Communities Do Not Have Consciences

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Every year for 22 years, the UN General Assembly has condemned the U.S. embargo of Cuba on lopsided votes like 188 to 2. This year, the U.S. envoy Ronald Godard said

“The international community cannot be — cannot in good conscience ignore the ease and frequency with which the Cuban regime silences critics, disrupts peaceful assembly, impedes independent journalism and, despite positive reforms, continues to prevent some Cubans from leaving or returning to the island. The Cuban government continues its tactics of politically motivated detentions, harassment and police violence against Cuban citizens.”

By this rationale, which could be greatly augmented in its application to the U.S., Godard justifies an embargo of America. Leaving that aside, the principle part of his statement that’s the most troubling to me is (A) his assertion that the international community has a conscience, and (B) his assertion that the U.S. reading of that conscience justifies punishing the people of Cuba and anyone who wants to deal with them whose activities are prevented by the embargo.

Obviously, only individual persons have consciences. A government, a town, a community, a church, a club — none of these has a conscience. When the U.S. embargoes Cuba, it prevents its citizens (and pressures others) from exercising their own consciences. It infringes on the rights of individuals in the name of morality.

The key point here is that there is a basic opposition between rights of individuals and actions executed by a government in the name of morality, as opposed to actions that are taken in the name of law and support of rights. The (natural) law has to do with rights, not morality. The (natural) law has to do with what belongs to each person, not what they do with the property. A government that acts on the basis of a purported conscience or morality is no better than a government wedded to a church or specific religion that enforces the morality of that body. Enforcing the law and rights is not at all the same as enforcing morality. Law properly understood is not morality. It may happen that a moral code articulates an appropriate law that defends rights, such as “do not murder”. In such cases, one must not confuse lawful rights with morality. “Do not steal” is an admonition not to violate property rights. Its basis is property rights, not the conscience of the community or the government, not a moral code in which it may be embedded.

So, is it the proper role of a government to act as a conscience for its own people who elect it? Is it the proper role of a government to act as a conscience for other peoples in the world, either those being embargoed or those who wish to deal with those being embargoed?

No, it is not. If we follow out Godard’s line of thought, which is also the line of thought of, for example, Hillary Clinton, the result is endless warfare of a religious character, but disguised as being such and instead sold to the public as the “moral” thing to do.

3:38 pm on November 8, 2013