Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Scaling Up?

Berntson’s editorial (NWC Beacon, 9-16-05) points out that social programs advocated on both the political left and right, and endorsed by many Christians as means to realizing the kingdom of God, violate principles of common sense morality. E.g., it would be morally wrong if, upon reading the prophet Hosea, I gathered an armed group to expropriate my neighbor’s wealth for the worthy purpose of aiding the poor, and tax-funded welfare programs are morally equivalent to this. But if an act is morally wrong, that’s at least prima facie reason to think it’s not in accord with the Christian gospel. It’s worth noting that this type of intuition need not emanate from an anarchist or libertarian perspective; it underlies Peter Singer’s well-known assertion that we are morally wrong to refrain from transferring a significant portion of our wealth to rescue desperate persons in the underdeveloped world.

The moral critiques grounded in these moral intuitions are generally resisted by those who at least implicitly hold that moral principles applicable to small scale, interpersonal interactions do not necessarily apply to matters of public policy. On this view, taxing to fund welfare programs is not relevantly similar to robbing one neighbor to help another, and failing to contribute to Oxfam in ways that significantly alter one’s affluent lifestyle is not relevantly similar to letting a child drown rather than getting my Armani suit wet.

My question is whether the resistance to scaling up one’s moral principles is arbitrary, or is there a principled difference between right and wrong depending on scale of application.


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