Political Authority Ain’t Golden Rule Compliant

If the moral universe bends toward justice, our future will include progress from the domain of "Must" to that of "Ought." Enter the Golden Rule.

Published in Underthrow Series .

[T]he arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

There is something fundamental about the Golden Rule. It crops up variously around the world, in just about every tradition. Philosophers will question which variation is best or which folds under technical or analytic scrutiny. Indeed, we’ve discussed competing variations on these pages, but I generally agree with Nathan Smith, who writes that the Golden Rule is the “crown of ethics.”

So, for the purposes of this exercise, pick your favorite variation. Here is a handful:

  • Love thy neighbor as thyself. (Leviticus/Matthew formulation)
  • That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellows. (Rabbi Hillel formulation)
  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” (Sermon on the Mount Formulation)
  • Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end. (Kant’s 2nd formulation)
  • Is there a deed, Rahula, thou dost wish to do? Then bethink thee thus: Is this deed conducive to my own harm, or to others harm, or to that of both? Then this is a bad deed entailing suffering. Such a deed must thou surely not do. (Buddhist formulation)
  • Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful. (Bahá’í formulation)
  • How would you like it if somebody punched you or took your lunch money? (Schoolyard formulation)

I wouldn’t bother arguing with philosophers until you have thoughtfully practiced your favorite variation for 30 days. You might even try multiple variations in your practice. What does it mean to abstain from harming others? What does it mean to love others actively, as in the Jesus/Leviticus formulation? Don’t overthink it. Don’t underthink it. Instead of letting it become a rigid, literal rule or philosophical puzzle, align your head, heart, and gut—and then practice it.

Now, I want to argue that if the arc of the moral universe indeed bends toward justice, it’s because more people will come to practice and institutionalize the Golden Rule.

The Magisteria

Take a simple, small-scale example: Imagine you have something I want. As we have said elsewhere, persuasion or compulsion are the only two ways I can get it from you. That’s it.
Another way to put the matter is this:

  1. I can appeal to your compassion—You ought to give me that—or your interests—You ought to trade with me so I can have that. Or,
  2. I can either commit a criminal and immoral act (such as stealing from you, threatening you, or assaulting you)—You must give me that, or else…

The first belongs to the Magisterium of Ought. The second belongs to the Magisterium of Must. Only one of these is Golden Rule compliant.

Persuasion: The Magisterium of Ought

The Magisterium of Ought emphasizes human society’s voluntary, ethical, and cooperative aspects. It includes:

  1. Morality & Virtue. Focusing on individual ethics and moral standards that guide personal and social conduct.
  2. Entrepreneurship & Markets. Encouraging free enterprise and market dynamics as drivers of innovation and economic growth.
  3. Community & Civil Association. Highlighting the role of communal bonds and civil organizations in fostering social cohesion.
  4. Charity & Mutual Aid. Stressing the importance of communitarian aid, civil association, and charity to support those in need.
  5. Polycentric Defense & Militias. Advocating for decentralized forms of community-based, regional, and/or private defense and security.
  6. Contract & Common Law. Emphasizing the role of agreements and customary law in governing relationships and transactions.

You might say the Magisterium of Ought is Golden Rule compliant.

Compulsion: The Magisterium of Must

In contrast, the Magisterium of Must represents the aspects of society involving the threat and application of coercive force. This includes:

  1. Politics & Police Power. Authorities form a monopoly on violence to make laws, enforce laws, and maintain order.
  2. Economic Planning & Industrial Policy. Authorities use forced redistribution to institute dirigisme, manage the economy, and drive industrial policy.
  3. National Service. Authorities implement mandatory service programs, often for the purpose of fostering national unity.
  4. Redistributive Welfare. Authorities redistribute wealth to create programs to assist certain constituency groups or the poor.
  5. National Defense & Conscription. Authorities impose compulsory taxation and/or military service for national defense.
  6. Civil Code & Statute Law. Authorities in legislatures make laws that dictate conduct and regulate human behavior by implicit threats of force.

Each magisterium represents a different approach to organizing and governing society, with the Voluntary Sector relying on persuasion and mutual agreement and the Involuntary Sector depending on mandatory compliance, backed by the threat of violence.

You might say that the Magisterium of Must is not Golden Rule compliant.

On the Necessity of “Must”

Despite the fact that the Magisterium of Must violates the spirit and the letter of the Golden Rule, most people will argue that the Involuntary Sector has certain features that civilized people cannot live without. This group will say the Magisterium of Must is a necessary evil, the Golden Rule notwithstanding.

For example, we have seen how crime has increased with the implementation of progressive policies and “defund the police” movements, they argue. And they are not wrong. What would be wrong, though, is to assume that features of the Magisterium of Must—such as policing—cannot be instantiated within the Magisterium of Ought.

Such would be to argue from a mixture of status quo bias and failure of imagination. After all, can’t we imagine:

  • Modern, upgraded mutual aid associations with deep communitarian ties and technology-enabled charitable targets—with incentives to truly “effective” altruism, as well as actively practiced charity and compassionate acts?
  • Competing private protection and security organizations whose incentives are geared to providing peace and security or minimizing crime—as opposed to bureaucratic inertia or political whims?
  • Driven, innovative entrepreneurs—large, medium, and small—dedicated to serving our needs, solving our problems, and creating value in spheres of life from which entrepreneurs have traditionally been excluded?

The thing is that all of these alternatives would be chosen instead of imposed.

Now, let’s assume that there really are features of the Magisterium of Must that we cannot do without. How would we know this without more places where people could experiment with alternatives? The market is a discovery process because entrepreneurs and innovators are experimenters functioning within the strict discipline of profit and loss.

Isn’t it time to accelerate bending the arc of the moral universe toward justice? Maybe it’s time to set aside a few more places on Earth that are Golden Rule compliant. And maybe it’s time to become active practitioners of the Golden Rule again so we all build out the Magisterium of Ought together.

Max Borders is a senior advisor to the Advocates. He writes at Underthrow.

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