the only easy day was yesterday

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

ON THE MORAL LIMITS OF GOVERNMENT: Should Governments Be Under The Same Moral Limits As Individuals

By Warner Bass

The existence of governments presents the individuals that entrust their collective power in them with many difficult dilemmas. One such dilemma is the question: should governments be under the same moral limits as individuals? The enormity of modern governments, in both physical size and concentration of power, make their moral boundaries far less limited than those of the individual. This fact does not mean that a state’s breach of individual moral limitations is morally right. Rather, such a breach is a purely circumstantial consequence of the unjust amount of power centralized into the state apparatus.

When people invest their collective power in a system of governance, they usually do so with the hope that that institution will provide them with a certainty degree of protection from what John Locke[1] describes as the state of nature. In doing so, these people are expected to act in a certain way in order to preserve the status quo. This preservation is facilitated in the west through a combination of written laws as well as a set of unwritten morals. Such moral codes may or may not be the foundation of written laws, but nevertheless they are to be followed if order is to be preserved. For example, it is considered beyond the moral limits of an individual to end the life of a fellow individual. Murder being morally wrong (as well as legally impermissible) greatly reduces the amount of murders in a given society.

Given the aforementioned example of murder, it becomes immediately clear that such a moral restriction cannot be placed on modern governments. If a government is to properly protect its citizens’ security, it should be expected to exhaust all powers at its disposal before abandoning its promise of security. Government sanctioned killing is one such example of a power states have at their disposal for preserving security. Even though the act of murder is not moral for the individuals owing their allegiances to the state, it becomes the “duty” of the state to commit the action if the status quo (and thus security) is threatened. In fact, the individuals of a society might protest if the government does not take such an immoral action in response to threatened security. For example, the Turkish government has been subject to demonstrations and protests[2] by its citizens because of its hesitation to invade Northern Iraq to fight PKK rebels who have been attacking Turkish soldiers as part of their campaign for greater Kurdish autonomy. By not taking every possible action to protect its Turk citizens, the Turkish government is failing the very people that have entrusted their power in it.

Security is not the only service expected by citizens when they entrust their power into the state. Public services such as education as well as transportation are two of many examples of other functions a government is expected to provide. By putting so many varying responsibilities in to one public body, it cannot be expected that that body will be able to be dictated by the same limits, moral or otherwise, as the individuals that make it up. The end product of the centralization of such massive forces of power becomes something that can’t be considered anything other than super-human by character. As something which is “more than man”, as far as sheer powers and responsibilities are concerned, it would be naïve to believe that the state can be governed by mere mortal moral limits.

It should be understood, however, that the super-human nature of modern governments only explains their moral-transcending character; it does not, by any means, justify it. Rather, this harsh fact simply explains the immoral phenomenon associated with governments. Once the very nature of government is understood, it becomes immediately apparent that the question: should governments be under the same moral limits as individuals, is unanswerable. If government must be immoral to serve its basic functions, it is impossible to have an opinion on whether or not it “should” be moral. To make such an argument would be like arguing the question “should a blind man see?” The man’s disability is a fact, to argue for or against whether he “should” be blind is useless.

In his book, Political Thinking, Glenn Tinder presents the reader with the example of Machiavelli[3]. Machiavelli, it is said, held that governments should not be under the same moral limits as individuals. Using similar reasoning as presented above, Machiavelli argued that “there is a moral law but that rulers must occasionally break that law.” While the example of Machiavelli agrees in principle with the aforementioned beliefs (governments “should” not be under the same moral limits as individuals); the ideas presented above and Machiavelli’s theory split onto two different paths. From Tinder’s explanation, it appears the Machiavelli is perfectly content with the existence of immoral ruling bodies. On the other hand, the ideas presented above relate a theory which is not convinced that the existence of such governing bodies is good in the first place.

Later in his book, Tinder addresses the struggle between moral absolutists and moral relativists[4]. He gives the example of a state organized assassination, and then proceeds to characterize each group’s reaction. The moral relativists, he explains, will “perhaps be undisturbed”, while the absolutists will be horrified. In his following comments, Tinder makes it clear that he feels, understandably, that by taking a hard-line approach to the issue, the absolutists are being naïve with respect to the complexities of the state system. Such absolutists, however, cannot all be considered naïve if they recognize that the state system is inherently corrupt and not compatible with proper human thought and behavior. The moral absolutist is only naïve if he/she is content with the existence of the state, for as it has already been proven, it is impossible for the state to be a moral institution. For this latter form of absolutism, Tinder claims that they may be inviting “an idealistic distortion of reality.”[5] Surely, he claims, humans would be unable to function properly if they were to be morally absolute at all times. Forget governing bodies, forming personal relationships would be a near impossible task. While this is true, it is hard to say that such a harsh reality (humans can never be perfectly moral) should imply that humankind give up on our moral seeking efforts and make due with super-human/super-moral institutions that currently govern countries like the United States of America. While perfect morality is impossible, it is not evident that near-perfect morality in a social system is doomed to the same fate.

Upon final review, it becomes quite apparent that due to their fundamental natures, governments cannot be held under the same moral limits as individuals. As long as the fundamental role of governments is the security of the people who entrust their power in them, moral behavior will constantly have to be compromised. The sheer level of power and responsibility held by governments in countries like the United States of America relegate most moral absolutists to the status of fools. Belief in a state system of government (or any system of government for that matter) and moral absolutism simply are not compatible. All of these harsh realities, however, only serve to highlight the imperfections of the current system of centralized governance and the need for change.

[1] Locke, John. "Second Treatise of Civil Government ." Marxists Internet Archive.

[2] Rainsford, Sarah. "Turkish Anti-PKK Anger Mounts." BBC News.

[3] Tinder, Glenn. Political Thinking. 6th ed. Menlo Park, Cal.: Longman, 1995. 134

[4] Tinder, Glenn. Political Thinking. 6th ed. Menlo Park, Cal.: Longman, 1995. 136-139
[5] Ibid.


Jasper Yate said...

remind me to read this if i dont comment in the next ferw days i dont have time right now tho

Jasper Yate said...

its sort of long. it's an essay on torture, but he very articulatly defines what is at base a human right, and what is necessary for a government to protect, it's worth the read. it's also important to consider the formalist aspect which he doesn't quite do justice, though he is convincing. the problem here i think is the dichotemy between philosophy and ethics; both take a similar aproach or method in solving problems, but there's the missing link of epistemology such that the application of both is like trying to clean a wound with hydrogen gas and oxygen (the components of hydrogen peroxide) alone. quite simply put there is an epistemological issue that has never and potentially cannot ever be answered positively, that being the question of what is knowledge in the sense of knowing myself from anything else, or rather, that one cannot know in the fullest sense of clarity anything but what is in ones mind, this including sense perceptions that there ore separate things. the common response to this, which is why i cant quite relate ethics as an actual philosophy is (and i agree with this as of now) something like yea, but im better of accepting what it is that is presented to me as 'reality' and rolling with it, which in the minds of these most intelligent individuals is serving fellow humans. i agree, but i fail to see, nor do i think it can be seen, a connection with any serious philosophy, which makes morality and ethics somewhat of a capricious pursuit of what the more learned people of the world are conditioned to see as the best way to live a life

im not gonna comment yet on the overall idea, because im not quite clear on the whole super-human government thing, the question that comes to mind is that it is only people governing people, and it would seem only a psycological dispostition would be the cause of a semmingly ominous government, so if you could elaborate on that...

im not sure if youve read that essay i put the link for, but if you havent do, itll put persepctive on the word morality, you throw it around a little wrecklesssly - that might just be to me tho, cuz im more used to reading essays and books from people who spent their lives trying to define words like morality, but i think it would help for another essay if only for your own good and integrity of the essay to give a more solid definition of morality it's such a vague term by leaving it undefined you are letting less knowlegable people apply their definition and custom fit their morality to what they think is right and use your reasoning, which may be towards another end entirely, for their own vindication.

so yea on all that im not quite sure what you mean by the fact of government being immoral, i dont take it that a government can be entirely 'moral' in all stages, but it's also that it isn't even a person, it's hard to ascribe such a humanly defined value such as morality to an object like that, is this what you meant by the super-human thing, that the government is such an amalgamation of people and rules that it becomes a thing rather than a group of people in the sense that it isn't that sigle person who shoots the burgler, but the government as a whole which deems it necessary? im still not sure where that leaves the being of government, im not sure it can be said to be moral or immoral at all, it is the manifestation of what we all believe (in the case of a democracy) is going to be the best for all of us, which is probably logically viewed as 98% 'moral' 2% immoral with the killing and phone-tapping and such...

never heard of moral absolutists or moral relativists. sounds like its rule utilitarians and formalists, respectively.

on my own personal note, i struggle with accepting ethical contentions. its impossible as of yet and probably as of forever due to the problem of the external world to ever vindicate that morality exists, that external things exist, etc, and thus in choosing between moral policy, so to speak, i cannot decide; the most objective is to be a pure formalist and do whats good for myself because im safest there i know only i exist, which is an annoingly lingering argument when i ponder morals and ethics because they arent ever as real as i almost want them to be.

The W said...

Could you define epistemology?

First of all, the question i wrote on was out of a book called Political Thinking, I was assigned to real the chapter in that book on the question, and then answer the question For myself. This was for my Political science class.

The superhuman govt thing that to do with my concept that humans all possess power. this power could be seen as purely political, although im not sure i would go that far. When that power is centralized by multiple people into a specific entity, that entity thus has a quaintity of power That is more Than that which an individual possesses. It could now be said that that entity is super- human with respect to power. The example I elaborated on was an entity known as government. Yes its psychological, but its also physical (that entity has the authority to beat you up if it so pleases)

One of the reasons a govt cant be moral is because it is more than human and has more than human responsibilities.

I understand that I use the word "moral" wrecklessly, my philosophy Prof pointed that out when I talked about it with him. I should define it, but like you said, people spend their lives on such things. . .

Moral Relativists Absolutist were terms i took from the book

"it is the manifestation of what we all believe "
not so much, but thats another issue

I read the essay, It didn't really give me a better understanding: of what morality is. In readily it; was constantly reminded of an Anarchist critique of Marxism I just finished reading. The dude who wrote the torture essay references what's good a lotas justification For acts of torture. However an interesting point is made in the Anarchists essay. "The principle of political or State morality is very simple. The State, being the supreme objective, everything that is favorable to the development of its power is good; all that is contrary to it, even if it were the most humane thing in the world, is bad. This morality is called Patriotism." Torture, if it is favorable to the development of the State's power, is morally good. when torture is not favorable to such ends it is bad (in the governments eyes)

The W said...

i just got back from ameeting with my philosophy professor, and i think that the morality i am really trying to get to is that of equality. my example of state murder was probably a bad choice. rather the state is immoral in that there is always a group (usually large) that will be oppressed at the expense of those who willingly invest their power into the state. as such a practice is in the nature of the state, and such a practice is immoral, it follows that the state is immoral in this aspect...

im working on it

Jasper Yate said...

epistemology is everything that concerns the question of what is 'knowledge', as in what does it mean to know something, as stems from how unsure sensibility is in terms of metaphysics.

my contention about government is not whether its action can be described as moral, i could call a rock moral, but rather, if morality in some form does exist, then i dont think that it can be applied to a non-living thing, government is, as you said, an entity, it is not one person, it is a gathering of people who've created a system of of rules, which if anything are on paper in physical form and cannot have the rules of any sort of human obligation to morality. furthermore, as i mentioned that essay on torture before, people can decide that torture is better for the whole of all people, and on a semi-humean note, there is no point where you can point out where the imorality in this is, and i think most people would suggest that if we are to throw around the world moral this much, that such an act is moral. i myself cannot see any act that the u.s government has done thats immoral, most actions of the government cna be justified by some explanation of morality. this is why an explicit definition of morality needs to be stated because a stanist will still use the term moral.