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Ethics as Social Science

The Moral Philosophy of Social Cooperation

Leland B. Yeager

With this important book, esteemed economist Leland B. Yeager grounds moral and political philosophy in the requirements of a well-functioning society, one whose members reap the gains from peaceful cooperation while pursuing their own diverse goals.
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Chapter 11: Law, Government, and Policy

Leland B. Yeager


JUSTIFYING POLITICAL POWER AND OBLIGATION This chapter considers relations between ethics and political philosophy, law, and policy. What is the rationale of government? If people have any obligation to obey government and law, what is its source? Does democracy have special moral status? Does some sort of natural-law doctrine, as distinguished from legal positivism, make sense? Should judges feel free or feel obliged to consult notions of morality in interpreting - or in going beyond - the legal documents governing the cases before them? What can ethics and economics contribute on issues of crime and punishment? Is formal welfare economics (including the concept of Pareto optimality) a useful guide to policy? Questions about the moral status of law, the legitimacy of government and its activities, and the mutual obligations of citizens and their rulers are ethical questions. This is true both of the legislator’s practical problems and of theoretical problems of justifying and organizing government. So Brand Blanshard (1966) maintains. Ethics takes primacy in political philosophy. What is government? As mentioned later about “democracy” also, no one is authorized to decree the meanings of words. Still, one notable feature of government as ordinarily understood is coercion or compulsion. Far from being a voluntary arrangement, government - or the state - has compulsion as its essence. It relies as a last resort on its power to seize goods and persons, to imprison, and to execute. Anyone who doubts this point should ponder the consequences of doggedly trying to flout an order...

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