Exaggerated Fears Hinder Potential War Tax Resisters

Author Deborah Eisenberg highlights how people who have carefully considered and accepted the logic behind conscientious tax resistance can nonetheless use exaggerated fears of its consequences to justify failing to take appropriate action. Excerpt:

AK: Is it possible to be an American and live an ethical life?

DE: Well, that’s the question. For the middle class — there used to be a huge middle class, but of course there hardly is one any longer — if you vote, and pay taxes, you’re contributing to all kinds of destruction. Our money enriches big corporation and kills poor people at home and elsewhere. As we sit here, people are being killed, with our money. But what is there to do? On, in fact, Amy Goodman’s show, I heard an interview with a woman who led a group of tax resisters, all of whom withhold portions of their taxes on moral grounds. As it happened, I was just on my way uptown to see my tax accountant, and make out my tax checks. Well, the woman was saying, “Nothing that can happen to a tax resister in the U.S. can possibly compare to the horror that we’re inflicting on people in Iraq.” And I thought, That’s so true. I’m going to go tell my accountant that I’m going to withhold my taxes. Then Amy Goodman asked her what happens to tax resisters. And the woman said, “Well, some property has been confiscated — some of our members’ homes.” And after another moment she said, “And some of our members are in prison.” And I thought, Plan B.

I know she’s right, I passionately share her views, but not passionately enough to emulate her courage. So, in regard to your question — I think that I, and the overwhelming majority of people in this country would be considered perfectly nice, decent, upright people, if we happened to be living in other countries. But our private and local selves are overshadowed, now, by our public and global selves. I’m talking now about people like myself, who would be considered fiscally stable. It gets more complicated, obviously, when you think about the rapidly growing population of the impoverished. I can’t do anything about my disproportionate power — none of us seem to be able to do anything about our disproportionate power unless it’s something extreme almost to the point of self-immolation in one way or another. So the circumstances of our life, the historical circumstances, decree that we’re villains, no matter what our convictions or character, unless we’re willing to risk a lot more than I, at least, have thus far had the courage to risk.

In the ninth section of the third book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle concludes his discussion of courage.

A brave person accepts pain, and the risk of greater pain & death, because the brave person values courage more than he or she fears those things. He or she would rather live a flourishing and thriving life of eudaimonia, of which courage is a constituent, than a longer or more painless life.

This is kind of like a boxer or long-distance runner who doesn’t love the pain of being hit or of hitting-the-wall at mile 18, but who loves victory enough to keep fighting through the pain anyway.

Courage is a particularly challenging virtue in this way because, Aristotle says, the more virtuous you are (for instance, the more courageous), the more eudaimon your life is, and therefore the more valuable your life will be to you. Thus the more courageous you are, the more you are putting at risk by being so.

For this reason, he says, soldiers who are exhibiting one of the varieties of counterfeit courage he mentioned in the previous section may be better soldiers to have in your army because they have less to lose: “they sell their life for trifling gains.”

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics