Thinking about the coronavirus is bleak, so let’s do some political philosophy to cheer ourselves up.
Libertarian philosopher Jason Brennan has a new post up claiming that our obligations to help strangers are much weaker than we might think they are, and may not exist at all, because most people are “morally very bad”.
Brennan begins with this question:
To what degree are our moral obligations to provide help and assistance to strangers reduced because those strangers are likely to be morally bad people?
He answers this question in 3 steps. First, he argues that you do not have any reason to keep Bob, a rapist or child molester, from starving, even if you can easily afford to help. Second, he argues that even if Bob has not actually done anything wrong, if Bob has a bad character and would do something very bad if he could get away with it, then you don’t have any reason to help Bob:
Bob is an evil person, though he has not yet done anything evil. We owe evil people less. You are free to, say, spend the money on toys for yourself rather than keep him alive through your charity. Indeed, you probably are obligated to refrain from helping keep Bob alive.
Finally, Brennan argues that most people are in fact morally very bad:
. . . Most people are disposed to be utter conformists and to obey evil authority. Nearly all our neighbors are disposed to be obedient concentration camp guards; they only reason they haven’t done that is because, thanks to moral luck, they haven’t been in such a situation. Further, most of people’s apparently altruistic behavior is in fact motivated by self-interest . . . People in general have quite bad moral character, but most of them haven’t done anything particularly bad because they haven’t had the opportunity . . .
This seems like a good reason to discount our estimates of what kinds of assistance we owe them.
The question I want to ask is whether this argument gives us a (strong) reason to oppose social insurance and progressive taxation, the main institutions that capitalist democracies use to assist those who find themselves in difficult circumstances. (If Brennan is merely claiming that our obligation to help others on an individual basis is not as strong as we tend to think, I also disagree, but this is a less interesting and less important claim.)
Brennan assumes that people have fixed, immutable moral characters, and that their characters are either good or bad. To use his terminology, people are either “saints” or “scoundrels”. Scoundrels will act terribly when circumstances permit; saints always act decently towards others. Brennan assumes that most people (“nearly all”) are scoundrels, and that the obligation of saints to help scoundrels is limited. Note that Brennan is viewing morality entirely from the point of view of saints, even though he claims that most of us are scoundrels.
We could certainly push back on Brennan’s model and his empirical claims, but let’s run with them and see what happens.
Imagine a group of scoundrels who live together in a representative democracy with a market-based economy. Even though everyone is a scoundrel, the society functions reasonably well because informal norms, social pressure, and the threat of civil and criminal sanctions all encourage people to behave decently towards one another. Most people are vaguely aware of the fact that they might commit atrocities under less favorable circumstances, when they bother to reflect on such things, but they nonetheless come to think of themselves as imperfect but morally decent people. This kind of grandiose moral self-delusion is, sadly, all too typical of scoundrels.