Brand Blanshard, Reason and Goodness, 1961.
1. Political science and political theory are very different kinds of inquiry. Political science, as we here use the term, is a study of fact. It describes the various forms of government; it explains the formation and function of the American Congress, the British Parliament, the French Chamber of Deputies; it studies the various methods of passing, amending, and enforcing laws. These are matters of fact, not of value. But political theory, or the philosophy of politics, is specially concerned with problems of value. What are the ends a government should serve? Where should the ultimate power in government reside? By what right does a government claim that we should obey its laws? What are the limitations, if any, to our right to freedom of speech and action? These are all questions of what ought to be. They are really questions of applied ethics.
Reason and Politics
Why, then, should there be a separate study of political theory? Why not absorb it into ethics and have done with it? The answer is that political and moral obligation seem to differ, and that the simple dependence of the one on the other that we have just suggested has been widely disputed. A legal or political obligation is one that is imposed by law; a moral obligation is commonly believed to hold independently of law. The two seem not only different, but at times even to conflict. Suppose a Fascist or Communist state passed a law that would send into concentration camps whole classes of citizens that one believed to be innocent. It would then be one's legal obligation to aid and abet the government in its work of running these people down and rounding them up. But many persons believe that it would be their moral obligation to break the law deliberately and help such hounded persons to escape. Again, a legal or political right seems quite a different thing from a moral right. If British women have a moral right to the suffrage on the same terms as men, they no doubt had it in Victorian times; but they did not get it as a political right till 1928. Political and moral rights thus seem to fall sharply asunder. We shall see, I think, that they are much nearer together than they seem.
2. Suppose that the question is raised of the basis of a political right or obligation. Why ought I obey a given law? It will not do to say, Because it is on the statute books; for if that were a sufficient answer, it would follow that I should obey everything on the statute books, and in extreme cases that may be immoral. The question is not one that can be answered by pointing to any law or sovereign or governmental machinery, for it is a question as to the ultimate justification of any of these things. There must be some ground for the immense (and increasing) claims the state makes on us in the way of taxes, for example, and military service; and there must be some ground for the great privileges we demand from it in return in the way of freedom, equal treatment, and protection. Can these grounds be rationally set out and defended?
I think they can, and even that it may be done in fairly small compass. In the discussion that follows, I have two purposes in mind. The first is to deal independently with the political question by showing that among the more notable answers there is only one that has any high degree of plausibility. The second is to show that this one accords so well with the account of the ethical end supplied in the last three chapters that the two accounts corroborate and fortify each other.
The fundamental question of political theory is, Why should I obey the law? An adequate answer to that question would carry with it the answer to such questions as, Why should there be a government at all? What are the grounds of its rights against me and my rights against it?, and How in principle are these rights to be limited? In the history of political thought there have been six different types of answer to the question, each advocated by philosophers of some substance.
These types of theory admit of modifications, but the choice must apparently be made from within their circuit, for it is difficult to think of any outside that circuit that has the least plausibility. Some may find in them a rough progression, fixed by the order in which they would occur to a questioning mind, and I have put in the last place the theory that seems to me best to survive such questioning. All have their difficulties, and if we are to see the strength of any of them, it must be against the background of the others. I shall sketch and comment on each of them. The theories are that our political rights and duties are based on (1) nothing, (2) force, (3) the will of God, (4) contract, (5) self-evidence, (6) a rational will.
3. (1) Some people have a short way with political rights and duties: they put them down as myths. The state, with its expensive machinery for the making and enforcement of law, is an excrescence that should be done away. This is the view of anarchism. The name has come to be associated with bombs and the black hand, though the creed does not necessarily include violence, and has been held by such gentle souls as Kropotkin and Tolstoy, as well as by avowed advocates of violence like Bakunin and Sorel. Anarchism at its best springs from a passionate belief in freedom on the one hand and human goodness on the other. It begins by asking you whether you really believe in freedom. You say ‘Yes’. It then asks you whether laws that reach down into your pocket and take your money, and that place restrictions on your travel, on the way you conduct your business, even on what you shall read and write, are not interferences with freedom. You say, ‘Yes, they are, but in a democracy these are restrictions imposed upon us by ourselves, and hence are not vicious or oppressive.’ ‘But I did not vote for them’, replies the anarchist, ‘so to tell me that they are self-imposed is false’. ‘Well’, you say, ‘they are at least imposed by the majority, and majority rule is not tyranny’, ‘But if a man's freedom is cut down’, answers the anarchist, ‘is it any the less truly cut down because this is done by a majority?’ ‘No’, you say, ‘I suppose not’. ‘Very well, by what right, then, does the majority cut it down? Can you claim that the majority is necessarily right?’ ‘No, I could not say that.’ ‘Then majority rule means the coercion of people by a power that admits it may be wrong and the people it is coercing right?’ ‘Yes, I suppose so.’ ‘Well, that’, says the anarchist; ‘whatever nice names you may call it by, is as truly tyranny as rule by Czar or dictator’. ‘What do you propose to substitute for it?’ ‘What I would substitute for it’, he replies, ‘is the most effective of all known forces in producing good citizens, and indeed the only force that is enough by itself to produce them, namely, the sense of decency and justice. If men have such a sense, there is no need of hounding them into decency by threats and the police; and if they do not have it, you will certainly never put it into them by coercion; in fact, you will prevent their acquiring it, since they will be bound to think of the state and its demands as hostile impositions. “You cannot make men moral by act of Parliament”, but if you allow their moral sense to have its way, you can dispense with Parliament entirely’.
4. It sounds fairly plausible. And yet a moment's reflection will show that it is doctrinaire idealism of a pathetically irresponsible sort. What is wrong with it? (a) For one thing, it makes the quite ungrounded assumption that if there were no law or police, everybody would be animated by the spirit of noblesse oblige, and hence no one would need protection by government. It would be pleasant to think this, but surely it would be visionary. In every large community there are persons who, by will or nature, are moral defectives, just as there are defectives in sight and hearing. The multiple murderer Lacenaire said in a published confession that he had no more feeling when he killed a man than when he killed a fly. Why should anyone suppose that Al Capone and Lucky Luciano would walk the paths of righteousness if only there were no state and no police to provoke their pure spirits to just resentment? If the old doctrine of homo homini lupus is true of only one man in a thousand, none of the others is safe; one man running amuck will terrorize a whole community. Freedom without government would in all practical probability be the Utopia of a frontier mining community before vigilante squads were organized, in which the majority who had scruples were goudged and plundered by the minority who did not.
(b) But it is not merely to keep thugs in order that government is necessary; it is also to keep the rest of us in order. We saw long ago in considering St Francis that even universal love would not by itself provide a solution of the problems of actual life. My neighbour and I may have all respect and the best of intentions toward each other and still may differ as to where our properties join, whether I shall have the privilege of turning my house into a crematorium, and whether he shall be permitted to use his for a glue factory. There are endless communal conflicts that cannot be settled by good will, because within the limits of good will there remain very deep differences in interest and belief, even as to what it is that good will requires, and there must be some impartial agency to give judgment and, if need be, to enforce that judgment.
(c) There is certainly very little chance of convincing most men by argument that society would be better ungoverned, so it is natural enough that anarchists should have turned so commonly to violence; that is virtually their only hope. But it is a vain hope, because self-contradictory. If the minority did succeed in overthrowing the government and imposing its will by force, that would not be a situation in which the monster, government, had been finally slain; it would be in effect the setting up of another government, more nakedly coercive than before. It might be said that violence, though a necessary means, could be dispensed with, once the end of overthrow had been achieved. But there is plenty of evidence in history, including very painful recent evidence, that that is not the way violence works. Successful resort to it breeds reliance on it; reliance on it breeds resistance to it; and before long the supporters of what they thought a programme for freeing the people find themselves bound more firmly by force than ever.
5. (2) The next step in political theory is a swing to the opposite extreme from anarchism. Once it becomes plain that government is necessary, and a government ready to employ force, it may seem that the exercise of force is the essential thing about it and that the possession of power is all the justification it needs. Carlyle somewhere says that the ultimate question between two men is ‘Can I kill thee?’ or ‘Can'st thou kill me?’ and many persons have seemed to see a great light when it occurred to them that human morals were artificial conventions, and that when the frippery was torn off, what one had left was the bare biological fact that one man was a better man than another in the sense that he was a more viable biological specimen. That bull in a herd is the leader which can gore the others into submission; that man is the natural leader who by his strength and cunning can compel others to do his will. He may seek to justify himself by their need of him, and they may agree; but that is a rationalization. What really justifies the dominance of man over men, class over class, governors over governed, is the power to make the dominance good; there is no ulterior or rational morality by which an Attila or a Napoleon can be condemned if he passes the supreme test of success. Hitler lost, so he was wrong; if he had won, would he not have been a hero?
This doctrine was defended by Thrasymachus in the Republic, and by Machiavelli in The Prince; in essentials it was accepted by Hobbes in the Leviathan, by Mandeville in the Fable of the Bees, by Treitschke in his Politics, by Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil, by Santayana in Dominations and Powers, and by the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes in a curious panegyric of ‘natural law’.1[Harvard Law Review, Vol.32, pp. 40-44.] It was practised by the Borgia whom Machiavelli so much admired, and has been adopted by a host of predatory seekers after power. When one of these, of unhappy memory, wanted to send an appropriate birthday present from Berchtesgaden to Rome, he sent a magnificently bound set of Nietzsche's Werke. No genuine superman like either of this precious pair will allow his will to be blocked by what is called reason and justice. L'état c'est moi; power cannot corrupt, because what it does is right by definition; states have no morals. It would be an error in fact and in tactics to suppose that the history of this ancient doctrine has now come to an end. It needs to be examined continually anew. What is wrong with it?
6. (a) In the first place it can hardly mean what it says. If one man bullies another, or one state subdues another, and we ask how either would justify such behaviour, it hardly makes sense to reply that this was an exercise of force and therefore good as such. If men use force on others, it is because they have an end to be gained by it; they want to get what someone else has, or to avenge some fancied wrong, or to achieve the feeling of an enlarged ego. The mere exercise of force is never actually an end in itself, and when anyone tries to justify such exercise by making it out to be a great good, it is generally clear that he is confusing an end with a means. Take away the goods that the use of force was expected to bring, and the force itself has little or no attraction.
(b) The theory would justify actions, causes, and governments, that in all our ordinary thinking are held to be incompatible with each other. If Islam succeeded in imposing itself at the expense of Christianity in the Middle East, Islam was right and Christianity wrong; if, farther west, these results were reversed, Christianity was right and Islam wrong. Communism is right because it is in the saddle -- in Russia and China; but a free economy is right because it too is dominant -- in the Americas. It may be replied that the real test is applied when the two powers come directly into conflict with each other. Such conflicts have often resulted in the past in a seesaw movement, in which dominance passed from one side to the other and back again. Are we to say that the same cause is alternately right and wrong as its fortunes wax and wane? It is to be doubted whether anyone really thinks this way.
(c) If a programme were justified by its success in imposing itself, the question whether any cause espoused in human history deserved to succeed would be a meaningless one. If we know that it did succeed, the question of its merit is already answered; if it did not, there would equally be no point in asking about its desert, for to say that it did not succeed is all we could mean by saying that it ought not to have succeeded. But this is simply to refuse to admit a distinction that everyone sees and makes unless arguing for a pre-conceived theory. It is very far from meaningless to ask whether if Hitler had succeeded in imposing himself he would have been right; it was a question actually asked by millions and actually answered by them, at a time when he seemed irresistible, in a way that would have had no sense if might meant right.
(d) To say that might makes right is to commit oneself to the further view that whatever is, is right. Whatever actually happens, whether a tidal wave or a human volition, happens because an event has power to exclude alternative events; it proves its power, and therefore its rightness by the fact that it happens at all. Die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht. By such reasoning one could justify every crime in the statute books, and make a successful thug or border terrorist into a better man than the martyrs, who proved their wrongness by getting destroyed. People can talk this way, but one can hardly suppose that they believe what they say, or that they make any attempt to practise it. When they are browbeaten or robbed themselves, they do not as a rule acclaim their attacker as right; they will probably be heard protesting as loudly as anyone else. The more candid and clearheaded of them usually see where the doctrine is taking them and drop it before they reach overt absurdity. When Huxley was asked to give the Romanes lecture on ‘Evolution and Ethics’, he was expected to take the line that whatever proved itself by its power of survival was ethically best. He fluttered the Oxonian dovecots by advocating the opposite proposition. ‘The practice of that which is ethically best -- what we call goodness or virtue -- involves a course of conduct which, in all respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence. In place of ruthless self-assertion it demands self-restraint; in place of thrusting aside, or treading down, all competitors, it requires that the individual shall not merely respect, but shall help his fellows; its influence is directed, not so much to the survival of the fittest, as to the fitting of as many as possible to survive.’ If nature dictated power politics, what that showed was not that power politics were legitimate but that the laws of biology could not settle ethical questions.
(e) To reduce right to might is not so much to adopt a new kind of ethics as to do away with ethics. If any sort of policy that a man or a state can impose by force is right, then the distinctively moral meaning of the term has vanished, and one is using it in a quite new sense, as if one said, ‘by the word “sour” I will from now on mean a shade of red’. ‘“Might makes right” means, in plain English, that there is no right at all… But by saying “might makes right”, rather than “right is a fiction”, a quality is imported from a rival system which gives the doctrine a moral aroma… the reader who understands will not be deceived by this delicate odour of sanctity. He will recognize it as the perfume of a floral offering placed upon the bier of deceased morality in memory of long association.’2 [Max Otto, Things and Ideals, 85-86.]
7. (3) Governments are not to be justified, then, by their power. They may use power wrongly, and therefore power is not sufficient reason for its own use; there must be some further authority by which its use it to be justified. Very well, what authority? The next step in many minds was to say divine authority. If governors did not rule by right of any position granted them by nature, it was presumably by a right coming from beyond nature and sanctioned by God himself. This view is not popular today, but it has had a vast vogue in the past. It was held by countless able mediaeval thinkers, was accepted and put into practice by the Geneva of John Calvin and the Boston of the Puritans, and is still orthodox theory in Spain and some of the states of South America. The strength of its appeal is not difficult to understand.
Suppose one starts, as early Christians did, with the view that in the recorded words of Christ one has unerring truth and guidance. What was his attitude toward politics? He said very little about it. We were to render unto Caesar the things that were Caesar's, but Caesar's, after all, was not the important kingdom, but another, the Kingdom of God, which was not of this world, and was soon to supplant all earthly kingdoms. His attitude was interpreted by St Paul as one of passive obedience to the temporal authorities. ‘Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God.’3 [Romans, XIII, 1-7.] The same teaching was echoed by Peter, or the writer of the first epistle bearing his name: ‘Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake; whether it be to the king, as supreme; or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evil-doers and for the praise of them that do well.’4 [I Peter, II, 13-17.]
But the years and centuries wore on, and the expected spiritual kingdom deferred its coming till the hope of it dimmed. By the time of Augustine in the fourth century, the Church itself had become a power that rivalled the empire. What was more, the two powers impinged upon each other at so many points that passive obedience in the expectation of an early release was no longer practical politics. And when there was conflict, which was to have precedence? The answer was given in a letter apparently written by Pope Gelasius to the Roman emperor in 494: ‘There are two systems under which chiefly this world is governed, the sacred authority of the priests and the royal power. Of these the greater weight is with the priests in so far as they will answer to the Lord even for kings in the last judgment.’5 [Quoted in Dunning, Political Theories, Ancient and Mediaeval, 166.] When a difference of opinion arose between St Ambrose and an Arian rival for his see, and the Emperor Valentinian ordered that the matter be submitted to an imperial court, Ambrose answered that this was a matter of faith, and that ‘in a matter of faith, bishops are wont to judge emperors, not emperors bishops.’ The glory of princes was to the glory of bishops as the brightness of lead to the brightness of gold.6 [Ibid., 170] Not only questions of faith must be decided by the ecclesiastical hierarchy, but also the crucial issue what was a question of faith. By the time we reach Gregory VII in the eleventh century, we find the Pope maintaining that he is the ultimate court of appeal on all questions, civil or religious. ‘It is for him to judge and punish Emperors and Kings, to receive complaints against them, to shield the nations from their tyranny, to depose, rulers who are neglectful of their duties, and to discharge their subjects from the oath of fealty.’7 [Gierke, Political Theories of the Middle Age (tr. Maitland), 15. Indeed Gregory went even further: 'Nescitis quia angelos iudicabimus? quanto magis saecularia!'] After all, did not Scripture set the prophets above the kings, and record direct rebukes and castigations meted out by Samuel to Saul, and Nathan to David?
But then a curious thing happened. The very argument used by the Church was turned against it. As the states of modern Europe began to develop and show a not unnatural restiveness under this doctrine, their scholars examined very carefully the ground of the claim to papal authority. This claim was supported from Scripture. The nationalist scholars found that they too could quote Scripture for their purpose, and show without much difficulty that heads of secular governments could also claim a divine right to obedience. ‘The powers that be’, said St Paul roundly, ‘are ordained of God.’ What could be plainer? The arguments for the independent authority of governors was not, indeed, in all states equally necessary. In states where the national church was subordinate to the state and the head of the state a loyal member of that church, as in mediaeval and modern Spain, the problem was not felt so acutely. It was otherwise in Protestant states. In England, Sir Robert Filmer felt it necessary to offer a separate proof that the king derived his right not from the church, but straight from Deity, as attested by Holy Writ.
8. One could hardly find a better instance than this controversy of how philosophic fashion changes. In democratic countries there are few persons left who would take this line of argument seriously. Critics would say that it not only proceeded from a questionable assumption but drew from that assumption a conclusion that was also questionable. oly
(a) The assumption has to do with the kind of authority to be ascribed to the Bible. To take this, as the Puritans did, and as Roman Catholics still do, as inspired throughout8 [f. 'Providentissimus Deus' of Leo XIII: 'All the books which the Church receives as sacred and canonical are written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost . . .'], is an impossible position for anyone who considers objectively the process by which the canon of scripture came to be adopted, or for anyone who has looked into the way primitive history and literature is written. The kind of argument, often dialectically acute, by which Roman Catholic apologists or Protestant ‘fundamentalists’ like Gresham Machen attempt to prove the plenary inspiration of the Bible, seems today singularly inconclusive because, as our knowledge of comparative religion, of the influence of will and feeling on belief, and of the processes generally of the pre-scientific mind has advanced, the notion that these writings can only be accounted for by an irruption from without the natural order has become less and less plausible.
(b) But even if the supernatural origin of these writings is accepted without question, what political inference are we to draw? The doctrine that prophets and priests outrank temporal rulers and may denounce them is clearly implied in some parts of the Bible; the doctrine that they should conform to the commands of such rulers is expressly taught in other parts; but these doctrines can hardly both be true. Roman Catholics have continued to cling to the doctrine that all parts of scripture are inspired, and have sought to save the consistency of the text by a system of exegesis so powerful that it can twist the straightest meanings into astonishingly convenient forms. Liberal Protestant thinkers, while disdaining such performances, have recognized that to insist on the revealed truth of both sides of a contradiction is not to exalt revelation, but to discredit it, and hence have gradually narrowed the scriptural channel through which it is conceived to have come. Having declined to accept the Old Testament books, with their stories of Samuel and Nathan, as revealed political theory, they went on to express doubts of the Pauline epistles, with their acquiescence in slavery.9 [The use made of the Bible in the defense of slavery is a warning that should not be forgotten. Cf. the following from Alexander H. Stephens, Vive-President of the Confederacy: 'To maintain that slavery is in itself sinful, in the face of all that is said and written in the Bible upon the subject, with so man sanctions of the relation by the Deity imself, does seem to me to be little short of blasphemous! It is a direct imputation upon the wisdom and justice, as well as the declared ordinances of God . . ..' Quoted in V. L. Parrington, Main Current in American Thought, 92.] There has been a tendency to narrow the channel of revelation still further to the authentic teaching of Christ. But this too has been self-defeating. For that authentic teaching contains, as we have seen, so little of definite bearing on political right or duty that the theory of government based on it can be hardly more than a set of cloud-castles.
(c) But the ultimate reason why politics cannot be based upon theology is not the difficulty of getting a definite or coherent teaching from scripture, serious as that is. It is rather that the notion of two standards of truth and right, one natural, the other supernatural, is not in the end intelligible. If there are these two standards, they may in theory clash; indeed there have been many cases in which revelation seemed to say one thing about people's rights or duties and natural reason something very different. Mediaeval judges read the order in Exodus that witches should not be allowed to live and, in spite of their human compunctions and sympathies, proceeded to burn thousands of miserable lonely old women; the Puritans read the order in I Samuel to destroy the Amalekites with all their wives and children, and thinking the American Indians limbs of Satan like the Amalekites, slaughtered them wholesale; Kierkegaard read the order to Abraham to drive a sword into the heart of his son, and indulged in a rhapsody on the duty of murder if divinely directed. What should be done in cases where natural and allegedly supernatural ethics thus come into conflict? There are three possibilities. The two imperatives may be taken as co-ordinate. But that means that they cancel each other out, and we are left without moral direction. Or the revealed imperative may be given the primacy, as it actually was in the cases just mentioned. That has meant in numberless cases a large correction and purification of ordinary insight. It has required in others that the plain dictates of reason and kindliness should be over-ridden, and hence it has in fact implied much more. It has suggested that since in such cases the clear dictates of reason and kindliness are mistaken, they may be so everywhere; the insights of our natural faculties are not to be relied on. But then morality generally is undermined, and such ‘saints’ as Kierkegaard can invoke divine sanction for the conduct of a cad. The third possibility is to recognize as the ultimate authority our own natural faculties in their self-critical exercise, which in the end means our reason. One may take the judgment of reason either as an independent verdict, or as the criterion of what revelation really is; these amount to the same thing, for in either case, the ultimate appeal is to rational insight. In my own estimation, this is the only course that will not involve our natural conscience and reason in hopeless discredit, and when that happens, we have lost our moorings utterly. A politics based on theology is either implicitly rationalist or else it is self-stultifying.
9. (4) With the failure to find a supernatural base for their political rights and duties, men began again to search for it on the human scene. Was there not some naturalistic way of accounting for how governments and laws and the mass of rights and obligations that go with them had come into existence? Unfortunately history fails us here. At the beginning of human records, men are already organized in communities with kings or chiefs. But there must have been some earlier state of things from which this organization emerged, now recoverable perhaps only by imagination and conjecture. A number of ingenious thinkers -- Grotius, Hooker, Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau -- tried to reconstruct this ‘state of nature’ and the probable route of escape from it. The pictures they formed of it varied greatly. Hobbes thought it must have been very like the state of things among the Indians of America, who were reported to be hunting each other's scalps in a belium omnium contra omnes. Rousseau, who thought of civilized society as far gone in degeneracy, was inclined to picture the state of nature in the opposite way, as a sort of elysium where ‘noble savages’ lived in brotherly harmony. But though these writers could not agree on what the primitive state was like and had no means of settling their differences, they were in broad agreement on how men escaped from this state into orderly governed society.
They held that it was through an agreement or a contract. Hobbes’ account of the matter was admirably clear. Suppose that no sort of government exists -- no laws, no police, no ruler -- and that there is no society either except a set of individuals or families scattered about in the primitive woods. Food is scarce; possessions are few; there is no protection for anybody against the envy and thievery of others; and since the strongest men can easily be done to death by the weakest if taken unawares, everybody is insecure. In a famous sentence Hobbes summed up the life in such a society as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. The only way, he thought, in which government could have emerged from such anarchy was through the coming together of these human atoms and their reaching an understanding with each other. This would be to the manifest interest of all. If two of us are neighbours uncertain of each other's intentions, each of us will better his lot by getting the other to agree not to attack him on condition that the other foregoes the like privilege against him. Still, something more is necessary. For how does either know that the other will keep his promise? Hobbes thought that in a society, or rather non-society, in which all men were self-seeking, there was only one way of assuring that they would keep a covenant. That was to set up through the covenant itself a means of enforcing it, that is, an umpire and ruler whose word all parties would agree to accept as final and whose power would be absolute. No doubt at first this umpire was some particularly strong or able man. But in time he had to have helpers in the way of advisers, judges, captains, and tax-collectors; in short, he became a government. We must not let this increasing complexity deceive us, however, as to the simple facts about the origin and nature of government. Government is an authority set up by agreement among men who are insecure and who jointly surrender their rights to this authority for the sake of becoming secure. Hence, if I now have duties to the government or rights as against other men, it is in virtue of an implicit compact between us that we will obey the rules laid down by this umpire. With all the anthropological knowledge that has accumulated since Hobbes’ time at our disposal, it is easy to make game of this contract theory. Men have never at any time lived like scattered atoms in the woods; they have lived in families or groups of families from the beginning; of that we can now be virtually certain. There is no reason to think that they were ever so exclusively selfish as Hobbes supposed; there is no ground, indeed, for believing that the social compact was an historical occurrence at all. But then it is doubtful whether any of the political thinkers who talked about the social compact would have insisted on its having actually occurred, or have supposed their theory invalidated if this were disproved. It is perfectly possible, they would have said, to present a true theory of the state by means of a useful myth. If we have obligations to the government, if it has rights to put its long fingers down into our pockets and even to tell us how we shall or shall not behave, if we all claim rights against other persons to be let alone, and acknowledge duties to leave them alone, is it not really because of a tacit agreement among us, none the less binding because we have never sat down at a table and signed it, that for the sake of our common advantage we will recognize the state as authoritative and give obedience to its laws?
10. With this view, we have taken a long step beyond any of the theories so far considered. Unlike anarchism and power politics, it recognizes that there are such things as political duties; unlike theological politics, it looks for the grounds of those duties where there is a reasonable hope of finding them, in men's actual mind and history. Will it serve? Consider for a moment what it tries to explain. It tries to explain not merely how the state came into existence, but also how there came about the rights and duties toward each other possessed by citizens of the state. Before the contract was made there was no duty of keeping engagements, no duty of respecting others’ lives and property, no right on my part to be left alone or on others’ part that I should leave them alone. Once I have agreed with others to recognize these rights and duties, they are obligatory, but not before. They are instituted by the contract and valid only because of it. Now there is one great obvious fatal defect in this theory. It is that the apparently neat explanation is a complete begging of the question. I make a contract to the effect that in future I shall keep all contracts, including this one. Now before I make this contract, one or other of two things must hold: either I have an obligation to keep contracts or I have not. If I have not, then the contract that I should keep all future contracts is obviously without force, and hence they too will be without force. Clearly if I have no obligation in the first place to keep contracts, it is idle to suppose I can bring the obligation into existence by a contract, for I have just said that no such contract will place me under any sort of obligation. Suppose, then, that I do have an initial obligation to keep contracts. In that case, the very thing that the contract was invoked to explain is admitted to be present without it, and the theory becomes superfluous. So of all the other rights and obligations supposed to be explained by the contract. If, in the state of nature, I have the duty of helping a man in distress, of keeping a promise to go hunting with him, and of not pilfering his bow and arrow, then a contract is needless to explain such duties. On the other hand, if duty must wait for existence till a contract is made, I shall never acquire any duties at all.
11. (5) Rights and duties, then, have roots that run into a far deeper soil than can be provided by any contract, historical or implicit. They precede government and organized society; they do not spring from conventions or engagements; they are what makes these possible. They belong to us not as citizens but as men. It is absurd to suppose that if I meet a Frenchman in the tropics where there is no government, and reflect that we have never made a convenant to recognize each other's rights, I am therefore at liberty to cheat and rob him. No one but a barbarian would talk this way about individuals, yet there have been men of apparent sense and soberness who were ready to talk this pernicious nonsense about nations. They have held that in the absence of international government, no obligation and nothing that can be called a right is being broken by a war of conquest and annexation, at any rate if it is successful. This is Machiavelli without Machiavelli's excuse, and I have said all I propose to say about it. Our question is: if civilized man repudiates this way of talking and insists that men have rights and duties not granted by any government or engagement, what is their basis? Here there enters the doctrine that underlay two of the three great modern revolutions, the American and the French, namely the doctrine of natural rights. On June 12, 1776, the representatives of the colony of Virginia adopted a declaration to the effect that ‘all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot by any compact deprive or divest their posterity’; and when the thirteen states, less than a month later, adopted the Declaration of Independence, they did so in similar language: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ In 1789 the French National Assembly adopted the following as articles I and II of the declaration of the rights of man: ‘I. Men are born, and always continue, free and equal in respect to their rights.… II. The end of all political associations is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man.…’10 [These documents are given in the appendices to D. G. Ritchie's Natural Rights.]
One can see, as one looks back, that this doctrine was more than a passing outbreak of eighteenth-century rationalism, and that it was not merely extemporized for the occasion. The seeds of the doctrine were present in the Stoic teaching that all men partook of a common reason, in the Romans’ practice of falling back on a natural equity transcending national boundaries when they had to deal with subjects of other states, in the Christian idea of the infinite value of each soul in the sight of God, and in Kant's teaching that every man should be treated as an end in himself. What exactly it was about a man that gave him these natural rights was not as a rule made clear. The doctrine was commonly used as a protest by those who felt they were being kept down; there was a strong sense that to use a man as a stick or stone or beast of burden was to do violence to his nature, and since what distinguished him most conspicuously from these other things was his reason, the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were ascribed to all rational men as such. Argument for this view was hardly thought necessary. ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident’, began the American founding fathers. Anyone who saw what a man was -- a rational creature, capable of looking before and after, and choosing his own ends -- could see that to take from such a creature his life, his freedom, or the work of his hands, was to act a lie; it was to treat him as if he were what he manifestly was not. And since he held these rights in virtue of his nature, they could never be taken away; they were ‘unalienable’ or ‘imprescriptible’.
12. I think that here we are nearing the truth. That we do have natural rights that rest on no government and no convention, and that these rights are to be made out by reason, will not here be denied. But has this doctrine hit on the true ground for them? We can see clearly, I think, that it has not. When we say that something has a certain property in virtue of being what it is, that from the nature of a circle, for example, it follows self-evidently that it has the shortest perimeter of any figure of equal area, we see that wherever the conditioning nature is present, the property must be present too. So also of rights. If they belong to the nature of man as rational, then rational men must possess them everywhere and always, as the revolutionists saw. But does it really make sense to say this? Take the right to life itself. Suppose a man wantonly attacks you in one of those desperate situations in which it is your life or his. If you take his life as the only possible means of saving your own, have you violated his ‘imprescriptible’ right to life? A Bluebeard commits a series of deliberate murders, is apprehended, and is judicially sentenced to the extreme penalty; is his right to life ‘unalienable’, so that the community is itself committing murder if it carries out the sentence? One's country, or perhaps the United Nations, is the victim of unprovoked aggression; are those who take up arms in defence of it, and do what soldiers in combat are called upon to do, violating a right to life on the part of their attackers which no circumstances can remove? If the right is possessed by everyone simply in virtue of their human nature, we should have to say Yes. But most of the defenders of natural rights would probably themselves say No in all these cases. They do not and cannot square their practice or actual judgment with the requirements of their theory.
If the right to life itself turns out to be so exceptionable, one would expect the other rights to be so even more obviously; and this indeed is what we find. The American fathers named next after the right to life the right to liberty. Do we have any such right? Undoubtedly we do. But that the natural rights theory has failed to give the true account may be seen by considering that if the possession of a rational nature is all that is necessary to confer the right, then I am at liberty to do and speak what I personally think best, no matter what the circumstances, and this consequence is absurd. If the country is at war, and I think it best, during an air-raid, to leave my shades up and my lights on, I shall have to hold that it is an invasion of my inviolable freedom of action to make me put the shades down; if my house overlooks the harbour and I prefer to talk freely of the ships that move in and out, it is again a gross invasion of my freedom of speech to hush me up. If there are no circumstances that can ‘alienate’ my right to act and speak as I choose, then no law of any kind is justifiable, for it is the aim of law to set limits to individual freedom in the general interest. The ‘unalienable’ right to freedom must be set down as an illusion.
A person may possess a rational nature, then, without possessing the rights that this nature is supposed to guarantee. The converse also holds; he may have the rights without the nature on which they are supposed to depend, and hence they cannot really depend on it. When a man's rational faculties have failed, has he lost all the rights he formerly had to fairness and kindness of treatment? And what about the claims of dumb animals? They are a test case here. One's pet dog has no duties, for he is incapable of comparing better and worse and choosing the better; if he misbehaves, he is a nuisance, but it would be absurd to call him immoral. But has he no rights? Has he not the right, for example, to be treated without the infliction of needless pain? I think it clear that he has. But if he has, then the right to humane treatment does not follow from the possession of a rational nature only, for he has no rational nature. A theory that would base rights on the rationality of their subjects would justify a treatment of animals that is quite out of consonance with the thought and practice of humane men.
13. (6) Natural rights, then, break down. But with this, we come in full view of the position that, for us, is the end of the line. The rights to life and liberty do not depend on conventions because they exist before conventions and independently of them. They do not depend on the rational nature of their subjects (though duties do), for that nature may exist without them, and they without it. What is it, then, that is always present when rights are present, absent when they are absent, and variable as they vary? The answer is implicit in our criticism of all the previous positions. There is one circumstance that can over-ride any contrary claim, namely the general good. A man forfeits his right to life itself if he becomes sufficiently dangerous to the community; he forfeits his right to freedom if the exercise of that freedom would jeopardize the community. Now the suggestion is irresistible that if that which alone can modify or suspend a right is its relation to the general good, this must be what validates it also. If a man claims the right to do something that is clearly harmful to the community, we point to this consequence as full justification for refusing it to him. On the other hand, if he can show that what he is doing is of net value to those affected by it, we consider that he has made out his case and that to prevent his doing it would be an unjust restriction. Thus the variable element on which the justification of a right depends is prospective contributoriness to general good. The force of this conclusion is greatly strengthened when we note the connection of rights with duties. A right is the obverse side of a duty, a duty looked at from the other end. To say that I have a right to walk the streets unmolested is to say that it is your duty not to molest me. Now we have seen, at the cost of some effort, that the reason why an act is a duty is precisely that it promises the greatest good. If this is true of duties, and rights are duties, it must be true of rights as well.
14. In the end, then, every political right must be defended on moral grounds. But we cannot leave the matter there. For moral and political rights are not simply identical; there are many moral rights that no one would call political, for example, the right to be spoken to courteously and the right of parents to the consideration of their children. Political rights are rights that are, or appropriately may be, guaranteed by government, that is, by enforced law. Now it is clear that there are ‘rights’ thus enforced by law for which many who must heed them can find no moral justification at all. But now for the real difficulty. The state claims the right, for example, and enforces it by heavy penalties, to reach down into the pockets of its citizens and take a large part of their income for its own purposes. Many of these citizens are convinced not only that the particular purposes for which the state will use this money are bad, but also that an income tax as such is a policy opposed to the general good. To tell these people that what they regard as a wicked tax imposed for wicked purposes is a moral right, on all fours with the right to truthful speech and civil treatment, is not unlikely to provoke jeers. Clearly there is a missing link in the argument. These people are told that it is a moral obligation to do what produces the greatest good. They believe that a law passed by their government is inimical to the public good, and are told that they should obey it nevertheless. That may be a political obligation, but to call it a moral obligation looks very much like self-contradiction. How is one to make out that it is their moral duty to obey a law that they disapprove? This is probably the most searching question in political theory.
15. I believe that the true answer to this question has been given by philosophers over and over again, and that it is not the exclusive property of any school. But it has had a history so unfortunate as to rob it of much of its persuasiveness. It was suggested by Rousseau, but, as presented by him, was so embedded in mythology and bad argument that one can extract it only with difficulty from his incoherent text. It was stated again by Hegel, but was made an integral part of a system of logic and metaphysics which most philosophers have found it impossible to accept; besides, it came to be associated, partly by his own fault and partly not, with Prussian nationalism, which after precipitating two wars, earned general detestation. The doctrine was taken over from Hegel by the British idealists and given a more judicious statement by T. H. Green, whose Principles of Political Obligation remains, I think, the weightiest work in English on political theory. It was presented again by Bosanquet in The Philosophical Theory of the State, but with needless obscurity and with certain expressions that sounded suspiciously like endorsements of absolutism and nationalism. These were seized upon by L. T. Hobhouse in his Metaphysical Theory of the State and made the focal points of the most thorough-going attack that has been made on the theory.
Rousseau called his version a theory of the ‘general will’; Hegel and Bosanquet talked, instead, of the ‘real will’; if the version about to be presented is to have a name, I should prefer the ‘rational will’. It may be of interest to say that my own conviction of the truth of the theory came through reading Hobhouse's attack on it. It had been so long out of favour and was mentioned with such general deprecation that, having made no careful study of it, I had come to think of it as pretty certainly indefensible. Its association with the name of Hegel, and the many attempts to link Hegelianism with Fascism did not help, though I follow Principal Knox in holding that the occasional outbursts of Prussianism in Hegel are excrescences on his system, and not organic to it. When I approached the doctrine of the real will, I began by reading the critics of the theory, expecting at least to find some amusement in watching the work of demolition, and thinking I should be more likely to find intelligibility among the critics than among the exponents. The first two or three broadsides I reviewed left me in mild surprise, for the target was still visibly standing when the roar had subsided and the smoke cleared away. But these were guns of low calibre. So I turned to Hobhouse, who had, I understood, destroyed the theory utterly; and as I warmly admire his work, I sat down to him expectantly. But as the arguments in the heralded parade limped slowly past, a conviction gradually formed itself in my mind. If this was really the best that could be said against the theory of the real will, I had been deceived about it. Wave after wave of argument broke against it only to leave it, so far as I could see, standing aggressively intact. By the time I was half way through the book, I had begun to think the case for it impregnable; at the end, my conversion was complete. I thought then, and have never wavered in thinking since, that this doctrine, if one penetrates through the sorry form in which it has so often been expressed, and gets rid of associations that cling to it like barnacles, offers the firmest available core for political theory.
16. The doctrine is quite simple. It is that men have a common moral end which is the object of their rational will, that the state is a contrivance that they have worked out to help them realize that end, and that its authority over them rests on its being necessary for that end. If it is politically obligatory at times to obey a law that one regards as bad, that is because the state could not be run at all if the citizens could pick and choose which laws they would obey. Ultimately, therefore, political obligation, even that of obeying a morally bad law, is a moral obligation; and when, as occasionally happens, it becomes a duty to disobey, the ground is still the same. I believe that this simple doctrine is what all the philosophers who have defended a ‘real’ or ‘general’ will, from Rousseau to Bosanquet and even Hobhouse himself, have in fact been arguing for. I shall not try to prove this by historical inquiry, for my prime concern is not whether the doctrine I seem to find in them is actually theirs, but whether it is true. The doctrine that does seem to me true may be expanded and made more explicit in four propositions: First, we can distinguish within our own minds between the end of our actual or immediate will, and the end of our rational will, which is what on reflection would commend itself as the greatest good. Secondly, this rational end is the same for all men. Thirdly, this end, because a common end, is the basis of our rights against each other. Fourthly, the justification of the state, and its true office, lie in furthering the realization of this end. Let us try to get these points clear.
17. (1) It is puzzling at first to hear of a real or rational will which can be set over against our actual will. Is not our actual will our only will, and whatever goes beyond this, myth? On the contrary, it is easy to see that what we have here is a distinction of the first importance.
A man goes to a dealer and buys a motor-car. There is no dispute about his actual will; it is simply to possess the car; that is what he immediately and unmistakably wants. Is there any sense in saying that he has a further and rational will that goes beyond this and might even veto it? Yes, undoubtedly; in fact, unless we concede such a will we shall never understand what really moves him. If possessing the car were an ultimate end, the question ‘Why buy it?’ would be meaningless. But the buyer would be the first to insist that it was anything but meaningless, and if he were like other eager buyers he would readily explain that the car was a means to all sorts of advantages, personal, professional, and social, and these, perhaps, means to still further advantages to a widening circle of beneficiaries. In short, he wills to buy the car, but he wills it subject to tacit conditions as to how it will contribute to an end beyond itself. The evidence that these conditions exist lies in what would dissuade him from the purchase. Convince him that through buying the car he will not advance his business, that his son and daughter being what they are, it will probably involve them in accidents, and that if he carries the purchase through, he cannot move into the larger house that is the family's most pressing need, and he will not improbably cut the whole business short. If his actual will were self-contained, if it were the end of the line rather than a link in a chain whose point of attachment lies far beyond it, all this would be irrelevant. It is only because his explicit will is not exhaustive, because its object is a means to a further end, or a piece in a larger picture which is more fervently wanted than itself, that his immediate will can admit such correction. He may hardly have known that he wanted these ulterior things; at the moment of buying he was probably not thinking of them; but if, the instant he sees how his will of the moment bears on them, he sets that will aside, is it not natural to say that in contrast to the objects of his actual will, they are the objects of his real or rational will?
This line of reasoning, we may be told, leads to an unplausible consequence. For if his present will is thus open to correction by ulterior considerations of advantage to himself and his family, these considerations themselves will in turn be open to correction by still further considerations, for example, his duty to his profession, his community, and his country. ‘What you are saying, then, is that the object of a man's real or rational will is that which an ideally competent reflection would show to be the greatest good attainable in the circumstances. No doubt with ideal powers this is what he ought to will. But you are saying that he does in fact will what he ideally ought to will, and that is absurd.’
I do not think it is. To be sure, one may easily enough prove it absurd if one takes the two wills on the same level of exphcitness. If to will something must mean to will it immediately and with full awareness, then the suggestion that we always will what it would be best to will is absurd. Very well then; out with the word ‘will’; we are not insisting on words; we are insisting on what we take to be a fact, and one of the prime facts of the moral life. Writers describe it variously. The theologian would say that at our best we remain miserable sinners; the moralist that we never do our whole duty; the poet that ‘what I sought to be, and was not, comforts me’. However capricious or selfish or brutal a man may be in actual behaviour, if we are right in calling him a moral being at all, what he is trying to be and do is never exhausted in what he is. Whenever he makes a judgment of better or worse, whenever he does anything because he thinks he ought to do it, even when he thinks this without doing it, he is recognizing a claim as prior to the wants of the moment and conceding it the right to overrule them. A man may flout this claim to any extent in practice, and protest that he neither recognizes it nor tries to fulfil it. Is his protest to be accepted? Surely not. We could point, if we knew him well enough, to a thousand actions that belie his own report. He continually defers present good to a later and greater good, corrects impulsive choices by reflection, recognizes the force of another's claim when at the moment he would prefer not to. In doing so, he concedes the claim of a rational good upon him, a claim which, if he is consistent, he must admit to have overwhelming force in confirmation or in veto of the will of the moment. We agree that he does know in detail the object of this larger will. We agree that it is not a will at all in the simple straightforward sense in which the will of the moment is such. But it remains a will in the extremely important sense of an ideal to which the man by implication commits himself every day of his life and whose claims he cannot repudiate without turning his back upon himself.
If this is true, the distinction must be accepted between a man's actual will and his ulterior will, his real or rational will. That was our first point. The others may be dealt with more briefly.
18. (2) The second was that the end or object of the rational will is the same in everyone. This looks questionable. But the fact is that we could not even argue with each other with any point unless it were true. Consider the matter first on the side of theory. When we argue, we both assume that there is a truth to be found, that its discovery is our common end, and that there is a standard way of gaining it. If we differ as to whether President Madison preceded or followed President Monroe, we have no doubt that one did precede the other, or that if the evidence is rightly assessed, it will point one way. If this were really in doubt, there would be no sense in arguing at all. What would be the use of your trying to convince me if what was proof to you was in the end mere fallacy to me? The very essence of your attempt to show me my mistake lies in appealing to our common end, namely to grasp what fact and logic require, and if you can show that in this respect or that I have fallen short of these requirements, you expect me to see and acknowledge my error. Unless our thinking is governed by the same ideal, unless what would ultimately satisfy you as cogent evidence or conclusive proof is assumed to be the same as what would satisfy me, argument is a waste of time. So long as we do make that assumption, there is hope. Argument is the joint appeal to a fundamental agreement in the hope of extending it to remove a relatively superficial disagreement.
The same holds on the practical side. Men expostulate with each other over wrongdoing just as they argue over fact. Now when another expostulates with me over an action that seems to him wrong, what sort of argument must he use if he is to convince me? He must show me that the action I am considering will not, as I suppose, subserve the sort of ends that we approve in common. Suppose he finds me set on buying the motorcar, and thinks it a mad-cap scheme; his argument will take essentially the following form: ‘You think it of the first importance, don't you, that one's family should be comfortably and healthfully housed?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Well, if you buy the car, you must sacrifice that end for occasional pleasures that you admit yourself to be less important.’ That is, he appeals to an end about which he feels confident that I agree with him, and tries to show me that the action I am proposing would defeat it rather than promote it. If I were to betray to him that I had no interest whatever in the welfare of my family, he would be at a loss how to proceed, for his argument assumes that I attach the same value to this that other sane men do. Put in the abstract, what he is saying is: ‘You agree with me that E is the important thing at stake; if you do M you will jeopardize it; if you do N you will get it; therefore you should do N.’ Unless there is some broad agreement on the ends that are worth pursuing, neither of us would have any purchase on the thought of the other.
There is, to be sure, an element of paradox in this view. If the Russians get involved with the Americans in an argument over practical politics, does it really make sense to say that they are both driving at the same ultimate end? Yes, I think it does, and thinking so increases my hope in the work of an international forum where they may meet and canvass their differences. Indeed, considering the bitterness of their differences, their professed ends are surprisingly near to identity. The Russians insist that they believe as strongly as the ‘democracies’ in the dissemination of knowledge, in freedom for the masses of the people, in the cultivation of literature and the arts, and in the increase through applied knowledge of the comfort, health, and happiness of mankind. Their difference with the west is not in our accepting and their rejecting these goods, for both parties avow devotion to them; the difference is that whereas the communists think that capitalism is an atrociously bad means to these ends and communism an exceedingly good one, the west thinks that communism is a bungling and tyrannous means to them and a ‘free economy’ a more effective one. The United Nations has been treated to many strange scenes and strange arguments, but it has not yet, I think, been invited to listen to a plea for ignorance, misery, and slavery as the true ends of man. Since all alike accept certain ends, they can argue with some point about the means. If the Russians were seeking ends that really had nothing in common with ours, if they were aiming, for example, at unhappiness in widest commonalty spread, discussion with them would take a remarkable form; when we offered an argument to show that a Russian move was calculated to increase human misery, we should be greeted at the end with applause and the exclamation, ‘Bravo; you put our case admirably.’ It is happily to be doubted whether among sane and candid men this ultimate difference about ends ever occurs.
19. (3) The third proposition is that our rights against each other are based on our common ends. Smith borrows money from Jones, and when the debt falls due, Jones claims the right to repayment. On what ground? Not, surely, on the ground alone that it furthers his own interest, since that might not be Smith's, nor on the ground alone that it is Smith's interest; to say that would too often be hypocritical and false. To get the key, we must ask another question, Is Jones's right to be repaid the same as Smith's duty to pay? We have seen that in substance it is, since a duty is the obverse side of a right. When Jones presses his claim against Smith, he is therefore insisting on Smith's duty to repay. Why is it Smith's duty to repay? Duty, as we have seen, is always based on the production of good. What is the good in this case? It is not merely Jones's satisfaction in getting his money back, though that will form part of the end for any considerate debtor. It is also the maintenance in society of a state of things in which promises are kept and debts repaid. When Jones presses his claim against Smith, he is saying in effect, ‘You believe, do you not, as I do, that this state of things is better than one in which promises are broken and debts repudiated? Very well, if you do, your only consistent course is to pay.’ That this common end is the basis on which Jones is urging his right may be clearly seen by his helplessness if Smith rejects it. Suppose Smith rejoins, ‘I see no value whatever in a state of things in which promises may be relied on or debts repaid; this may be an end or good for you; it is not for me.’ What could Jones do? He could threaten him with the police, but that is not argument, and no argument he could offer would carry the least validity for Smith. To urge that Smith seek a good which for him was no good at all would be absurd. Jones's case in its entirety rests on the assumption that he and Smith are seeking a common end, and that when the repayment of the debt is seen to be required by that end, Smith will recognize it as his duty and do it. But that he should so recognize and do it is precisely what Jones is claiming as his right. To put it generally, your right against me and my duty to you rest on an identical ground, namely their necessity to our joint end.
20. (4) Now for the fourth proposition: it is because the state is the greatest of instruments to this common end that it has such rights as it possesses over its citizens. The state is more than a system of rights. If half a dozen hunters met by accident in the woods, such rights would hold among them, but this could not make them into a state. A state is a set of institutions -- a legislature, courts, police, a chief executive -- designed to give effect to these rights, to guarantee them in practice. The state is thus a means, not an end. It is a system of brakes and prods applied in the interest of reaching a goal beyond itself.
The simplest evidence for this lies in the answer we naturally give to two related questions, Why should I obey the law? and Why may I sometimes resist it? The answers to both are the same, and they amount to an admission that the state is an attempt at the embodiment of a common rational will, and is justified only as the instrument of that will. Why should I obey the law by doing anything so disagreeable as paying my income tax? Not because I have to, since with enough cleverness I might evade it, nor because I can point to any definite advantages to me or anyone else that would result from this particular act. I should obey it if at all because it belongs to a system of commands and restraints whose maintenance serves better than any available alternative as an instrument for the common good.
It is needless to work this out in detail. Everyone knows that a government is often a nuisance, whose rules about parking cars, stopping at street lights, paying taxes, keeping walks clear, and all the rest, are a source of endless major and minor frustrations. We all believe, nevertheless, that though government is a nuisance, it is a wholly indispensable nuisance. Why? Because without it the main goods of life, and for that matter life itself, would be insecure. If we can count on our house and its contents not being taken away from us, if the shops that supply our clothes and fuel and food are able to do their business, if there are roads on which we can get about, schools to send our children to, courts and police to deal with those who would take advantage of us, it is because behind these arrangements, protecting and guaranteeing them, is the power of the state. Without it we should be at the mercy of the worst elements in our society. We may concede to communists and anarchists that if the ends men are seeking in common could be realized without the complex and expensive machinery of government, it should be dispensed with. We cannot agree with them in supposing that, human nature being what it is, there is any prospect whatever of attaining these goods except with the aid of the state.
21. Does it follow that since the state is a necessary means to our major ends, we should in all circumstances obey it, that we never have the right to rebel? Not at all. Our view would not only justify disobedience in some cases; it would require it. If the state is regarded, not as sacrosanct or an end in itself, but as an instrument to certain great ends, then when it becomes so corrupt as to cut us off from those ends rather than further them, when it serves its purpose so badly that it is better to risk chaos for the sake of a better order than continue to suffer under the old, then resistance becomes a right and a duty. This will be an extreme and desperate case, since it will obviously be better as a rule to obey what we regard as a bad law and try by persuasion to get it amended than to seek the overthrow of the power which supports all laws alike. But there is no doubt that when government has ceased to serve its major ends, the people who have fashioned it to serve those ends have a right to replace it with something that serves these better. In doing so, they will appeal to the same ends that earlier led them to support it, and they will do so with full consistency and justification. Thus the theory of a rational will provides a natural and intelligible ground both for obedience in normal cases and for disobedience in abnormal cases. It is hard to conceive what better evidence could be offered for it.
22. Here then is a theory of political obligation. It holds that each of us is seeking an end that goes beyond the good of the moment, that besides his will of the moment for food, drink, and comfort, he has a rational will directed far beyond these to what would satisfy in the light of a fully critical reflection. The nature of that end we have explored in earlier chapters. At best it is conceived vaguely and pursued waveringly, but its presence nevertheless is both the magnet that draws us on and the monitor that reproves when we stray out of the way. This end, we have held, is the end of all men. Because it is, each can justly claim of another that he should be loyal to it; that is what we mean by a right. The state itself is an arrangement accepted as a necessary means to this ultimate end, and on this necessity rests its right to obedience.
This account of political obligation seems to me at once simple and compelling. There is probably nothing novel about it. Indeed I have suggested that it was what all the defenders of a real and general will, from Rousseau to Bosanquet, were in substance contending for. Rousseau maintained that in all men there is a will toward the same moral end, that government is a device set up by that will through a contract or agreement, that this will, as a striving for the good is, by definition, never wrong, though even the ‘will of all’ may mistake what it really requires, and that its requirements, even as to the structure of government, may vary greatly with circumstances. In these contentions I think Rousseau was right. Unfortunately this core of sound teaching was embedded in a mass of myths and mistakes that were as adventitious to it as moss to a stone. Rousseau dimmed and confused a remarkable insight when he held that men are animated by self-interest only, that the general will is aimed at a queer scarcely thinkable abstraction in which their selfish wills coincide, and that the government can impose no burden and confer no advantage except upon all alike. Indeed his doctrine as presented is so incoherent that all one can hope to derive from it is a general drift -- a drift in the right direction nevertheless.
Something similar must be said of Hegel. His insistence that an identical and rational end was working itself out through individual minds, that every society showed in its laws and customs the working of this will, and embodied it in differing degrees, all this and much else that this astonishing intelligence had to say about politics is true. Unfortunately he put himself in the wrong with all manner of persons who would otherwise have been disposed to listen by talking gratuitious nonsense about the state as ‘der Gang Gottes in der Welt’, holding that the success of a state in dominating others was somehow evidence of its right to do so, arguing that the relations of states cannot be judged by moral standards, and suggesting that the state is not only an attempt to embody reason, but, in the case of the dominant state of the time, does embody it so fully that the citizen will achieve his highest morality by conforming to it and will have no case if he resists it. How far such doctrines belong to the essence of Hegel's political theory is a matter of dispute; I am myself inclined to think that they are extraneous to it.11 [For a discussion of the rights and wrongs of this issue, see the papers by T. M. Knox, E. F. Carrit, and others in Philosophy, Vol. XV (1940), pp. 51-63, 190-6, 219-20, 313-7.] But he cannot be aquitted of having said things that gave apparent benediction to totalitarian violence and oppression, and anyone holding a doctrine akin to his must be at pains to show that the charges heaped upon it do not apply to his own. That the inspiration common to the contract theories and to the Hegelians is really innocent of these charges can be shown easily enough. It will pay us to look briefly at the worst of the accusations.
23. (1) The theory, it is said, would not only justify but glorify wrong. If the state is the instrument of the general will, and the general will is a will to the moral end itself, what embodies this will must be right. Hence whatever the state does, however tyrannous and brutal, is to recieve our benediction. Each of us is supposed to realize, Hobhouse says,‘That in society he is in the presence of a being infinitely higher than himself, contemplating a reason much more exalted than his own. His business is not to endeavour to remodel society, but to think how wonderfully good and rational is the social life he knows, with its Pharisees and publicans, its gin-palaces, its millions of young men led out to the slaughter, and he is to give thanks daily.…’ Such a doctrine, ‘instead of seeking to realize the ideal’, ‘idealizes the real’.12 [Metaphysical Theory of the State, 87, 112.]Harold Laski wrote in similar vein: ‘For him [Bosanquet] the good is always being realized. The subserving of our real will with the will of the state is taken to mean that the best that can happen to us is in fact happening at each moment.’13 [Aristotelian Society Proc., 1928, 56. C. E. M. Joad took a similar line in his Guide to the Pilosophy of Morals and Politics, 509.]
Now if the doctrine of the rational will is examined, not in the light of occasional foolish phrases, but in the light of its essential drift, one can see that not only does the above inference fail to follow; the only legitimate inference is quite the opposite.
The real will goes beyond the actual will; it does so everywhere and always. That is the point of the contrast between them. The good that would completely satisfy me is never achieved in this act or that. To recognize the real will is to arouse discontent with what is, to indict the good I have actually achieved in the light of what might be. To say, in the individual case, that the recognition of the real will meant somehow glorifying the actual would be so patently contrary to the point of the distinction as to wear its falsity on its face. How is the case different when we turn to the will of a community? The recognition of a real will is the recognition that there is a greatest good for that community and that it is the business of the citizens to regulate their communal life so that this good may be as fully embodied as possible. The very insistence on the distinction implies that it is not so embodied now. To be sure, the doctrine implies that one is ordinarily to obey the law, but, as we have seen, one cannot so much as state the reason for that obedience without acknowledging an authority above the law, which we may invoke against the law itself if that should fail.
24. (2) The second charge against the theory is that it would give the state a power over the individual which is complete and beyond appeal. If he dares to call it in question, he is told that the maintenance of this state and its laws is what his real will desires, and that if he appeals from Philip drunk to Philip sober within himself, he will see that he has no case. To some critics of the general will, this is the least pardonable part of the doctrine. Mr Laski thinks it absurd to say that‘constraint is not the use of force by the state against the individual, but only its imposition upon him of the will which his real will desires.… Most of us, I think, would argue that the revolutionist is never conscious that the government which imprisons him is giving his true self freedom. What he experiences is constraint; and he regards that as a dental of his liberty. To tell him that he is made free when he is prevented from fulfilling the purpose he regards as the raison d'etre of his existence is, I would suggest, to deprive words of all their meaning.’14 [The State in Theory and Practice, 59.]The climax of absurdity is thought to be reached when the theory touches punishment. It is bad enough to say, when a law is passed which we tried to prevent, that the law is what we really wanted, and to compel us on this ground to obey it; but it is one degree worse to tell us, when we have been put in jail for resisting it, that we were really hungering and thirsting for incarceration at hard labour. To take this line is to cut from under our feet any ground to stand on in protest; it is to reduce us to the level of children who are to be told by persons wiser than they what is good for them and what is not. And it is to outlaw resistance to tyranny as the manifestation of wayward self-will.
Most of us would agree with the temper of this remonstrance; at least I should myself. For anyone, however high in authority to presume to tell others over their protests what is good for them is a repellent and dangerous business. But there are several things to be said about it.
25. First, the problem here involved is not peculiar to the theory advocated; it confronts every theory and form of government that is worth considering. It is the business of government as such to find and promote the good of its people. But there are nearly always persons, sincere and high-minded persons, who believe that what the government proposes is neither for their own good nor anyone else's, and who are prepared to resist its mandates. In such cases, what is the government to do? It has commonly put coercion upon them in the interest of the many. It is not easy to see any alternative. If this leads to tragedy, it may be inevitable tragedy; indeed, as Hegel pointed out regarding Socrates, it is tragic because so inevitable.
Secondly, is such coercion necessarily tyranny? The theory of the general will regards government as an instrument to the common end of the greatest good. Can the citizens instruct their government in detail as to what this good consists in? Not if Burke's famous speech to the electors at Bristol is sound, and on this point it is hardly questionable. Government is not, or not merely, for the execution of mandates given; it is largely for the discovery of what mandates ought to be given. Now if a citizen wants a government, if he approves on the whole the method by which it gained power, if he has commissioned it to ascertain and promote as best it can the community's good, then in a quite intelligible sense its decisions are his decisions. He has willed that it should make them for him.
What if one of these decisions conflicts with a preference of his own? Can it reasonably be said that his real will is here conflicting with his actual or particular will, and that he himself is willing that this particular will should be set aside? Mr Laski thought this absurd. ‘The Nonconformist who paid his education rate under the Act of 1902 did not do so because his real will approved of the Act. He did so because he took the view that, on balance, it was better to put up with one bad law than to challenge the authority from which all laws derive.’15 [The State in Theory and Practice, 59-60.] This assents to our view in substance while rejecting it in words. The Nonconformist preferred, we are told, to keep the government in existence, even though it thwarted some of his desires, because he thought that better on balance. We accept this account and are proposing to call this preference his real will. Mr Laski thinks that so naming it is confusing. I do not see where the confusion lies. It is admitted on both sides that the Nonconformist wants the law not to be. It is admitted on both sides that he wants still more that the instrument which made the law should remain in being, in spite of its cost to himself. Where is the confusion in saying that what he admittedly wants most is his real will? We are not denying any facts or taking illicit advantage of him in saying this. We are not denying that he dislikes the law. We are proposing that theory should stay true to fact in noting that his desires are not of equal strength or importance. If he wills the machinery of government at the well-known cost of occasional thwartings of his and others’ wishes, there is, or need be, no confusion in saying that it is his real will that these thwartings should be imposed.
Even the ridicule about punishment does not stand up very well under scrutiny. It rests again upon putting all facts on the same level. When a motor policeman holds me up for careless driving, it is superficially absurd to say that I want to be held up and fined. But is this more than superficial? What citizen who takes his citizenship seriously has not in his heart, however colourful his actual language, given the policeman full marks for doing just what he did? Nobody wants to be held up when in a hurry; nobody wants to get a ‘ticket’; but men have been known to go away thankful that an agency of theirs is so impartially on the alert in serving the interest of the community. In such cases, would the critics say that it is absurd and contrary to fact to be thankful that one's will has been frustrated? But the ‘absurd’ fact does occur.
Thirdly, while regarding government as the instrument of the general will is admittedly dangerous, it is less dangerous than its alternatives. Any conception of government will give grounds for injustice if used insincerely; but sincerity assumed, it is hard to conceive a criterion of governmental behaviour less likely to lead to oppression than reference to what the citizens genuinely want. It rules out ab initio all abuses based on power, and all government in the interest of a single man or class. The will which is to be expressed and to which government is responsible is conceived as working in every citizen and hence entitling him to be considered; and the content of that will can be ascertained only by remaining close to its source.
Fourthly, we repeat that if in the attempts to determine and achieve the common end a government blunders into cruelty, it is absurd to lay this cruelty at the door of the theory itself. As well interdict the aim to be rational, with the schools that subserve this aim, because if we pursue it we stumble at times into fallacy, as decry the pursuit through government of a common good because men at times misconstrue its demands. No other theory of government would bow to such criticism, and neither need this. Suffice it to say that in any state whose members take this high pursuit seriously there will be a constant pressure toward legal and social amendment. Men who believe in a common end and a common reason will naturally seek to make them prevail; and that such prevalence would transform society needs no arguing.
But the rational will must work, if it works at all, through individuals, and what its acceptance would mean for the temper and conduct of one's personal life is of more interest to most men than even its working on the ampler stage of the state. To this more intimate question, which is also our last, we must now turn.