Singer’s contradictions and advocacy of state initiated force

16 11 2009

According to Singer, meat should be taxed at 50% because this would apparently help the environment.  Singer is a vegetarian who falsely believes that meat is bad for your health (even though humans have clearly evolved to eat meat). 

This is what is called a “sin” tax.  Ultimately I think you can trace this style of tax back to common (often implicit) philosophical ideas of modern western culture.  ie: Most people from either religious ethics traditions or from modern philosophy’s building on Kantian ethics (or a mixture of the two) believe being morally good means self sacrifice or servitude to God/state/society/insert collective.  These collectives are considered to have a higher power over the individual therefore sacrifice is inevitable at some point.  Selfish pursuits are considered evil and therefore we need “sin” taxes.  In addition, the real world substance of these collectives is conceptual only, not actual.  Because there is no God and no “society” in the external world, there will inevitably be problems (ie: conflicts between individual and collective) when trying to base an ethical theory on non-empirical conceptual inventions. 

Original article at NY daily news

Objectivism makes the unique claim that morality and practicality do not conflict (ie: no moral/practical dichotomy exists) for individual people living on a desert island or living in any free society.  This is a bold claim that I make quite often on the net, but I have never seen this claim invalidated (lifeboat scenarios have tended to come into play though).  Admittedly there aren’t many non-Objectivists that wish to discuss Objectivist ethics even though there are plenty of O-haters around.

Objectivism holds that living organisms require values (defined as that which one acts to gain and/or keep) to live.  In the case of humanity, the ultimate value is the human life upon which all other values are possible.  You cannot value anything if you are dead. 

The Objectivist ethics holds man’s life as the standard of value—and his own life as the ethical purpose of every individual man. “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness 


a “standard” is an abstract principle that serves as a measurement or gauge to guide a man’s choices in the achievement of a concrete, specific purpose. “That which is required for the survival of man qua man” is an abstract principle that applies to every individual man. The task of applying this principle to a concrete, specific purpose—the purpose of living a life proper to a rational being—belongs to every individual man, and the life he has to live is his own.

Politics is based on ethics (and metaphysics and epistemology).  Its the science of how to best (best = practical/ethical or combinations thereof) organise groups or society.  The fundamental political principle in Objectivism is the non-initiation of force.  This is derived at by noting some basic facts about humanity.  The human mode for survival is the human mind and its ability to reason.  We should also note that thought and reasoning are useless without action and therefore we require the ability to act on our thoughts in order to survive.  Therefore we should be allowed to act as long as we are not initiating physical force (the negation of reasoning faculties and hence our survival mechanisms) to stop another human from acting. 

It is true that the non-initiation of force principle is both a moral and political principle.  eg/ Murdering someone is both immoral and rightly illegal.  However, it is an erroneous jump in logic (a non sequitor) to believe that moral rules per se should be enforced by the state as some people tend to believe.  If this were the case, we’d have contradictions with the non initiation of force principle.  This principle takes priority because of the importance of reasoning and the implicit ability to act to humanity.  Humans are ends in of themselves and should have the freedom to exist as they sees fit, the aim of politics should be to achieve these conditions and this cannot be achieved by mandating a list of out of context moral rules.  Morality is only possible where free choice is possible and any state attempt to enforce morality is attempting the impossible. 

Effectively the goal of politics is to protect the conditions required for moral living.  Many people believe that a moral code should be enforced to the point that they believe it is practical (NB/ in reality unethical legislation is never practical if you examine the “unseen” consequences eg/ war of drugs).  The reason we have to add this last clause is because the impracticalities are so obvious – particularly with the “sin” taxes.  I think sin taxes are particularly incidious and it really annoys me that they are so popular considering they are demonstrably ridiculous if taken to their logical extremes. 

But before I look at a couple of consequences of enacting sin taxes I’d like to address another issue:  Just because it is the state that seeks to initiate force doesn’t make it OK.  The state is not a higher power.  There are no facts of reality that suggest it should be considered this way.  The state is entrusted to preserve justice as much as possible, but not to initiate force and behave unethically.  Society is simply a collection of individuals and there is no reason to believe the State is a higher power and not answerable to human ethics. 

Anyway, here are two troubling implications of attempting to enforce moral rules onto a populace: 

1) Totalitarianism.  Did you play that video game too long at the expense of doing some housework?  Did you oversleep?  Did you brush your teeth today?  Did you do your exercise? etc etc.  How far do we go?  1984 anyone? 
eg/ Sometimes I like a bit of 70% (or above) dark chocolate.  I love it.  If I binge, then this is immoral because it’s not good for my health to overeat.  If I have a little this would be moral because I’m not endangering my health, but I’m certainly enjoying the experience – something good for my life.   Should a totalitarian overlord monitor my chocolate intake for my alleged good?

2) Force negates the ability to act morally anyway.  Say person X desires to smoke cigarettes, but doesn’t smoke them due to state force (unlikely scenario considering rampant black markets – here in Australia we have black market tobacco and it’s not even illegal yet!).  Let’s even say person X doesn’t substitute another bad activity in place of cigarette smoking (again highly unlikely).  Is this person X better ethically than person Y who openly smokes cigarettes in a society where they are legal?  Not by any great degree at least.  Person X would return to smoking at the first opportunity.  Government force often has no impact on the morality of the populace even though in the meantime, the government has itself acted immorally.  Why should moral or immoral action be made impossible?  We also have a net loss of morality to society – should utilitarians like Singer care about this?  

Humans are endowed with the capacity for reason and volition.  Therefore they need to be allowed to act on their choices.  If one person forcibly removes another person’s ability to act, this is generally and rightly illegal eg/ violent crimes.  This is good and we need a government with monopoly powers of force to achieve these ideal conditions, namely, the non-initiation of force principle.  But note that in this case the government is not initiating physical force, they are responding to it.  Governments should protect people’s freedom to act.  Government’s that attempt to force a particular set of ethics are obviously engaging in contradictory behaviour. 

Contradictions invalidate a theory.  Non-identity is impossible, contradictions are impossible in reality.   

Singer’s obvious love of and promotion of “sin” taxes identifies him as an enemy of human freedom and human life.  Singer is unfortunately ignorant on many levels.  Some of these ignorances are highlighted here by Chris Berg:

In addition Singer is wrong about vegetarian diets being particularly healthy and wrong that meat is unhealthy.  Have you heard of the obesity and diabetes epidemic Singer? 

But at root, Singer is promoting a political theory that leads to ethical contradictions.  And this is why I thought I’d write a brief article because these fundamental ethical and political contradictions will not be widely challenged.  Singer is a utilitarian, a pragmatist and a collectivist and this expalins why he believes state initiation of force can be a good thing.  But he’s wrong and his proposal logically leads to facist legislation that sooner rather than later harms innocent people and sends them to their graves earlier than otherwise.




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