Is there a Science of Practical Ethics, of Becoming Better?

I was musing about the state of the discipline of ethics, and noting that while there is a lot of attention given in that field to what ethics means and how to go about discovering correct, intelligible, and consistent ethical principles, there doesn’t seem to be much attention given to the problem of how one goes about becoming someone who makes ethical decisions. How does one avoid the many temptations to do evil? How does one recognize good and evil alternatives amidst the camoflage they often use? How does one develop a good character so that ethical decisionmaking becomes second nature?

It seems to me that there ought to be some sort of discipline that covers this ground. I imagine maybe going to an ethics dojo to get a black belt in being good.

The social scientists and psychologists have devised all sorts of interesting experiments that have revealed a variety of quirks and deficiencies in human ethical reasoning and decisionmaking — could we not also devise clever defenses against them and practice them to get better?

It’s as if we had a society full of biologists, epidemiologists, chemists, anatomists and the like, all of whom had developed tremendous insights into the causes of the physical maladies with which we are plagued, and yet we hadn’t gotten around to inventing the discipline of medicine or building hospitals or manufacturing medicines.

I’ve been reading through an abridged version of The Nicomachean Ethics and I note that to Aristotle:

…[T]he branch of philosophy on which we are at present engaged differs from the others in not being a subject of merely intellectual interest — I mean we are not concerned to know what goodness essentially is, but how we are to become good men, for this alone gives the study its practical value…

What happened? Where did this variety of ethics go?


The debate about the place of agorism in the life of a freedom-loving person continues over at The Freedom Symposium and I was invited to chime in, which I did in a comment that I’ll also include here.

There’s a subplot to the debate that has to do with whether paying taxes is “voluntary” (and if so, in what sense), and whether it’s ethical, and whether tax resistance is appropriate or a waste of time.

Here’s what I had to say:

I’ve been following this debate, or bits and pieces of it anyway, but haven’t put my two cents in yet. This is partially because I’m not sure I understand what the core point of disagreement is.

It seems to be something like this: do we need to be vigorously attempting to build protocols and structures in which people can engage in transactions free from state interference in order to begin to build a free world inside the shell of the decaying state, or, are we better off submitting to the fact that the state will remain a dominant force in our lives for the forseeable future and concentrate on building satisfying lives within that limitation while trying to spread the good word of liberty and seeking out the company of like-minded people?

It seems to me there’s plenty good to be drawn from both positions.

I agree that if the state were, through our efforts or through its own bumbling, to collapse today, the fact that the statist mindset is so ubiquitous would mean that people would assemble something just as bad in no time at all just out of habit. So education is essential.

On the other hand, agorist transactions and structures can be a vivid part of this education. Seeing an utterly anarchist festival thrive in the midst of state hostility — the Rainbow Gathering — was a real eye-opener to me about the possibilities of organization without coercion. A bunch of hippies in the woods creating something strikingly well-organized without any leadership hierarchy to speak of, without any coercion, and in direct defiance to a hostile state, did more to make the possibilities of anarchism come alive to me than any theoretical texts.

As tax resistance is my Big Deal, I’ll say a few things about it specifically.

Tax resistance today is no threat to the government. One way I know this is that I can refuse to pay my taxes, blog about this day after day, publicly encourage other people to do the same, attend conferences of other resisters, publish books and other writings on the subject, and so forth, and at no time do I feel like I have jack-booted thugs breathing down my neck. They don’t give a damn. We are barely an annoyance, much less a threat.

Tax resistance can be a powerful method of resistance, but it requires a much larger and well-disciplined set of resisters than we have at present. Such resistance would have to come at some point after a majority or at least a very significant minority of people had given up their allegiance to the state and were sufficiently frustrated to be wiling to go into risky confrontation with it.

This leaves tax resistance today as some other sort of tactic. In some people, it’s just self-interest — more frequently called tax evasion and just designed to hold on to more money. In some people, it’s a variety of protest that takes the form of civil disobedience as a way of emphasizing the strength of the protester’s convictions. A third form is tax resistance as conscientious objection — not paying taxes because you find contributing to the government to be something that offends your sense of ethics. That’s more what I have in mind when I resist. I don’t want to voluntarily contribute to the state.

This brings up the whole “what’s voluntary about it?” question.

The government says that if you earn income you must pay FICA (for instance). This is a demand, not a request, and they have an enforcement apparatus that includes violent coercion to back that up.

But I don’t mean voluntary as opposed to coerced, but as opposed to involuntary.

If the government knocks down my door and makes off with something valuable they find in my house, they have taken this thing from me, and to the extent that I’ve given it to them, I’ve done so wholly involutarily. But if they come to me and say “give me your stuff or else…” then it is my voluntary decision whether to choose what’s behind door #1 or door #2.

Now certainly there are some circumstances where you look at the alternatives and choose to fork over the loot rather than choose a very unpleasant alternative.

But for me, tax resistance means asking “or else what?” each time the demand is made, and then deciding whether the alternative is really any worse than putting my time and energy (fossilized into money) into supporting the state.

About 40% of Americans live under the federal income tax line, which is to say that they pay no federal income tax at all because after credits and deductions and such their income isn’t high enough. I decided I’d rather become one of them than earn more income and therefore pay income tax.

There are consequences to earning more and paying income tax, and there are consequences to earning less and not paying them. I picked the ones I preferred. In doing this, I put less value on money than a lot of people do, and more value on not supporting the state than just about anybody does, which is why I came up with a decision that’s rare enough to be remarkable. I think the world would be a better place if more people had values a bit more like mine, but I guess I’m not alone in having such feelings.

(I also evade other taxes in other ways, some legal and some illegal. And the process of trying to work out a good balance of living well and minimizing my support for the state is an ongoing one for me.)

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