Moral Responsibility

Arguing that government should fund education T.R asks (somewhat rhetorically),

Isn’t it our social and moral responsibility to give equal opportunity to all?

Even if it were, that does not necessarily mean that government should fund education. Note that government funds come from taxation – they are not voluntary. Using the force of law to take my money and spend it without my consent can only be justified if I have a legal responsibility (such as the collection of a fine). A moral responsibility is not enough. For example, it is my moral responsibility not to spend all my money on drink. If I were to do so however, the government would not be justified in putting me in rehabilitation or preventing me from buying drinks. This is because I am not legally responsible for not spending all my money on drinks. However, I do not wish to get into the differences between moral and legal responsibilities. My point is that I do not even have a moral responsibility to “give” equal opportunity to all.

What does moral responsibility mean? The moral qualification restricts the scope of the term to those actions that are open to choice. Clearly that which is outside my power of choice cannot be a moral issue. Since it is individuals who have the power of choice, moral responsibility refers to the responsibility of individuals for the consequences of their choices. A collective can never have a moral responsibility. Only individuals can. Therefore the question should actually be “Isn’t it my (or your, but not our) moral responsibility to give equal opportunity to all?” (I have dropped social responsibility from the question. More on that later.)

Put this way, the question becomes much easier to understand. The simple fact is that it is not within my power to give equal opportunity to all. That men are born and live in different environments (geographical, social, political, economic) is an unalterable fact outside of my power of choice. Different environments necessarily mean different opportunities. Moreover the very concept of an equal opportunity is quite shaky. If A is taller than B, could they ever have an equal opportunity to succeed at basketball? Even if A and B are equally tall and are brought up in similar environments, suppose A works harder and becomes rich as a star player while B does not. Do A and B now have an equal opportunity to buy a house? Clearly not. You may say that this is not what you mean and A earned this so this is OK. Now take it further. Do A’s and B’s children have an equal opportunity in their lives? Would taking away part of A’s money and giving it to B make their childrens’ opportunities equal? No. A’s children would still have the advantage of being brought up by a hardworking and successful parent. There is no way to make the childrens’ opportunities equal. Equality of opportunity is merely a watered-down version of the concept of equality of outcome. As such it might appear more plausible on the surface but is just as unrealizable. Opportunities come from previous outcomes or from chance. Neither of those can be equalized.

You might argue that even if it is impossible to equalize opportunity, it is my moral responsibility to reduce inequalities as much as possible. But that arguement is worse than the previous one. A doctrine that holds the impossible as a moral standard is extremely destructive since it can never be successfully practiced. Consider what it means when put into practice. It means that I should redistribute values from the wealthy to the poor, from the hardworking to the indolent, from the wise to the foolish, from the talented to the ordinary, from the strong to the weak, from the fortunate to the unlucky – in short, from the “haves” to the “have-nots” – because the former have more opportunities than the latter. What can be more destructive than that? Most people realize (at some level) that putting the doctrine of equality into practice fully is destructive. And so they practise it inconsistently. But that is destructive too in another way. It destroys his self-esteem or causes him to reject all moral ideas as idealistic, leaving him with no moral guidance.

Where does this incredibly destructive doctrine come from? It comes from a misunderstanding of the difference between the metaphysically given and the man-made. That men are unequal is metaphysically given – outside the power of choice of any individual. It cannot be right or wrong, just or unjust. The metaphysically given forms the basis for concepts such as right, wrong, just, unjust etc. Labeling the metaphysically given as unjust is a perversion of all moral concepts. The existence of inequality, like the existence of the sun, simply is. It is neither right nor wrong, neither just nor unjust, neither fortunate nor unfortunate.

So, it is not my moral resposibility to give equal opportunity to all. What about social responsibility though? To me, it is an empty term, devoid of meaning. It is usually used to obfuscate an arguement rather than to clarify one. I have moral responsibilities (as long as I choose to live – moral responsibilities are always chosen) to act in a certain way. I have legal responsibilities to act in accordance with laws (atleast when the laws are just). Beyond that, I have no responsibilities to some nebulous collective.

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4 Responses

  1. In case of your example of A and B, you are right we cannot give equal opportunity to B’s children (unless A adopts them 🙂 ).

    “Opportunities come from previous outcomes or from chance. Neither of those can be equalized”
    True but I believe I can also “create” opportunity. Consider this example, my colleague is funding education of a girl who lives in a small village in Bihar. There is a probability that no one else would have come forward to funded her. In this case he has create an opportunity for her.

    My argument was that if you make education private, you would be suppressing the progress of others i.e., people who cant afford education. Your 4th paragraph says “It destroys his self-esteem or causes him to reject all moral ideas as idealistic, leaving him with no moral guidance.” How? If somebody is ok to give 10% of his wealth to have-nots but not okay to give 20% would he lose his self esteem?

    I liked the way you organized your argument. (Something I must learn)

    sorry for late comment.
    T.R.

  2. True but I believe I can also “create” opportunity….
    Yes, you can and that is your choice. A government has no business making that choice for you. Nor is charity fundamentally different from any other activity that a man may engage in. It is only the morality of altruism that makes it so. I will write a post on charity soon to clarify this.

    if you make education private …
    I have written a post about this question here.

    If somebody is ok to give 10% of his wealth to have-nots but not okay to give 20% would he lose his self esteem?
    I am not sure I understood your question (or that you understood the point I was making in that para) 🙂
    So let me clarify. I wrote:
    Most people realize (at some level) that putting the doctrine of equality into practice fully is destructive. And so they practise it inconsistently. But that is destructive too in another way. It destroys his self-esteem or causes him to reject all moral ideas as idealistic, leaving him with no moral guidance.
    What I mean is that most people realize that treating equality as a higher goal than self-interest is destructive. But they do not realize this explicitly. So they maintain equality as a moral goal (To me, equality is a non-goal). But maintaining an impractical moral goal is destructive to the concept of morality as such. Morality is a guide to ones actions. If one’s moral ideas prescribe actions that are not practical, there is a conflict. There are three ways out of this conflict.
    1) Persist with the moral prescriptions and ignore the costs, i.e, face destruction.
    2) Ignore the moral prescriptions. Ignoring moral prescriptions frequently, undermines the meaning of morality and creates a sense of guilt and a loss of self-esteem.
    3) Examine your morality which gives you impractical prescriptions and discover a better morality that gives practical prescriptions.
    Unfortunately, 2) is what most people do.

  3. I could easily make the same point using a social engineering argument (although I believe it is one of the most abused words), but will try to put in words you believe in.

    I believe according to you, the fundamental responsibility of a government is to ensure freedom of every individual and ensure there is no force on any individual. Do you believe that people in this country are free. Do you not agree that there is undue force on certain sections of the society because of historic reason and unjust prejudice because of their ‘identity’. Do you not agree that most of the people who are oppressed are economically weak and economic empowerment of these people will solve most of their problems and make them to a large extent ‘free’. Is free quality primary education not a way of empowering people to stop force against them.

    I believe your version of equal opportunity and T.R.’s version of it are very different. His view (rather mine) is probably better put as an equal start for everyone. I believe the government has one more important function. That is to ensure the the country is producing the maximum it can. This can be achieved only by providing a basic start to everyone (a person might have the potential to become a math wizard, but will never if is has to be an agricultural labour all his life) and then let them perform according to their ability.

  4. This is a good opportunity for the debates page on this blog. So let me take it there. Please post further comments there. I hope you are willing to debate.

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