Comic book fans will recognize the quote “with great power comes great responsibility” from the Spider-man comics (and movies). This statement, (apocryphally) uttered by Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, who was later murdered by a criminal that Parker (as a newly-powered Spiderman) chose not to stop during a previous crime (not his business), motivates my favorite superhero to Do Good.

It’s an affirmative statement that implies an obligation to use that which one has more of than others for the benefit of others. It’s noble in utterance, and works for our good-hearted comic book hero in a fantasy land where radioactive spiders bestow superhuman abilities, but it’s a bit problematic in the real world. Apart from the very real problems associated with imperfect wisdom, imperfect foresight, and imperfect execution, lies the essential matter of individual liberty. How do we reconcile the notion that, if Person X has some greater powers, abilities, skills, circumstances of birth or upbringing, etc, he’s obligated to use those for the betterment of Person Y, with the idea that both Person X and Person Y are free individuals, unbound by indenture or forced contract, with the right of self-determination? How can we say that Person X is obligated to do good unto Person Y and still believe in some notion of liberty?

The facile response is “social contract,” the notion that our existence in a society comes with certain obligations. However, the premise of the social contract is the ceding of some individual liberties to the State, so that the State can function. In its simplest form, we concede the “law of the claw,” i.e. an idea that the strong can impose their will upon the weak, so that government can protect the rights of the weak. The social contract is not an obligation to do Good, it’s an obligation not to do Bad.

This was reflected in the recently supplanted internal Google corporate slogan “don’t be evil.” It’s also reflected somewhat in its successor “do the right thing.” This might be translated as “do Good,” but it can just as easily be translated as “don’t do Bad.” While I do suspect the changeover is intended to suggest an affirmative “do Good” world view, which is tantamount to the aforementioned obligation, the mere adoption of a slogan by a big and presumably “woke” company does not validate or enshrine the obligation.

Further insight into the dichotomy between a social-contract obligation not to render harm unto others and an obligation to work to others’ benefit can be found in the difference between negative and positive rights.

Negative rights are about my not being harmed. I have the right to speak, to embrace the religion/belief of my choice, to move about freely, to control the fruits of my labor, to associate with whom I wish, and so forth.

Positive rights are about things being provided to me. Were I to have positive rights, I might have the right to a job (or to a decent job), to housing, to health care, to transportation, and so forth. All such rights require taking from others to provide to me. Some believe that the social contract bestows positive rights and empowers government to act as the middleman/provider/enforcer of these positive rights (via taxation, legislation and regulation).

While it is quite often the case that people do indeed do Good to others, whether it be by providing jobs, donating to charity, doing volunteer work, or merely helping a friend or neighbor move a couch up 5 flights of stairs, they do so because they want to, because it makes them happy to do so. They don’t do so against their will, simply because they have acceded to a “positive” form of the social contract. In other words, doing good is a personal choice, not an obligation imposed by circumstances, by others’ moral suasion, or by the coercive power of the State. The obligation of power is best understood as not doing Bad.

We can interpret this obligation as being greater for those who have more power. Unfortunately, the old adage that power corrupts is demonstrably true, and it takes both strength of will and the aforementioned duty of the State to protect the weak against the strong to guard against this corrupting force.

Thus, when we bear witness to individuals doing Bad in their roles as agents of the State, we should be especially aghast. The latest such instance to capture national attention is the story of a Salt Lake City nurse being manhandled and arrested after she correctly and legally refused police orders to draw a blood sample from a comatose man. The police had no warrant for the blood draw, a requirement written in law and last year’s Supreme Court ruling in Birchfield v. North Dakota. Whether the police (including a lieutenant) were unaware of the law or simply pretended it wasn’t so is a question we probably won’t get the answer to, but no matter which is the case, they violated a far more apropos application of the “with great power comes great responsibility” premise.

Here is the parallel with negative rights and the “not to do Bad” interpretation of the social contract. Police (and others in position of authority) are bestowed with substantial powers by the State. These are the powers that should mandate greater responsibility. These are the people who are most obligated to do Good. The job is taken freely. The powers are not their own, and they do not have freedom of action or inaction when it comes to those powers. Even more importantly, they are obligated not to use those powers to do Bad, and it behooves us to hold them especially responsible when they do.

This is where we run into problems with both categorical support and categorical denigration of police officers (and others similarly bestowed with the power of the State). Some people find ways to excuse the bad actors out of a predilection to fealty, trust, admiration, “law and order,” and sympathy for the risk police assume. Other people use individual bad actors and acts to make blanket condemnations of all police. Both are counterproductive, and undermine the social-contract elements that motivate responsible use of power.

It remains to be seen what punishment is meted upon the police in the Salt Lake City incident. Based upon what I know so far, I agree with the linked Reason article: They should be fired, and the nurse and hospital should sue the bejeezus out of the department. High level of state-bestowed power = greater obligation to act responsibly = more severe punishment for misbehavior. Citizens cannot claim ignorance of the law as a defense, and under this understanding of power and responsibility, police should be doubly culpable when they themselves do not know the law.

Finally, a footnote. This incident was apparently captured by the officer’s body camera. It’s 2017. Every law enforcement officer should be wearing one by now.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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