"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion." ~ Thomas Jefferson
Column by tzo.
Exclusive to STR
A play in one act. SCENE: Two people chatting in a coffee shop.
A: Let me ask you something. Are you an ethical person?
B: I would like to think so, yes.
A: Do you use violence to get what you want?
B: No! What do you mean?
A: If you want a new shirt, do you steal it from someone?
B: Of course not.
A: If someone has a table you like in a restaurant, do you threaten him with a gun to get him to move?
B: I would never do something like that!
A: Why not?
B: Well, like I said, I like to think of myself as an ethical person, and so I try to live as ethically as I can. I'm not perfect, but I try my best.
A: So is there absolutely no way you would ever use violence in your life?
B: Hmm. Well, I suppose if someone attacked me, I would use force in order to defend myself.
A: Well, that makes sense. One could hardly accuse you of being unethical for defending yourself, could they?
B: No, I don't think so.
A: Nor do I. I mean, it's really common sense, isn't it? If people couldn't use force to defend themselves then there would be nothing to stop the people who wished to act unethically.
B: Yes, and unfortunately, there will always be such people.
A: Agreed. So, can you think of any other time you might decide to use force against someone, other than in self-defense?
B: Umm, not really, no.
A: How about me? Other than defending myself, can I ethically use force against someone to get what I want?
B: Well, no. The same rules apply to you as to me.
A: Can you think of a person who is exempt from these rules? Someone who is ethically allowed to use force to get what he wants?
B: No, not really. It seems to be a pretty universal rule.
A: Well, what if I give permission to someone to be able to take something from someone by force? Would this be an ethical use of force on his part? He has my permission, after all.
B: No, you can't do that!
A: Why not?
B: If something is wrong if you were to do it, it remains wrong if someone else does it for you.
A: But what if I get a big bunch of people together who say it's OK for that person to take property by force? Wouldn't that make it OK? I mean, who could stop us?
B: Whoa, there. Now you are confusing might with right. It doesn't matter how many people say that something is right—if it’s wrong, it’s wrong, and that's all. Just because you have a gang strong enough to get away with it doesn't make it right.
A: So some things are just plain right and others are wrong, and it doesn't matter how you try to fancy them up, you can't change wrong things into right things?
B: Yes, that's exactly right.
A: Well, then. It seems we have come to the conclusion that violence is only ethical in the context of self-defense.
B: Yep. That's what I think.
(They both pause for a sip of coffee.)
A: So, did you hear? They're probably going to try and take my house away from me.
A: Yeah, I stopped paying the property taxes and the government is threatening to take it.
B: Oh, no! What can I do? Do you need a loan? Let me help, please!
A: No, I have the money. I just don't want to pay.
B: Well, that's just being silly! Is it worth losing your entire house because you don't want to pay a little property tax? I'm sorry, but I just lost all my sympathy for you.
A: But I don't think that schools should be funded through property taxes.
B: But they are, and so you have to pay!
A: Well, whatever. When they come to take my house, I'm going to lock myself inside and not come out.
B: Are you crazy? What are you thinking? That won't stop them!
A: Well, if they break in, I have a gun to defend myself. I mean, it is my house, and I have the right to defend my property with force, right?
B: But you're breaking the law by not paying your taxes! They have the right to take your house if you don't pay! And if you use a gun against them, you're only going to get yourself killed!
A: Am I violently attacking the people who are going to come and take my house away from me?
B: No, of course you aren't.
A: Are they defending their very lives in using force against me?
B: If you point a gun at them, yes.
A: But they are pointing a gun at me first. I am just defending myself.
B: Oh, come on! No one is pointing a gun at you! You have to pay your property taxes or you lose your house. You knew that going in. Now you're going to pull out a gun and attack people who are doing their job in conjunction with the agreement you made when you bought the house? You've really lost it!
A: So they can take my house because the law says so?
B: Well, duh.
A: But isn't the law really just a use of force?
B: Of course it is, but the law is here to protect us. Like you said before, we need to be able to use force to defend ourselves against people who want to act unethically. The law provides that collective self-defense. The gun only comes out when someone breaks the law.
A: But if I own a house, how can self-defense be invoked to justify the use of force against me in taking my house from me?
B: It's not self-defense per se, it's the law.
A: So if you were to tell me that I have to pay you a certain amount every month or you were going to take my house, would that be lawful and ethical behavior on your part?
B: No, because what I say isn't law. That would just be me extorting money from you. That's illegal and unethical.
A: So how did the government get to be able to tell me that I have to pay them monthly or I will lose my house? How can they do what you and everyone else cannot do individually?
B: Look, it's what society has agreed upon. You can't very well have a society without laws, can you? You have to play by the rules. Why do you think you should get special treatment?
A: But I thought you said that what's right is right, and what's wrong is wrong. You said I couldn't get a gang of people together to give permission to someone else to take the property of another. But that's what you are doing to me, isn't it?
B: No that's completely different, and what do you mean by saying that I am doing something to you? I don’t have anything to do with you and your house, so don’t go blaming me for your problems.
A: But you are part of society.
B: And so are you!
A: So, I am threatening to take my house away from myself?
B: I’m pretty much speechless over here.
A: OK, let’s get back to something else you said. You told me that the only conceivable reason for ethically using violence was in self-defense, and that this rule is universal. Again, I am not attacking anyone, so why am I being threatened with force? How can that possibly be ethical?
(Somewhere, deep down in B's brain, an uncomfortable feeling about realizing that perhaps there is something inconsistent in his claim to being an ethical person begins to stir. An annoying mosquito of a thought, quickly brushed away, vaguely suggests that if he were to seriously pursue this logical train of thought, he may come to an unwanted destination. Of course, if he derails the train here, he won't have to make the trip. And hell, he knows he is ethical, so why waste time proving to himself what he already knows? Who cares if this other bozo doesn’t believe him? That’s his problem. But still, this whole exercise has left him feeling annoyed and affronted, and he doesn't really appreciate the spoiling of his previously good mood. Who is this high and mighty guy, anyway, to try and judge me? What an asshole.)
B: You know what? I got a thing I gotta get to. I'll talk to you later.
(B gets up and leaves.)