Absolute Values and Growing Government

Posted: Jun 29, 2009 12:01 AM
Absolute Values and Growing Government

Editors' Note: Every month, Townhall Magazine highlights some of the outstanding blogs written by users in our community. The following is an entry from Andrews and appears in the June issue of Townhall Magazine.

Some of our most damaging mistakes originate from the simple belief that something is an absolute good. The harm of the environmental movement (or at least the harm done by the most extremist groups) is due to the belief that “nature” is an absolute good. Likewise, much of the nanny-state meddling originates in the related mistake: the belief that “health” is an absolute good. Time and again, people have been led into the most bizarre theories whenever they postulate that something is an absolute good.

The truth is quite simple: All values are relative, and all are subject to a cost-benefit analysis. Though many arguments exist against this, and some may even sound plausible, a little bit of thought will show that, despite the seemingly plausible arguments, there really is no such thing as an absolute value.

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Let us start with the most obvious one: Many people will argue “life” is an absolute value, that without life you cannot enjoy any other benefits, and so it is impossible to put a price on your life.

That simply is not true.

Take the obvious counterargument: People often risk their lives. If life were an absolute good, no price could be high enough to cause anyone to risk their lives. Yet, every day, people become police officers, firemen and soldiers, judging the benefit to be worth risking their life. Likewise, many others will skydive, race cars and otherwise risk their lives for enjoyment. This is an implicit admission that the benefit they derive from the experience is worth the risk. By doing so they show that their life has a fixed value, and thus is not absolute and infinite.

Some may object to this formulation, arguing that they accept the risk as they expect that it won’t come to pass. There are other instances where people will actually accept certain death, showing that some values weigh more than life. Martyrdom and sacrifice would indicate that there is a greater value than the life of the individual. Assuming that these people are rational, then we must admit that life itself is not an absolute value.

From life, we can move to “health.” Many nanny-state interventions are predicated on the idea that health is itself an absolute value, that we can ban things deemed “unhealthy” as they simply could never have enough benefit to outweigh the risks. On this basis, we have campaigns against drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, trans-fats, soda and more. This ignores the simple truth that health is not an absolute value—there are many who are willing to risk their health for the benefits they feel they receive. By prohibiting this, the health militants make interested individuals less satisfied, all in the name of the “absolute value” of health.

If something is an absolute value, then cost is no object, no benefit great enough to outweigh it, no harm great enough to argue against it. We end up with horribly misguided laws thanks to our belief in absolute values.