The other side of the picture is that if I were to advocate loudly that society should become more caring, some of my friends might be concerned that I might have in mind government policies that would put incentives for wealth creation further at risk. The problem is that talk about society becoming more caring often seems like code for taking more income away from people who earn it and giving it to people who do not deserve it.
It would be strange if our ethics was unable to recognize that to respect the rights of others out of regard for own self-interest is ethically superior to failure to respect their rights, while also acknowledging that feeling empathy towards them as fellow humans is ethically superior to just respecting their rights. We know that humans are normally motivated to some extent by narrow self-interest, but we also know that they normally feel some empathy towards other humans.
Robert Nozick suggested that we should think of ethics as consisting of four layers, with the pursuit of higher layers building on the norms of lower layers rather than violating them (or violating them to a minimal extent). It may be helpful to think of the layers as depicted below.
Nozick’s Layers of Ethics
The most fundamental layer - the ethics of respect - mandates respect for the life and property of other people.
The second layer – the ethics of responsiveness – mandates acting in a way that is responsive to the inherent value of others, enhancing and supporting it, and enabling it to flourish.
The third layer – the ethics of caring – ranges from concern and tenderness to deeper compassion, ahimsa and love to all people (perhaps to all living creatures).
The top layer – the ethics of Light – calls for being a vessel and vehicle of truth, beauty, goodness and holiness. Few people have attained that level.
As far as public policy is concerned, the important issue is the extent to which any level of ethics should be enforced or imposed. It is easy enough for people to agree that every society should demand adherence to the ethics of respect and that it is not possible for any society to demand that everyone should behave like saints. To varying extents, modern societies require individuals to act in ways that are responsive to the inherent value of others e.g. by paying taxes to provide better opportunities to those in need of help.
It would be difficult for anyone to maintain that governments should never under any circumstances violate the ethics of respect. There may be nearly unanimous support for requiring people to pay some taxes additional to those required to support the core functions of the state in order, for example, to ensure that all children have certain minimal opportunities to flourish.
However, such ethical considerations cannot explain much of the redistribution that governments undertake. In my view governments tend to pay too little attention to the ethics of respect in taking from citizens and too little attention to the ethics of responsiveness in the way they distribute what they take. Hopefully, one day our politics will focus more effectively on how existing redistributions should be modified to enable more children to be given the minimal opportunities they need to flourish.