What can interpersonal relations tell us about government regulations?


Author: Luke A. Wake

We all have an innate sense of justice. Even the most selfish of individuals understand injustice when it happens to them. Indeed, it easy to recognize when someone has done wrong when you’re the victim of the injustice. This suggests that there is a natural standard (i.e. a natural law) of fair play which we all recognize, at least as it applies to our direct relations with others. For example, we recognize that we are fundamentally acting unjustly when we steal from another. We may nonetheless be tempted to do so if it benefits us, but we usually recognize the injustice of such an act, because we understand that we would not want another person to commit such an act against us.

Indeed, it seems that most of us understand what justice requires in our interpersonal relations, and although we might act boorishly at times, we can nonetheless recognize when we have been unfair to others, if we stop and think objectively. Unfortunately it seems that people have a difficult time applying these principles when thinking about how we act toward each other through government regulations and policies.

The trouble is that most people don’t think about how regulations and policies affect other people in the same way as they might think about how their own actions affect their friends or family. As a consequence, many people buy into the utilitarian concept that a regulation or policy is good if it advances the well being of the greatest number of individuals . But the utilitarian philosophy overlooks the good of the individual. It suggests that, if Peter and Paul would be better of by stealing from Mary, then stealing is acceptable. Now, of course, Mary would rightly find that logic objectionable, and so would you if you were in her shoes. After all, the mere fact that Peter and Paul out-number Mary in no way justifies their theft.

The lesson here is that it is important to think objectively about how regulations and policies affect people in the same way as we might think about our own interpersonal relations. It is often helpful to ask the question: would I think this regulation or policy was fair if it adversly affected me or my family? In thinking about how regulations and policies affect real people, we can begin to comprehend otherwise abstract injustices.