The Borders of Morality

TO PHILOSOPHY STUDENTS: You will see “morals” and “ethics” used interchangeably in this articles…  Get your grumbling out of the way now…  Okay let’s proceed…


I recently posted a quick tweet addressing a question that nags at me, especially living here on the Arizona / Mexico frontier…

If #povertyprograms are #moralimperative (vs #voterrecruitment), then shouldnt govt welfare first go to the 5B pp FAR poorer than any in US?

I was challenged on this from several fronts but primarily it came down to, in assessing government policies, what is the appropriate Control Volume.

Control Volume means, generally, “a mathematical abstraction employed in the process of creating mathematical models of physical processes.”  More specifically the above statement touches on the Control Volume concept in that a person’s opinion of our enacted policies depend on who and what they care about.  Do you draw the Volume around the U.S, around the individual, around the state, around the World?

In determining the Control Volume for government policies then, you have to start with some basic information for those policies.  What legal authority do they rest on and what functional purpose do they serve?

The most important concept in my original statement is the one from which most progressives and government interventionists draw their authority for action: The argument that poverty programs are a matter of MORAL imperative.

It’s only right that we help the poor… The general welfare demands we act to fight homelessness and hunger.


Okay… let’s take moral imperative for a little philosophical walk… Is there any reasoned argument that can support the idea that this “moral obligation” stops at a nation’s border, i.e. that the Control Volume encompasses only citizens of a given country?

Take Christian philosophy.  Jesus said make disciples of ALL the world, not just of Jerusalem or Roman Palestine.  Can you tell me that “Thou shalt not murder” only applied to the Jews? Isn’t that a universal obligation?

If it is “immoral” to steal from a neighbor in the US, then I believe common sense holds that you are also constrained from stealing from a Mexican in Rocky Point.

The only moral system that I have found that has a structure which justifies morality differentiation is “Nationalism”. This group of philosophies require that moral obligations between people differ based on their geographic location or other distinction (e.g. race, gender, religious belief, etc.). Many have attempted justifications but at the very least you can judge this idea by the fruits of the philosophy (anti-immigrant zealotry, tribalism, Nazi Germany, religious persecution, racism, etc.).

I find much more solid footing under “universal morality” than any idea of “exclusionary morality”, and if “morality” is UNIVERSAL, then poverty assistance programs justified on “moral” grounds (as most are) should target ALL humanity.


I would also argue that “morality” by its nature is foundational, i.e. no ends justify breach of a moral standard. In other words “moral” obligations must necessarily be restricted to only imposition of negative requirements.

For instance, you can’t say that someone has a “right” to healthcare by reasoning that healthcare is a “moral” imperative.  This is because, someone else has to provide that healthcare.  That means that only some fraction (the “first out”) could leave the healthcare service and still maintain services to those that are owed it “by right”. At some point, if justified as a “moral” requirement (a “right”) some agent would have to apply force to prevent exit of any additional people who tried to get out. Doctors, nurses, etc. at some level lose their “right” to opt out of the medical industry because that would violate other people’s “right” to care. That is inherently a violation of the doctors’ rights to free association. Thus the “positive” grant of a “right” of healthcare (or education, or a house, or food, or income assistance, etc.) to some, inherently limits the rights of those who provide the entitled products, services and money to fund it all.

This is why only “negative” rights are internally consistent with each other. They only demand non-action where it would impair another’s right to voluntarily act. They do not require any given action. I don’t have a “right” to speech, I only have a “right” to inaction by any policing force to keep me from voluntarily speaking if I want to and have the ability.


So if a morality justification, demands universal application and no breach of the rights of others, then poverty programs (or immigration policy and many others for that matter) are clearly not morality based policies:

1) They are applied exclusively to only certain beneficiaries with no ethical justification of that limitation (especially given the extreme disparity between the poor in other countries and the “poor” in the US).

2) They are applied in ways that violate underlying moral deferences due other people (forcible appropriation of funding through taxes, restrictions of free speech, limitations on freedom of association/organization).

If these proponents are honest (and some are) they could at least abandon the morality claim and make a means/ends argument.  They could propose that their programs are a net benefit to society and thus should still be enforced.

Most readers can probably guess I would argue a society which abandons basic foundational moral limitations is doomed to not benefit from prospective benefits (particularly not over the medium/long term).  However, even here the immediate results of these programs are terrible because they generally ignore all incentive effects (please look here at the research of Casey Mulligan at The University of Chicago on the effects of the significant expansion of welfare transfer programs during the Great Recession, The Redistribution Recession).

So I would argue there aren’t even any rational utility justifications for the types of programs we have… but moral argument proponents… well they are PARTICULARLY disingenuous… which was I think the point of my original 140 character comment…


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