the only easy day was yesterday

Sunday, December 2, 2007

For the sake of not having to text message the whole damn thing to Jasper



The following essay is an attempt to explore the issue of morals in relation to governing bodies. This writer will attempt to discover whether or not governments are capable of be held to the same moral limits of individuals. However, before such a notion could be entertained, the very nature of the state apparatus must be discovered. Using the definitions of good by the philosophers Mill, Kant, and Aristotle it will first be determined whether or not governments have the capacity for moral behavior and from there conclusions will be drawn back to the question: Should governments be under the same moral limits as individuals.
Morality for the purpose of this exploration will be the capacity for something to be good. If governments can be proved to have that capacity, then it will follow that they have the capacity to be moral. It will then be analyzed whether or not governments should be held to the same moral limits as individuals. Moral limits, for this exploration’s sake, will be the distance a moral entity can stray from its capacity for the good before the bad it is capable of outweighs the good; rendering the entity a/immoral.

Capacity For The Good

Philosopher John Stuart Mill described the greatest good as the promotion of happiness and the minimization of unhappiness. Mill called this the “greatest happiness principle”(p. 7). By happiness Mill makes it clear that he means the existence of “pleasure and the absence of pain”, whereas unhappiness is “pain and privation of pleasure”.
In regards to Utilitarian theory, a government has the capacity for morals as far as it has the capacity to promote happiness. Surely one could say that by allowing for the legal consumption of alcohol, many governments provide for pleasure with the absence of pain for many people. However, it could not be argued that this is a proper Utilitarian justification for the moral capacity of governments, for even Mill has a graded scale for lower and higher forms of happiness. Mill explains in his treatise, that people who have the capacity for enjoying both high and low pleasures will “give a most marked preference to the manner of existence which employs their higher facilities.”(P.9). It would then follow that governments’ capacities to provide for lesser levels of happiness is not a sufficient qualification to prove their capacity for morals. From a utilitarian standpoint it would appear that that something’s capacity for morals can not mean just its capacity to be good, but its capacity to be and provide for the greatest good. For when it is Utilitarianism we speak of, something cannot just provide pleasure to be good (there are too many pleasures), it must provide for the greatest pleasure, because for the Utilitarian there is not one supreme good; there is simply a hierarchy of pleasures that extend upward to infinity without ever reaching a the Platonic good.
With this realization, it then becomes the duty of those trying to determine the moral capacity of governing bodies, where the line must be drawn to determine that capacity. At stated above, the legalization of alcohol consumption is an example of a pleasure too low on the hierarchy to prove governments’ capacity for morals from a Utilitarian perspective. It would seem to then follow that for a government to have a moral capacity from a Utilitarian point of view; it would have to provide for those pleasures that “employ the higher faculties”, while minimizing unhappiness.
The question of what pleasures constitute the beginning of those which “employ the higher faculties” on the Utilitarian happiness hierarchy is subject to debate and possibly unanswerable. What presents this writer with difficulty is the absence of an ultimate good in Utilitarian philosophy. Without that good, the moral capacity of non-human entities (from a Utilitarian standpoint) is highly subjective*. One man’s pleasure which employs the higher faculties, could be another man’s mentally lesser pleasure. While it is impossible to know if a government is preventing a person from his/her most mentally stimulating pleasure, if it were, it would prove that governments don’t possess a moral capacity. This, of course, is an assumption based on the probability that among the billions of people living under governmental systems, there is at least one person that is being denied access to a pleasure which requires the employment of a higher faculty.
It must too be remembered that Utilitarian theory does not associate good only with the pleasure, but also with the minimization of unhappiness. In a paradoxical situation, it could be that the existence of lesser happiness’s is in reality an affront to the possibility of greater happiness and is thus an example of pain. For when one gets addicted these lesser forms of happiness, “they have already become incapable of the other.”(10) If a state apparatus allows for conditions in which these lower forms of happiness are allowed to thrive, and therefore choke out truer forms of pleasure, could it not be said that the state is promoting unhappiness? The connection between the state and the infectious and addictive lower forms of pleasure does not stray too far from Mill’s orginial thoughts. Mill discusses the way in which people fall from the pursuit of higher pleasure saying that “capacity for other nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not only be hostile influence, but by mere want of sustenance; and in the majority of young persons it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position in life has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are no favorable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise.”(P.10). It could be said that a line could be drawn between Mill’s “society” and the governments that this paper is analyzing. If the government provides for a society by which the higher pleasures are not stressed, then that apparatus is in fact working to destroy the “capacity for nobler feelings”. Being that nobler feelings are certainty not forms of unhappiness, the government therefore is minimizing happiness, which definitely is not in accord with the greatest happiness principle. And if governments are promoting these lesser forms of pleasure, they are really promoting a form of pain, and thus are incapable of morals from a Utilitarian standpoint.


Kantian theory holds that it is not happiness which is the highest good, but rather good will (free intentions). Kant believes that we would not have been endowed with the capacity for reason if happiness was our end, for reason allows us to constantly doubt our happiness. It must follow that the motive for human possession of reason, is to make sure humanity can have good and free intentions for our actions. The capacity for morals, in relation to Kantian theory, it follows is the capacity for an entity to have good and free intentions.
With Kantian theory we are faced with more of a conundrum in relating a moral capacity to a non-human entity. The role of governments in respect to intentions is free and good only to the extent by which man (who has a moral capacity) has endowed it with that capacity. An absolute monarchy in which the king possesses good and free intentions couple be an example of a government which can have a moral capacity, being that the government is in fact man. However constitutional democratic republics like the United States have bound themselves to work within the confines of constitutional law, limiting the freedom of intension the apparatus possesses. Forced to act within a confining set of legislation, the United States’ government does not possess the capacity for morals, in that it does not have the capacity to have good and free intensions (assuming there is the possibility that such intentions could require the state to work outside of the boundaries dictated by legislation and bureaucracy). When Louis XIV exclaimed, “L'√Čtat, c'est moi” he affirmed that in fact the government of France at that precise moment had the capacity for morals (whether it actually was moral is another essay).


Aristotle held that good was, “an activity of the soul in accord with [the best and most complete] virtue.” (P.9) Virtue, as he understood it, is the qualities which “enable something to fulfill its function”(email). Therefore good, is then the ability for something to fulfill its function, as premised by its virtue.
When this concept is related to our question of governments’ capacity for morality it presents interesting problems for exploration. Most obvious of all these is, what is the function of government? It is imperative to answer this question, as on its solution hinges the moral capacity of governments.
Before applying Aristotle’s thoughts to governing bodies, it is important to look at his logic within the human context it was written. When searching for the function of man, he makes clear the distinction between a human and a human with an occupation asking, “The do the carpenter and the leather worker have their functions and actions, but has a human being no function?”(8) The presentation of the dichotomy is purposeful and important to take into consideration when seeking out the moral capacity of governments. In his search for a human function, Aristotle finds that there is no one “function” that we physically serve, but rather “the human function is activity of the soul in accord with reason or requiring reason.”
It then follows that in order to prove the moral capacity of the state apparatus by Aristotelian methods; we would have to attribute its function not to one of its many physical activities, but some inherent non-physical virtue. For man this non-physical virtue is reason, but unless a governing body is a single man, it would be strange to say that it possesses reason.
It thus follows that is impossible to bestow unto government a moral capacity specifically designed by Aristotle only for man; unless, as stated above, man is the sole entity making up the state.
This realization does not completely deny moral capacity to government; it only proves that the state is very much unlike a human in its very nature. Using only Aristotle’s outline, it appears possible to prove a moral capacity for governments. Just like a flautist, whose good is measured by his or her capacity to play flute well, a government’s good can similarly be measured by its capacity to govern well. While the purpose of governing can be debated, for our sake we will agree that it is to protect the security of those it rules. As long as the government has the capacity to perform this function well, it has the capacity for morals. Unfortunately, when one begins to apply this formula outside of humanity all kinds of inanimate objects start to possess moral capacity (making this writer wonder the validity of attributing Aristotelian morality outside of man). For example, a paperclip has the function of clipping paper together. This function is provided for by whatever virtue it is that gives “clippiness” to paperclips. Following the above logic, a paperclip, like government, has the capacity for morality. Should we then have to debate the question if paperclips be under the same moral limits as individuals? Clearly this would be ridiculous. The fact that all inanimate objects could then have a moral capacity, almost, if not completely, discredits the belief reached by Aristotelian methods that government could have such a capacity.
We have thus far determined that according to Utilitarian theory it has been determined that governments are incapable of a true moral capacity. According to Kantian theory, it has been demonstrated only absolute monarchies possess the capacity for morality. According to Aristotelian theory, it has been determined that while governments possess a capacity for morality, so does ever other inanimate object with a function, therefore the logic by which government morality is determined is inherently flawed and readers government’s truly incapable of morality.
From here we can now move on and answer the question: “Should governments be held to the same moral limits as individuals?” from a Kantian perspective on morality.

1 comment:

Jasper Yate said...

im gonna sprinkle in some philosophy-writing notes

i wouldnt mention plato up with mill. it creates confusion when it comes out of the blue, especially when mill wasnt any sort of platonist. you used 'ultimate' later on. keep the same term, and uneducated reader wont think of making the connection between whatever they fathom to be the platonic good and your later mention of the ultimate good. and you should probably put full names when you first mention mill and kant, many people may not know who they are (not that first names would help, but you know)

"And if governments are promoting these lesser forms of pleasure, they are really promoting a form of pain, and thus are incapable of morals from a Utilitarian standpoint."

if your thesis is that if a government has the capacity to then it can be judged as an individual morally, then i would say that if it shows the ability to hinder happiness then it has the capacity to augment it as well. and further more along those lines, if there is a body of law/people which has consensual or non-consensual rule over a population, which means that it has the ability to affect each and every life, then it clearly has the capacity to promote good or to hinder good; i think this definition is far to good. my bed promoted good because when people sleep in it they become rejuvinated the next day, it promotes good health of body and mind, and it was made for that purpose just as a government is made for a similar purpose to promote good. you casually used the word 'be' in the phrase "capacity for something to be good". this makes it a different story. this now becomes a metaphysical issue, as you've given no clear definition of what being is. if a rock is, then it can be, and if it can be then at some point (with such loose definitions of good and be) if i used a rock to bash an assailant over the head in order that i escape harm, that rock would clearly be good, in that it is (and was at the time of the attack), and it promoted my own good, that is, it promoted that i not be harmed by an assailant. my example does cross into the argument of human rights, but both sides of formalists and utilitarians would agree that self defense against someone aiming to violate an individuals rights is wholly acceptable, and so we can dismiss any quibbling about the good for the offender.

so i think you can still make your argument, but wither youll have to steer clear of words such as be, or youll have to extensively define what it is to be, which may end up being unavoidable, in that the essence of being may be thought of as the ability to be moral, and that essence may only belong to a human being. im not very familiar with this, though, so thats what i have to say. just food for thought.

throw formalism in there instead of kantian i think. its a broader outlook and less specific to a single opinion, and it is appropriate because to some degree formalism is to kant as utilitarianism is to mill (though utilitarianism was more fully developed for a longer time before mill came, he was just so smart that when he dedicated himself to it he was bound to clarify some shit.)

an interesting point is that under a formalist system, an absolute monarch would probably never be allowed, because of the probability for greed and whatnot, though it is the school that favors that that seems to be the way that a government can be moral, while utilitarians would be the school to say that one supremely moral and saintly person needs to be at the helm and we need to follow her/him, but they seem to be thouroughly convinced that no people like that exist, and if they do they certainly dont want to rule people. so thats something to think about i havent really taken the time yet.

i find it strange that you chose three people from differeng eras and then put them chronologically backwards, is there a method to your madness there, i dont see it if there is...

oh and the other question/comment, was that if a monarch was the government, his actions would still semmingly extend beyond himself, that is, if he declares that people wearing purple are to be killed, he wont be killing all the people wearing purple, executioners will be, whether it be a person saying laws or a constitution dictating them, i think the only way the actions of a government can be judged as moral would be if a single person imposed alljustices and punshments.

hah i just had a funny idea. maybe all the supreme court justices or the president or whoever shoul have to be present at every governmental execution and should have to look at the person in the eye while theyre being killed. you know, whoever made the decision. it would get the issue seriously reconsidered, although it may not need to be...

if youre interested. rawls trying to blend utilitarianism and formalism: