David R. Henderson  

Pierre Goodrich on Ethics and Responsibility in Less-Free Societies

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At a conference I was at on Friday, we discussed the late Pierre Goodrich's Liberty Fund Basic Memorandum. Goodrich is the person who started Liberty Fund and devoted his sizable fortune to it. I feel grateful to him whenever I think about him. I never met him, although I did meet, and very much enjoyed, his co-author the late Ben Rogge.

In Part IV, "Ethics of the Individual," he writes:

It seems self-evident that the government and society in which the Liberty Fund is created do not comply with the ideal of the Liberty Fund Basic Memorandum, Part I. Nor is it a society of the opposite idea. It is closer to the opposite than it is to the Liberty Fund ideal, but there are great areas of ethical choices and responsibility still left.

There are two controversial ideas in that short paragraph. The first is that U.S. society at the time he was writing, 1961, was closer to totalitarianism than to a free society. I disagree with that, but I want to focus on the second controversial idea.

That second idea is the implication that in an unfree society there is not room for ethical choices or responsibility. Au contraire, I think that even in a concentration camp there are ethical issues for the prisoners. But short of that, in a society in which government has immense control over us, there are many ethical issues that we, the subjects, would face. For example, you live in Nazi Germany and, let's say, there is a law requiring that you turn in any Jew in hiding that you see. There is no risk, or very little risk, to you from not turning in Jews. Should you turn in Jews? I say no. That's the ethical choice I would make. QED1.

Or even take American society, which, of course, is much, much freer than Nazi Germany. There's a law requiring that people not employ illegal immigrants. You know of a firm in your city that hires illegal immigrants. Should you turn the employer in? I think not. Another ethical choice. QED2.

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
ThomasH writes:

I'd go even farther. In a society in which there is ought to be and is very little government intervention in the market, there are fewer ethical dilemmas. The one Professor Henderson cites is a good one. No proper prohibition on employing undocumented workers, no dilemma about whether to break the law or to report its being broken.

But take the case of global climate change (lets suppose that externality is the only departure from the conditions justifying a minimal state). I know that every decision I make has some consequence for co2 emission which harms others and that the emission I cause is not subject to a pigou tax that will be used to compensate the victims nor a court decision that requires compensation to them. So how much and how (leaving aside that without carbon pricing I cannot KNOW what the consequences of my actions are) do I act? And at a political level, if a pigou tax is not possible, what if any other taxes and subsidies are justified and wise? It is the departure from first best policy that creates ethical dilemmas that otherwise would not exist.

[How to use water which is not priced at marginal cost in a drought it another example. Should I water my lawn or not or how much?]

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

@ D H:

For your considerations here (about PG's focus on individuality):

Is there a distinction, with a difference, of morals from ethics?

What is, or are, the distinction(s)?

David R. Henderson writes:

@R Richard Schweitzer,
Is there a distinction, with a difference, of morals from ethics?
I don’t think so.

I would like to see that Liberty Fund Basic Memorandum. I have not found it in 10 minutes search. Is it available somewhere?

Nicholas Weininger writes:

As to the contention that the US in 1961 was closer to totalitarianism than freedom-- that rather depended on who you were, I should think. A black woman in Mississippi in 1961, for example, might well have had cause to believe herself to be living in a totalitarian state, under the constant threat of arbitrary state-sanctioned brutality if she exercised any of a pretty large set of quite basic freedoms. Whether that's the sort of example Goodrich had in mind is a separate question.

Daublin writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

Daublin writes:

@ThomasH, your example of drought pricing is a great one.

Your example of CO2 emissions, though, seems more problematic. The weight of scientific evidence--to the extent anyone is bothering to look into this at all--is that a few more degrees of warmth would likely improve human welfare on net. For example, it would likely bring down food prices.

If that's true, then your example should be the other way around. If a carbon tax were foolishly to be enacted, then--like with your example of drought pricing--a good ethical citizen should surely go out of their way to burn more carbon.

I would like to get into this conversation with you, David, since I like to believe that I could contribute a valuable and perhaps novel view of the structure of civil society. But I shouldn't blab off too much without doing my homework: I have now made a Boy Scout's effort to understand what you say in your post; but further I would need to know what my great Uncle Pierre (recently adopted :) said in Part I.

Not having read Part I myself, not having my own interpretation of Uncle Pierre, I am not yet convinced that your proofs stand in contrast to anything he said.

It would help, I suppose, if we developed our own working definitions of terms used in this discussion. Terms such as: closer to totalitarianism, unfree society, and room for ethical choices.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

@ D H

Your view is surprising, but interesting.

May I suggest (highly simplified):

Morals (in a social context) are the choices of the things that ought or ought not to be done.

Ethics (individually) are the choices of the means of doing, or avoiding doing, those things.

ThomasH writes:

@ Daublin

I certainly agree that higher CO2 concentrations and temperature have some positive effects especially for high latitude countries. But I think the net effect is negative.

But one of the good things about a carbon tax (besides that some of the revenues can be used to replace more inefficient taxes like the corporate income tax) instead of the plethora of "clean energy" set asides, ethanol subsidies, mileage standardards and "green energy" investments is that it can be raised or lowered as estimates of the harm from CO2 emissions are revised with improving data and models.

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