Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Moral Theories on Theft and Taxation

There are several moral universals, yet at the same time, there are several interpretations of those morals. There is little question that prohibitions against theft, murder, rape, and incest are universal; yet there are variations on each one dependent upon culture. More, there are different interpretations of those morals even within a given culture. In Therapy for the Sane, Lou Marinoff lists deontology, teleology, virtue ethics, providential religious ethics, existentialism, Objectivist ethics, prima facie duties, sociobiology, other-centered ethics, Buddhist ethics, and legal moralism as interpretations of morality. Which is true? Perhaps all of them have some truth to them. But in any case, there are consequences of each.

Let's take theft as an example. We might have to first define what it means to steal something, though. To steal something is to take something that belongs to another for yourself without permission from the original owner. There is implicit in this definition a requirement for the existence of private property, because you cannot steal something that is communally owned. To prohibit theft necessarily implies the existence of ownership of property.

Deontology is also known as "duty ethics." But duty toward whom or what? Historically, it has been duty toward God and/or duty toward government. There is not a set of religious or political laws that do not prohibit stealing. With Kant, though, we see the development of individualistic deontology with his categorical imperative.

With religious-based deontology, the prohibition against stealing is pretty straightforward. It applies to all equally. But with government-based deontology, we run into some real problems. Governments will of course prohibit theft, but we end up running into the issue of whether or not taxation is a form of theft. Under the definition of theft I gave above, if individual citizens are in fact the owners of the property within their possession, then all taxation is theft. However, if we are mere stewards of the government's property -- whether it be land or money or anything else -- then taxation is not theft. So when we argue that government should have the same duties toward us as we have toward it in regards to theft, we have to be clear as to whether or not the property is in fact privately, individually owned and ownable, or if the government is in fact the real owner, and we are mere stewards of it (meaning when we buy property, we are merely buying the privilege of stewardship over that property).

For me, then, taking the government-based deontological view is both clarifying and telling. If taxation is legitimate, then we do not have truly private property, and if we have truly private property, taxation is theft.

With Kant's individualistic deontology, we do not run into these problems. We have duties toward each other as human beings, whom we ought to treat as ends themselves and not as means. Theft is again a straightforward prohibition, and one cannot legitimate it even if one is in government. When government taxes, it treats people as means rather than ends. More, a government that is taxing is acting as though the people in it wish that taking others' property ought to be a universal law.

Teleology is also known as consequentialism. With it, what matters is the end result far less than the means to get there. Should you steal? Well, what will be the end result? One can use this to argue that people in general ought not steal, because a society based on stealing will in the end be a more violent, less trusting, less prosperous society. But does this mean that you ought not to steal this or that? And what about taxation? Well, one of the consequences of taxation is that you have a government with enough money to do any number of activities. If you think it is good for governments to have lots of money to do lots of things, then consequentialism will let you argue that governments ought to be able to tax. In the end, we just end up self-justifying whatever actions we take or what others to take on our behalf. In the end, I'm not sure that that's really morality.

Virtue Ethics -- taught by Aristotle, Buddha, and Confucius -- views morality as a kind of moderation of action. Theft is a form of immoderate action. It is a vice, pure and simple. You learn not to steal by being taught it is wrong and through habituation of the virtue of respect for others' property. The purpose of the virtues is to ensure that humans live the most human of lives, which is to live as a social being. Societies that are full of thieves are weaker, less trusting, poorer societies. These are all reasons to oppose theft.

But what about taxation? What makes for a virtuous government? Is it the same as what one needs to have virtuous people? What constitutes a moderate government? Is one even possible, or are they necessarily prone to immoderation? Can there rather be a virtuous form of governance, one which is inherently prone to moderation in action? It seems to me that the morality of taxation would depend on the nature of property ownership, as mentioned above. Unfortunately, I'm not sure virtue ethics is exactly clear as to what the nature of property ownership ought to be. One may make the case that anarchic communism is one extreme, while government (single) ownership of all property is another extreme, and that private property is the golden mean between the two. If one were to make that argument, there is little question that government cannot tax.

Providential Religious Ethics simply means that if you do what God(s) want, you will be rewarded in the next life, and if you don't, you'll be punished. Under this ethics, we are under the care and protection of God(s), and any suffering in this world is a test for you. Under Christianity specifically, we are told to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and render unto God what is God's." If you accept money printed by government, don't complain when they want it back. Money printed by the government is the government's money; it is their property, and they can properly tax it. This may make income taxes acceptable, but it would still leave problematic property taxes. All of this, of course, leaves wide open the question of what on earth it is that God wants. We are often told what God wants by religious leaders, all of whom claim to have been appointed by God. None of which really helps us, except for the fact that we are again faced with the universality of religious prohibitions against theft. But if may also be true that God wants us to support our governments, that our government is set up by God, and we must therefore support it. Still, as I suggest in this poem, things may not always be so unambiguously pro-government as this.

Existentialism views morality as emerging from our actions and existence in the world. Morality is thus determined by us. For the existentialist, there are no moral universals. Stealing is not being your authentic self; it is an expression of inauthenticity. Why? Because the theft is not taking personal responsibility for himself and his actions. He is making another bear the responsibility for whatever reason he feels the need to steal.

But can a government be a responsible agent? Of course not. So when a government is taxing, is it stealing? The individual agents within the government are not, themselves, engaging in the act of stealing; they are rather simply "doing their jobs." They are responsible for their jobs, but not necessarily for the outcome of the institution for which they work. Should one feel responsible for the actions taken on behalf of the institution for which you work? I would think so, meaning one is being inauthentic working for a government that taxes. Thus, it may not be immoral for government to tax, but it may be immoral to work for a government that taxes. But even then, that would depend on the property rules. If the government is the one that really owns all property, taxes are fine, but if property is individually owned, taxes are theft.

Objectivist Ethics is the ethics of enlightened self-interest.This ethics is highly individualistic, and the individual takes precedence over the collective. Too many interpret this as "selfishness." If it were pure selfishness, theft and other immoral acts would be just fine. However, since I already noted that only if there is collective ownership can there not be theft, and since under objectivist ethics individuals take precedence over the collective, there cannot be collective ownership and there must therefore be theft. Individual ownership is real and therefore theft is immoral, since theft violates ownership. But does government ownership of property and subsequent stewardship violate objectivist ethics? Only if government ownership is understood as collectivist ownership. If government ownership and collective ownership are one and the same, then governments cannot tax under objectivist ethics, because taxation is theft. But this equation between government ownership and collective ownership raises the issue of what theft itself means. As noted, only if there is ownership can there be theft. Why would a government prohibit theft if it were the true owner? To maintain the illusion of private ownership among its stewards. And why would a government want to do that? To have the benefits of private property-based free enterprise along with the benefits of being able to legitimately tax. There is a great deal here to object to using objectivist ethics, and it should be clear how this ethics in many ways forms the foundation for a great deal of classical liberal philosophy.

Prima Facie Duties if a theory of ethics which views humans as part of a social contract, meaning we have rights and benefits, and duties and obligations. If we have duties to others, we cannot steal from them. But if we have duties to others, that may also mean taxation is a legitimate way to fulfill our duties. I won't dwell on the issue of whether or not government programs are the best way to fulfill that duty, though one may legitimately suggest that we have a duty to find out what the best way to help people is.

Sociobiology attempts to find our morals in our biology. Too many this means biological determinism. In other words, there is no ethics; we are determined by our genes, and that means we really shouldn't judge anyone's actions as right or wrong. Of course, this is not at all what biologically-based ethics really says. Sociobiology recognizes human beings as a hypersocial species of mammal. Any actions that undermine that hypersociality is unethical, and theft is therefore immoral because it fosters distrust within the social group.

Humans are also a hierarchical species with a person on top. This is the foundation for government. Humans originally evolved in a tribal setting, and it was the tribe itself which was the owner of the territory on which the tribe lived. This suggests a collective ownership of property that gets translated into tacit government ownership of territory with the expansion of social/political order beyond the tribe. From this perspective, taxation is fine, since it is the government which really owns the territory.

This would seem to undermine any sort of liberal order and support the government-as-property-owner-and-individuals-as-stewards point of view. If all we are and will ever be is fundamentally tribalist, this makes sense; but what if this is only half of the equation? What if there is something about our hypersociality that allows us to break out of our tribalist morals?

Other-Centered Ethics is the view that we have responsibilities to others simply because they exist. And we care due to empathy -- their pain causes our pain. Thus, if we steal, we cause another pain, which causes us pain. We should never steal from anyone, whether they are part of our group or not.

This ethics also does not necessarily tell us if governments should tax. It depends on who truly owns property. However, government should be other-centered, meaning those in government should not be looking out for themselves. This would suggest that our government ought to be more efficient and less corrupt than it is. But it could also be used to support the existence of social programs and of the taxation needed to support it.

Buddhist Ethics seeks to reduce suffering. If someone steals from you, you suffer because of it. Thus, one should not steal because it increases suffering. Along these lines, taxation also causes suffering. Whether the person taking my stuff is a criminal or a government, I will suffer as a result of that loss. This will be true whether or not there is private property or stewardship. More, since stewardship means the government can take the property over which you have stewardship any time you fail to pay taxes, stewardship itself is a cause of suffering. Private property is the form of property ownership that causes least suffering, from the perspective of the government not being able to legitimately take it from you.

Legal Moralism equates lawfulness and morality. What is law is moral, and what is moral is law. This theory just basically avoids the question of morality entirely. Theft is immoral because it's illegal. But why is it illegal? Taxation is moral because it's legal. This boils down to "so what?" To me this is just an abdication of morals. It is following authority because it is authority. Whatever this is, it's not morality in any sense of the term.


In going through this exercise, I came to realize a few things. One is that it is at best difficult to argue that taxation is theft without first making the case that property ought to be privately owned rather than set up as individual stewardship over government property. The ought of "government ought not take my property" is founded on the ought of "property ought to be privately owned." But that's another "ought" entirely.

What we also see, though, is that if a government taxes, that means that we necessarily do not have private property, but rather stewardship of government property. The government can legitimately take back into possession its own property over which you have stewardship. This solves the ethical dilemma of taxes as theft, but it also makes clear that private property under a regime of taxation is an illusion. So long as we have taxes, we do not and cannot have private property. 

As for regular theft, we see that whether we are talking about private property or stewardship, we should expect theft to be considered immoral and to be punished somehow. The reason with private property should be obvious, but in the case of stewardship, the transference of property between stewards has to be legitimate. Paying for the right of stewardship over a piece of property transfers that right legitimately from one person to another. But when someone steals from you, that is an illegitimate transfer of stewardship, and the government will come in to make sure that the right person maintains stewardship. That helps maintain its legitimacy and maintains the illusion of private property necessary to maintain a market economy.

My conclusion is that the best moral foundations for a liberal order of truly private property would be Kant's individualistic deontology, objectivist ethics, and Buddhist ethics. In different ways they deny the legitimacy of government-ownership-and-private-stewardship of property. With stewardship, people are treated as means rather than ends, which makes this approach illegitimate with Kantian deontology. Objectivist ethics already takes the individualistic point of view, and with Buddhist ethics, we see that the negative consequences of taxation makes illegitimate stewardship over private ownership.

I am sure there are other ethical views. And I think it's important to expand on the sociobiological view to include self-organizing scale-free network processes as a legitimate outcome of human interactions. But these are a start. I encourage others to include their suggestions and criticisms of my descriptions here.
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