Blogs > HNN > There Oughta Be a Law (and there is)

Apr 28, 2006 3:22 pm

There Oughta Be a Law (and there is)

Sometimes rhetorical questions only too richly deserve to be answered, as in the following case, culled from the letters column of today's Trenton Times:
I'd like someone to tell me why all citizens should not be required to volunteer one year of their life in service to their country. I spent two years in the Peace Corps.


Answer: Because the concept of a"voluntary legal requirement" is a contradiction in terms. Any more brilliant questions?

Mercifully, there's already a law on the books that covers this case. It's called the Law of Noncontradiction. In one sense, compliance is voluntary. In another sense, it's mandatory. And that's no contradiction. A puzzle.

On reading this passage, it occurs to me that we need to invent a unit of measure for the fallaciousness of a piece of writing or speech. We could call the variable F--for"fallaciousness"--and by it denote the number of fallacies committed in a passage of finite length, divided by the number of words used to express the fallacy, expressed as a fraction or a decimal. I leave the calculation of F in the preceding passage as an exercise for the reader.

One convenient feature of the variable F is that while it denotes"fallaciousness," it calls to mind other notions beginning with the letter"f," such as falsity, foolishness, foppery, and yet others.

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

That's a complex question, and it has to be answered in stages from simpler to more complex answers.

At the simplest level, the answer is "no" to both questions. We don't owe a free-standing debt to "society" so a year of service wouldn't be a way of discharging it.

At a somewhat more complex level, you could say that we owe it to others to respect their rights, i.e., not to violate their freedom. But that debt wouldn't be discharged by a year of required service.

At a yet more complex level, you could say that we owe it to ourselves and others to create the optimal conditions in which all of us might have freedom. In that sense, I'd say that freedom is the common good and we have an obligation to achieve the common good so understood. But required service would undercut that, not bring it about.

At the most complex level, if we want to bring about a common good based on freedom, we'd want to establish a government based literally on the (explicit) consent of the governed. Of course, when you consent to the terms of a contract--assuming the contract is itself legitimate--you have an obligation to fulfill the terms. So in that context, we'd have "debts" to pay. But required service would neither bring us any closer to that ideal, nor, I think, be a part of a legitimate social contract.

In fact, to the extent that "obligations" are at issue, I'd say the primary obligation is intellectual: we have an obligation to clarify the legitimate terms of a social contract that protects liberty. Required service not only doesn't do that, but distracts attention from it.

The bottom line is, in my view, the obligations we have not only don't favor required service for the good of society, but prohibit it.

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/28/2006

You are quite right about the contradiction. However, just out of curiosity, is there something that a person owes society, and is a year of required service a logical way to pay part or all of what is owed?