Tuesday , April 23 2024
Wittgenstein showed us that morality is grounded in our language and form of life. Locke and Aristotle provide the missing link.

Politics and Ethics: Moral Foundations of a Just State

Ethics and politics, which are the practical sciences, deal with human beings as moral agents. Ethics is primarily about the actions of human beings as individuals, and politics is about the actions of human beings in communities…The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (It is important to remember, adds the writer, that for Aristotle ethics and politics are closely linked and each influences the other.)

Nicomachean Ethics was Aristotle’s monumental work in the field of morality, while Politics remains one of the definitive texts on the nature of the state and the beginning of all serious thinking in political theory. At the end of his work on ethics, Aristotle concludes that the inquiry into ethics necessarily follows into politics. Consequently, both works are believed to comprise a larger treatise dealing with the “philosophy of human affairs.” I’ll be bolder, however, than the writer of the Encyclopedia and assert that the notion of a just state presupposes a resident notion of a basic morality; that the two are in fact inseparable; that the former is but an extension of ethical thinking to affairs of human beings as they interact with one another in the context of, and with respect to, a just state or polity.

It’s not feasible to offer here a comprehensive, foolproof argument. Suffice to say, I regard Aristotle's proposition as a given. Let me cite, however, from a more recent source, the philosophy of John Locke:

Regarding the origins of society, Locke . . . distinguishes a state of nature (natural state) and the transition from this state to the state of society through a contract… Men even at this time were rational and had the notion of the fundamental rights of life, of liberty, property, etc. To better guarantee such rights, man has entered, through means of a contract, into society, and has conceded some of his natural rights to the sovereign, together with the power to defend them.

From man's natural condition to the state of society, there is hence a progression; but no innovation is involved. The sovereign who fails in his obligation to defend the rights of his subjects is no longer justified in his sovereignty and may be dismissed by his subjects.

A state-of-nature theory by Thomas Hobbes was the subject matter of the first installment in my "Politics and Ethics" series. We’ve seen that Hobbes’s depiction of "man's natural condition" is quite at odds with that provided by Locke. For the former, the life of men under those conditions was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” For Locke, humans are already “rational and [have] the notion of the fundamental rights of life, of liberty, property, etc.” We shouldn’t be too disturbed, however, by such a glaring discrepancy because we’ve also seen that aside from historical circumstances and philosophical demands of the day, Hobbes' experiment was a thought-experiment of sorts and all-consuming project: there was a dire need to re-establish the rule of the sovereign; and the best way to draw attention to the fact was by portraying the state of nature as a condition no one in their right mind would choose to persist in. In short, the state of nature for Hobbes was nothing but a philosophical construct — a brilliant construct but a construct nonetheless.

What was it for Locke? Well, Locke’s concerns were different. With the concept of sovereign firmly in place, Locke’s main preoccupation was safeguarding the subjects’ basic rights from possible violation. Hence an entirely different picture of the state of nature, where those rights are taken for granted, commonly recognizable, and natural. And so is the matter of transition from less- to fully actualized stage at which the civil society is operating on all four, its political system fully intact. The transition is smoother and more intuitive for the fact because it’s made contingent on the simple notion of consent, or contract, formalized later by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in another masterpiece, The Social Contract. Both Locke and Rousseau made use of the Hobbesian model but put it to different purposes.

The very qualities which Locke attributes to the denizens of the state of nature could well go, and be totally subsumed, under the name of morality; and furthermore, that it is none other than some basic morality, shared in common, which Locke’s version of the state-of-nature presupposes and which, in turn, makes those qualities possible. Consequently, since the transition from Locke’s pre-political or quasi-political stage in the development of a civil society to a stage at which that society is fully politicized is made all the more natural (and therefore easier to stomach) by virtue of those qualities, I will argue a corollary thesis as well: namely, that the formation of a just state is predicated on the existing or pre-existing moral relations between the individuals, and represents therefore an extension of those relations, or their projection, if you will, upon a larger plane. We must bear in mind, however, Locke’s all-important proviso: once the state ceases to exercise its proper function as the ultimate guarantor of the said relations, it may be rightly dissolved.

Can we attribute to moral thought the kind of primacy which our argument requires in order to serve as a precondition to political thought and organization? And if so, how is that primacy to be grounded?

There is a sense, of course, in which moral thinking predates religious thinking. The point is not simply about the chronology of events. From that aspect alone, it’s possible to argue either way. Thus, one could say, for example, that the ethical teachings of the ancient Greeks predated Christianity; and one would be right. By the same token, however, one could point to any number of indigenous, primitive peoples who had occupied Asia Minor, any region in fact which would later become a part of the Athenian Empire, and one would also be right to say of those peoples (or “the barbarians,” as the Greeks would eventually call them) that for them the religious response had come before the moral one. So perhaps it would be more accurate to say that any ethical component in religious thinking (if it includes any such) is a borrowing, in a manner of speaking, from purely ethical thinking (which is to say, thinking that is unadulterated and therefore unencumbered by any religion-woven context or concern).

Even this restatement, however, is subject to misinterpretations. Thus, the ancient Hebrews, for instance, would hold that the moral law had come directly from Yahweh in the form of the Ten Commandments handed on two stone tablets to Moses on Mount Sinai; and most Christians would agree. Consequently, the mainstream of the Judeo-Christian tradition has it that religious and moral thinking are, in that sense, inseparable; and if anything, that moral thinking is God-given as well. (Eventually, this gave rise to "the divine right of Kings" theory, but that's another story.)

At the risk of sounding sacrilegious here, let me state the following. It’s highly improbable that the Hebrews had no concept of right and wrong prior to Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai; such reading of Exodus and Deuteronomy represents the extreme in fundamentalism. The proper significance of the narrated events concerns the codification of the already-known moral laws and precepts and their ratification, with their acceptance by the children of Israel as the basis of the Covenant between them and their God. The point of contention is that moral or ethical thinking is embedded in our language, not in religion. (Which doesn’t preclude anyone from embracing a larger, theological view if they so choose – namely, the belief in God, the Creator, from whom everything, including language and morality, ultimately springs. But that’s a horse of another color and subject matter for another time and place.)

What is the force of moral statements or precepts, one might ask.

Consider “Stealing is wrong” (or “Adultery is wrong,” for that matter). You may trivialize the content of these pronouncements all you want, think them old-fashioned and passé, imagine extenuating circumstances under which they mightn’t necessarily apply – like in Jean Valjean’s case in Les Miz when a loaf of bread had nearly cost him his life. And you’d be all the more justified if you held “private property” (or “fidelity”) in lesser regard than your predecessors, your mother and father and the generations prior. Still, you’d feel somewhat uneasy about dismissing these injunctions offhand. There’s something compelling about them, what exactly, you don’t know, but you’re certain you can’t just disengage. The imprint is in your mind.

It’s characteristic of moral type of statements or injunctions that they tend to trump all other considerations and circumstances – pragmatic, practical, or otherwise. Thoughts of benefit or gain, of what’s cost-effective or cost-efficient, of what’s good for this party or for that, of how better we would all be if and only if… – all these fade into insignificance when measured against possible violation of a moral precept.

There’s only one circumstance I can think of when morality can be overridden. Kierkegaard provided us with a perfect example when Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice his one and only son, Isaac, presumably to test his faith. Ever since, it’s been known as "the theological suspension of the ethical." Other than that, morality rules. It’s in our language and our heart. We're moral to the core.

Which isn't to say that one and the same morality necessarily spans across all civilizations and cultures. The practice of cannibalism, for instance, may seem abhorrent to our moral sensibilities. But to the indigenous peoples who (still?) engage in the practice, the meaning of the act may well have altogether different, amoral significance – having to do with rites and ritual, with the idea of celebration, even paying homage to the conquered. The very term mores, from which the English words “morality” and “moral” derive, refers to the established practices of a society, its norms and customs.

It's arguable, therefore, that at least parts of the accepted moral code within a society – the fringe part, that is – could well be relative to the society in which it is rooted. Besides, there's no question the mores are always evolving. One should hope, of course, that someday the moral code should converge and that all our sensibilities would become one and, to the extent possible, universal. Indeed, human history lends credence to this progression towards an ever-expanding, unified consciousness (because, at bottom, we're all one and the same). But that’s in the future.

To add another complication, not all social customs or mores carry moral connotation. More precisely, morality is a subset of mores, those social norms which are held to be of central importance in view of their content and which are often formalized in some kind of moral [though not necessarily legal] code – the commandments, for instance. In “primitive” cultures, the mechanism of enforcement is by means of a taboo. (Taboos are the most extreme form of mores as they forbid a society's most outrageous practices, such as incest or murder; and ostracism is one of the most likely penalties for breaking a taboo.) In more “advanced” societies, there are laws. And for the less egregious of the offenses, moral rebuke will usually suffice.

It’s time to recap the argument. I tried to show that Locke’s view of the state of nature, though modeled after Hobbes’s, is much more intuitive than the one offered by his predecessor. And further, that when reinforced by the writings of Rousseau, especially in the area of “social contract,” it’s almost palatable. And it’s more intuitive (and palatable) by virtue of the fact that the rights Locke ascribes to the denizens of the state of nature are rooted in, and presupposed by, a certain morality held in common by all members of a pre-political society.

Which is why Locke is justified to refer to those rights as “natural rights,” as rights, in other words, with which we are endowed by virtue of our makeup – the moral beings that we are. (Forget for now Locke’s implication that we’ve been endowed so by the act or will of God: I think it’s possible to argue to the same effect regardless.) In a sense, therefore, Locke is the first in the series of “natural rights” theorists. And his mode of accounting for the eventual transition from a pre-political stage to a civil society which is fully politicized is also, for the very same fact, the most natural, intuitive, and least objectionable. Again, because morality was the cornerstone for Locke, rooted in our language and form of life; and that's regardless of culture or other affiliations, irrespective of who we are, where we come from, or what we happen to believe. And further, because the consequent transition from a moral to a political community was but a matter of taking one small step: the simple notion of consent (or contract, if you like) as regards the codification of the existing moral code into laws.

How does it relate to the point under discussion — the privatization of prisons in the present instance?

If you accept the thesis that politics (and the idea of a just state) is but an extension of the moral, then you must also conclude that certain actions and functions must remain in the sole province, and the sole prerogative, of the state. And it’s no use arguing here that privatization would be more cost-effective or cost-efficient. Whatever the case and whatever argument one could launch on behalf of privatization, pragmatic arguments or cost-benefit analyses are of no consequence here: they can’t be allowed to trump questions affecting morality.

That’s why I’m not going to examine the pros and cons of the issue or whether the reported abuses are causal or merely coincidental; I’ll leave it to lesser minds. The very fact that there exists a possibility of a collusion between private and public interests is reason enough to discredit the idea – because the suspicion of taint looms in the background. Ever!

("Abstain from every appearance of evil" may be a mistranslation, but it’s a wise say nonetheless and good adage for all times.)

Ultimately, the argument against privatization of prisons (or any other such service or function the government might wish to deputize to extraneous agencies) is not that it’s simply immoral (on the likeness with "Stealing is wrong," for instance) but a much more egregious offense – because it undermines the very moral structure and the integrity upon which a just state must rest.

About Roger Nowosielski

I'm a free lance writer. Areas of expertise: philosophy, sociology, liberal arts, and literature. An academic at a fringe, you might say, and I like it that way.

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