Jason Kuznicki has some remarks spinning from a previous post of mine on Jim Anderson extended blog-based discussions on the ethics of vigilante activity. Here is Mr Kuznicki’s post. Here’s the post of Mr Anderson’s to which he refers and the original proposition and … for completeness my first post on this matter.

Mr Kuznicki offers:

To the extent that there must be laws (and only to that extent), the laws should be clearly expressed and regularly enforced. Laws that are unclear in their expression or irregular in their enforcement allow the legislators and law enforcement agents too much leeway. They give the state too much power. They also sap private initiative, because it’s important for private actors to have some reasonable expectations of how the state will behave in the future.

What this leaves out, and what one might have expected to have been the case in part in the Western folkway, is what is the case (even in the idealized “paradise” situation) in which the state has laws which it expects citizens to enforce. Consider the example of personal assaults in an idealization of the Western folkway. In the first case, of personal assaults such as battery or rape, the statutes and penalties against such things were minimal. A likely reason for this is that it was expected that individuals and their families would “take care” of such insults themselves. Now this led on occasion of course to the much celebrated mountain feuds between Western folkway clans in which the insult to one family matter would be “handed” in a way that the original injured party found excessive and responded in kind … leading to a never ending chain of responses. However, my guess would be, not having studied the matter, that feuds of that type were the exception not the rule. That most of the time the culture/society had a shared understanding within the society of a reasonable response and meeting that was the norm.

Mr Kuznicki continues:

We don’t gain anything in particular by being able to enforce the laws ourselves. Indeed, in the governed state, we have contracted this work out to an agency, the government, which we hope will do it for us, just as we hope that farmers will grow food for us city dwellers, or that dentists can care for our teeth. That’s one important goal of having a government in the first place — simple division of labor. [emphasis mine]

There is a problem featured in the emphasized part of the quoted paragraph above. The members of this society felt that indeed there is a particular loss that came along with enforcing things yourself. Consider for a moment state sponsored charity, so favored by today’s progressives. Moving charity to the state, reduces, diminishes, or eliminates personal motivations and participation in charity. We become less charitable as individuals when we “divide” the labor of performing charity and “contract” it to the state. Similarly our personal independence, self-reliance, and dependence on family or family-like ties are lessened by depending on the state to provide that service. Something is lost by not enforcing laws ourselves. In fact, by and large, the individuals in the Western folkway thought that the liberty they lost was worse than existence of roving criminal gangs that their freedom permitted.

Going on Mr Kuznicki, argues that in a “minarchist utopia” such as this Western folkway, there is a necessity for strong laws, which are few in number.

In a minarchist utopia, the laws would be clear and simple enough that the government would also be able to enforce them with vastly less discretionary power than it has today. There would be a greater scope for private agreements, private arbitration, and even private moral censure. But this won’t owe to weak laws. It will owe to simple, straightforward, and therefore strong laws.

It seems to my reading that this wasn’t the case in the Western folkway. There were a lot of “weak” laws which weren’t effective, were not enforced, and likely scorned by their citizens. The strong laws were not the ones on the book, they were the unwritten customs and practices of the people. Consider the matter recounted by Mr Fisher and summarized in my original post:

Mr Jackson was a backwoods person. According to Mr Fisher’s account, Mr Jackson married his wife Rachel who was at the time married to another man. When this man sought legal redress, Mr Jackson chased him out of the district at gunpoint ending the legal dispute.

There were weak laws and weak law enforcement of the same in place. What the future President Andrew Jackson did was illegal according to the statutes. But Rachel’s current husband had to be able to meet Mr Jackson in court. Having been chased out of the county (perhaps the state) he could not. The matter therefore was dropped. This behavior was certainly seen as ethical within the norms of the society in question. It was sustained for many generations but did not survive contact with more controlling, more staid, and far more regularized but economically more powerful folkways in the rest of the American union.

The first part of the argument is set. There existed a viable (libertarian) society which found vigilantism ethical within the context of that society. The second part of that arguments then depends on arriving at a notion of judging political ethics between society, i.e., a meta-ethical question for political not personal ethics. My personal reading on political ethics follows then in the second part of that essay.

My political meta-ethical understanding stems from authority. A government is behaving ethically if it only uses authority which is granted freely by its citizens. Citizens are acting (from a political standpoint) ethically if they don’t contravene the orders and strictures put in place by that authority via the state. In that understanding it was in fact ethical and right and in fact expected that personal vigilantism be performed by its citizens in that society. More explicitly a citizen was within his rights to personally enact retribution in response to theft or assault because the culture in place found that solution to be acceptable, i.e., the state had been granted the authority to permit license for individuals engage in vigilantism.

This is not the same as an ungoverned state.

There are things one may do in the ungoverned state that are not permitted in the governed. Perhaps this is one of them. But then, how and when do we consider ourselves “ungoverned”? A civil war is one thing; shooting a purse-snatcher when no police happen to be around is perhaps another.

If I may allow myself a little freedom with this last sentence. It may very well be that shooting a purse-snatcher was not deemed reasonable and that the expected consequence for doing so would be a reasonable response by the purse-snatchers clan/family to shoot the shooter. Beating the purse-snatcher may have been a reasonable, and in fact, expected response by the victim’s family. One thing it might be noted is required of this sort of society. It has to be fairly small and that its community ties be strong. A society where the gossip channels and other communication lines are strong enough that in a short or reasonable period of time “everybody” knows who did what to whom and a community consensus of reasonable is something that can be plumbed.

Filed under: Ethics & MoralityMark O.Politics

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