The state, its minions, and morality

Murray Rothbard once observed that the first truth to be discovered about human action is the simple fact that human action can be undertaken only by an individual human actor. Only humans have human ends and preform acts to obtain those ends. If the truth is that only individual humans can act purposely to attempt to accomplish their goals, then we must ask if there is anything that a group of two men or more may morally do that would be immoral for them to do individually. After all, this observation means that nations, states, collectives, churches or other groups do not act, but rather these are abstractions that are shorthand for the individual humans that form the group and it is the individual humans in the group that do act.

murray-rothbard-enemy-stateIt may be a useful metaphor to say that the American military invaded Iraq, but it is not the real truth. The truth is that millions of men and women took actions that supported the killing and brutal occupation of the Iraqi nation. The metaphor is only useful as long as we understand that it was really an invasion by many individual humans each preforming individual tasks that went to make up the overall invasion. The metaphor often is used to obfuscate the truth that each human that was involved in any capacity is responsible for his own actions and guilty of any crimes committed by the collective.

I find that there can never be a morality for a mob that is different from the morality of the individual. How can two men join together to murder a third man morally if each could not do so individually? The ancient view of the state was that there were special rules of morality which had to be used to judge the actions of the State which was said to be above the moral judgments that we apply to individual men. This “special standard of morality” was said to allow an individual to kill, rape, bomb, torture, pillage, or humiliate others in the name of his nation-state with moral impunity since he was acting as a minion of the state. The individual, it was said, could remain “moral” as long he committed these crimes in the service of the state.

It was the Classical Liberal  tradition that abolished this evil idea and replaced it with the notion that we are all responsible for our own actions. We get no special dispensation from God or the State to act immorally by virtue of being a minion of the state, or any other group for that matter. The classical liberals argued that the actions of the nation-state was to be judged in the same manner as an individual human actor and that the actions of each human in the group are to be judged against a common moral standard that goes for the individual and the group itself.

This new idea of moral judgment by the classical liberals changed the face of politics. It meant that individual humans were to be judged based on their individual actions even if they were in service of the collective. No longer would “I was following orders” be an acceptable excuse as the Nazi found out after WWII. Unfortunately, modern Americans somehow believe that they are “exceptional” and therefore exempt from this idea that each individual is responsible for his own actions and that the state must be held to the same morality as the individual. In fact, Americans seem to believe that they are never to be held to any standard of morality as long as they act as minions of the U.S. government. In this they are horribly wrong.

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