Secular Morality and the Foundations of Governance

Religious morality is anything but. When compared to evidence-based approaches, dogmatic adherence to scripture is less productive at best and more likely to be actively destructive. There is no good reason to prefer religious doctrine over scientific approaches. History overflows with examples where religious solutions to problems have succeeded only in making the situation worse, and knowingly perpetuating this pattern is indefensible. If there were any evidence for god claims or any good reason to believe one religion were true, this might not be the case. Thankfully, there is no such evidence, so we have no compelling reason to construct anything but secular models for society. (To the circular argument that says, “the Bible must be true because the Bible says the Bible was written by God, so God exists like the Bible says, so we have to obey God exactly how the Bible says,” I respond only with this.)

What would a society based on secular values look like? To paint that picture, we must first identify the foundational guiding ethic. Here’s my attempt at doing so:

  1. That which does no harm is not bad and must not be forbidden.
  2. That which contributes to the betterment of society is preferable to that which does not.
  3. That which causes harm must resisted and responded to in proportion to the harm done.

I can’t think of anything to add to this list, but there might still be ways to improve it. (I’ll update it as suggestions merit revision.)  These rules govern the relative morality of any given action or policy, and a society that sought to pursue them as core considerations of governance would be superior to one adhering to an alternate agenda.

What follows is a somewhat long-winded consideration of good governance. This might not be everyone else’s cup of tea, but I got into a somewhat lengthy discussion of politics earlier today, and I’d like to assemble my thoughts on the subject.

* * *

It should be obvious that these three criteria alone cannot be the direct legislative solution to specific social problems, and I’m not so naïve as to assume that a society could operate on only three laws. Groups of people are complex organisms, and when multiple organisms interact, it is necessary for a government to ensure a level playing field. (Why? Because one group having an inherent advantage over another based on irrelevant categories such as race, gender, or personal preference cannot conceivably lead to a more productive society than one founded on ideals of equality. Why? Because inequality leads to social harm.) Without an external force acting as the arbiter of the social contract, there is nothing to guarantee the legitimacy of a system; violations of the core principles must not go unpunished. Additionally, a society in which the laws are applied with no regard for consistency would be inherently unstable, so a governing force is required to regulate instances where individuals and groups interact. Because these three rules govern larger morality regardless of an individual’s preferences, they should also form sufficient guidelines by which to run a pluralistic society.

As I’ve proposed it thus far, it seems likely that the government would need sufficient power to mandate and censure behavior. At this suggestion, I expect resistance in the form of something like this: “But government should be small. I don’t want bureaucrats dictating how I live my life!” I find this objection deeply misguided. Questions about the size of government are entirely incomprehensible. Do you enjoy having utilities like electricity and water reliably piped into (and out of!) your house? If so, you need a government to guarantee that. Do you enjoy having public access roads? Government. Do you enjoy knowing that doctors will only use scientifically verified treatments with preferable cost:benefit ratios (e.g., not bloodletting due to the misapprehension that people occasionally need a rebalancing of their “humors”)? Government. Do you enjoy knowing that your house is safe enough that it won’t be broken into or burned to the ground while you’re out working or shopping? Government. Which of these features should be sacrificed for the sake of maintaining a “small” government?

Once you admit that you want to live in a society with these things, you need a mechanism to pay for it, and taxation is the only plausible mechanism. A government cannot operate through the entirely discretionary donations of a select few (and if it did, those select few would obviously “own” the government, so it could not be a neutral institution). In considering the fiscal costs of a government, its size is entirely irrelevant. What matters is the efficiency of government. The most important economic consideration is whether the money being spent on its operation is successfully creating an overall improvement in the living conditions of its citizens. (Do the people get out at least as much as they put into the system?) In an attempt to get its citizens to lead healthy lives, it is not necessary for a government to dictate daily meals or even caloric intake. That level of heavy-handedness would surely violate the three governing principles by arbitrarily restricting an individual’s freedom to make choices for no (or insufficient) appreciable gain;  it is sufficient to create conditions that naturally encourage a healthy lifestyle without mandating specific behaviors.

Should ultimate freedom be preferred? Clearly not. You should not have the right to interfere with your neighbors’ rights because this would quickly spiral into an unstable society where government would be completely ineffective and illegitimate. An optimal society is one in which laws are applied equally to all people. In the absence of equal protection under the law, whoever is least beholden to governance is most empowered to commit abuse. A society where you’re allowed to take from your neighbor must thus be a society in which your neighbor is allowed to take from you. The obvious solution is a society in which no one is allowed to take from anyone else.

How much personal freedom should be sacrificed for the good of society? This is a difficult question, and I don’t think there can be any single answer. My opinion is that personal freedoms should only be sacrificed (again, equally by all participants in society) when the net gain exceeds the costs of that sacrifice. Removing the freedom to steal desired property from others results in an obvious benefit in the form of a right to own your own property. In the absence of this right, you would have no reason to expect any stability at all. Bankers would be free to arbitrarily keep your money, and random passersby might decide that your computer (with all your personal files) might look better on their desk than on yours. The people from the next town over might decide that the recent economic downturn could be alleviated by the temporary (because someone else would surely come later to take their ill-gotten gains from them!) acquisition of your town’s resources. Only a system of mutual governance can guarantee the integrity of the whole. Thus, by forbidding theft (a very small individual price), we see a considerably larger gain in social stability. This cost-benefit analysis can be done with any proposed legislation, and only laws whose benefits significantly outweigh their social costs can be justified.

We are presented with the obvious problem that a government is not an existent entity; rather, it is composed of people who expressly participate in the operation and maintenance of society. It is thus capable of being co-opted by those people unless checks are implemented to prevent this*. This misappropriation of the government must be fiercely guarded against, for a government that applies its laws inconsistently or capriciously cannot be said to be operating with the best intentions of its populace in mind, which would be a violation the core governing principles.

This is why I object so vehemently to the marriage of religion and government. A government that supports a specific religion has by definition elevated adherents of that religion above all others, which results in an unjustified social harm. Religious values are built upon dogma, using unscientific, unverified or even falsified premises. Does a government have an overwhelming interest in mandating that citizens are wear magic Mormon underwear? To answer this question, we can refer back to our core principles:

  1. Does this law cause harm? Not directly, although there may be an indirect harm in the reduction of personal freedom; move on to step 2.
  2. Does this law create a benefit? No. There is nothing to be gained by restricting someone’s ability to make individual choices about their undergarments. Stop. Do not pass.

Should a government require its citizens to worship a certain god? Let’s return again to our core values. Would this law cause harm? If that god cannot be shown to exist, then requiring people to adhere to scripture is obviously harmful because it forcibly mandates the adherence to obscure and often significantly imposing codes of behavior. Thus, this removal of the individual right one’s own choices is significant, and it serves no functional purpose (a social harm with no social gain). This alone does not provide a complete answer to the question, however. Even if a god were shown to exist, would a government have a compelling argument to mandate the worship of that god? The answer to that question may be less obvious, but no, it would not. Even the harshest law cannot effect belief; barring crazy future sci-fi technology, the only thing a government can practicably legislate is behavior. Laws cannot enforce belief; all they can require is the profession of belief. Because the goal of creating belief cannot be accomplished by manufacturing laws to require it, there can be no net gain to society, but the harm caused would be manifold (again, a harm without a gain).

I haven’t really addressed the third principle, which exists more to govern the application of specific criminal and civil laws. This is a metric to assess the harm caused by a given socially destructive action and distribute punishments in accordance with principles of social justice—punishing crimes in direct proportion to their harms (or rewarding positive behaviors in proportion to their benefits). This leaves room for rehabilitative models of corrections and, perhaps just as importantly, discourages the wildly disproportionate penalties seen today in comparisons of corporate crime and property crime. It also recognizes that an individual’s abuse of the system for short-term selfish gain hurts society as a whole and should not be abided.

So that’s pretty much it for now. You deserve a freaking medal for making it this far. From these basic values, we can come to a discussion of any larger social issue, not just that of governments and laws. Does a given social movement meet the three-pronged test I’ve presented here? If so, it merits support; if not, it doesn’t. Have I missed anything? Do you see a problem in my reasoning? As always, feel free to make suggestions or criticisms.

*In an ideal world, this kind of failsafe mechanism would not be necessary, but even if we were to magically find ourselves in a Golden Age of absolute
 political altruism, there is no reason to expect such a state to last indefinitely, so these protections must be present. Even if people tend to be
 overwhelmingly well-intentioned, there is no rational justification for endorsing a system that encourages abuse by lacking safeguards. The modern
 democratic solution is to place representatives into competing branches of government, pitting political ambition against political ambition.
 Theoretically, lust for power in one branch is used to balance out the lust for power in another branch. It's obviously not a perfect solution, but
 I'm not aware of any better one. For when this fails, it is necessary to maintain a mechanism to remove people from office for seeking to abandon or
 violate the core governing principles. The alternative to a legitimate means of governmental restructuring is violent revolution, and given that civil
 wars tend not to be productive (understatement alert!), this should only ever be the last recourse.

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