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 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 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. 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. 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.” 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.
 Locke, John. "Second Treatise of Civil Government ." Marxists Internet Archive. http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/politics/locke/ch02.htm.
 Rainsford, Sarah. "Turkish Anti-PKK Anger Mounts." BBC News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7073718.
 Tinder, Glenn. Political Thinking. 6th ed. Menlo Park, Cal.: Longman, 1995. 134
 Tinder, Glenn. Political Thinking. 6th ed. Menlo Park, Cal.: Longman, 1995. 136-139
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