Absolute principles vs. absolute power

GIOVANNI BIRINDELLI, 11.2.2021

According to recent UK legislation imposed to enforce the new hotel quarantine rules, those who travel to red-listed countries such as Portugal, for example, and fail to report it, risk up to ten years in jail.

In a recent article, Lord Jonathan Sumption (a former judge of the UK Supreme Court) defined Matt Hancock, the minister who’s behind the hotel quarantine rules and this new legislation, a “tyrant”. Like all tyrants, Lord Sumption argues, Mr. Hancock believes that the end justifies the means: he will stop at nothing in order to pursue this end, whatever it takes (Draghi style): i.e. without any regard to the liberties, lives, wealth and humanity which are crushed in the process. 

In a previous article, Lord Sumption had already pointed out that new Covid legislation made the UK a “police state” and was the expression of a collective “hysteria”: surely, these are words which must have not been easy to write for a person who until only a few years ago was a judge of the UK Supreme Court.

However laudable are Lord Sumption conclusions, his reasoning expresses some fundamental, logical inconsistencies which are quite typical of those who would like to defend liberty but cannot make the necessary intellectual step to actually do it.

In fact, at one point Lord Sumption states that “There are no absolute principles, but only pros and cons”. 

Really?

First of all, it’s simply not true that there are no absolute principles. If by “absolute” we intend logically consistent, scientifically established and objectively true, then there is at least one absolute moral principle: the non-aggression principle. If we call “rule of just conduct” the rule of conduct whose violation is believed to justify the use of physical coercion, then the non-aggression principle is the only rule of just conduct which is logically compatible, without exception, with the principle of equality before the law, and therefore with any idea of justice that presupposes such principle. In this sense, because such compatibility is logical (and therefore “absolute”: objectively true and non-arbitrary), the non-aggression principle is a “natural law” that exists independently of anyone’s (and specifically of any majority’s) will or decision. 

Any other rule of just conduct is either incompatible with the principle of equality before the law or violates it. Think of the rule which imposes to pay taxes, for example: if a private individual did what the government does when it imposes taxes, he would be arrested for extortion. “Absolute principles” are those that do not allow for arbitrary exceptions and double standards (one for the government and an opposite one for the individual).

Second of all, of course there are pros and cons, but they exist only in relation to the individual. There are no general, fit-for-all pros and cons that can be discovered by a politician and imposed on everyone else. Since the middle of the 19th century we know, as a scientifically established fact, that value is subjective, not objective; and therefore that only the single individual possesses the knowledge which is necessary to determine what, for him, is a pro and what is a con, and to find a balance between the two that is right for him

Sumption suggests that a free society is one in which ministers consider both pros and cons of a particular policy before applying it (and not only the pros, as in the case of Mr. Hancock with his Covid rules). However, since pros and cons make sense only in relation to the individual and his own particular priorities and situation, basing policy on pros and cons means imposing by force one’s own view on others (surely, the perspective of the owner of a pub in relation of the pros and cons of Covid rules may be different from that of a bureaucrat, for example). In other words, it means absolutism. There is no power more absolute than that of imposing to anyone else by force one’s own personal idea.

In conclusion, Lord Sumption’s statement: “There are no absolute principles, but only pros and cons” actually means: “there are no absolute principles, there is only absolute power”.  This statement is wrong: there are absolute principles. And it’s precisely the act of ignoring them which gives politicians absolute power (in fact, Hancock’s rules are imposed and enforced). 

In other words, either you have absolute principles or you have absolute power.

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