Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Political Double Standard and John Locke: A Reply to Jad

Jad strikes again, this time advancing the allegation that philosophers have had the tendency to embrace a double standard between ordinary citizens and their rulers, where no such double standard seems to be justifiable. The basic idea here is that people are, in the relevant ethical respects, equal -- that there is no "natural" basis for thinking that one individual should have the authority to rule over another. Jad seems to be under the impression that the mainstream of philosophy has rejected this view, instead taking on the position that our rulers should be considered to have a different moral standing from ordinary individuals.

There are a few things that seem necessary to say about this, but I think that the most important is that this is not actually a view which dominates mainstream philosophy. I would tend to trace the rejection of this sort of view to John Locke's Two Treatises of Government, published in 1690 (though Locke himself seems to attribute the idea to Richard Hooker, whose work I haven't read). In Section 4 of the second treatise, Of Civil Government, Locke writes:
To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.

A state also of equality, wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another; there being nothing more evident, than that creatures of the same species and rank, promiscuously born to all the same advantages of nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection, unless the lord and master of them all should, by any manifest declaration of his will, set one above another, and confer on him, by an evident and clear appointment, an undoubted right to dominion and sovereignty.

So in other words, unless someone is specifically appointed as ruler by God Himself, people have what can be called "equality of authority." This concept of equality is, I think, central to the classical liberal tradition, and is still embodied today in some form or another in the ideas of many schools of political thought we see today. Most obviously influenced by this idea are the liberals and libertarians, though even some brands of egalitarianism and socialism would be able to accommodate it.

Does that mean, then, that philosophers are somehow inconsistent in not universally proclaiming the ethical necessity of anarchism? Some people certainly think so. There are a few ways of thinking about how this might not be the case, but all are controversial. I obviously won't be able to cover all of the reasons why someone might argue in favor of a practical double standard for government officials while still embracing the Lockean notion of equality of authority, but I think I can address a few without getting in too far over my head.

In this post, I'll consider the answer Locke himself offers, with the full understanding that I won't be able to really do justice to it. In another post, I'll try to discuss David Hume's objections to Locke and Robert Nozick's attempt to rebuild the Lockean framework in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (when I have time, perhaps tomorrow but no guarantees). Hopefully in the near future, I'll be able to discuss a few other kinds of views [note to self: other flavors of contractarianism (Hobbes, Rawls), utilitarianism, and voluntarism/anarcho-capitalism] (if only to see if I can explain them all!). So here goes Locke...I'll block quote a lot, so if you read straight through, you should get the meat of Locke's argument as he advanced it. But if you're pressed for time, I try to summarize the main points outside of the quotations.

Locke's theory can be described as a "social contract" theory, in which individuals are considered as they would exist outside of political society, and then an attempt is made to understand how the institution of government could be legitimately formed out of the state of nature by a sort of social agreement. In section 6 of his second treatise, Of Civil Government, Locke starts with the idea that individuals have natural rights (he says that they're from God, but I think they conform somewhat with what people seem to generally think):
The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions...

In section 7, he contends that these rights are, in some sense, enforceable. He claims that because everyone is, in a state of nature, equally authorized to act on behalf of the standards of justice:
And that all men may be restrained from invading others rights, and from doing hurt to one another, and the law of nature be observed, which willeth the peace and preservation of all mankind, the execution of the law of nature is, in that state, put into every man's hands, whereby every one has a right to punish the transgressors of that law to such a degree, as may hinder its violation: for the law of nature would, as all other laws that concern men in this world 'be in vain, if there were no body that in the state of nature had a power to execute that law, and thereby preserve the innocent and restrain offenders. And if any one in the state of nature may punish another for any evil he has done, every one may do so: for in that state of perfect equality, where naturally there is no superiority or jurisdiction of one over another, what any may do in prosecution of that law, every one must needs have a right to do.

So at this point, Locke is still taking the position that people should be equal in enforcing justice. However, he thinks that this state of affairs would be relatively unsatisfactory, because people would be unable to settle disputes peacefully, and conflicts would predictably ensue. In section 20, Locke writes:
...where an appeal to the law, and constituted judges, lies open, but the remedy is denied by a manifest perverting of justice, and a barefaced wresting of the laws to protect or indemnify the violence or injuries of some men, or party of men, there it is hard to imagine any thing but a state of war: for wherever violence is used, and injury done, though by hands appointed to administer justice, it is still violence and injury, however coloured with the name, pretences, or forms of law, the end whereof being to protect and redress the innocent, by an unbiassed application of it, to all who are under it; wherever that is not bona fide done, war is made upon the sufferers, who having no appeal on earth to right them, they are left to the only remedy in such cases, an appeal to heaven.

Accordingly, then, Locke believes that it would make sense for people to want to enter into civil society, so that disputes don't have to result in violence. In section 20, he writes:
To avoid this state of war (wherein there is no appeal but to heaven, and wherein every the least difference is apt to end, where there is no authority to decide between the contenders) is one great reason of men's putting themselves into society, and quitting the state of nature: for where there is an authority, a power on earth, from which relief can be had by appeal, there the continuance of the state of war is excluded, and the controversy is decided by that power.

In section 87, then, Locke points out that the equality of authority to enforce the law must be sacrificed by the individual in entering political society:
Man being born, as has been proved, with a title to perfect freedom, and an uncontrouled enjoyment of all the rights and privileges of the law of nature, equally with any other man, or number of men in the world, hath by nature a power, not only to preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty and estate, against the injuries and attempts of other men; but to judge of, and punish the breaches of that law in others, as he is persuaded the offence deserves, even with death itself, in crimes where the heinousness of the fact, in his opinion, requires it. But because no political society can be, nor subsist, without having in itself the power to preserve the property, and in order thereunto, punish the offences of all those of that society; there, and there only is political society, where every one of the members hath quitted this natural power, resigned it up into the hands of the community in all cases that exclude him not from appealing for protection to the law established by it. And thus all private judgment of every particular member being excluded, the community comes to be umpire, by settled standing rules, indifferent, and the same to all parties; and by men having authority from the community, for the execution of those rules, decides all the differences that may happen between any members of that society concerning any matter of right; and punishes those offences which any member hath committed against the society, with such penalties as the law has established: whereby it is easy to discern, who are, and who are not, in political society together. Those who are united into one body, and have a common established law and judicature to appeal to, with authority to decide controversies between them, and punish offenders, are in civil society one with another: but those who have no such common appeal, I mean on earth, are still in the state of nature, each being, where there is no other, judge for himself, and executioner; which is, as I have before shewed it, the perfect state of nature.

So the idea here is that government officials do not naturally have unequal authority, but when we voluntarily enter into civil society, we give up our right to enforce the law of nature, instead turning over that power to an impartial judge: the community. In section 88, Locke writes:
But though every man who has entered into civil society, and is become a member of any commonwealth, has thereby quitted his power to punish offences, against the law of nature, in prosecution of his own private judgment, yet with the judgment of offences, which he has given up to the legislative in all cases, where he can appeal to the magistrate, he has given a right to the common-wealth to employ his force, for the execution of the judgments of the common-wealth, whenever he shall be called to it; which indeed are his own judgments, they being made by himself, or his representative. And herein we have the original of the legislative and executive power of civil society, which is to judge by standing laws, how far offences are to be punished, when committed within the common-wealth; and also to determine, by occasional judgments founded on the present circumstances of the fact, how far injuries from without are to be vindicated; and in both these to employ all the force of all the members, when there shall be need.

But Locke sees two clear problems with this account of the legitimacy of government. The first is that we don't literally consent to be governed, and so it seems odd to say that government is legitimated by the fact that we do. The second is that our agreement with our government would seem to need to be contingent on certain conditions in order to justify a government's maintenance of power; if a government were not honestly enforcing the natural law, and were instead doing things that we never consented to, it would seem that the agreement would be broken.

Locke addresses the first point in chapter 8 of the treatise, contending that so long as one remained within the territory of the political community of which you were a part, you could be taken to be tacitly consenting to the rule of that community's government. In section 119, Locke writes:
Every man being, as has been shewed, naturally free, and nothing being able to put him into subjection to any earthly power, but only his own consent; it is to be considered, what shall be understood to be a sufficient declaration of a man's consent, to make him subject to the laws of any government. There is a common distinction of an express and a tacit consent, which will concern our present case. No body doubts but an express consent, of any man entering into any society, makes him a perfect member of that society, a subject of that government. The difficulty is, what ought to be looked upon as a tacit consent, and how far it binds, i.e. how far any one shall be looked on to have consented, and thereby submitted to any government, where he has made no expressions of it at all. And to this I say, that every man, that hath any possessions, or enjoyment, of any part of the dominions of any government, doth thereby give his tacit consent, and is as far forth obliged to obedience to the laws of that government, during such enjoyment, as any one under it; whether this his possession be of land, to him and his heirs for ever, or a lodging only for a week; or whether it be barely travelling freely on the highway; and in effect, it reaches as far as the very being of any one within the territories of that government.

He continues, in section 120:
To understand this the better, it is fit to consider, that every man, when he at first incorporates himself into any commonwealth, he, by his uniting himself thereunto, annexed also, and submits to the community, those possessions, which he has, or shall acquire, that do not already belong to any other government: for it would be a direct contradiction, for any one to enter into society with others for the securing and regulating of property; and yet to suppose his land, whose property is to be regulated by the laws of the society, should be exempt from the jurisdiction of that government, to which he himself, the proprietor of the land, is a subject. By the same act therefore, whereby any one unites his person, which was before free, to any common-wealth, by the same he unites his possessions, which were before free, to it also; and they become, both of them, person and possession, subject to the government and dominion of that common-wealth, as long as it hath a being. VVhoever therefore, from thenceforth, by inheritance, purchase, permission, or otherways, enjoys any part of the land, so annexed to, and under the government of that common-wealth, must take it with the condition it is under; that is, of submitting to the government of the common-wealth, under whose jurisdiction it is, as far forth as any subject of it.

The second point, that our agreement with our government is conditional, is addressed in chapter 19. Locke points out that our agreement with our government is contingent on the government holding up its part of that agreement. If the government begins to overstep the boundaries of the agreement, fails to follow the appropriate procedures for operating, alters the process by which new rules and political appointments are determined, surrenders its power to a foreign government, or fails to uphold the law, then the right to resist and dissolve it belongs to the people. In section 212, Locke writes:
The constitution of the legislative is the first and fundamental act of society, whereby provision is made for the continuation of their union, under the direction of persons, and bonds of laws, made by persons authorized thereunto, by the consent and appointment of the people, without which no one man, or number of men, amongst them, can have authority of making laws that shall be binding to the rest. When any one, or more, shall take upon them to make laws, whom the people have not appointed so to do, they make laws without authority, which the people are not therefore bound to obey; by which means they come again to be out of subjection, and may constitute to themselves a new legislative, as they think best, being in full liberty to resist the force of those, who without authority would impose any thing upon them.

He continues in section 214:
...when such a single person, or prince, sets up his own arbitrary will in place of the laws, which are the will of the society, declared by the legislative, then the legislative is changed: for that being in effect the legislative, whose rules and laws are put in execution, and required to be obeyed; when other laws are set up, and other rules pretended, and inforced, than what the legislative, constituted by the society, have enacted, it is plain that the legislative is changed. Whoever introduces new laws, not being thereunto authorized by the fundamental appointment of the society, or subverts the old, disowns and overturns the power by which they were made, and so sets up a new legislative.

And in section 215:
When the prince hinders the legislative from assembling in its due time, or from acting freely, pursuant to those ends for which it was constituted, the legislative is altered: for it is not a certain number of men, no, nor their meeting, unless they have also freedom of debating, and leisure of perfecting, what is for the good of the society, wherein the legislative consists: when these are taken away or altered, so as to deprive the society of the due exercise of their power, the legislative is truly altered; for it is not names that constitute governments, but the use and exercise of those powers that were intended to accompany them; so that he, who takes away the freedom, or hinders the acting of the legislative in its due seasons, in effect takes away the legislative, and puts an end to the government.

And in section 216:
When, by the arbitrary power of the prince, the electors, or ways of election, are altered, without the consent, and contrary to the common interest of the people, there also the legislative is altered: for, if others than those whom the society hath authorized thereunto, do chuse, or in another way than what the society hath prescribed, those chosen are not the legislative appointed by the people.

And in section 217:
The delivery also of the people into the subjection of a foreign power, either by the prince, or by the legislative, is certainly a change of the legislative, and so a dissolution of the government: for the end why people entered into society being to be preserved one intire, free, independent society, to be governed by its own laws; this is lost, whenever they are given up into the power of another.

And in section 219:
When he who has the supreme executive power neglects and abandons that charge, so that the laws already made can no longer be put in execution; this is demonstratively to reduce all to anarchy, and so effectively to dissolve the government. For laws not being made for themselves, but to be, by their execution, the bonds of the society to keep every part of the body politic in its due place and function. When that totally ceases, the government visibly ceases, and the people become a confused multitude without order or connection. Where there is no longer the administration of justice for the securing of men′s rights, nor any remaining power within the community to direct the force, or provide for the necessities of the public, there certainly is no government left.

So basically, Locke's argument boils down to this:

We are naturally free to do our own thing, and have no legitimate authority over anyone else. In the state of nature, we do have rights, and are justified in using force to deal with those who violate those rights. But in a world where we don't have a common authority to appeal to in order to enforce justice, the possibility of conflict would be significant. Accordingly, it makes sense for us to join together and to appoint ourselves a representative, or set of representatives, for the settling of our disputes and the enforcement of what's right. Once we enter into this agreement, we are bound to honor it so long as we continue to live on the land which we have committed to the compact. However, if the government is not legitimately performing its designated duties, then the agreement by which it and its agents gained their authority is broken, and we return to a state of nature, where everyone has equal authority to enforce justice.

So that's one way of thinking of government authority which allegedly doesn't commit us to thinking that there's any unreasonable double standard between government officials and ordinary people. As long as we think of government officials as our legitimately appointed representatives who we have entrusted to enforce justice, and a part of that agreement is that we surrender our own right to do that, then there's nothing particularly unreasonable going on.

However, as you might imagine, there are a number or problems with this point of view, which I'll have to discuss another time. Nevertheless, I think it's important to realize just how influential Locke was in the history of political philosophy. I can't imagine that there are any political philosophers out there who aren't familiar with this argument, and that alone suggests that perhaps your concerns about philosophers upholding an unreasonable double standard are misplaced. I honestly can't think of a single school of political philosophy that would want to outright characterize itself as taking the stance that governments do not gain their moral authority from the consent of the governed.

Of course, exactly what is meant by "the consent of the governed" ends up being the focal issue. As we saw here, explicit and ongoing consent is not always thought to be required (pacifists and some anarcho-capitalists disagree with this). If I get the chance to explain some of the other kinds of viewpoints out there, you'll hopefully be able to see how different ways of thinking about this consent and its moral relevance have played into different ways of thinking about the government.

But the main point, I guess, in all of this is that we as philosophers are not guilty of holding the really obviously problematic view that government officials, simply by putting on different outfits and going to work at different places, are magically imbued with special moral standing. Insofar as government officials are granted different status in ethical theories, it arises from their roles as government officials. As I wrote in objection to Stefan's book:
Another question arises from the double standard being used; is there a fundamental difference between the soldier and the politician that could justify making a unilateral allowance for the politician's orders, while still prohibiting the Iraqi and the soldier from making similar orders? An example which comes to mind is that of a Zen master, armed with a stick, whacking one of his students for an indiscretion. In the context of the Zen school, it's perfectly acceptable for the master to whack the student, though it would be unacceptable for the student to whack another student, or to whack the master. I'm not sure that anything similar could be said about the politician and the soldier, but it's not logically impossible that something like it couldn't be fabricated without failing the universality test.

If, as Locke and others have suggested, we have ceded to government officials the right to enforce different standards with respect to their own agents than they do among non-government agents, then the difference in treatment would not arise from the mere fact that they are government officials, but rather from the agreement by which they gained their status.

Hopefully that helps!


Jad said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jad said...

Sorry. The link was bad on the previous comment.

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