Feb. 11th, 2016

This is from a conversation elsewhere, that started in this direction when someone objected to the notion of college education as a right (even if it's a good idea) because others would have participate by paying for it. He wanted to substitute the word "privilege" for anything that requires others' participation. It went back and forth several time, with me referring to a moral right and him prodding on what that meant, too.

I hate going back right after I write something that takes real thought to edit it. So I'm just going to copy it here. I'd organize it differently if it had been meant to stand on its own, but I think it's comprehensible enough to be of interest to some.

First, way up-thread, I wrote: Easier to define by its opposite. Immorality is that which is wrong because it undermines standards of behavior that we accept as good. If the only reason something is wrong (unethical) is because of its direct affect, morality is beside the point. If all things considered, an act is ethical, it is not immoral. But when the breaking of standards is critical to determining an act is wring, the act is immoral.


Breaking promises is immoral, absent overwhelming need. That's why I mentioned a moral right. Freeing the slaves was imperative. Even at the cost of breaking the promise that came from the legal recognition of ownership. But that was a cost.

Morality is the upholding of standards of behavior, so that in future situations, people will behave in ways you deem consistent with the well-being of society and therefore its people.

If you believe that pre-marital sex is wrong because it offends God, then engaging in it might only be bad for yourself and your partner--if you are 100% confident no one else will ever know, consciously or otherwise, and there will be no earthly consequences. But if it will be recognized and not punished, it (from this perspective) sets a bad example and is immoral. It breaks a societal compact not to act in such a way.

Morality, as I said, is subject to the opinions of which standards exist (which is somewhat testable) and which of those standards are worth caring about preserving (less testable, closer to pure opinion). The majority is sometimes wrong. So majority opinions on morality is sometimes wrong. Slavery was not moral, as far as I'm concerned. There was a standard, but it was an evil one.

The concept of morality has been poisoned in American debate, because it has been used almost exclusively by religious conservatives, referring to standards that the rest of us do not accept. Therefore many people reject the notion of morality itself. Rather, we should talk about things we consider morally necessary, such as treating each other decently. Not merely because being a jerk is harmful to the person you're being a jerk to, but because when they learn that being a jerk is how people are, they do it themselves, to others. The standard of acting decently gets broken.

Back to your question: I used the term "legal right," which I think is sufficient. It points out by the egregiousness of the system that not all legal rights are morally or ethically proper, but within the framework that existed, it was recognized as legal.

I think that any definition of privilege that goes against distinction made by the old saw "driving is a privilege, not a right" is swimming against too great a tide, at least in my generation (Born 1960). The distinction is that privileges are revocable and may be given to some but not others.

Which bring me back to the discussion of property. We have a right not to have our economic system suddenly changed beneath our feet--not to have private property suddenly abolished, to take an extreme example. But we do not have a fundamental right to keeping the details of how our economy works stay just the same, in perpetuity. Land is granted by governments and title is enforced by governments. Everything we use ultimately derives from the fruits of that land. Those fruits are not yours, without the constant maintenance of force by the government, or by other forces in situations where governments disintegrate. So to say that you're participating in the payment of someone else's college because your income is taxed to pay for it, is no more true than to say that I'm participating in in your home ownership because societal resources are used for police and deeds registrars.

You would be mistaken if you take that to mean I'm challenging private property. But I do challenge the assumption that the right to such property is more fundamental than the right to any other long-established parcel of our economic system. The question at hand is whether tuition-free higher education should be added to the list of such parcels.


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October 2016


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