Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ethics, Laws, Rules, and Being a Jerk

At the Spontaneous Orders conference I attended Nov. 1-4, Gus diZerega asked a question designed, it seems, to test one's (my, in this case) "libertarian purity": What is the difference between me shining a bright light onto my neighbor's property and painting naked people on my fence so the neighbor can see it? He proposed there was no difference, as light must cross property, regardless, and so tough luck for the neighbor, who must now live with an oppressive neighbor rather than an oppressive government. I propose, however, that there is a marked difference.

If we take the issue of the light itself, there is a difference between the purposeful directing of the light toward the neighbors and the incidental reflection of light from off of a painting. This is perhaps the weakest argument, but it does parallel the distinction Marc Hauser makes in "Moral Minds" regarding what people naturally find ethical or unethical. He observes that people find bad outcomes incidental to a decision to not be unethical, but do find bad outcomes built into the decision to be unethical. It seems a light I direct into the neighbor's yard to be of the latter kind, while a painting whose reflected light enters a property to be of the former kind.

But the issue with the painting is itself incidental to the light involved. True, we need light to see it at all, but the point is the images. The issue with the images involves the neighbors taking offense. But here we see that the person who painted the images is not responsible for the reactions of the neighbors. It is the neighbors who take offense, so they are the ones responsible for their own reactions. There is nothing inherently, objectively offensive about an image -- offense is always subjective. The directed light, however, can have an objective consequence in its disruption of circadian rhythms. The neighbors' plants can be negatively affected, let alone the neighbors themselves, whose sleep could be disrupted, whose eyes could be damaged by the intensity of the light, etc. The neighbor could, of course, take measures against the light, but such measures cost the neighbor. If I run into another car, I have to pay for repairs because the person now has to buy things they did not have to buy absent my actions. Again, the painting costs the neighbor nothing, as they can avoid looking at it by simply averting their eyes.

Both behaviors may make me a jerk -- meaning I am acting in an antisocial manner -- but the real issue here is which of these should require a law. For my money, laws should be involved only when some kind of objective harm is involved for the secondary party, and if the law can be applied equally for everybody. Disrupting one's circadian rhythms certainly qualifies for the first. Doing something at which someone may or may not take offense does not. The latter examples is purely subjective -- it is "harmful" because the secondary party chooses for it to be "harmful" to them. That is certainly not the fault of the primary party. However, if I want to be a member of a certain society, then I should try to abide by that society's rules. But law is one thing, rules are another -- and being a jerk shouldn't necessarily be illegal.
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