Please note the importance of the great wedge between morality and legality. I do not consider the moral question of neglect the same as the legal question. But to my mind there is great fuzziness here and I would like to clarify what is at stake in laws against neglect. The fuzziness means that abuse and misuse are easy.
Coercion through law is a blunt tool. This is not a failure. This is a feature. Because of its universality it is blunt. Law cannot be designed for the nuances or details of individuality. If it is, we trade the abuse and misuse of complexity for the feature of bluntness. The bluntness is a product of universality. It is good that we are treated as equals before the law (when we are). An implication is bluntness.
Neglect is an act of omission and not commission. So, in issues of neglect we leave aside aggression against person or property–assault and theft. In neglect we target the failure to attend to what ought to be attended to. And, so, let me first say that I think any real wrongful neglect morally wrong. But, the morally wrong judgment comes with some qualifications. First, the thing neglected must have been neglected even when it was possible for it to be attended to. I do not neglect wrongfully when I attend to other things that are more important or when I lack the resources to attend to that which does not receive my attention. Second, the thing neglected must be understood deeply. The wrongfulness of the neglect increases with the knowledge of the thing in its ideal. In practice, down here, judgments of neglect are rife with potential error.
I may “think” you neglected X when really what you attended to, Y, was more important. So, the “neglect” was not wrongful but totally justified. I may “think” you had resources to attend to X when really I misunderstood what attending to X required. And so, I misjudged your neglect of X.
Morality is a matter of nuance. There is no moral law to “not kill”. There is a universal moral law “to not intentionally take the life of an innocent individual.” But intentions are messy. So is innocence. But, I am happy that we have achieved enough clarity on murder to prohibit aggression against individual liberty in the cases of its being targeted for snuffing out when embodied in an otherwise innocent individual. Here the bluntness of the legal code may both protect individual liberty and embody our deepest moral intuitions.
But in many cases it is more difficult. Some kinds of enslavement we think morally problematic. Many would like to say “all kinds”. But our legal system is rife with the demand that some labor to support others in existence. The legal system assumes both knowledge about the good of individuals being helped, the resources available with those identified as helpers, and that the relative value of the attention here is greater than it would be there. Let us quickly count a spectrum of cases:
Business deemed “essential” must not be neglected. They must be bailed out, and those who labor must labor to bail out those businesses. This is business welfare.
Those individuals (or more recently groups) deemed “impoversihed” must not be neglected. They must be attended to, and those who labor must attend to them. This is more traditional welfare.
The environment (as broadly and vaguely construed as possible) must not be neglected. It must be attended to, those who labor must attend to them.
Those individuals in need or dependency upon others (similar to the impoverished group above who is often helped because of the presence of this more particular class) must be helped. And those who labor must attend to them. The dependents are a large group. They begin with fetuses, continue with infants and toddlers, continue with the malformed, the very weak, and end with the close to death and often ederly.
Those individuals judged to have social or economic results at the lower end of some spectrum measured by some committee just not be neglected. They must be attended to, and those who labor must attend to them. This is often called affirmative action or quotas. Women (who are apparently a social construct) and some ethnic minorities (depending on the mood of the committee) are common.
Note, in each case the requirement is legal not moral. Those in charge of the law determine who gets helped, how much, and what kind of oversight to exercise. Those in charge of the law determine what kind of help is best. Since the position of power is theirs, those in charge of the law are the least accountable to anyone as to whether they are actually making things better AT ALL.
Note, it is always he who labors that is targeted. He who gains position of power through labor and trade is often able to pay or play strategically to avoid the costs of this forced help. As is usual in these cases, it is he who is coming up, he who is escaping the very condition of needing help who is most taxed and burden with the demand to help.
Social conservatives demand that children not be neglected. So do social liberals. Social conservatives who are also economically free market might demand that fetuses be protected (anti-abortion) but that they not be required to pay for public education. Social liberals will demand that women have right to neglect their fetuses (pro-choice) but demand that some care for others’ decisions to keep fetuses and bring them to turn.
The legal demand to not neglect always goes well beyond legal justification for preventing assault of person or theft of property. He who neglects does neither. He may simply have his attention elsewhere. It is presumptuous for some to judge that they know better than the laborer himself what he is to do with that which he labors for! But that is what happens. Laws against neglect must presume that SOME things be attended to no matter the cost to those who are producing and have goals for their production.
For X to be required to NOT NEGLECT Y no matter what X would rather do is to submit the labor (choice, energy, work, freedom) of X to Y by threat of penalty. Laws against neglect amount to a kind of enslavement plain and simply.
I am going to respond to what I take to be the most common refrain. I am dead against the father neglecting his children. It is morally abhorrent. But what is more morally abhorrent is to permit X to neglect his children and to force Y to take up the work of tending to the children of X. This is making things worse not better. X is excused from the consequences of his activity. It becomes known to those who produce needy dependents with X that others (Y) will be forced (enslaved) to care for the need and dependency produced by X. Thus it becomes easier for X and those who associate and produce with him to remain in his position of being tended to and to ignore that Y is enslaved to do it. Thus it becomes harder for Y to bear his position of enslavement to X with the resultant ignoring of Y’s own desires, wishes and reasons for producing that which is transferred to X.
And so, I would rather be against neglect morally and permit neglect legally (since that is clear and universal), then I would abide under the monstrous and fuzzy proclamation that he who is in power is constantly able to demand that the labor of Y be put to use for his favored X. This is ultimately unbearable and leads to nothing good.
The real questions is–what is X thinking? How is he really responding to his situation? And you may ask the question more bluntly if you wish a more honest answer. What would be the natural and normal response of one group when forced to work for another? Especially when the ones forced new that they would be hunted down for failure to work. You try NOT paying the portion of your taxes that are to be used to NOT NEGLET the favored businesses and individuals for whom the labor is extracted. You will not be left alone. Your property will be seized and aggression against your very person (imprisonment) is likely if you continue to resist.
What will your legal wrong have been? You will not have aggressed against anyone’s person or property. But you will have labored and failed to labor for the reasons that others think you should have labored. And they will make sure you know what you should labor for.