Public and Private Ethics
I propose that privately we behave with compassion, selflessly, helping others, etc. But that is my parochial outlook. There are many others who could believe quite differently and nonetheless not be doing anything wrong, having the right to behave as they wish. So I distinguish between a public ethic, codified in rights, and a private ethic.The two, of course, do get intermingled, as should all complex things. Murder is both unethical (in my view) and a violation of the right to life. But theft is more complex, because I personally don't feel people should take other people's things, but I can definitely see situations in which it'd be justified. A capitalist who believes in the right to property and I will sharply disagree on the public side even if we can see similar ethical facts on the private side.
Take the abortion issue. The abortion issue SHOULD be a hot topic. I think quite a few people, even the feminists towards whose side I lean very much, are very much too cavalier about the rights/ethics conflicts. That's precisely why I don't think there should be a ban. When a society, particularly one filled with elitism/statism, sexism, racism, etc. bans something, it means that that question cannot be settled publicly. The behavior goes underground, often becoming more dangerous and spawning other crime. If the matter is complex enough, having the issue in the open is vital. Just an example: Let's say that we make abortion the same as murder one. Who do you imagine will escape prosecution: Rich women with the resources to hire “discrete” doctors and to afford legal fees? Or poorer women without those abilities?
This doesn't mean that we shouldn't be having the conversation somewhere. Indeed, we should, and on physician assisted suicide and drug use and all the other controversies. I think most people can see that allowing something societally doesn't make it right, and that to pretend that a lack of societal PROSCRIPTION is a PRESCRIPTION is silly and not taking personal accountability. There must be a few playing rules for that shared space, what I call “first-order” or political rules. But then there are things we do publicly that are nonetheless not going to be policy: publicly decry abortion or physician assisted suicide. Those are “second-order” or cultural rules, defended by first-order constitutional guarantees of rights. And the last are “third-order” or private rules.
The problem with a state is that everyone feels they must rush towards it in self-defense, either to put into place a ban or to prevent it.
The public ethic should be the right to influence decisions insofar as one is impacted. That includes rights to free speech, assembly, petition (though that means something different under direct democracy), self-management of one's labor, for privacy and against certain actions by law enforcement, etc.
My private ethic is found in the Buddhst tradition, but heavily modified by the public ethic, as one can probably tell.
I have a post coming up on an overview of anarchist perspectives on a variety of topics, but the one I'll preview here is anarchist ethics. Many people view freedom and ethics as somehow in conflict: we grudgingly allow freedom, but we recognize that that will increase unethical behavior. While narrowly accurate, I think this has the situation backwards.
Freedom and ethics are not in conflict: they are two sides of the same coin. As Immanuel Kant (a 19th century German philosopher of unbelievable importance) points out, "Ought implies can". If we were rocks, our "actions" could have no ethical character. He also points out that the maturity for freedom is only arrived at by having freedom. The way we become ethical actors in a truly honest way is through freedom. If being mean to other people kills us, or if we are kind because Santa will shower us with gifts, we aren't being honestly ethical. This isn't to say that, in practice, ethical behavior carries rewards: of course it does. But that shouldn't be why someone behaves in a right way.