2013-06-03

Ethics And Rules

When I was a teenager, my parents offered me a great deal of freedom with respect to things like curfew, taking the car, dating, and so on. Over the years, I have heard my parents give various accounts of their underlying rationale behind the amount of liberty I was afforded, and the explanation most consistently given is this one: Basically, they knew I was a good kid who wanted to stay out of trouble, so they had little to fear by offering me a lot of latitude.

True to the trust and responsibility they had given me, I never got into any real trouble. I had a couple of close-calls in the car, but everyone has those. I skipped class a couple of times to go home and play my guitar, but I was getting straight-As and my grades didn't suffer. I think the maybe the worst "trouble" I ever got into was staying in a public park, chatting with my friends, after the park's municipal ten o'clock curfew. Somebody called the police, or perhaps the police noticed our flashlights as they were driving by, and they told us to go home. We did.

Of course, plenty of other students got into more trouble than I ever did. Some experienced teenage pregnancy, some experienced drug abuse, legal trouble, and so on, and so forth. I knew enough of such people that I was able to determine at least this much: Some of them had extremely strict parents, some of them had extremely liberal parents, and some of them had parents who fell somewhere in between. That is to say, I observed no consistent relationship between parental strictness and juvenile delinquency.

It must rather be the case that good kids tend to be good kids, and trouble-makers tend to be trouble-makers. Certainly some good kids are just unlucky in that everyone fools around a bit with young love, and only a small subset of those who do end up pregnant; everyone has a drink or something as a kid, but only a small subset falls into a pattern or social group involving heavy drug use; etc. Setting aside random chance, though, it seems as though kids who are more ethical tend to engage in the most ethical behavior.

This is hardly surprising, but there's a point here.

The point is that what makes the difference between good people and bad people are not the rules to which they are held, but rather the values they hold. This was eloquently expressed by James Madison in Federalist No. 51: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary." That statement is typically cited as justification for central government, but there is another way to look at it, too: Madison is also saying that government is unnecessary for good (virtuous) people.

Good people have little reason to steal from each other. Genuine property disputes can arise between good people, but if those people are truly good, then they will be able to settle the matter through some formal or informal arbitration process. Why? Because good people don't like to propagate conflict when peaceful solutions are available.

What we should keep in mind is that it is not "good laws" or "good government" that makes a society good. At best, a law is nothing more than an enforced statement that attempts to express a good ethical principle. The true object of reference is not the law, but the ethical principle. A community full of good people will probably function extremely well regardless of what laws are on the books or how that community is officially organized. A community full of bad people will deteriorate and eventually fail entirely, and no system of government will ever change that.

To make the world a better place, it would be more effective to persuade others toward better ethics and more virtuous behavior than to persuade others to adopt a particular stance on public policy.