Political decisions come down to the basic moral question

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Since the days of Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill, a continuing ethical debate has raged between consequentialist ethics and nonconsequentialist ethics. Consequentialists believe that the morality of an action lies in its consequences, while nonconsequentialists believe that ethics are mostly based on intentions.

This ethical difference is a large reason why liberals and conservatives are in opposition when it comes to economic policy.

Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialist ethics that states that the thing that results in the greatest good for the greatest number of people is the right thing to do. Liberals believe that taxing the rich more than others is the right thing to do because the law of diminishing marginal returns states that as you get more of something, you enjoy it less. In other words, $1,000 would do more good in the hands of someone who has $10,000 than someone who has $100,000. Thus, redistribution is the right thing for the government to do.

Conservatives disagree on this point. Kantian ethics sets forth two rules: First, an action can only be right if you could wish to live in a world where everyone takes that action. Secondly, actions are only right if they respect another person’s rational ability to make decisions.

My counterargument calls for higher taxes on the rich is, “why is it that when you make $250,000, you suddenly deserve your money less?” This is a very nonconsequentialist argument. People’s rational minds are disrespected when the fruits of their labor are taken from them, regardless of how much they make. Coercive government is wrong for just this reason. The more government actions that can be taken voluntarily, the better. The more privately owned toll roads we have, the better. People shouldn’t be forced to pay for things or take actions that they don’t want.

As an overarching example, all relationships between consenting adults should be legal and noncoercive. This includes jobs that pay less than minimum wage, legalization of drugs, and gay marriage. These are voluntary relationships that are entered into because they benefit all parties involved. When the government interferes, this disrespects the rationality of the parties that engage in these relationships. This is wrong.

Yet there exists cognitive dissonance among those with any sort of political views. Liberals take a nonconsequentialist stance on social issues such as civil rights. Any infringement on these rights is disrespecting someone’s rationality. Conservatives take on consequentialist points of view, yet somehow argue that gay marriage is bad for the community.

Cognitive dissonance exists in my own mind, too. Despite only wanting a voluntary government, I think public schooling is the best thing ever.

While I can justify forcing kids to attend public school until they’re 18 because they’re not yet rational adults, getting money from the government to fund these schools is not something that I believe in. In this instance, I’m a pure consequentialist, even though I don’t believe that consequentialism is right.

Many of the political differences that we see in the current spectrum of liberals and conservatives come from differences in prioritizing consequentialism and nonconsequentialism. Liberals and conservatives disagree about the arenas in which either view is more valid. These disagreements are not just political disagreements — they are ethical ones that philosophers have argued about for centuries.

Neither view is right or wrong, specifically because they’re arguing about what, in fact, is right and wrong.
Yet the basic questions that these disagreements come down to is: How appropriate is it for the government to restrict people’s freedom in exchange for securing positive outcomes for people, and how effective is the government at doing this?

My answer is “not very” to these questions, in most cases. The government is inherently inefficient. Anything the government can do, the private sector can do better. Yet this doesn’t apply in all cases. We all have cognitive dissonance. Reconciling this is the pragmatic challenge that all who hold political opinions face.