The Conservative Feminist: When Religion and Politics Collide (AKA Am I My Brother's Keeper?)

I like helping people. I do. But I do not think people should be forced to help other people. We are all free to choose to help others, but we have no affirmative duty to do so.
Publish date:
May 8, 2012
politics, conservatism, good samaritan, libertarian

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the rhetoric being used in contemporary political discourse. In only the past week, I’ve read upwards of probably twenty articles premised on the idea that unfairness is morally wrong and it is the duty of society to remedy inequality.

These articles gave me pause, because it’s hard to argue rationally with an assertion regarding morality. The statement “health care should be a right,” for instance, is in essence a moral assertion. It asserts, first, that every citizen is entitled to health care. But more than that, it implies that other citizens have an affirmative duty to ensure that everyone receives adequate health care.

As I wrote about previously on this site, I don’t believe that ensuring access to health care is a proper role of the federal government. And in my opinion, most political issues can be boiled down to disagreement regarding the proper role of government.

These arguments are often spirited and always interesting, but they further reduce to one ultimate moral question: do we have an affirmative duty towards our fellow humans, or don’t we? Or put more colloquially: am I my brother’s keeper?

I acquired these in preparation for a hurricane that never came.  All of NYC had run out of regular candles, and I found these in the Spanish bodega around the corner.

It is my (as of yet only narrowly tested) hypothesis that if you can get a person to answer that basic question, you’ll immediately be able to make a series of educated guesses about her political beliefs.

Politically, America was somewhat premised on the idea that the Brother’s Keeper question is answered in the negative, if it is answerable at all. James Madison cautioned against engaging in the moral quagmire of a charitable state; a century later, Grover Cleveland and Franklin Pierce continued to quote his reservations on the matter.

I point this out not as proof of the amorality of America or the unconstitutionality of the social safety net, but merely as evidence that the current popular notion of obvious affirmative duties is not one that stretches back to our founding.

Home, home on the range -- my hometown’s version of Oldtyme America

So right now, as you’re reading this, ask yourself: Are you your brother’s keeper? Absent any special relationship, do you feel that you have an affirmative duty to look after the welfare of other human beings?

It may surprise you that the legal answer to this question is, simply, no. Absent a special relationship (or a rarely-enforced Good Samaritan law, currently found in 10 states), you have no affirmative duty to aid another citizen, even if aiding them would be easy to do and they would die without the aid.

Imagine that a man is out walking and passes a small pond. He sees a woman slip and fall into the pond. She splashes around and calls out for his help, yelling that she doesn’t know how to swim. The man is standing next to a rope that he could easily throw to her. Instead, the man keeps walking. The woman drowns.

Do you think that the man should have helped the woman? I do, and I’m sure you do as well. But do you think that the man should face criminal charges for not helping? What about civil charges from the woman’s devastated husband and children? This is where American law diverges from intuitive morality. In the vast majority of states, the man is not liable for the woman’s death.

This is a precept of American law that is generally accepted as settled. So it’s surprising to me that there are so many articles of late which insist that it’s our inherent duty to provide for those less fortunate, as though that is a settled moral matter.

The reason I tend towards the libertarian is because I answer the Brother’s Keeper question in the negative. Absent a special relationship, I do not think I owe anyone any affirmative duty that I do not specifically elect to or contract for.

That does not mean that I do not help people. I do. But I do so of my own accord, not because I feel that I must. I do so because I want to, not because I am forced to or because I feel guilty if I do not. I do so not out of duty, but out of love. And not just individual love, although that’s there too – but rather love for life and everything it encompasses, a general sort of love. (Sappy, but true.) Remember: “One volunteer is worth ten pressed men.”

When people start discussing the Role of Government, I always try to bring up the Brother’s Keeper question. If you think that you have an affirmative duty toward other citizens, you will tend to support government programs aimed at strengthening the social safety net.

If you don’t think that you have an affirmative duty toward other citizens, then you will tend not to – that doesn’t mean that you’ll seek their abolition, but rather your sympathies will extend only to their pragmatic benefits rather than any ‘moral’ justification.

But here’s where I get confused, and maybe you can help me by volunteering your own viewpoints: I don’t understand how we can ever really come to a universal conclusion about the Brother’s Keeper question. The answer to that question is too wrapped up in spirituality for us to hope to ever be in complete accord.

And yet we continue to debate the role of government as though there is a “right” and “wrong” answer, even though one’s views on policy are intrinsically influenced by how one answers the quixotic Brother’s Keeper question.

Much like I see the Brother’s Keeper question as a conduit for the Role of Government debate, I think the Brother’s Keeper question can itself be boiled down to another, broader, much more philosophical question: do you believe that life has external meaning, or do you not?

I don’t know that it does. My personal brand of spirituality is somewhat Buddhist, I suppose, but mostly agnostic. I don’t rule out the existence of external meaning, but I don’t embrace it, either. I don’t know if life has extrinsic meaning or not, and that’s as far as I’m willing to go.

But if you do think that life has extrinsic meaning, you’re much more likely to answer the Brother’s Keeper question in the affirmative. And that means that you’re much more likely to perceive the Role of Government as one in which affirmative duties are appropriate.

And this brings me back to why I’m libertarian. It’s because I don’t feel comfortable telling other people that I know for sure the correct answer to the External Meaning question. I don’t. And neither do you, or does anyone. Whether or not there is extrinsic meaning is something that each of us ponders on our own, not based on rationality or empiricism but rather based on feelings and intuitions and, often, the doctrines on which we were raised.

The doctrine on which I was raised included a lot of latkes. Note the creative insulation techniques, necessitated by my malfunctioning heater.

And without being able to say that life means something, I can’t bring myself to believe that the Brother’s Keeper question can be definitively answered in the affirmative. Life might mean something, and I might owe an affirmative duty to others, but I have no evidence of that. Oppositely, life might not mean anything, in which case moral duties are merely constructs, and I owe no affirmative duty to anyone.

I do believe that if there is no persuasive proof about a certain position, that position should not be adopted as law. Law is inherently force. It can take your property without your permission, it can lock you up, it can even take your life if your crime against it is great enough. It should be handled with care.

I am libertarian because I believe that if we cannot prove that the Brother’s Keeper question is answered in the affirmative, we should not levy affirmative duties on people and back them up with the threat of force. If debates about the Role of Government are in essence spiritual debates about Brother’s Keeper, and we cannot answer Brother’s Keeper, then we should not continue to further expand the role of government.

I like helping people. I do. But I do not think people should be forced to help other people. We are all free to choose to help others, but we have no affirmative duty to do so. I respect people who believe that we do have an affirmative duty, but I don’t especially like the fact that they are unable to prove that belief and yet they feel entitled to force it on others via the democratic system.

In sum, that’s why I advocate for small government. Because I think everyone should be able to answer spiritual questions for themselves, and I think Brother’s Keeper is a spiritual question that weighs heavily in what people perceive as the proper Role of Government.

Note, however, that I do not advocate for anarchy. This has been a discussion about the spiritual aspect of policy debate, but I also try to be somewhat of a pragmatist. We do need some social safety net, we do need some government, we do need some system of protection and we do need enforcement of duly executed laws. But I think this should all be as minimal as pragmatically possible, because I think people should be able to decide for themselves whether or not they owe their fellow men any affirmative duty.

My ultimate proposition is this: Church and State are intrinsically entwined, if “Church” includes amorphous spiritual beliefs and “State” refers to government policy decisions. It would be difficult to have an opinion of one that does not sound in your opinion of the other.

One’s philosophy dictates one’s choices, but those choices should be one’s own. A smaller government gives people more leeway to choose for themselves how to answer Brother’s Keeper, and if they answer in the affirmative then they will reach out and help others without any law mandating that they do so.