“What compels you to do that Captain?” the Major asked as I tapped the ash from my cigar into the crystal ashtray.
“Compels me to do what, Major?”
“Tap your ash into the ashtray.”
“As opposed to on the floor?”
A twinkle in the eye of the Major was captured by the light of the fireplace in front of us. He took a sip from his whisky. A conversation was clearly about to begin.
“Yes, Captain, why did you use the ashtray, as opposed to the floor?”
“Well, Major, tapping an ash onto the floor would hasten the destruction of the Persian rug. Eventually the rug would have to be replaced and the cost of that replacement would ultimately be shared by all of us. Through no fault of your own you would be paying for my boorish behavior.”
“So you are compelled to act out of perceived future guilt?”
“No, I am compelled to act because it is the right, societally acceptable thing to do.”
“So you fulfill your societal obligations because you have an internal mechanism that suggests, as a part of a society, you have responsibilities.”
“Well, yes, I guess you could say that.”
The Major shifted in his seat and looked at me squarely.
“Do you consider yourself a Collectivist?”
I started coughing on the smoke from my cigar. My eyes started tearing. Between spasms I barked out, “What?!? How long have we known each other, Major? Why on earth would you ever think that I was a Collectivist?”
“Well, you are doing what you think is best for the collective… in the instant the small members of our little club, but in a larger sense… society at large.”
“You think politeness is a form of Collectivism?”
“Would you still smoke in here if there was a rule against smoking?”
“Well, if it was generally ignored… as I am sure it would be, then yes.”
“What if you were told that ignoring the rule would result in a physical beating?”
“Initially, I would probably be resistant to that, maybe even offended… no… I would be offended. If I witnessed others being beaten, though, I may feel discretion is the better part of valor and refrain from smoking this fine cigar.”
“Ah, Captain! So there it is! For Collectivism to work beyond what we would consider the norms of societal decency, there needs to be the threat of force! I urge you to think of this: Our betters, the Mandarines who dictate our behavior from the palaces in Sacramento and Washington, can only compel us to follow their whims through the tacit implication that failure to do so will result in an application of force. Yet, they couch their edicts in the veil of moral authority. It is a normative dictate, do this, or don’t do this, because of the underlying morality. But if you do, or don’t do, out of fear of retribution, is the act or the refrain of any moral value?”
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I sat back in my leather wing-backed chair and stared at the fire for a few moments.
“So, Major, if breaking one’s word is morally wrong, yet the penalty of breach is the firing squad, then keeping one’s word has effectively no moral value?”
“Precisely, Captain. Authoritarians, and the system they impose, robs the people of their ability to act virtuously.”
“Major, I agree. Though this line of thought may be somewhat problematic when it comes to religion.”
The Major looked at me quizzically, “How so?”
“Is salvation compromised if the penalty for not being saved is eternal damnation?”
The Major puffed on his cigar thoughtfully. “My good Captain, I guess the ultimate question is does removal from our current state of damnation to one of future salvation constitute an act of virtue? Thinking that damnation is something for the future may be the ultimate problem.”
“Valid, Major, on so many levels.”