the zeroth law: parental jurisprudence

In Isaac Asimov’s epic “robot” series of books that began with I, Robot, robots were hardwired with three “laws” that exerted absolute control over all their actions.  These laws were 1) a robot may not injure a human or through inaction allow a human to come to harm, 2) robots must take orders from humans unless it conflicts with the first law, and 3) robots must protect themselves unless it conflicts with laws one or two.  One robot, Giskard, extrapolated a “zeroth” law from his original programming and assumed the role of humanity’s protector.  This new law stated that a robot may not injure humanity or through inaction allow humanity to come to harm.  The other three laws were subordinated accordingly.  This erudite machine believed that, to discharge his obligation to shepherd humanity, it was necessary to take preemptive actions that were previously forbidden by his programming.  We shall consider, similarly, whether civil government is overly parental when it inacts and enforces statutes such as automobile seat-belt and motorcycle helmet laws.

Christian Understanding of the State
In an ultimate sense, Christians believe of the governing authority that it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.  (Rom 13:4)  In a representative Republic, the government derives its power, on the natural plane, from the “consent of the governed.”  This means that the citizen who votes for a law, or to elect a maker of law, is asserting what that citizen is willing to have implemented by force.  In a representative government, we all share the responsibility for just laws.  It is because of this that one must answer the question of the nature of just governance.

Natural Law
Because of the intuitive support of universality across ideological lines that Natural Law theory enjoys, let us see how NL speaks to our subject.  It would seem that the purpose of the Law would be, primarily, to restrict and restrain the harm that men would do to one another through direct action or easily avoidable indirect action.  It would also seem that law that was not unduly oppressive would refrain from limitations on actions of individuals who were not directly harming or impeding the freedom or well being of others.  According to the NL’s principle of double effect, the allegedly reckless action of refusal to wear safety equipment only indirectly effects the broader population by potentially increasing the risk that an injury could result in an expense to the welfare mechanism.  Even this objection begs the question of whether such a mechanism is an ethical necessity.  A slippery slope is therefore created upon which many deliverances of “good advice” might be enforced at the expense of personal freedom.  Even in NL’s perfectionist theory of value, the good of potential rescue by imposing prudence upon a citizen is pitted against the good of the personal freedom of the same citizen.  Finally, in regards to NL’s moral perfection, the action of driving without wearing seat-belts or riding a motorcycle without a helmet cannot, in any common way, be absolutely or intrinsically wrong.  We must look for other grounds than NL provides if we would justify parental law.

Moral Relativism
Let us turn to the widely-held, popular theory of Moral Relativism.  This theory claims that only that which goes against the norms of one’s culture or group of language-users can be said to be wrong.  This is significantly clouded by the fact that most people are part of more than one culture.  Aside from the lack of definite, objective grounding for this view, our problem is hopelessly lost between the relative values of outcome-based morality and the felt need for personal liberty.  These concerns pit different moral values against each other as we consider competing ideologies within our broader culture.  This is further complicated by the fact that there can be no rational way to decided between the conflicting moral values, due to MR’s denial of objective moral truth.

Kantian Ethics
Kant’s categorical imperative might be instructive in evaluating what can morally be imposed upon a citizen by his fellow citizens.  In the dilemma concerning the legal requirement for personal safety we weigh the respect of one’s liberty to make decisions about personal risk-taking against the good of forcing statistically safer behavior upon citizens.  Kant would have us ask if we could will that either of these two “good” ideas be universalized into law.  If a risk was essentially personal, one could certainly desire that the freedom to undertake it would be universal and not confused with a direct act of self-harm.  If the principle that “no ones actions are ever completely personal in their consequences” is taken as paramount, then no real autonomy can be justified.  On the other hand, universalizing the legal injunction against risk taking would eliminate many of the things that make life worth living and help humanity flourish.  It may save lives to require seat-belts, but where should this stop as a principle?  Do we also forbid people to skydive, race cars, or climb Mt. Everest?  The backbone of treating people as ends in themselves is respect for them as choosers.  Clearly a parental approach to public safety cannot be justified by Kant’s Moral Theory.

If any theory can support seat-belt and motorcycle helmet laws and their outcome-based justification, you would think it would be utilitarianism.  If through the use of these safety devices we save many thousands of valuable lives, the utility of the law requiring them is clearly demonstrated.  However, upon closer inspection, we can see that this is only plausibly supportive to an individual’s personal duty to wear the belt or helmet as a wise steward of life and the feelings of others.  In the case of the state codifying this as an obligation, it would seem to entail imposing a certain violence (denial of freedom) for a possible violence (death or injury in case of accident).  The difficulty in assigning and calculating the utils would lie in the evaluation of the importance of freedom to the flourishing of a human life.  How could it be demonstrated that the potential preservation of life is of higher utility than that which makes life worthwhile?

Virtue Ethics
Finally, VE (especially Care Ethics) has significant impetus for giving weight to the impact upon relationships of one’s personal actions.  In our dilemma about the legislation of prudence, the ethics of care suggest that a moral agent should consider the impact a serious injury would have upon the emotional (and practical) well being of relations and dependents.  The question of whether a caring person would seek to preserve that which is important to others (life) is uncontroversial.  If this was all that was involved in our question, then the solution would be plain.  However, the state’s justification for entering into this issue is suspect in the extreme.  If persons are to be respected and treated as responsible moral agents, then coercion in matters that are broadly personal are a violation of such respect.

Two things seem to emerge from this investigation:
1. Civil law is a dangerous and clumsy (and arguably illegitimate) tool for regulating effectually personal choices and their resultant actions.  The good that such laws could potentially secure is outweighed by the harm of their intrusive nature.  If it could be demonstrated that the stabilizing effect of wearing seat-belts helps minimize danger to others by providing the driver in an accident more/longer control over the vehicle, then the state has a legitimate interest.  This is likely the case and costs the driver little in the way of inconvenience or expense.  However, it is unclear how this could be argued in the case of motorcycle helmets.
2. Respect for persons has intuitively deontic status.  One need only consider what people have risked for personal liberty to appreciate its status as a foundational good.  The various moral theories give strong argumentation for reasons to identify certain things as “good” or “evil” as well as certain actions as “right” or “wrong.”  The question of how law should relate to morality is itself a further moral question that must consider human nature and its inherent limitations.  Law is always the potential use of force and should be reserved for clear cases of restraining the positive evil that men would do to each other.  If our form of government left us no ability to help shape our legislation then our duty would be to merely obey as far as conscience allows.  The responsibility of democracy, however, makes us accountable for clear thinking and just action when laws are made.  Let us, therefore, be modest in what we would require “at the point of a gun.”  The just implementation of a “Zeroth” law in civil government would seem to require a perfectly objective Legislator who knows all facts, understands all relationships, sees all motives and foresees all consequences.  The only Candidate for that position had declined to take it up.  For now.


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2 Responses to the zeroth law: parental jurisprudence

  1. well conceived and written. thanks for sharing.

  2. Jonathan Wood says:

    Good job and a good read.

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