Ethics and the State

In Genesis, 18:22-33 the Lord and Abraham have a conversation of a political nature:

So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord. Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.

One of the things which the author of this passage is relating, succinctly, is that political ethics are not exactly the same as personal ethics. The dialogue does not run down to “Suppose there is one there”, the reason for that is that in politics there it is not possible ethics are a muddier thing than in personal interactions. War, for example, can be just, justly executed, and be necessary that is “a fighting of the good fight” and at the same time innocents will as with any other war, die. It is not that the deaths of those innocent is “good”, but that in execution of one thing, which is necessary and good (the war), innocents will die, which in an of itself does not make the war “not good” or necessary.

Bertrand de Jouvenel proposes a maxim for right government which takes the appearance of a tautology. That the moral authority of a government is the authority which its people grant it. A likely corollary of this maxim is that the more use of force by a government requires to exercise its authority is negatively correlated with its actual possesion of authority. That is, a totalitarian government which uses much force, does so because of its lack of natural authority. Compare the Soviet regime and its reliance on terror and the Gulag with the even more controlled environment in a monastic society. The monastic society is more controlled. Yet there the authority, freely granted by its members, requires no force or terror to accomplish its strict regulation of society.

But this does leave the Lockean question concerning limits government. Locke’s own answer “rights” was elegantly and fatally skewered by Rousseau. Yet, like with Hobbes, initial (non-anthropological) notions of the origins and focus of government, Mr Jouvenel’s formulation lacks a natural limit to the authority of the state. There is one limit, which is that a people do not “grant” authority against their will. But that still fails to protect the minority. Christians in Nero’s Rome and Pagan alike granted to Rome that it had the authority to purge them from its society. Hitler it might be argued did not exceed the authority which the Germans granted to him, we see this most strikingly in the defense Mr Eitchmann offered in Jerusalem, see H. Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. What stands then against abuses of government? What might we better put in the path of the will of the people as granted to Caesar?

The answer, perhaps, lies in the returning to the morals of the individual vs the state. The state may in fact have certain authorities and work in a different moral sphere, but all actions done by the state are effected by men. And if a state grants you the authority to do a thing, it remains a matter of individual morality to do that thing. That is to say, it may be within the authority of the state to pin a yellow star on the coat of my neighbor, but it remains immoral for any single man to do so. So there it is, the real and fundamental control on the abuses of government is that line noted by Mr Solzhenitsyn, drawn through each human heart. Is that enough, well, given that “rights” are skewered, perhaps it would in fact be better to depend on those things which are real and which might therefore have a chance of working.

This also brings to mind, from quite some time ago, the egregiously inadequate defense Mr Dashle offered on behalf of one of his fellow Congressmen, “What he did was immoral, it wasn’t illegal.” The way I was brought up the former is more important than the latter, meaning that is no defense at all. If it’s immoral don’t do it, legal or not.

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