Monday, June 1, 2015

Political Morality & Natural Right

I have been writing furiously in recent days, trying to complete my chapter in the Handbook of Biology and Ethics.  I am writing on political ethics, a branch of political science dealing with the ethics of process (what political actors may do in the conduct of their offices) and the ethics of policy (what ends political actors should pursue).  One might ask why political ethics is not a branch of ethics generally, which is under the umbrella of modern philosophy. 
As an unreconstructed Platonist, I won’t settle for the easy answer (we had to put it somewhere).  I look for some key idea that links it back to politics proper rather than to modern ethics which is concerned above all with how individuals should act.  I find that idea in the distinction between public and private morality.  Almost everyone acknowledges this distinction.  Acts that would be condemned as kidnapping or murder are considered legitimate cases of imprisonment and execution if they are done with political authority. 
This distinction is very old.  Plato’s noble lie is noble because it justifies the distribution of authority in the best regime by a lie about the distribution of virtuous souls.  Aristotle acknowledges (with neither endorsement nor condemnation) that the ostracism (or murder) of certain individuals may be necessary in certain regimes, if those individuals cannot be assimilated to the social arrangement.  Machiavelli elevates the distinction to the foundation of true virtue.  The virtue of princes is the genuine article.  It is the power to create and ruthlessly employ armed power.  Such power alone can create law and order, upon which the artificial, make believe virtue of ordinary citizens and subjects depends. 
The modern distinction between public and private morality follows Machiavelli in assuming that, prior to the establishment of civil society, human beings are free to do pretty much whatever they please (and is in their power to do).  When they enter into civil society, individuals surrender that power to the sovereign.  Hobbes and Spinoza think that this necessarily means that the sovereign power is under no moral constraints.  Since there is no natural or divine morality effective over men, absolute power has to reside somewhere.  Locke argued that a basic moral sense is present even in the state of nature and that it is precisely this moral sense (expressed as righteous indignation) that necessitates the establishment of governments.  I believe that, but I am not sure that Locke believed it.  At any rate, the idea that individuals cede their natural liberty to government is the foundation of the modern idea that government can do what private individuals are morally forbidden to do. 
The modern argument, resisting on the idea that government is representative of its subjects, is plausible.  However, since the ancients also drew such a distinction without relying on the notion of representation, I think that the basic idea must be deeper than that. 
The ancient philosophers supposed that human beings are moral and political animals by nature.  The family and small bands of families (hunter-gatherers?) are societies that human beings form as much by nature as animals gather in herds.  Early modern political thought began by viewing human beings as individuals and all social interaction, beyond the most explicitly biological and temporary ones, as artificial.  Both the ancients and the moderns agree on one thing: genuinely political societies, with laws and offices, are in some sense artificial.  Political communities may allow human excellence to be fully expressed, as Plato and Aristotle thought.  Or, they may merely supply the defects of the state of nature, as Hobbes and Spinoza thought.  Either way, political regimes are the result of human artifice.  If they are not founded deliberately, they emerge from the deliberate attempt to solve ever present problems. 
Here, biopolitics and the biosocial sciences generally, have something to say.  Human beings “were not adapted for large-scale, anonymous collaboration” as Emily Wyman and Michael Tomasello say in their contribution to the Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology.  Such societies emerged too recently for that, over the last ten thousand years.  To have laws and offices, someone has to have the leisure to make the one and fill the other.  The first cities depended on the material surpluses made possible by settled agriculture and animal husbandry and the cultural advances underwritten by the exchange of technologies and goods across great distances.  Once such communities arose, the history of human animals gave way to human history. 
As I happen to like living in the 21st century, I am glad that all that happened in its course.  We are much more interesting animals than once we were.  It happened, however, at a terrible cost.  For most the last 10,000 years, a few people ate high on the hog while most people got barely enough to make it through another day of labor.  At any rate, political societies made human beings far more dependent on one another for both sustenance and security and the latter because they made human beings far more dangerous to one another. 
As Rousseau ruefully acknowledged, there is no going back.  Even if we would all be better off herding sheep and gathering roots, we ain’t gonna.  I am hopeful that human progress will continue and that the future will be better than we can yet imagine.  Meanwhile, some regimes are better than others, and almost any regime is better than a collapsing regime.  If you don’t believe me, ask someone in Benghazi. 
I suspect that the distinction between public and private morality is rooted in the fact that our natural moral emotions have been shaped by natural selection for pre-political communities.  Plato’s Socrates argues in the Republic that the truly natural human community is the city of pigs, a community devoted to the satisfaction of largely natural desires: food, shelter, basic comfort and social intercourse.  Political communities offer human beings much more than this: leisure, surplus, arts and sciences, etc.  To get such communities, however, we have to build artificial institutions out of the natural moral inclinations that we have to work with.  In natural communities morality is enforced by social sanction alone.  In political communities, morality requires a sovereign power with all the distinctions in status that that implies. 
The “problem of dirty hands,” which means the occasional necessity for doing morally reprehensible things for the sake of the regime, is a consequence of the awesome power of political regimes.  Yes, they give human beings much more than nature can provide.  They also create terrible possibilities.  No hunter-gatherer community could produce a Hitler, or Stalin, or Kim.  Winston Churchill had to refrain from warning a British town that it was about to be bombed or else risk the success of the D-Day invasion by tipping off the Germans that we had deciphered their coded communications.  I think he was right to do so, but what a burden! 
According to legend, a Jewish army was once wiped out because it refused to fight on the Sabbath.  A suspension of ordinary law was required.  Human beings are moral animals.  Any decent regime must respect and incorporate natural right.  When we must do things that offend natural right, the only justification can be that it is necessary to protect a regime where such natural justice is possible.  The Jews reached the same conclusion.  Sometimes the law must be put aside if only for the survival of the community that cherishes the law. 


  1. I agree with your assessment of Churchill. I think he made the right decision - but was it really right simply because it helped protect a regime? Hitler also wanted to protect a regime that he felt was moral. He did this by eliminating groups and individuals that he saw as a threat to German culture and dominance. But did the fact that he was creating and attempting to protect a culture that he felt was ideal really justify his immorality?

  2. Miranda: as usual, you ask the right question. Churchill made a terrible decision that cost a lot of human lives. Was "it really right simply because it helped protect a regime?" I reply: certainly not. It was right not because he protected "a regime" but because he protected a decent regime (and indeed an alliance that included more than one decent regime) against an evil regime. That was the point of my last paragraph. To take a very narrow example, if an observant Jewish doctor saves the life of another observant Jew by working on the Sabbath, he is saving the law itself. That is because the law is good. If a statesman does a terrible thing to save a republic struggling against a tyranny, that is because a republic is good and tyranny is bad.

    It doesn't matter what Hitler thought he was doing. It matters what he WAS doing. He was attempting to establish a tyranny over all of Europe and, I suspect, the world. His regime had no higher ideal that the murder of Jews. Action on behalf of such a regime is by definition immoral.

  3. ps. I was thinking about our previous exchanges when I wrote the subsequent post on Arachne. I would be interested to learn what you think about that one.

  4. I think intent matters a great deal. Otherwise, we would have to say that someone who ran over his neighbor's dog accidentally was less moral than someone who tried to run over his neighbor's dog and missed. Can we say this?

    What if the situation was a little bit different. Let's say there was a small, but just regime made up of 100 people. Now, let's say that in order to protect this regime, 500 people had to die. Is it still right to let all 500 die?

  5. You beard me twice! Effectively on both scores. On the first point: yes, intention matters. But does that mean that good intentions justify anything? The terrorists who flew planes into the World Trade Center thought they were doing the right thing. That doesn't make it right.

    On the second point: If the 500 are Nazi troops advancing on a Polish ghetto, then yes. It is right to "let" the 500 die.

  6. This is why this blog is always such a great read. Not only do you come away learning new things about philosophy, politics and science, but you get an English lesson as well! I had no idea beard could be used as a verb.

    Thank you, again for taking the time to respond. I think you are right and that good intentions are not enough to justify all actions. That is one reason I am hesitant to say that the reason Churchill was right was that he was preserving a good regime.

    Churchill could not have known how World War II would end. Hitler could have won and the British regime could have fallen. Suppose it had. Suppose also that if Churchill had warned those he did not that they could have fled to other countries. Suppose, even, that if they had survived they would have contributed to the success of another good regime – perhaps America’s. Would we, then, be able to say that Churchill’s failure to warn them was immoral or unjustified?
    I anticipated your answer about the Nazis and I agree with you. Suppose, though, that the 500 people in the previous example were not Nazis, but were instead, innocent people. Does the answer change?
    I am not convinced that believing that you are saving a culture which you believe is good justifies immoral actions. But I do think that choosing an option which is likely to save more innocent lives than an option which is likely to save fewer is moral and that this is what Churchill did.

  7. Miranda: we seem to be talking past each other on one essential point. I hold that people are not responsible for what they think they were doing but for what they actually do. Someone who thinks he is shooting at deer but kills another hunter may face manslaughter charges. To be sure, we distinguish between accidents and deliberate harm but that is because the motive is part and parcel of the action. Churchill was a genuine hero and Hitler a genuine villain because the one was actually defending liberal democracy and the other actually trying to establish a universal tyranny.

    Churchill once said that one cannot guarantee victory. One can only deserve it. We can hardly hold him responsible for what might have happened. He acted in the circumstances he was faced with and acted in a way that actually did save England and (I suspect) a lot more than just England.

    As for our 500 people, that is exactly the choice that Churchill had to make. If 500 Nazi tanks advance with one innocent person tied to each one, you still have to fire on them.

    I am very suspicious of utilitarian calculations. I would (in most circumstances) prefer to sacrifice one to save five but that is not because five are worth five times more than one. The value of each human life is incalculable. It's just that we can save everyone so we save as many as we can.

    Abraham Lincoln destroyed the Confederacy because it represented an empire for slavery. We killed the Nazi regime and the Japanese Empire because they represented Hell on earth for all human beings.

  8. I think this is a fair answer and agree especially with your assessment of utilitarianism. I should not have assumed that 500 lives were more valuable than one or two.

  9. I think this is a fair answer and agree especially with your assessment of utilitarianism. I should not have assumed that 500 lives were more valuable than one or two.

  10. In one version of the trolley problem we are asked whether we would push a fat guy off a bridge to stop the train and save five. I say no in this instance, because using someone as a train stop is too high a price to pay to save five lives. Would we torture a child for the same purpose?

    Yes, but... what if the train were carrying an atomic bomb into an urban center? I have to admit that I would push the guy and maybe jump with him. But if 5 aren't more valuable than one, why are 500,000? I think there may be an answer here, but I am sure that the ground is shifting under our feet. Such is the heartburn from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.