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Altruism, capitalism not exclusive

Column/Mark Kantrowitz

Mark Hunter's letter in last Friday's Tech ["Morality should precede the law," Oct. 18] disappointed me; I was hoping for a more valid criticism of my column ["Our human rights have been created by society," Tues., Oct. 8]. He resorted to maligning me rather than presenting a coherent counterargument. Hunter also quoted me out of context, attributing false ideas to me.

My column attempted to describe why an individual should want to help society. I do not want, as Hunter claims I do, to make the individual a "vassal of the state;" in fact, I would strongly dislike any system in which the few make decisions for the many.

The phrase "impose an obligation" as I used it in my column is not a contradiction in terms. An obligation is a legal or moral duty or responsibility. Obligations are not only contractual in nature, Mr. Hunter. The word obligation also means (at least according to the Random House Dictionary) a debt of gratitude.

Altruism and capitalism are not mutually exclusive concepts, despite what Hunter claims. A member of capitalistic society may be altruistic if he so wishes. In my column I was providing reasons why the individual capitalist should take the rest of the world into account when making important decisions. Important decisions are those which have a capacity to hurt or help others. This includes one's choice of profession.

Hunter's statement that self-interest is an ethical principle is incorrect. Self-interest is an example of ethos, not ethics.

Hunter also stated that moral rights have "their source in the nature of man." What is it in "the nature of man" that gives him these rights? Hunter, like Honig, did not provide us with any reasons to believe his claim. Stating that something is so doesn't make it true.

Hunter confuses the difference between the words "society" and "State" and between the words "rights" and "power." A society is a body of individuals living as members of a community; a State is any political or governmental unit. Power is the capacity or strength to control and influence others; rights are things, powers and privileges to which one has a just claim.

Contrary to what Hunter claims, societies have the power to remove or "violate" the rights of the individual. This is a simple observation of what actually happens in the world. US citizens who do not pay their taxes are imprisoned. Criminals are imprisoned and may even lose their lives. These are examples of human beings whose rights (to freedom, to life) have been removed. If the State has the power to violate the rights of specific members, as it apparently does, then such rights effectively do not exist except as a result of society's restraining the State.

As I said in my column, a solitary man has relatively little power over his fellow members of society. A society of a hundred million people, however, has the cumulative power of its hundred million members. A society can use this power to establish rights and responsibilities for its members. Through the State, society enforces these rights.

The public trust is an informal obligation imposed by society on its members and institutions of power. Society expects its members to act responsibly toward other members.

Hunter states that a "person has the moral right to his own life." A moral right, however, is a right which is in accordance with principles of right and wrong. But who defines these principles? God? The community? The individual? This is an undecidable issue.

Nevertheless, in voluntarily becoming a member of society, the individual agrees to abide by its rules and regulations (its definition of right and wrong) until he decides to withdraw his membership. As a member of society you share in both the benefits and obligations of the community.

The basic tenet of Ayn Rand's philosophy is that the individual is the only thing that matters. To a pure Randian, the rest of society is of no consequence. The Randian might graciously consider the needs of society, but only if it's worth his while.

Mr. Hunter, if inalienable moral rights exist, then these rights must apply not only to you, but to the rest of humanity as well. It would be immoral for you to think only of yourself when making decisions that affect other people.