Thesis: Ethical Principles in Government Policy in Modern

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Ethical Principles in Government Policy

In modern society, societal ethical values are codified in the formal rules, laws, and regulations administrated by local and national governments. However, different contemporary societies uphold very different standards of behavior and ethical definitions and criteria. Throughout human history, dictatorships and autocracies imposed laws of behavior based strictly on the whims and interests of government authorities with little regard for any objective moral ethics or values. Even in the most democratic societies in which government authorities are elected by the citizens to represent their interests may not necessarily distinguish objective ethics adequately from subjective beliefs and values.

In principle, the United States government may be the most democratic systems in human history; nevertheless, even in modern times, various elements of American legislation still reflect inappropriate philosophical distinctions with very significant real-world consequences. A political lobbying system has evolved in which the euphemistic concept of access to legislative bodies permits special interest groups to influence the development of laws for their benefit and (often) against the interests of society. Even more generally, formal U.S. laws severely penalize certain private behavior without justification in any objective ethical principals; conversely, current legislation permits a wide range of behaviors and practices that violate fundamental ethical standards without penalty.

Thesis Statement:

Many aspects of U.S. law warrant a complete re-examination of the objective principles they are intended to uphold. That re-examination must begin with an analysis of any demonstrable failure of legislation to apply ethical concepts fairly and uniformly. Ultimately, ethically valid laws must apply underlying objective ethical principles equally and eliminate subjective distinctions incapable of logical justification.

The Source of Valid Democratic Governmental Ethical Authority:

In the most general sense, the source of valid democratic governmental authority is the protection and welfare of citizens (Mill in Taylor, 2002). Ideally, democratic government and the legislation established and upheld under its authority should reflect objective principles that rewards, permits, prohibits, and punishes comparable behavior similarly. To an objective ethical observer, a government is only as ethical as its manner of defining legal concepts and in the fairness and uniformity of their application in similar circumstances (Taylor, 2002).

In that respect, the fact that government authorities and legislators are elected through the democratic process is no real guarantee against unethical laws, unethical distinctions and definitions reflected in law, or the unethical application of law (Dershowitz, 2002). To whatever extent government authorities establish or apply laws subjectively, government is rightfully open to the ancient characterization of government as little more than the enforcement of the interests of the strong over those of the weak (Sekine & Wakabayashi, 2005).

The Principal Role of Government Ethical Authority:

The principal role of government ethical authority is in establishing and enforcing formal rules that prevent individuals and entities from causing harm to other individuals or entities without objective justification (Mill in Taylor, 2002). In so doing, an ethical government also has an inherent responsibility to avoid arbitrary distinctions or different characterization (and treatment) of behaviors that are comparable in their effect or purpose. In the contemporary interpretation and application of U.S. law, the constitutional concept of equal protection ensures that government largely fulfils its obligation to establish and enforce modern law fairly in terms of the individual (Dershowitz, 2002) but much less so in terms of specific ethical principles used to distinguish permitted behaviors from prohibited behaviors.

In that regard, one of the best contemporary examples is the difference in legislation of certain so-called victimless vices. Consider the government-sanctioned production, sale, and use of alcohol, tobacco, and the illicit recreational use of drugs and other controlled substances. It is uncontested that cigarette smoking is responsible for more preventable death and disease and practically all other natural and artificial individual sources of human disease and mortality; yet the manufacture, sale, and consumption of cigarettes is permitted subject only to regulation and taxation. Likewise, the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcohol -- which also contributes to thousands of preventable deaths annually -- is perfectly legal subject to similar regulation and taxation. Meanwhile, the manufacture, sale, and consumption of marijuana is strictly prohibited in many states and in all 50 states under federal law (Schmalleger, 2008).

The objective ethical justification for criminalizing private recreational use of drugs like marijuana is that the state has an obligation to protect citizens from the risks posed by certain behaviors even without the existence of any risk only to the individual. However, the existing legislation of alcohol criminalizes only uses of alcohol that pose risks to others (i.e. driving under the influence or "DUI") while not imposing any such restrictions on private consumption in settings that do not present risks beyond those to the individual choosing to take whatever risks are reasonably associated with alcohol consumption.

Without expressing any opinion whatsoever on whether all forms of substance abuse should be permitted provided it poses no harm to others, it is fundamentally unethical for government to apply a different standard to behavior that is identical in its effects. In principle, either paternalistic protection against behavior that is harmful (only) to the individual is an appropriate function of government or it is not (Dershowitz, 2002; Taylor, 2002).

If the ethical basis for prohibiting the private consumption of drugs for recreational purposes in the privacy of one's home is the protection of the individual from self-destruction, there is no excuse for allowing approximately 300,000 deaths annually attributable directly to cigarette smoking. Reciprocally, if the autonomous right of the individual to smoke cigarettes outweighs the interests or obligation of the state to safeguard the individual, it is difficult to justify the supposed ethical principle behind contemporary drug laws (Dershowitz, 2002; Taylor, 2002).

The Ethical Limits of Governmental Paternalism:

Even with a more uniform approach to the discrepancy between the legal treatment of alcohol, tobacco, and recreational drugs, there are considerable difficulties establishing appropriate lines of state authority and individual autonomy and privacy. That is because society may have a legitimate objective right to control certain purely private choices because of the way some of those choices may burden society completely apart from any issue of direct harm caused to any specific individual (Dershowitz, 2002; Taylor, 2002).

Even if there is no basis for prohibiting tobacco or (non-driving-related) alcohol use on any ethical grounds relating to the potential for harming others, the government may still have legitimate objective ethical justification for doing so. Especially where private medical expenses are borne substantially by public funds, it may be unethical to allow certain "private" behaviors that increase the strain on publicly funded medical treatment. Likewise, even if the choice not to use a motorcycle helmet poses no physical risk to any person other than the driver, laws requiring them might be ethically justified by virtue of the cost to the general public of providing emergency services and medical treatment in the event the risks (even just to the individual) materialize on public roads.

In principle, it may even be possible to design laws that recognize the difference between individual harm and societal harm, but in practice, that only complicates the issues. If the state were to require smokers and helmet-less motorcycle riders to pay a surcharge to offset the monetary cost of their choices to society, it is not clear why the state would not have the same authority to do so in connection with eating junk food or, for that matter, sun tanning. Obesity is now known to be the cause of a considerable amount of preventable diseases of many types that necessitate expensive treatment whose costs are borne substantially by public funds. Similarly, the medical community is united in the scientific view of sun tanning as the primary cause of skin cancer, whose treatment is also borne substantially by public funds.

Again, without expressing any specific position on whether or not the state's right to protect society includes the right to prohibit junk food consumption or sun tanning, fundamental ethical principles require that any lines distinguishing behavior that is subject to state regulation for the benefit of others from private (unregulated) behavior must, at the very least, be uniformly consistent. Perhaps the most ethical approach would, therefore, be to allow any private conduct that does not pose a risk to others but to impose restrictions on the right to receive public assistance of any kind necessitated by choices to ignore state recommendations (Dershowitz, 2002).

Unethical Government:

At least in the Western world, manifestly unethical governments of the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern eras eventually evolved into democratic and quasi-democratic institutions more or less responsive to all members of society (Sekine & Wakabayashi, 2005). Exceptions certainly appeared during the 20th and even in the U.S., extreme examples of unethical government existed throughout most of the 20th century. However, unethical government remains an issue in contemporary society, albeit in ways much more subtle than outright autocracies and dictatorships of earlier periods in human societal history.

If the concept of ethics includes adherence to the official governing principles and laws of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Ethical Principles in Government Policy in Modern.  (2009, May 22).  Retrieved July 19, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/ethical-principles-government-policy/1873944

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"Ethical Principles in Government Policy in Modern."  Essaytown.com.  May 22, 2009.  Accessed July 19, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/ethical-principles-government-policy/1873944.