The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Friday, August 27, 2021

The Evanescence of Ethics in the Epidemic

Imagine three individuals who each wish to relieve you of the burden of the contents of your wallet that they might bear this load themselves.


The first individual approaches you and says “I hate to ask this, but I’m in a real pickle, I owe Vinnie and Guido $50 and if I don’t pay it by the end of the day they are going to break my legs, would you be a pal and help me out.”


The second individual comes up to you wearing a bandana, pulls a gun, and says “stick em up” and then grabs your wallet and runs.


The third individual says to you “I want you to give me all your money.  It is your choice if you do or not, but if you don’t I’ll see to it that you can never work, travel, or participate in any community events again.”


Which of these individuals was guilty of robbery?


The first individual may be guilty of having made very poor choices but is not guilty of robbery. 


The second individual is clearly a robber and a stereotypical robber at that, going so far as to wear the traditional uniform of the robber, a mask covering the lower face.


The correct answer to our question, however, is that both the second and the third individuals were guilty of robbery.   Robbery is theft – the unlawful taking of another person’s possessions – through the means of coercive force, either actual or threatened.    Both the second and the third individuals used threats to force you to hand over your money.    The nature of what they threatened to do was quite different but the difference does not make what the third individual said any less of a coercive threat.


Is it ever right, or at least morally permissible, to use coercive force?


This ethical question is more complex than it might at first seem, due to a number of complicating factors.   One such factor is the nature of the coercive force.    Consider our illustration above.   The threats used by the second and third individuals differed in two ways.   One of these was in their level of credibility.   The stereotypical robber’s threat was made believable by the presence of the gun.   The credibility of the other robber’s threat depends upon who the robber is.   If he is in a position of sufficient power to actually carry it out then his threat is credible, otherwise he is obviously a nut and his threat can be disregarded as empty and crazy.   The other way, which is the one that is relevant to this discussion, is in the nature of what was threatened.   The stereotypical robber threatened the use of lethal force.   The other robber merely threatened to make your life miserable, not to take it from you.    Historically, this distinction has been very important in discussions of the ethical question at hand.   While there has been no answer to the question which could be said to have the support of a universal consensus, there has been wide agreement that lethal force is the least justifiable or permissible form of coercion.


Another complicating factor is that of the distinction between the state and private individual persons.    It would be extremely difficult if not impossible to conceive of the enforcement of law and the administration of criminal justice that does not in some way or another involve the use of coercive force.    Unsurprisingly, therefore, there has also been wide agreement – although not nearly as wide as with lethal force being the least justifiable or permissible – that it is more justifiable or morally permissible for the state, the institution whose raison d’etre is to enforce the law and administer criminal justice, to use such force than for private persons.    Again, support for this idea while broad, has not been as wide as for the one with which we ended the previous paragraph.   The liberal tradition, that is to say, the tradition that over the course of the Modern Age became dominant in what used to be Christendom but is now Western Civilization, has produced many different views on the matter.   One such view, which is evident today among those liberals or progressives who would argue that you should never fight back and defend yourself, your loved ones, or your property when these are under criminal attack, but  allow yourself to be victimized and let the professionals, the police, take care of it, is that the state ought to have an exclusive monopoly on all use of coercive force.    Conversely, some although not all of the liberals of the kind who began calling themselves libertarian in the last century to indicate their retention and emphasis on the individualism and suspicion of government that were predominant in the liberalism of the nineteenth century, hold that force is only justifiable when used by private persons to defend themselves, their families, and property and that the state is illegitimate.    Although these views, each the polar opposite of the other, are both supported by their proponents from ideas that belong to the mainstream of the liberal philosophical-political tradition, neither could be said to itself represent the mainstream liberal view on the matter of how much coercive force is permitted to the state and the private person.     That the use of force on others, whether on the part of the private person or the state, is ethically permissible only under certain circumstances, which are broader for the state than for the private person, with lethal force being permitted to the latter only in circumstances of self-defense, is much closer to what historically would have been the liberal mainstream.   In this, the mainstream of the liberal tradition was itself much closer to the mainstream of the tradition that preceded it, or, if you prefer, the mainstream of the Western tradition as a whole, including both liberal and pre-liberal strands, than in many other areas.


There is one way in which liberalism did depart from the pre-liberal Western tradition that warrants consideration in the context of this discussion, especially in that it had a direct bearing on the way the factor examined in the last paragraph was framed.   Distinguishing between the private person and the state is fairly universal in the ethical debate over the boundaries limiting when force is permissible.  Restricting the distinction to these two, on the other hand, is rather unique to the liberal tradition.   Conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet stressed throughout his career, beginning with his seminal The Quest for Community (1953), the importance of a plurality of institutions.    He described such other institutions as the family and the local community as “intermediate” between the state and the private person.   That liberalism had come to largely disregard these is evident in the radically opposite views both emerging from the liberal tradition mentioned in the previous paragraph.    What the ideas that the state should have a monopoly on force and that the state is illegitimate and only the individual person is justified in using force in self-defense have in common is that they both see the state and the individual as the only players worthy of consideration.   The other institutions that Nisbet called “intermediate” traditionally possessed a significant amount of authority.   Authority, which is the respected right to lead, is different from power, which is the ability to command obedience.      For society or any institution within it to be functional authority must take strong precedence over power but, human nature being what it is, authority cannot long exist without power backing it up.   This necessarily means that those who exercise the authority in Nisbet’s intermediate institutions must be morally able to use some kind of force, to some kind of degree.   Another way in which liberalism’s reduction of everything to the state and individual is evident has been in the way in which the liberal tradition, which in the interwar period of the last century largely abandoned its anti-statist libertarianism from the century prior and then sharply veered into statism after World War II, has been attacking the authority of all of these institutions, especially the family, by having the state strip them of their power. (1)


The ability to back up an order with force is the essence of power, which to some degree or another is necessary to support authority.    The force needed to support authority differs from institution to institution in both kind and degree.  That lethal force is limited to the state, except in situations where the individual needs it for defensive purposes is something to which virtually everyone in Christendom would have agreed around the time that liberalism began to convert Christendom into Western Civilization.    This consensus did not exist in the classical civilization that preceded Christendom.    In ancient Rome, the pater familias, which meant the patriarch of a household consisting of a large extended family, rather than merely the father in a domestic unit, held authority, the pater potestas, over his family that was not equal to that exercised by the Senate over the Roman city-state, but certainly comparable to it.    Classical literature abounds with stories featuring the abuse of such authority – Oedipus, the king of Thebes who features in several of the extent tragedies, bears a name (“swollen foot”) that testifies to his having been a victim of a botched attempt to end his life while an infant, carried out at the orders of his father when the latter heard the prophecy that the child would kill his father and marry his mother.     While Oedipus’s father Laius was a king, the order to have the child exposed was an expression of what would have been regarded as his patriarchal rather than his civil authority at the time.      


The spread of Christianity and the conversion of classical civilization into Christendom led to the elimination of the practice of infanticide by exposure and stricter limits being placed on the pater potestas leading to the Christian consensus that the legitimate use of lethal force is limited to the state except in instance of self-defense on the part of private persons.    While this meant that the power and authority of the family patriarch was no longer comparable to that of the state and that in temporal terms the civil power was now unquestionably the highest authority, the mainstream point of view in Christendom did not regard all other institutional authority as falling in the intermediate position between the state and the individual of which Nisbet spoke.   The mainstream point of view in Christendom was that there were two realms in Christian civilization, the temporal and the spiritual, the membership of which overlapped, but in which different institutions were vested with the highest authority.   In the temporal realm, the state was the highest authority.   In the spiritual realm, the church was the highest authority.  The bishops, as citizens of the temporal realm, were under the authority of the king as his subjects.   The king, as a member of the church, was subject to the authority of his bishop in the spiritual realm.   The king and the bishop, each possessing the highest earthly authority in his respective realm, required power to back that authority up, and this power was conceived of as two “swords”.   These swords were metaphorical, of course, although much less so in the case of the king, whose sword included the use of lethal force to punish crime. (2)   The bishop’s “sword” was the “keys”, given to the Apostles by Christ after St. Peter’s confession of faith, which included the power to exclude people from the Sacraments and the fellowship of the church.


Disagreements about the “keys” were involved in fracturing the ecclesiastical unity of Christendom in both the eleventh and the sixteenth centuries, which contributed to liberalism’s takeover of Christendom and transformation of it into modern Western Civilization.    While the specifics of these disagreements is not relevant to our discussion here, it is important to note that in the Christian orthodox mainstream of Christendom neither the king nor the bishop was thought to have the right the wield his sword whenever he saw fit to serve his own selfish purposes.   Liberalism maintained otherwise, of course, because it wished to weaken the king or replace him with a republic and to reduce the church from the institution of highest earthly authority in the spiritual realm to one of many intermediate institutions in the temporal realm, but the concept of the divine gifting of the “swords” in Christian orthodoxy clearly implies that both kings and bishops were held strictly accountable to God for the right use of the swords, and a great deal of space in the writings of theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas was devoted to spelling out the limits on when these swords could be rightly used.   The importance of this lies in the fact that despite the significant differences between the orthodoxy of Christendom and the liberalism of modern Western Civilization both agreed that there were limits on when force could be used, whether by the state or by private persons, and that these limits were written in the language of ethics, of what is right and what is wrong.


The idea that there are limits on the right use of force even for the state is an ancient one, going back to the earliest of civilizations.   Even before the Socratic philosophers wrote the dialogues and treatises that laid the foundation of the long tradition of Western political science, Aeschylus wrote his Oresteia, a trilogy of plays that begins with the murder of Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra, continues with his being avenged by his son Orestes, and concludes with Orestes escaping the vengeance of the pursuing Furies by placing his fate in the hands of the patron goddess of Athens who establishes the first jury to adjudicate the case, resulting in an acquittal.   The trilogy illustrates how the civilized justice system with its laws and courts is superior to pre-civilized blood “justice” because it limits the violence rather than letting it continue to spiral and escalate.    The myths behind the plays are much older (Homer had drawn from the same source material in his Illiad and Odyssey three centuries prior to this).   Indeed, even the Lex Talionis that is featured prominently in the ancient Code of Hammurabi (Babylon of the eighteenth century BC) and the Mosaic Law in the Old Testament, can be understood as a limit on the permissible use of force (under it if someone puts out your eye, the maximum that you can demand as just repayment is his own eye).    That the ancients saw the force of law, exercised by the state, as being subject to the limits of morality is also attested to by manner in which they categorized their philosophy.   While modern totalitarians, who reject limits on the power of the state, have sometimes claimed Plato as an ancestor, to do so they must rely entirely upon a dialogue that is fantastical in nature, in which Socrates and his friends engage in an entirely theoretical exercise in city-building that is clearly set in a world other than the one they actually live in.    The purpose of the exercise is not to create a model for the builders of city-states in the real world to use, but to examine further an ethical question about the nature of justice.   The totalitarians’ claim on Plato, therefore, is very tenuous.   By contrast, modern constitutionalists, that is to say those who believe in constitutional restraints on the powers of government which ought to include everybody of every political stripe who is not a totalitarian, can rightly point to Plato’s disciple Aristotle as their ancestor.   Some of these have agreed with the totalitarians in assigning Plato to the latter camp, but where Plato and Aristotle were clearly in harmony was in making politics in the sense of political science, the theory of states and statecraft, a subcategory of ethics, the theory of human habits and behaviour as evaluated by the standards of what is right, good and virtuous versus what is wrong, bad, and vicious.   This is spelled out by Aristotle, who introduced politics as a subdivision in his treatise on Ethics, then wrote a sequel devoted to Politics, but it is also the obvious implication of Plato’s having made his most famous political discussion as part of a larger ethical debate.   The subordination of politics to ethics is consistent with the constitutionalist rather than the totalitarian point of view.

Over the course of the pandemic that was declared early last year and has continued to the present day it has been very disturbing to see this subordination of politics to ethics that has been so important to every phase of our civilization (or to our civilization and its two immediate predecessors depending upon how you look at it) disregarded or, worse, inverted (the use of shame and guilt to coerce people into obeying every public health order – “you are a bad selfish person who cares only about yourself if you object to being forbidden all social interaction for two years straight” – is the use of a twisted form of ethics to serve the interests of politics, not in the Platonic/Aristotelean sense of the word but in a sense of the term that is usually if, perhaps, unfairly, associated with Machiavelli).   At the beginning of the pandemic, the citizens of Western countries basically acquiesced as their governments imposed unprecedented restrictions upon them.   In imposing these restrictions Western governments overstepped the limits their constitutions place on their powers and essentially took away what for centuries Western people have regarded as their most basic civil, if not human, rights.    Telling people they can have only a limited number of people over to their house is a restriction that limits their freedom of association, but telling them they can have no visitors over to their house, as the province of Manitoba did from November of last year until this July, is taking away that freedom altogether.  This is a freedom that is identified as “fundamental” in the second section of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that was added to the Canadian constitution in 1982, the rights and freedoms in which the Supreme Court of Canada has previously ruled that governments can limit, but only if the limitation is minimal, as this one obviously was not.   Nevertheless, the province was somehow allowed to get away with this. 


Having gotten away with these experimental severe restrictions on our freedoms, our governments then began to add mandates on top of these.   The first of these was the mandate that we wear lower face masks in indoor spaces.   The mask mandates were controversial for a number of reasons, many of which I have discussed in other essays in the past.   What is most significant for our purposes here is that while many have seen the masks as being a lesser imposition than the lockdowns, and in one sense they are right, they represent the transition from the government forbidding us to do things that we had previously been free to do to the government requiring us to do things.   Throughout history, the laws of the freest countries have been mostly if not all prohibitions rather than requirements, and the more requirements a government has added the less free the country has become.   The laws that have been the most universal – the basic laws against such things as murder and theft – are prohibitions.


We have now arrived at a point where, if polls are to be believed – and this is a big “if” – the vast majority of Canadians support a different – and far worse – mandate, mandatory vaccination.    The rapidly developed vaccines for the bat flu have spawned much more controversy than the masks.   Much of the heated discussion has been over such matters as the safety and efficacy of the vaccines.    I will leave these matters to others because the ethical problem with vaccine mandates would be the same if they were 100% safe and effective.

Some would distinguish between mandatory vaccination and forced vaccination.    The distinction is false, however, and involves no real difference.   By the latter, these people would presumably have in mind a situation where someone ties you to a chair and injects you with a vaccine without your consent, either freely given or coerced.   A mandatory vaccine, however, is as much a forced vaccine as a vaccine in the circumstance just described.   The only difference is in the nature of the force used, which difference is essentially the same as that between the two robbers in our illustration at the beginning of this essay.


Let us use a slightly different illustration.


There are three young men.    Each has a young lady of whom he is in pursuit.


The first young man woes her with flowers, and chocolates, and sappy love poetry.


The second young man, clubs her over the head, drags her off to his cave, and forces himself upon her.


The third young man is the young lady’s immediate supervisor.   He tells her that if she wishes to advance in her career, it would be in her best interests to sleep with him, and hints that she will be fired and blackballed in her profession if she does not.


As with the original illustration, the first young man is innocent.   The second young man, also corresponding to his counterpart in the first illustration, is a stereotypical rapist.   


Is the third young man as guilty of rape, assuming his ploy to be successful, as the second?


If your answer is “no” you might be wise to keep your opinion to yourself in the presence of the ladies.  As Rudyard Kipling so aptly said “the female of the species is more deadly than the male”.


The reason for this second illustration is that the crime involved is much closer in nature to forced vaccination than robbery.   In both rape and forced vaccination someone’s body is penetrated, without that person’s voluntary consent, by a foreign tube which injects a substance into the body.    The similarities far outweigh the differences and include all the elements of rape which make the act a heinous crime.


The rhetoric we have been hearing from political leaders, like the Prime Minister, who have imposed vaccine mandates on certain sectors, has been “it is your choice not to be vaccinated, but there will be consequences”.   Imagine a man saying to a woman “it is your choice not to sleep with me, but there will be consequences”.   It would be one thing if by “consequences” the Prime Minister meant something like “you won’t be as protected against the virus as somebody who chooses to take the vaccine.”    This is obviously not what he meant.   It was a threat of the imposition of additional negative consequences apart from whatever ones might be inherent in the choice itself on those who reject the vaccine.   This is an unjustifiable abuse of government power.   Indeed, it is ethically unacceptable for any institution to abuse its authority and power in this way.   Rather than issuing vaccine mandates for their own employees, and those of certain private sectors, governments ought to be forbidding everyone else from imposing private vaccine mandates.    The latter would be a proper and ethical use of government power.  


That so many people have indicated their support for vaccine mandates, government or private, demonstrates just how badly our ethical thinking, which was not exactly in great shape prior to the pandemic, has deteriorated over the course of the last two years.


(1)   This is what the so-called Culture War, or at least the moral aspect of it, has really been all about.

(2)  The imagery comes from the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans in the New Testament.

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