Who should be helped/hurt?

In his book The Open Society and Its Enemies [free pdf 1, 2; Amazon] in Chapter 7 Section I, Karl Popper points out that since Plato most political philosophers have been doing political philosophy wrong. They have been asking the question “Who should rule?” This question presupposes that somebody should rule: somebody should have the final say. But any particular person or group can be mistaken and very often will be mistaken. So instead of asking “who should rule?” we should ask “How institutions can be arranged to stop bad or incompetent rulers from doing too much damage?” Political institutions in liberal democracies go some way to addressing the latter question and they could be improved but there is a related issue that I want to address.

In many political debates, it seems like the main question people want to ask is “who should be helped?” or “who should be hurt?” In the discussion in the wake of the financial crisis many people have been asking who they should lynch in order to prevent another crisis and most of them say that bankers, or short sellers, or some other financial institution should be destroyed or broken up or banned. In the dispute over global warming the mainstream position is that fossil fuel companies are evil and should be destroyed by virtuous environmentalists to help baby seals, polar bears and anyone living near the sea. I could name many other positions like this, but I won’t.

Every one of these positions takes for granted that some people should be helped and others should be hurt, but this is wrong. One problem with this kind of policy is that it involves ignoring the objections of the group who will be hurt or criticisms of the behaviour of those who will be helped. Another is that it almost always involves a cartoon version of morality that obscures the reasons why the group who will be hurt acts the way they do. So when it comes to fossil fuel companies and global warming, people ignore the fact that fossil fuel companies dig up fossil fuels and burn them so that we can have cheap electricity and cars and stuff like that, without which our lives would be a lot worse. By a lot worse I mean you would be dead or would never have been born in the first place because we wouldn’t have clean running water and stuff like that. Likewise, if we just say bankers are stupid or wicked then we can’t understand all of the problems that helped lead to the financial crisis, many of which were a result of actions taken by governments.

The final and most important reason is that there is no reason to think that hurting people is a good thing to do. Any problem can be solved by finding a new way of doing things that everybody prefers to what they were doing originally. We should want to solve problems that way. You might say something like “What if somebody wants something that it is impossible to deliver?” For example, it is not particularly desirable to get rid of fossil fuels in the absence of a better alternative but that’s what many people seem to want. If a person just doesn’t know how useful fossil fuels are then he will change his mind when he finds out. If he thinks that nature is somehow better than humans and if lots of people die it doesn’t matter, then we could point out that only humans can create new explanatory knowledge and so are more significant than the rest of nature. Human beings could spread life beyond the Earth by space travel and preserve it indefinitely, no other species can do that.

But what about really bad people who want to kill other people, like Hamas, who want to kill all the Jews in Israel. The point of countering Hamas is to stop the bad stuff they want to do, and stopping Hamas is just a consequence of that broader goal. It is difficult to see how Hamas could survive abandoning the goal of destroying Israel because it’s not an open, adaptable institution that seeks new ideas. Any organisation that abandoned destroying Israel would be so different from Hamas as it now stands that it would have virtually nothing at all in common with it even if it had the same name. But I don’t really care whether Hamas exists or not.

UPDATE A reader has pointed out something important I didn’t say in the post. It may be rational to adopt a policy even if some group claims they will be hurt by that policy. This is the other side of not deciding policy on the basis of who will be helped or hurt. Slaveowners before the American Civil War claimed they would be hurt by not being allowed to take slaves into the territories. That doesn’t mean it was wrong for Lincoln to say they should be banned from taking slaves into the territories. What is needed is an explanation of what sorts of policies can be adopted even in the face of opposition. The relevant policies are policies that facilitate voluntary cooperation. Stopping the spread of slavery facilitated cooperation in the places to which slavery did not spread in a variety of ways. Black people would be less reluctant to deal with white people if they couldn’t be enslaved. Also, in places where slavery existed its preservation required the suppression of freedom of speech. White people could not talk to black people to teach them to read. People who disagreed with slavery couldn’t be allowed to speak or write partly because they were right and partly because slaveowners feared rebellion. And of course, black people couldn’t be allowed to say what they actually wanted because many would want the slaveowners to leave them alone, or might even want compensation for deprivation of liberty.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

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