Pat Gunn (dachte) wrote,
Pat Gunn

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Sovereign Ethics

Not actually inspired by Bhutto's recent death, but more on reflections on the end of Tsardom in Russia, statement of a position (that I do hold, not a "feeler")

Value conclusions made on the level of the individual, in particular, notions of a value code we expect people to live by, should be amendable or replacable when considering actions that affect society on a grand scale. Actions that may be inexcusable when some values cannot strongly be involved may be acceptable on such grand scales (although we would also expect some conclusions to be invariant across scale).

These matters of scale most directly affect people who make themselves prominent through action or other position - while rarely such judgement may apply to people who have not done so, people enter the public sphere and are judged/take responsibility in a manner akin to how celebrities and politicians (in the US) give up significant privacy expectations and other rights as they become public figures. There are three broad forms in which this judgement manifests - they are judged to have a higher responsibility to the public good beyond that of a common person (actions society may forgive nonsovereigns often will not be forgiven in them), in following that greater good they are potentially forgiven the sacrifice of lesser goods that could not potentially be balanced by nonpublic figures, and they become particularly vulnerable to actions performed by others operating in the second sphere (with judgement on/defense against said acts being far more likely to be excused than those involving people who have not become active on this level).

Illustration on points:

  • A value I believe should be held invariant of scale is honesty - honesty is chief among political virtues and notions of "the greater good" derive from it in a way that for those with a similar value configuration (naturally, sufficiently idealistic to think this way) the greater good could not be served by dishonesty. Dishonesty on a matter of political import should, in a government based off of such a value system (or in a movement that would establish such a government) be enough to derail a political career and possibly topple a government (using the British political science term here, contrast "head of state" to "head of government" and note my recent conclusion that pluralism-with-limits is appropriate/necessary as an anticorruption measure within a state). Contrast with openness, which is also quite important but not necessarily invariant. Another (for me) is prohibition on torture.
  • First form: higher responsibility - various acts when performed on the grand ethical stage have significance/effects that, as part of private life, should be generally accepted out of respect for individual autonomy, but should not necessarily be accepted on said stage. As noted above, an obligation to be honest, generally of nuanced and limited scope in private life, becomes much stronger on the large stage. Civility, (provided one has the sort of role where it makes a difference) competence, and avoiding pursuit of private gain are examples of other areas that fall under this form.
  • Second form: greater good - There are many situations when the public good should outweigh the autonomy normally given to people. Some of these normally take place through the mechanism of the state, e.g. collection of taxes, confiscation of property (although this is often abused), and some, because they are difficult to structure in a rigorous way, are by necessity done on an as-needed-and-let-history-be-the-judge fashion, such as revolution, banishment/execution of political figures, pardons (which are generally state-sanctioned but not state-structured), and other types of bargains. It is difficult to manage society on large scales with people of varying intent when people lack laws or codes of behaviour to restrain them (thus the need for laws), but these laws/codes (read "rights" as part of codes) are not inviolate - they are "operating rules/conclusions" that must admit exception. Attempts to state them to codify everything are wrong-headed and leads both to abuse and their replacement of genuine virtue - judgement (being willing to exercise it and accepting a healthy society's response to one's actions even if one acts "on good faith") is essential.
  • Third form: While the populace as a whole should be prepared to yield their autonomy to the greater good, people on the grand stage are to be expected to be particularly vulnerable to manipulations for the greater good, and many actions that would usually be considered unacceptable when done to private citizens may be considered acceptable when applied to public figures as benefits the public good. Notions of fairness and jurisprudence as would apply to private citizens may not apply when the public interest is sufficient - as an extreme example, the Russian royal family, an occasionally very progressive (e.g. Tsar Peter I) and occasionally otherwise family, was, depending on the individual, positive for Russia but when a better alternative came along, we might consider it appropriate (and I do) that they were deposed and executed to make the White army irrelevant and irrevocably end royal power (in favour of Trudovik, Menshevik, or Bolshevik-led transformations). While such an act done without a strong social interest (especially to the children, who outside of the social interest could generally not be considered valid targets, not having had a significant chance to have "opted-in" to royal status), as it would be on the individual scale, would be considered barbarous and unacceptable, to secure the transformations for the public good, it may be considered necessary and even positive. Looking at practically every large social shift (even restricting ourselves to those generally considered positive), one finds many examples of such acts that were done of perceived necessity, and I believe we are compelled to accept them provided they are not done with excessive relish, are believed to be actually necessary, and line up with our values in the large-scale results they achieved.
This does raise the issue of judgement - while it is possible to provide a certain amount of legal framework and value framework that constrain small-scale actions, formalising these actions for the public good is considerably more difficult. It is possible to specify certain values these acts must be justified in terms of and to give invariants that extend across all scales (people may disagree on specifics, but there isn't full consensus on the small-scale norms either), but many of these actions are designed to challenge/replace social and/or legal norms, and so their judgement in light of them is naturally constraining (imagine a corrupt political power body that reviews all legal/structural changes in society - their removal may be illegal but..). The grand scale operates closer to "power politics" than legal/cultural norms does, and in the long term, is best judged by history. In some cases, the existing society/people in the legal system should be prepared to exercise judgement as to how strictly they exercise their rules - people may be asked whether the exception is both worthwhile in itself and worth the cost of making exceptions (doing so too rarely or too often each would have their own kind of cost). Such acts are presumably best done infrequently and in situations where the alternative is markedly worse. It is also worth noting that while "good faith" efforts should be considered largely sufficient for action on small scales and operating within established procedure, when one steps further outside their bounds or highly enough into societal importance, actual results take an increasingly prominent role in judgement - while we may forgive/applaud some complex acts that prove to have been necessary, the same acts having led to disaster are more likely to be viewed as unacceptable.
Tags: philosophy

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