Sunday, January 29, 2017

One quick thought about atomistic moral minimalism

Americans at least tend to elide the distinction between the law and ethics. Students, I find, often have a hard time maintaining the distinction and, when questioned about the morality of some action or practice, will respond by asking what the law says about it. Of course, there are important connections between the law and morality. Murder and theft and battery are all illegal and they are immoral.
But, this elision leads to a common problem in our moral thinking. Quite rightly, our laws are premised on negative rights. That is, I have a (legal) right to life and this means that ceteris paribus you may not kill me. I have a legal right to property and this means that ceteris paribus you may not take my property away from me. These rights give me no legal claim for your assistance in my living nor in the acquisition or maintenance of my property. I have relatively few positive (legal) rights.
If you take that as the basis of your moral thinking—if you can't distinguish between legal and moral thinking—you end up with an extremely atomistic account of morality. You end up with a moral minimalism that is indistinguishable from ethical egoism. You end up thinking that my only obligation to another person is to keep out of their way and that there is no deeper connection between us except that requirement.
I fear that's where we've gotten as a society. I think this prevents any real kind of human flourishing. I think it vastly underestimates our intrinsic sociality and the obligations we have to the society through which we have come to be. To put it in the word of a now-prominent figure, I think it is: "Sad!"