. Quite the opposite indeed. Seldom is an inch of power gained an inch of power returned of its own accord (or even through republican, electoral means).

Remember, when an entity with a monopoly on force can be used to achieve one’s ends easier than working for it in other ways, especially if that entity is legitimate in the eyes of the people, that path of least resistance becomes the path most taken.

¹Lawrence v. Texas (2005)          ²Obergefell v. Hodges (2015)



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