I do not believe in deities. I don’t believe in the Judeo-Christian God, the Hindu Vishnu, the Muslim Allah, the Greek Zeus, or the Roman Jupiter. I have beliefs of the world and how it exists, but my beliefs don’t fit into any recognized—or even heretical, for that matter—religious pot. When it comes to day-to-day living, I base things on observed knowledge as much as possible. Though empiricism has been debated for a long as debate has existed, I’m still pretty comfortable that there are shared observations among people and that as long as we understand those shared observations, we can make decisions. Religion, by its very foundation in personal belief therefore cannot be “shared” observations. At least, not for everyone.
For example, most people around the planet can recognize the animal known to Americans as a cow. We all use different words to name it, and we all have different views on what to do with it, but we all recognize a sentient being separate from ourselves that walks on all fours and eats grass. These are empirical facts. Whether or not the cow is tasty to eat or a divine animal meant to be worshipped are non-empirical facts. There is nothing inherent in the cow itself that says “eat me” or “worship me.” Those ideas are placed upon the cow from external sources – people. Any subjective ideas placed upon other things by people are going to vary by as many people that you have. But even if a large number of people agree with an idea does not make it fact. Just because a large portion of Americans like the taste of beef does not automatically make a cow “tasty.” Conversely, just because hundreds of millions of people hold a cow to be sacred and refuse to eat a cow does not make beef “not tasty.”
It is the empirical ideas by which we must do our best to make laws when governing a large group of people. Not everyone feels this way. Many people believe in the “majority rules” way of government, in that whatever the most people in a given group decide, that is how they will act. Don’t get me wrong, this idea works fine when deciding what restaurant to go to or what movie to see. Because if a group picks a restaurant or a movie that one particular person is definitively against, that person is not obliged to go. When a governing body is trying to make laws that suffice to cover all people equally, opinion then has to be discarded and something more tangible must be put into place. And the best way to appease all people is to base laws on empirical truths. Let’s look at some examples.
Murder. Empirically, murder ends someone else’s life without their permission. Whether or not the murderer believes the killing was justified, they are placing their beliefs on another person, ergo, it should not be allowed. The same holds true for rape, robbery, arson, destruction, assault and any crimes against persons or objects. Any time the alleged assailant imposes their will on another person or thing that is not their own, they are at fault. This can be summed in the phrase, “Your rights end where mine begin.” Fraud also fits here. Lying to someone is the same as imposing your will on their actions or property. If you takes someone’s money under false pretenses, you are imposing your will on someone without their knowledge and permission—robbery.
Some other laws on the books are justifiable because they are essentially lease laws. The government builds roads or buildings and thus the people then are free to use these under rules set up by the owners (government). These rules tend to be less empirical and rely more on majority or ¾ rules, but try to maintain some relations to protecting civil rights. All people will be driving on roads, therefore rules are imposed to help increase the safety of all people. Does driving 70 mph impose your will on someone else? Singly, no. But if other people are sharing that road, the increased speed could put the other motorists in danger. And for the privilege of driving on the government-owned road, you agree to abide by government-set rules. If you own 100 acres of land criss-crossed with a variety of roads, you get to set your own speed limit, or obey none at all. If a corporation owns a building and hires employees, the corporation gets to set the rules. If the employees don’t want to comply, they can choose to leave the company.
Then there are some even trickier laws, like gun laws. People are free to own guns. But when a gun’s purpose (for sake of this specific argument) is to kill other people, imposing the shooter’s will on another person, things get sticky. The same goes for labor laws and religious laws. If a company gives employees paid time off for Christmas, why should someone who does not celebrate Christmas not get to take off Chanukah or Kwanzaa instead? (Of course, it’s not so sticky for me. My answer to those quandaries is that no laws should be made. We already have laws against murder, proven empirically; therefore, if a gun owner kills someone, they face the consequences. Period. Companies are also free to establish their own time-off schedules, and the employees can comply or not.)
I understand that this logic is also not without its flaws, but there are very few. It all boils down to simplicity. Let’s keep the laws simple, base them on something empirical, and then they are much easier to obey and to enforce. Keep government strictly for maintaining order for the group at large and protecting the whole from outsiders. This way, it also makes taxes a lot easier to sort out because the only “government programs” would be defense, civil order (e.g., roads and healthcare), and law enforcement for the empirical laws.
I maintain that this is what the Founders were thinking when they set up the Constitution. Freedom from persecution, no matter what your beliefs, was paramount. Personal property rights and personal freedoms were at the heart of the Revolution (especially against tyrannical rule and nonsense taxation from abroad). The Federalists papers and notes from Constitutional Congresses bear this out. The Constitution itself is bare bones, dictating the minimum rules by which to govern, keeping it simple. And the diversity of the colonists was just as varied then as it is today. With a smaller populace and land area, I think it was easier to maintain that ideal. But as the population grew and opinions became more varied and groups of like-minded people decided to band together, it got more difficult to remember that main empirical principle. If an entire state of people agreed to outlaw something, it was easier to enforce because there was no (or very little) opposition. Laws were passed without reaching back to the empirical basis. As the country grew, so did government. And here we are today.
I wonder how any political issues would disappear today if we could revert to the empirical-based governing upon which we were founded.