Wikipedia 10K Redux by Reagle from Starling archive. Bugs abound!!!

<-- Previous | Newer --> | Current: 981084637 PhillipHankins at Fri, 02 Feb 2001 03:30:37 +0000.



Suppose I argue as follows.  "The social contract theory is just incomplete.  It doesn’t answer some very crucial questions about the justification of the state.  Now, I think I have the answers to those questions.  For example, one question is: Why is an irrational, or criminal, dissenter nonetheless obligated to follow the laws of a good government?  Answer: because it’s to the benefit of everyone, including the dissenter, that everyone else follows the laws of a good government.  In other words, it’s the good consequences of giving up the liberty to initiate force to a government that makes giving up that liberty the right thing to do.

"Or consider that second question: What justifies us in breaking the social contract?  Clearly, if we’re trying to escape the rule of a vicious, immoral, totalitarian government, it is our own self-interest, and indeed the interest of everyone in society (with the possible exception of government thugs) that makes revolution morally permissible, and in some cases morally obligatory.  So even if we do have a social contract with the state, the morality of that contract itself can be defended only on consequentialist grounds: only on grounds that the contract is beneficial.  When the continuation of that contract becomes clearly harmful to us, we have the right and even the duty to break it.  And it’s the fact that a contract with a vicious government is harmful that gives us the right and duty to break the contract."

I think that, after the chapter about ethics, you can see where this is going.  Basically, it is the application of consequentialism to the problem of the justification of government.  What is the moral justification, if any, of government agents using force at all?  Ultimately, the justification is the simple fact that that has good consequences -- or at least can have good consequences.  No one would deny that there are corrupt, bad governments.  But giving good governments a monopoly on the initiation of force is morally justified, and not, ultimately, by a social contract, but instead by the clear beneficial consequences of such obediance.  So consider a definition:

A consequentialist theory of (the justification of) the state is any theory which says that the existence of some states is morally justified by the comparatively beneficial consequences of giving those states a monopoly on the initiation of force.

The consequentialist can talk about the state of nature just like the social contract theory; it’s just that the consequentialist responds to the horror story about the state of nature differently from the social contract theorist.  The social contract theorist says, for example: "In the state of nature, we would agree to give up some of our liberties to a government, and that is why the existence of government is (or can be) legitimate."  The consequentialist, by contrast, says: "In the state of nature, we would suffer all sorts of inconveniences and harms, and it would be a hard life all around; it would be far better, more beneficial to us individually and collectively, to have at least some manner of government."  So the consequentialist just bypasses this talk of social contracts; or else it gives a moral justification of social contracts, just as it gives a moral justification of government itself, on consequentialist grounds.  That is, solely based on considerations about the good and bad consequences of entering into a social contract, or establishing a government.

Now, remember that there are different varieties of consequentialism; the three varieties I mentioned are egoism, utilitarianism, and hybrid consequentialism.  Very plausible moral justifications can be given for the existence of the state regardless of which kind of consequentialism it is that you choose.  Even egoism: I can, as an egoist, very well acknowledge that it is to my own individual benefit to give up merely the liberty to initiate force, and perhaps some tax money, in exchange for protection of his rights from a government that has a monopoly on the initiation of force.  And then of course what’s good for the goose is good for the gander: it’s even easier to argue on utilitarian grounds that government is a necessary institution.  (That version could be called "social utilitarianism," which is Halverson’s term.)

Now there are some people who are thoroughly dissatisfied with this justification of the state.  As Halverson says, this just seems like a mere "practical" or "pragmatic" justification of the existence of the state, rather than a "theoretical" justification.  Consequences -- those are mere "practical" considerations.  I don’t know if you can understand that, but I can’t.  Honestly, what is the difference between a practical and a theoretical justification?  I don’t know.  I understand a related sort of distinction, when it comes to some problems in mathematics and science.  On the one hand, there is theory, the equations, and so forth; and on the other hand, there are particular problems from everyday life that the theory is used solve, and those are practical problems.  That’s a distinction that makes some sense to me.  But what is this distinction between practical and theoretical justifications?  When is a justification "practical," and when is it "theoretical"?

Or, suppose you think that the distinction between practical and theoretical justifications is clear enough, and you don’t need to explain it.  Then I have a couple of other questions for you.  First, why isn’t a consequentialist justification of the state theoretical?  Consequentialism is a theory, isn’t it?  So then why wouldn’t justification that is based on consequentialism be a theoretical justification?  Second, even if the consequentialist justification of the state is practical, is a practical justification any less successful for being practical?  Isn’t a successful practical justification way better than a shaky theoretical justification?  I mean, isn’t there a case to be made that, everything else being equal, we should prefer the practical to the theoretical?  I think there is.  But of course, to make that case, we would have to have a clearer distinction between practical and theoretical justifications; and I’m not sure that it can be made any clearer.

Consider next a second objection to the consequentialist justification of the state.  Recall what the good old anarchist says: power corrupts, and any government is bound ultimately to abuse its power.  So even on consequentialist grounds, we should not say that governments have a right to exist; the anarchist maintains that they have no right to exist at all, and they exist only because they have successfully seized power from individuals.

Here is a way for the consequentialist to reply.  Of course, some states are thoroughly corrupt and indeed they have no right to exist; they do abuse their power, infringing those essential rights that it’s supposed to be protecting, and so forth.  And it might even be true that all governments, over time, are made more and more corrupt by the power they hold; and that it is only revolution that can make a government good again.  That might be true, although I kind of doubt it.  But even if it is true, there can be periods of decades or even centuries during which a people can thrive under a good government.  The fact, if it is a fact, that that good government is going to become corrupt eventually does not mean that the people who thrive under the government today owe no allegiance to it.  Indeed, it makes sense to say that they do owe allegiance to that government, so long as the government is not thoroughly corrupt -- so long as it is not so corrupt that people would be warranted in overthrowing it.

So the anarchist argues that because some governments are bad, and because all governments tend to become bad, therefore no government is justified.  But that just doesn’t follow.  I can maintain, perfectly consistently, that some governments are bad, and all governments tend to become bad, but also that some governments are good and perfectly justified in their existence.

What I have yet to do is actually to give you a consequentialist argument that we ought to establish, and support, some governments.  All I’ve done so far is asserted, made the bald assertion without argument, that establishing at least some governments would, on the whole, create more good than bad for those under its authority.  But to be honest, I’m not, or not yet, prepared to give you an argument for that assertion.  Because in order to argue for it, I’d have start saying what I think a government should do.  And that’s the next question we’re going to consider, although we’ll consider it only very briefly.