The Origins and Role of Government

Sunday, December 2, AD 2012

So we’ve been discussing the proper role of the state on this blog recently, particularly as it relates to the legalization of marijuana. This discussion, in all of its unfortunate snarkiness and nastiness (to which I freely admit having contributed, not that I’m proud of it) is really a discussion on the proper role of the state.

I think it is rather uncontroversial to assert that America was basically founded upon the Lockean social contract theory. We begin with the proposition that everyone has basic natural rights: to life, liberty, and property. In a hypothetical scenario in which there is no coercive authority (the state/government), we must also act as our own judge, jury and executioner. In this anarchic situation, our rights to life, liberty and property are unsecured. In order to secure them, we collectively renounce our right to be our own personal government and transfer that right to a government we establish by contract. Our property – life, liberty and estate – is more valuable and necessary for life than our “right” to do as we please, when we please, to whomever we please.

The terms of the contract are rather simple. They are stated very simply in the Declaration of Independence. Governments exist to protect our natural rights. They don’t exist to make us “better people” – that’s what the Church is for. They don’t exist in order to achieve “social justice” – that is what private charity and free markets are for. The individual American states were founded by people of like-minds who wanted to establish communities that reflected their religious values – Pennsylvania for Quakers, Maryland for Catholics, and so on. The Constitution was created by the states mostly for the purposes of common security.

Government is not a positive good. It is an evil necessary to prevent the greater evils that would result from total anarchy. As such, it must be kept on the tightest of all possible leashes, which is why so many Americans demanded a Bill of Rights as a condition for the ratification of the Constitution. If men in a state of anarchy would be evil, they don’t suddenly become angels because we give them titles, badges, and offices. The evil in our hearts is the evil in their hearts, and the greater the scope and depth of the powers we give to governments, the greater potential for evil we establish.

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60 Responses to The Origins and Role of Government

  • As I understand it, the terms of the social contract are simply that “Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”

    From this it follows that the people are sovereign and law is an expression of the general will. The laws are made by those who are to obey them, not by the government, which is to enforce them.

    Thus, by the social contract, each individual gives up only so much of his powers, goods and liberty as it is important for the community to control, but, then, the people is the sole judge of what is important. This must be so, for the people have no master and no judge and decide all questions finally and alone.

    It also follows that the government is the appointee and agent of the people, holding power under an imperative and revocable mandate and accountable to the people for its acts. No one may exercise any power over another that does not proceed from the people.

  • “I think it is rather uncontroversial to assert that America was basically founded upon the Lockean social contract theory. ”

    I am not sure that Lockean social contract theory was the basis of America’s founding. Russell Kirk, among others, makes the convincing case that the Founders were more influenced by Burke, Blackstone, Montesquieu, Hume, and Hooker than by Locke in their design of the Constitution and government. Essays such as this – http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=176&Itemid=259 – while not explicitly agreeing with Kirk’s thesis, at least provide that the Founders read and were influenced by a much wider selection of thinkers than Locke.

  • I think it is rather uncontroversial to assert that America was basically founded upon the Lockean social contract theory.

    Agreed with Jonathan above. Read Kirk, Bailyn, and others who rebut the notion that our founding was all about putting in place Locke’s Second Treatise. If anything, historians of all ideological stripes overrate the importance of political theory at the time of the creation of the new government and overlook how much of it was based simply upon pragmatic principles.

  • “and overlook how much of it was based simply upon pragmatic principles.”

    Agreed. This was the saving grace of the American Revolution as opposed to the disastrous attempt by the French revolutionaries to make the most hare-brained theories a reality. The Founding Fathers were veterans of the political systems of their colonies and were not about to confuse theory and reality.

  • “Saving people from themselves (and punishing moderate users indiscriminately), bringing ‘democracy’ to people who never asked for it (with drones and depleted uranium), and achieving ‘social justice’ (i.e. radical egalitarianism) are not good reasons.”

    I agree. However, it is important to note that lead ammunition is as deadly as depleted uranium ammunition. When one wants to know about the hazards of rocket fuel, one asks a rocket scientist. When one wants to know the hazards of the chemicals used in the petro-chemical industry, one asks a chemist. And when one wants to know the hazards of depleted uranium, one asks a nuclear engineer / scientist. Anti-nuclear energy groups like WISE or NIRS, having a devout interest in smashing all things nuclear, are not repositories of the facts. But the US NRC, NEI, etc., are.

    Now what is depleted uranium? Natural uranium is 99.3% U-238 and 0.7% U-235 (the number of neutrons is different between the isotopes, but the number of protons – 92 which determines chemistry – stays the same). U-235 is fissile with thermal neutrons. U-238 is not, but can be used in fast neutron fission or can be used to produced thermal fissile Pu-239 by resonance absorption of neutrons. To get uranium to the point when it can be used in thermal neutron, light water reactors such as what the US uses, it is enriched slightly to about 3 to 5 % U-235. You can’t use natural uranium in a light water reactor because the macroscopic absorption cross-section in hydrgen in the water coolant over-rides the low concentration of U-235, so the fission chain reaction is not self-sustaining. (Candu reactors in our neighbor to the north use heavy water and natural uranium – same physics and math, just different results – the deuterium in heavy water doesn’t absorb neutrons as well as the hydrogen in light water, but heavy water is way more expensive). Thus, in US reactors uranium has to be enriched by gas centrifuges (which is what iran is doing to get a bomb) or other means. (NOTE: a bomb requires 93+ % U-235; nuclear reactors require 3 to 5%. We know Iran is going for a bomb because they are enriching way beyond 3 to 5%). Now what is left over from the enrichment process is uranium whose U-235 is basically gone (because it has been concentrated elsewhere) and only the U-238 is left. We say this is depleted because the thermal fissile material is depleted. But U-238 could still be used in fast neutron reactors. Furthermore, it has even less radioctivity than U-235. In fact, it has less radioactivity than the bananas you ate this morning which has radioactive potassium in them, and you would get less radiation exposure from being next to a depleted uranium artillery piece than you would from the radium in the concrete and brick that make up Grand Central Station in NYC. Of course uranium dust is a hazard – it’s a heavy metal just like lead. The hazard comes not from its radiation which is miniscule but from its chemistry.

    Now more facts on depleted uranium can be obtained here – please go to the nuclear engineers and scientists for the facts, NOT WISE and NIRS:

    http://www.nrc.gov/materials/fuel-cycle-fac/ur-deconversion/faq-depleted-ur-decon.html

    Please remember that more radioactivity is emitted into the environment by coal-fired power plants in the form of naturally occurring uranium, thorium and radium in the coal (that is burned and becomes ash dumped in ash ponds or released willy-nilly into the air) than by the use of any depleted uranium artillery.

    Now the reason why depleted uranium is used in artillery is because it is very, very dense, more so than lead. So that old KE = (1/2) M V^2 law takes effect: more mass, more kinetic energy. Personally, I think that when we are fighting the enemy, we should use the best materials available and that includes depleted uranium. Now should we have wars of foreign adventurism in lands of Islamic fascism for oil when the depleted uranium can be better used as fuel in fast neutron nuclear reactors to generate low cost, cheap, pollution-free electricity? Of course not.

    I hope this clarification helps.

  • I think it is rather uncontroversial to assert that America was basically founded upon the Lockean social contract theory.

    The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut antedated the Two Treatises on Government by fifty years.

  • Jonathan

    In 1984, Donald S Lutz published his findings that, in American polemical writings, published between 1760 and 1805, Montesquieu accounts for 8.3%. He is followed closely by Blackstone, with 7.9%. Locke comes in at 2.9%, closely followed by David Hume with 2.7. No one else achieves more than 1.5%.

    Moreover, Locke was scarcely cited at all, before 1780, Blackstone seldom before 1770 and Hume very little before 1790. Montesquieu leads in every decade from 1760 and 1800.

    Now, Montesquieu’s leading idea, in contrast to Locke, is that different laws and institutions suit different societies; he also attached great importance to situation, race and, especially, climate. In this, he was a far less prescriptive than Locke; the difference, perhaps, between a jurist and a philosopher.

    This accords with Paul Zummo’s and Donald M McClarey’s assessment of the Founders’ pragmatism.

  • Michael,

    If I understand you, that is not to say that those writers with later dates couldn’t impact the Constitution (of 1787), but only to say that Montesquieu was more influential?

    I have used a list based upon Lutz’s writings, which is here – http://oll.libertyfund.org/index.php?Itemid=259&id=438&option=com_content&task=view.

    I also think that Kirk argues correctly that the Founders had in their minds the rights of Englishmen, combined with a governmental form based upon Montesquieu and ideas he used from the Roman republic.

  • Jonathan

    I imagine the big idea from Montesquieu was the separation of powers

  • The specific influences of the Framers is an interesting topic but it is on the margins of Bonchamps’ thesis and of marginal value in answering the question posed.

    It is my view that Chief Justic John Marshall significntly altered the Constitution, defining it in exclusively Federalist terms rather than acknowledging the widespread and honest disagreement on form and substance of the debate. That is as it may be. We live under a Constitution defined as much by successive Statist courts from FDR’s administration through the first Clinton Administration.

    Bonchamps’ post digs deeper to ask what the role of government SHOULD be, not what it has become, and I am in general agreement with his central thesis. Of course, one challenge of the thesis is that it is disconnected from reality by a giant chasm.

    Man is generally unwilling to accept collateral damage in the exercise of liberty. This opens a hole through which Statism seeps.

    I am willing to accept the proposition that men live with the consequences of their bad behavior. If a child is harmed by it, even without intention, we want laws to prevent the cause. This is a natural reaction and comes from a good impulse. Unfortunately, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

    Our system of government, in reality rather than theory, is a dance between Statism and Libertarianism; between those who refuse to accept collateral damage and those who believe that collateral damage is inevitable and choose only to alleviate or mitigate he harm caused by their own behavior.

  • G-Veg

    I believe there is a further question.

    A society that values equality as well as liberty will be on its guard against the growth of privilege inimical to liberty.

    Jefferson was certainly alive to this; it was his motive in introducing into the Virginia legislature his law against entails and primogeniture, which he feared would create a landed aristocracy. He warned against “perpetual monopolies in commerce, the arts or sciences, with a long train of et ceteras,” such as the trade guilds of Europe enjoyed and he was suspicious of corporations with perpetual endowments. Hence, his insistence that the earth belongs always to the living, who cannot be restrained by the actions of the dead and he supported the French in their desire “to change the appropriation of lands given anciently to the church, to hospitals, colleges, orders of chivalry, and otherwise in perpetuity.”

    Such concerns will lead men to support a strong central government. As Lord Acton says, “Government must not be arbitrary, but it must be powerful enough to repress arbitrary action in others. If the supreme power is needlessly limited, the secondary powers will run riot and oppress. Its supremacy will bear no check.” The power of the state is necessary to guard the individual from oppression by privileged groups; that is from regulation in an interest not his own.

  • You articulate your point well MPS and I concede that there may be other justifications for Statism. Are these shared by Americans though? I’m not sure that they are.

    Jefferson had an affection for the theoretical underpinnings of the French Revolution that seem fairly unique for his time. I don’t recall reading anywhere that Rousseau’s writings had much currency with the Framers, Federalist or Anti-Federalist. Nor do I recall mention of French revolutionary ideas at the Ratification Debates.

    So, while I think you articulate a point we shoul seriously consider in answering Bonchamps’ query, I don’t think it accurate to ascribe it much currency among the founders of our republic.

  • G-Veg

    Franklin, writing in 1736, 26 years before Rousseau’s Social Contract and 53 years before the French Revolution, voices very similar ideas to Rousseau’s on popular sovereignty: “The judgment of a whole people, especially of a free people, is looked upon to be infallible. And this is universally true, while they remain in their proper sphere, unbiassed by faction, undeluded by the tricks of designing men. A body of people thus circumstanced cannot be supposed to judge amiss on any essential points; for if they decide in favour of themselves, which is extremely natural, their decision is just, inasmuch as whatever contributes to their benefit is a general benefit, and advances the real public good.”

    Such ideas were the common currency of the age.

  • “I am not sure that Lockean social contract theory was the basis of America’s founding. ”

    I consider the Declaration of Independence to be America’s first document, and it is a Lockean document. I don’t discount the influence of other sources on many other parts and aspects of the United States, but when it came time to philosophically justify what the American rebels were about to do, it was to Lockean principles that they turned.

    Of course, there is a difference between who influenced the Declaration and who influenced the Constitution. I never claimed, or would claim, that the Constitution was primarily Lockean. So this isn’t mutually exclusive with the “practical” or “pragmatic” considerations mentioned by Paul and Don.

    As for this,

    “As I understand it, the terms of the social contract are simply that “Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.””

    Those are the terms of social contract theory in general. But the American social contract is very specific in its articulation of the purpose of government, the reason for which the contract exists. We established the government in order to secure our natural rights. We crafted a Bill of Rights later on to reinforce this contract.

  • “The specific influences of the Framers is an interesting topic but it is on the margins of Bonchamps’ thesis and of marginal value in answering the question posed.”

    Thanks for being the one person in probably 5 million who noticed or would even care to say it as if it mattered 🙂

  • “Our system of government, in reality rather than theory, is a dance between Statism and Libertarianism; between those who refuse to accept collateral damage and those who believe that collateral damage is inevitable and choose only to alleviate or mitigate he harm caused by their own behavior.”

    I think you’re correct, G-Veg. The only distinction which I would draw is that the choice to alleviate or mitigate will almost always be the one which impinges least upon the ability to exercise the behavior as freely as possible. If one examines carefully the laws surrounding Religion and Sexuality (a.k.a. Family Law), one sees your idea borne out. It is without doubt that quick and easy divorce is ruinous to our country, yet we choose to employ armies of counselors, lawyers, judges, etc. to pick up the pieces rather than enact laws that make it more difficult to become divorced.

  • That is fascinating. I am embarrassed to say that I have not read any of Franklin’s writing. Perhaps there is a proviso though? The quote states something that I would not hold to be true. Take Sparta’ norms or Western culture’s abortion on demand theories, for example: how does the principle apply to the dastardly, self serving norms of fallen peoples? Perhaps there is more to the argument.

    Perhaps i can coax you into exploing these ideas more fully. Whether the Framers of our constitution accepted Statisn ideas such as were proposed in France in the 1780s or not, the ideas are relevnt o this discussion since Bonchamps is exploing idels, not merely pragmatic realities.

    I am curious, for example, how these ideas can be reconciled with the predominant wories of the Framers: tyranny of the few or the many.

  • G-Veg,

    You constantly make excellent “points.”

    I recently re-read my freshman Ancient History text chapters on Greece to refresh on the Persian Wars. An interesting factor in Sparta’s political development was that the polis’ council usurped the Spartan/Greek fathers’ traditional discretion to slay, or not slay, infant children. Interesting that we have government sponsordd abortion and soon Obamacare euthanasia/death panels.

    Your most recent comment raises the issue of “tyranny of the few or the many.”

    Over the years (I have a six in front of my age), I have seen the liberals (perennial bed-wetters and eternal whiners), call it “dictatorship of the majority” whenever their plots were legislatively dismissed.

    Whenever I heard/read that pabululm, these words: “consent of the governed” would fly around inside my cranium.

    Two thing: The Framers specifically denied the government the authority to impose taxes on citizens’ income or property; and they never intended the government to have power to take property from some citizens and transfer it to other citizens to buy political power.

    “Consent of the governed” and as St. Augustine wrote, “Government without justice is organized brigandage.” We have duly elected “organized brigandage.”

  • The Framers specifically denied the government the authority to impose taxes on citizens’ income or property; and they never intended the government to have power to take property from some citizens and transfer it to other citizens to buy political power.

    The federal government was debarred from levying direct taxes unless such taxes were apportioned among the states. State governments retained a power to tax as specified in each state constitution. The 16th Amendment extended the power to levy taxes on the income of individual households.

  • G-Veg

    Franklin, writing in 1736, was not considering a Federal constitution, but the government of a state.

    Under any system of government, sovereignty must be lodged somewhere, by which I mean the power to make and unmake all laws whatsoever.

    In an interview with the Catholic News Service (June 14, 1996) Scalia J explained, “The whole theory of democracy, my dear fellow, is that the majority rules, that is the whole theory of it. You protect minorities only because the majority determines that there are certain minorities or certain minority positions that deserve protection. Thus in the United States Constitution we have removed from the majoritarian system of democracy the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, and a few other freedoms that are named in the Bill of Rights. The whole purpose of that is that the people themselves, that is to say the majority, agree to the rights of the minority on those subjects — but not on other subjects. If you want minority rights on other subjects, you must persuade the majority that you desire those minority rights. Or else you take up arms and conquer the majority. I mean you may always do that, of course.”

    The ultimate guarantee of freedom is that the laws are made by those who are to obey them; that they are the same for all, whether they protect of punish and, thus, no one can restrict the freedom ofothers, without restricting his own to the same degree. This was well known to the Greeks, who spoke of ???????? [Isonomia = Equal law]

  • I think I better understand your point. How do we reconcile it with Natural Law?

    Abortion on Demand is a good vehicle for exploring this point, to my mind, because, in much of Europe, it is generally accepted as rightly and properly an individual concern, beyond the powers of the State to regulate; hence my Spartan reference eariier. Now, as a Christian, I know, with absolute certainty, that murdering children is inherently evil. In order for a law to be morally and ethically valid, it cannot directly contradict Natural Law.

    So, is your point merely a practical one: that a minority, however righteous, has no power to make the majority do the Good? If so, it is an obvious point and I concede it unequivocally. However, if you are tying ethical and moral laws to majoritarianism, I am afraid you will have to explain yourself more fully since I am do not see the connection.

  • You have it wrong. Drugs are illegal because the people, through their governmental representatives, have said that they need to prevent those who use drugs from , in many ways, harming themselves and others. Now..some doper may ruin his life and never cost society anything (like whenTHE USER needs help in government-provided services like rehab and counselling-which cost you and me!). But often he hurts his family or co-workers or the public, and causes certian problems for which certain action is needed. You talk about this problem in a way that totally misconstruees the REASON drugs are illegal. It is NOT about what the user does to himself. I don’t want druggies free to use in public or without some criminal sanction.
    How much government do you want to eliminate? Should we eliminate the following?
    1. laws prohibiting prostitution?
    2. any governmental agency that examines and protects the manufacture and distribution of food we eat and legal drugs ? Should ANYONE be able to make and package meat and then sell it without inspection?
    3. laws that require testing of people before they get a license to drive?
    4. allow doctors to practice medicine without a license?
    5. legalize heroin?….meth??..
    6. should I be able to demand,” I want 3 oxycontin a day and not the amount that the doctor says he can legally give me?” I mean…my” freedom” to reduce my pain should allow me to do that??
    I love “liberty,””freedom,” and I like to use those words to make whatever I am discussing more palatable, but Mr Catholic, people who don’t use drugs, it has been proven, need some civil protection, from many, many dopers who decide to violate the laws and do things known by everyone from publicized stories from the last 40 years. Dopers do things that harm NOT ONLY themdelves, but others….just like the person who is not tested and licensed to drive. Why shouldn’t I be able to mary without a governmentally-required marriage license??
    I would never vote for Rand Paul….unless he ran against this Catholic-hating doofus we have as President now….

  • G-Veg

    The contradiction at the heart of liberalism lies in its simultaneous assertion of popular sovereignty and universal human rights. In the brief interlude between the absolutist state of the Ancien Régime and modern mass democracies, this was achieved by the separation of the public sphere of state activity and the private sphere of civil society. The state provided a legally codified order within which social customs, economic competition, religious beliefs, and so on, could be pursued without interference.

    But, when the social consensus on which the distinction rested breaks down, as it did with the rise of organised labour and of mass political parties, liberalism has no way of defining or defending the boundaries of this sphere; everything becomes potentially political.

    Rousseau saw this very well. “Each man alienates, I admit, by the social compact, only such part of his powers, goods and liberty as it is important for the community to control; but it must also be granted that the Sovereign is sole judge of what is important,” for “ if the individuals retained certain rights, as there would be no common superior to decide between them and the public, each, being on one point his own judge, would ask to be so on all; the state of nature would thus continue, and the association would necessarily become inoperative or tyrannical.”

    His solution is well known: “whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free; [« ce qui ne signifie autre chose sinon qu’on le forcera d’être libre »] for this is the condition which, by giving each citizen to his country, secures him against all personal dependence.”

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  • Don Curry,

    “Drugs are illegal because the people, through their governmental representatives, have said that they need to prevent those who use drugs from , in many ways, harming themselves and others.”

    I don’t remember voting on a federal law prohibiting marijuana. I do recall two states, just recently in the last electing, voting to legalize it directly through ballot initiatives.

    Anyone who votes for the use for force to save me from my own decisions is a moral fraud and my enemy. Protecting society is a different matter. On THAT point alcohol and pot are on the same level. Oh yes, the “long term effects” may differ, but to consider those isn’t to protect society, but rather to engage in social engineering, which is not a legitimate role of the state. Protecting society really means protecting the lives, liberties and property of its members, to which marijuana poses no greater threat (and considerably less of a threat in my experience) than alcohol.

    “Now..some doper may ruin his life and never cost society anything (like whenTHE USER needs help in government-provided services like rehab and counselling-which cost you and me!)”

    This isn’t a compelling argument, since I oppose those government-provided services as well. That’s what private charity is for. I’m all for you and I never paying another cent into such programs and letting churches and other groups deal with it. AA is pretty much a private religious group, as far as I can tell.

    “But often he hurts his family or co-workers or the public, and causes certian problems for which certain action is needed. ”

    So let his family and co-workers deal with him. The family can kick him out on his behind. His boss can fire him. As for the public, then yes, “certain action” is needed. There are plenty of people who use marijuana (and other drugs, I might add), in such ways that they never pose a threat to the public, and therefore they shouldn’t be punished at all for what they do in private.

    I don’t believe in pre-crime. I don’t believe in punishing people because they ingest a substance that MIGHT make them a threat to the public. If I believed that, I would have to be for the total prohibition of alcohol, because it has destroyed far more lives, cost far more jobs, and caused far more public damage and violence than marijuana ever has.

    The punishments of a free society – the loss of family, income, home, friends, respect – are severe enough for people who abuse drugs.

    “You talk about this problem in a way that totally misconstruees the REASON drugs are illegal. It is NOT about what the user does to himself. ”

    Really? Because you JUST mentioned people who are “harming themselves” in this very comment. Why did you do that? In any case, I have clearly addressed and acknowledged the other reasons as well. I don’t find them compelling, except in the case of drugs that have no other purpose than addiction, such as crack and meth. Those drugs we can and should eliminate as a public menace though I don’t think the users should be thrown in prison for possession (just destroy the dealers and their unholy laboratories).

    Now, this will be fun. How much gov’t should we eliminate? Let’s see.

    “1. laws prohibiting prostitution?”

    Yes. All of them. Just like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas advised. Nature and organic society punish sexual abusers enough already. Human law doesn’t need to add to it.

    However, and I’ll repeat this for almost every point on the list, this is under our Constitution a state and local issue, and that I don’t object to states and cities prohibiting it if that’s what they want, as long as people are free to live in a state or a city that decides to allow it.

    “2. any governmental agency that examines and protects the manufacture and distribution of food we eat and legal drugs ? Should ANYONE be able to make and package meat and then sell it without inspection?”

    Get rid of them all. People who sell bad drugs and bad meats will find themselves without customers. Consumers are capable of making their own choices and establishing their own rating agencies to spread information about products. Companies that avoid this voluntary process will find themselves with fewer customers than those that voluntarily submit to it.

    No producer who wants to be successful sells poison and packages it as something healthy unless he’s getting government subsidies. If you sell bad drugs and bad meat on the streets, there are much more efficient ways of meeting out justice. Without governments to force people to buy your products or subsidize your loses, you have no choice but to compete for profits the old fashioned way – by actually giving people what they want on a consistent basis.

    Finally, in spite of all of our wonderful and efficient regulations, tens of thousands of people still manage to die each year due to drug and food complications. It couldn’t have ANYTHING to do with the fact that there is a revolving door between the FDA and the corporate world, though right? The fact is that every time you establish some regulatory agency, all you are really doing is establishing an entity that the largest players in those markets can purchase and staff with their own people to crush the competition, keep new competitors from entering the market, and give legal sanction to defective goods and services. That is exactly what has happened with the US regulatory apparatus. We would all be better off without it.

    “3. laws that require testing of people before they get a license to drive?”

    That’s a state issue. I would oppose federal meddling in the issue, and I don’t rule out the possibility of private/free alternatives, but its really not very high on my priority list. Stopping midnight SWAT raids that resemble the tactics of the NKVD or Gestapo, drone strikes on innocent families across the ocean, and the destruction of religious liberty in the United States rate a little higher.

    “4. allow doctors to practice medicine without a license?”

    I don’t think governments need to be involved here either.A doctor whose practices cause harm to people won’t be in business very long. If the harm is unintentional, he can be sued in court, and if it is intentional, then he can and should be arrested and prosecuted for whatever harm he did. I don’t see why we need an army of bureaucrats who inspect things to be involved in this process.

    On the other hand, there are people who want to practice alternative medicine whom the official licensing establishment would never grant a license to, for whatever reasons. People ought to be free to explore alternatives at their own risk, though. That’s what being a grown up is all about.

    “5. legalize heroin?….meth??..”

    Decriminalize possession in amounts clearly intended for personal use. Perhaps some kind of rehab can be mandated for repeat offenders. I’m all for aggressively going after meth labs and drug cartels, though.

    “6. should I be able to demand,” I want 3 oxycontin a day and not the amount that the doctor says he can legally give me?” I mean…my” freedom” to reduce my pain should allow me to do that??”

    Well, you are free to hurt yourself if that is what you are asking. But the doctor is also free to say “no.” So no, I don’t think we need a bureaucrat deciding how many pills a person can take.

    “do things known by everyone from publicized stories from the last 40 years”

    What sort of things did they do when all these drugs were perfectly legal? And why haven’t all of these laws stopped all of these people from doing all of these terrible things?

    I’m for the protection of people’s rights from would-be violators, including drug users. I am opposed to laws that serve virtually no other purpose but to punish people for indulging in a substance that may or may not cause them to do something else. Moderate users who don’t violate other people’s rights should not be punished along with violent addicts. That’s not justice, it’s coercive Puritanism.

  • Anyone who votes for the use for force to save me from my own decisions is a moral fraud and my enemy.

    Curious as to how you’d vote if abortion were ever on the ballot.

    For that matter, what about legislation regarding rape, murder, arson and all other “decisions” you may make?

    Now I know that you will retort that these are all actions that are much more serious than marijuana use, and you would be correct. Of course then you would be making a distinction – almost saying something akin to “No, that’s different,” which as we learned the other day would be hypocritical.

  • “I am opposed to laws that serve virtually no other purpose but to punish people for indulging in a substance that may or may not cause them to do something else.”

    Has the writer used drugs, and if yes, then is he being being honest about the effect that the use of mind-altering substances has on his behavior? The question is rhetorical. I have the answer for myself. I did, and I became a lying, thieving, conniving reprobate deserving of incarceration, or worse. I have known of no exceptions, though I suppose there may be a few here and there.

    I have often wondered how one can be so very brilliant in some areas, so miss the mark in other areas, and be completely (some would say even pridefully) unwilling to countenance a possible error in judgement. No offense intended. I simply know from first hand experience what drugs do.

  • “But what if the consumers are mistaken with regard to their own interests? Obviously, they sometimes are. But several more points must be made. In the first place, every individual knows the data of his own inner self best—by the very fact that each has a separate mind and ego. Secondly, the individual, if in doubt about what his own true interests are, is free to hire and consult experts to give him advice based on their superior knowledge. The individual hires these experts and, on the market, can continuously test their helpfulness. Individuals on the market, in short, tend to patronize those experts whose advice proves most successful. Good doctors or lawyers reap rewards on the free market, while poor ones fail. But when government intervenes, the government expert acquires his revenue by compulsory levy. There is no market test of his success in teaching people their true interests. The only test is his success in acquiring the political support of the State’s machinery of coercion.” — Murray Rothbard

  • Paul,

    I’m really surprised that you would ask me such questions. Have you never read my posts? Is this the first thing of mine you’ve read?

    “Curious as to how you’d vote if abortion were ever on the ballot.”

    Against it, every time, because it is legalized murder. My guidepost isn’t “freedom to do as I please”, but rather natural rights to life, liberty and property. Abortion violates the right to life.

    “For that matter, what about legislation regarding rape, murder, arson and all other “decisions” you may make?”

    Seeing as how I clearly specified laws that would save me from my own decisions, I’m not sure how much sense laws against raping, murdering and setting myself on fire would make, but I would probably end up opposing them.

    Laws that protect people’s natural rights from the decisions made by others to violate those rights, I’m fine with, and have never suggested otherwise.

    “Now I know that you will retort that these are all actions that are much more serious than marijuana use, and you would be correct.”

    More serious? No. All of those actions involve one person doing harm to another person. What I specifically mentioned were laws that would protect me from myself. Apples and oranges.

    “Of course then you would be making a distinction – almost saying something akin to “No, that’s different,” which as we learned the other day would be hypocritical.”

    And now you’re going to hold me to what someone ELSE alleged?

    Really?

  • Unrealistic expectations about how the individual is going to be responsible. When the individual screws up, it is the victim of his drug use who suffers and the govermnent who pays…since the family has kicked the doper out, and he has no more money because he has sucked it into his nose.Yes freedom!!…liberty !! womnan’s freedom…woman’s liberty.. and so I guess you are for abortion rights. As a Catholic, you must have alot to explain. ..and by the way…why do you think they call it “dope?”

  • Bonchamps,

    Just trying to follow the logic of your absolutism, is all. I am not sure that your explanation really distinguishes drug laws from the other matters sufficiently, but unfortunately I’m not going to have time to pursue the matter for now. But your pro-life bona fides are unquestioned – again, I was just pointing out the difficulties with that statement.

  • Paul P,

    I’ve often wondered how someone who claims to be a Christian and usually displays Christian behavior can, in some instances, be so uncharitable and unreasonable.

    “Has the writer used drugs, and if yes, then is he being being honest about the effect that the use of mind-altering substances has on his behavior?”

    Not that it matters, but yes I have, and yes I am. I did far more damage to myself, others, and society when I was drunk than I ever did when I was stoned. I would say the same without hesitation regarding everyone I knew who used in both substances.

    But who cares? Why do you relate everything back to the way YOU were? Why in heaven’s name would you conflate justice with whatever would have served to stop YOU from being an anti-social marauder? There are plenty of people who use marijuana in moderation. It is wrong to punish them for doing so.

  • The only thing they half-rght (for the wrong reasons) is opposition to the Fed. Bank of England’s Andy Haldane, “. . . the crisis started by the banks was as damaging as a “world war.” It will be central bank policies’ fault that the world will long-term suffer in abysmal economic growth and raging unemployment.

    And, becuz on the list of evils that are destroying America weed is just above “Don’t shoot bigfoot or the aliens will become enraged!”

  • Paul Z,

    “Just trying to follow the logic of your absolutism, is all.”

    Having principles is now “absolutism”? Are you going to look at my defense of natural rights the way secularists look at your acceptance of Catholic dogmas?

    “I am not sure that your explanation really distinguishes drug laws from the other matters sufficiently,”

    The distinction is simply between what I said – laws that would save me from my own decisions – and what you proposed, laws against things that people do to each other.

  • When talking about legalizing marijuana, we need to get the facts from reputable medical sources (e.g., the National Institute of Health, the Center for Disease Control, or the US Surgeon General) just as when we are talking about new nuclear power plants or Fukushima Daiichi we need to get the facts from reputable engineering sources (e.g., the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the US Nuclear Energy Institute, or the International Atomic Energy Agency). The following web sites provide information that indicates that the use of marijuana is hardly harmless or relegated to impacting only the user (which of course confirms my own personal experience):

    http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/marijuana

    http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00001143.htm

    https://www.ncjrs.gov/ondcppubs/publications/pdf/marijuana_myths_facts.pdf

  • Don C,

    “Unrealistic expectations about how the individual is going to be responsible.”

    I don’t know what you mean. One way or another, a free society imposes costs upon people who abuse themselves and others. If an individual doesn’t take responsibility, society will deprive him of more and more things until he either straightens up or dies in a gutter.

    “When the individual screws up, it is the victim of his drug use who suffers and the govermnent who pays…”

    How many times do I have to say it? I don’t want the government to pay for anything in this regard. It isn’t like that is necessary. It is a policy. It doesn’t have to exist.

    “since the family has kicked the doper out, and he has no more money because he has sucked it into his nose.Yes freedom!!…liberty !!”

    Yes, that’s what it means. That’s where you can end up. That’s what it means to have a soul – the possibility of choosing evil and spending eternity in hell. Do you curse God for your free will as well?

    “womnan’s freedom…woman’s liberty.. and so I guess you are for abortion rights.”

    You guess wrong. Abortion is murder.

    I don’t believe in libertinism. I believe in natural law. And I believe nature and free society impose sufficient penalties for most bad behavior, and that the involvement of the state is morally unjustifiable and practically unnecessary.

    “As a Catholic, you must have alot to explain. ..and by the way…why do you think they call it “dope?””

    I never said it was good. I just don’t think the state should be involved. But I guess that’s just beyond some of you.

  • “Not that it matters, but yes I have, and yes I am.”

    Someone who is using marijuana should stop driving or otherwise using heavy machinery until one month after ceasing the use of marijuana since the THC molecule remains in the myelin sheath of the neurons for up to a month after the last use of marijuana and can precipitate out, resulting in an unintentional state of intoxication at any time. People who are currently using it are a danger to themselves and otehrs.

  • Paul P,

    “The following web sites provide information that indicates that the use of marijuana is hardly harmless or relegated to impacting only the user (which of course confirms my own personal experience)”

    I never said it was harmless. I believe people should be free to harm themselves, within the limits of other people’s rights. That’s why we are free to smoke cigarettes, eat triple cheeseburgers, and consume alcohol by the gallons. I maintain that marijuana does not pose a greater immediate risk to the lives, liberties and property of others than these substances, and in many cases, considerably less of a threat.

    There’s a lot of hypocrisy here, and a lot of absurdity. Rail against marijuana all day. I don’t like the stuff and I don’t smoke it. I don’t even like being around people who smoke it. But I will always oppose state involvement in what is clearly a private matter.

  • Paul P,

    To be clear – I smoked it back in high school. That was over a decade ago.

  • I mean, heck, I only drink alcohol a few times a year.

    I told you before, I’m addicted to stimulants. Starbucks is my drug dealer. Triple lattes.

  • Bonchamps, thanks for the clarification. In my line of work, I would be relieved of duty immediately if marijuana were detected in my blood, however minute the quantity. And you would want me relieved of duty.

    I am glad you stopped using, as did I. Sadly, I required the baseball bat of the Lord’s grace aisde the head to get me to stop. As for alcohol, it’s not like marijuana and in moderation is harmless while for me it is a poison. But that’s different.

    No, I don’t like the war on drugs and I think the solution is the 12 Steps. But society has to protect itself from the scourge of drug use. So I disagree with your supposition that private use of marijuana harms no one except the user. That’s not true because the behavior it causes almost always harms others. And comparing that to alcohol is like comparing apples and oranges.

  • ” That’s not true because the behavior it causes almost always harms others.”

    No it doesn’t. The behavior it causes is usually sitting around talking about nonsense, watching nonsense on the television and stuffing your face.

    Alcohol, on the other hand, causes people to get loud, obnoxious, sexually promiscuous and physically violent.

  • Darn, I am not going to win this argument. Oh well! As long as there are no reactor operators at the panel using marijuana, or airplane pilots, or surgeons, or train engineers, or navigators of LNG or petroleum tankers, or any of a host of other occupations affecting public health and safety.

  • Having principles is now “absolutism”?

    Sigh. Just forget it.

  • “Alcohol, on the other hand, causes people to get loud, obnoxious, sexually promiscuous and physically violent.”

    That may be (in part) a societal reaction – see here, for instance: http://www2.potsdam.edu/hansondj/Controversies/1048596839.html or here: http://www.sirc.org/publik/drinking4.html.

    At any rate, congratulations, Bonchamps – this blog post has produced the most diverse (verbose) reactions I have seen to any post on this site in a great while.

  • Paul Z,

    You’re sighing at me – after using the word “absolutism” to describe my positions?

    Was it supposed to be a perfectly neutral and objective description? If so, I’m really sorry for having assumed the negative connotation that almost is almost always associated with the word in modern political and philosophical discussions.

  • Of course, you’re just heaping insult on top of insult by sighing, rolling your eyes like a bored teenager, and assuming I’m just so hard-headed and fanatical that I can’t possibly be reasonably engaged. I’d love nothing more, absolutely nothing more, than to have a frank, open, honest and deep debate about all of these issues and I apologize if I unfairly or unnecessarily associated your word choice with ill-intent.

  • Alcohol, on the other hand, causes people to get loud, obnoxious, sexually promiscuous and physically violent.

    No, people are inclined to be loud, obnoxious, sexually promiscuous, or physically violent; alcohol lowers inhibitions. It is quite unremarkable to imbibe quite a bit over one’s lifetime and imbibe to intoxication and be none of these things.

  • Bonchamps, With respect to all, you aren’t tinkering at the edge of government an everyone else is. Therein lies the problem.

    Unless I am greatly mistaken, you aren’t asking how to change the existing laws and government to allow particular principles to operate. You are proposing a Libertarian answer to the question “what is the origin and role of government?” and inviting us to offer an alternative view. If I have that right, MPS is the only one to have done so and his championing of Statism as the indispensible instrument of freedom through majoritarianism seems to me to be the polar opposite of your proposition.

    I have nothing so clever to say as either of you and, so, am egging you on from the outside of the ring. I should very much like to see a back and forth between ye.

  • Bonchamps…Terrific, just terrific. Your clear, concise, direct responses to the “arguments” of Paul P., Paul Z., Don C. in this comments section have been a real pleasure to read.

    Your defense of the natural law and the principle of non-aggression is heartening and sorely needed among my fellow Catholics. I check this blog for your posts often and then look forward to the comments following them.

    I have to think that your response to Don C. @ 3:57pm would cause any thinking person to sit back and at least begin to question their position on these issues.

    Well done! Please keep it up.

  • Well, I’m not quite sure where you would like us to begin. I accept the terms of the Lockean social contract, but not that of Rousseau. I accept the American Revolution, which was justified on Lockean grounds (again, this is distinct and separate from the crafting of the U.S. Constitution, which owes more to other sources), and I reject the French Revolution, which was the product of Rousseau’s thought. I think Locke was a continuation of the natural law tradition dating back to Aristotle, furthered by Jefferson and others like Sumner and Murray Rothbard while Rousseau was a continuation of Hobbes’ apologetic for tyranny, who was furthered by Hegel, Marx and Lenin. These are different historical trajectories.

    I can’t imagine anything more absurd than the notion of “championing of Statism as the indespensible instrument of freedom.” The state and all of its functions are maintained by the violent confiscation of private property. And even if it is, for a time, run by people who hold the right moral values (as it arguably was during certain times and places during Christendom), it can too easily be placed in the hands of people who hold values that are ungodly and inhuman, as I believe it is now. How can the state guarantee freedom when it is run by people who don’t even appear to believe in the concept of free will? The HHS mandate, for instance, is being forced upon us because – and this is the government’s argument to the federal judiciary – it is in the government interest to promote “gender equality”, and this consideration overrides all others. This is clearly not an instrument for freedom, but rather one of enslavement, robbery and violence for the sake of immoral and untenable ideas.

    Freedom does require certain conditions. Private property rights must be respected and protected. An overarching power is needed to punish those who violate these rights. The Constitution was ratified by the states because individually they would not have the defensive powers they would have combined. But the states forced upon the proponents of the Constitution the Bill of Rights, which is now being fired upon by the Obama administration (as it was under Bush Jr., without a doubt, and as it would have been under John McCain or Mitt Romney or John Kerry or any of the other would-be presidents). Both sides believe in unlimited spending to finance their ideological visions – the Democrats want unlimited domestic welfare and entitlement spending to bring about an egalitarian utopia, while the Republicans want unlimited military spending to bring about global democracy. And yet libertarians are accused of sacrificing everything to “ideology” and not being “pragmatic” enough. No, I’m plenty pragmatic – neither egalitarianism in the United States nor democracy in in the Middle East have a thing to do with my interests or can be supported with means I find morally justifiable or fiscally sustainable. I say the same about the state harassing and punishing people engaged in moderate levels of vice.

    I’ll leave it there.

  • For an alternative to the Social Contract theory, Yves Simon, the Catholic political philosopher and very much in the Thomist tradition, argues for the “ethical state.” “The highest activity/being in the natural order is free arrangement of men about what is good, brought together in an actual polity where it is no longer a mere abstraction.” This is not dissimilar to Hegel’s view of the state as “mind objectified” where the moral order finds its concrete embodiment.

    Since, “Human communities are the highest attainment of nature for they are virtually unlimited with regard to diversity of perfections, and are virtually immortal” and, hence, “Beyond the satisfaction of individual needs, the association of men serves a good unique in plenitude and duration, the common good of the human community.”

    It differs from the classical Social Contract theory in insisting on the essentially social nature of man and that the individual is an abstraction. Indeed, Simon argues that “in this state [of abstraction], man is “no longer unequivocally real.””

    Similarly, Simon’s teacher, Jacques Maritain argues that Integral political science . . . is superior in kind to philosophy; to be truly complete it must have a reference to the domain of theology, and it is precisely as a theologian that St. Thomas wrote De regimine principum . . . the knowledge of human actions and of the good conduct of the human State in particular can exist as an integral science, as a complete body of doctrine, only if related to the ultimate end of the human being. . . the rule of conduct governing individual and social life cannot therefore leave the supernatural order out of account (The Things that are not Caesar’s, p. 128)

    Of course, these are the principles underlying “Throne and Altar” Conservatism.

  • As far as I am concerned, the contenders for political power in the United States are natural law libertarianism and social democracy. This isn’t Europe. There’s no ancien regime to reestablish and no cultural support even in the remotest for such thing.

    “It differs from the classical Social Contract theory in insisting on the essentially social nature of man and that the individual is an abstraction. Indeed, Simon argues that “in this state [of abstraction], man is “no longer unequivocally real.”””

    I completely reject this as nothing but a recipe for totalitarianism. Are individual souls “abstractions” as well?

    I accept that man has a “social nature”, which finds its expression in the free market of mutual beneficial exchange and voluntary cooperation.

    “the rule of conduct governing individual and social life cannot therefore leave the supernatural order out of account”

    When there is no cultural consensus on the supernatural order, the governing of social life can’t possibly take into account any particular supernatural order, even the right one. That’s just a fact, whether I like it or not.

  • small voice from over in the corner It seems like the essence of the contention is whether “people” can be trusted to still do “the right thing” if nobody’s standing over them, making them pursue or eschew whatever actions inform it.

    Liberty assumes they/we can. Statism assumes they/we won’t. Is it possible to stand on one and proclaim the other?

    Is either concept workable given that man is fallen and the evils of his heart will corrupt the authority or freedom anyone pursues?

    I wish I knew. I know which side I prefer, though; taken ad absurdam, The State will shove The Church out like a catbird chick and take millions to perdition with it. Liberty, even in imperfect man, makes room for The Church or dies alone.

    “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:31-32

    This, we can trust.

  • WK Aitken

    Well said.

    The great 19th century Catholic historian, Lord Acton said of liberty that “In every age its progress has been beset by its natural enemies, by ignorance and superstition, by lust of conquest and by love of ease, by the strong man’s craving for power, and the poor man’s craving for food.”

    He adds that “If hostile interests have wrought much injury, false ideas have wrought still more; and its advance is recorded in the increase of knowledge, as much as in the improvement of laws.”

  • “Liberty assumes they/we can.”

    Not really. Liberty assumes that “doing the right thing” is only actually right when it is done freely, and that forcing people to do the right thing is not only immoral in the means, but doesn’t even produce a moral end. You can’t be forced to act morally. If you aren’t choosing freely, you aren’t behaving morally. You’re just fulfilling someone else’s desires. You’re a slave.

  • Bonchamps wrote

    “You can’t be forced to act morally. If you aren’t choosing freely, you aren’t behaving morally. You’re just fulfilling someone else’s desires. You’re a slave.”

    This is clearly right. Liberty means self-government, or it means nothing.

    G K Chesterton said, “The citizens not only make up the state, but make the State; not only make it, but remake it… “The idea of the Citizen is that his individual human nature shall be constantly and creatively active in altering the State… Every Citizen is a revolution. That is, he destroys, devours and adapts his environment to the extent of his own thought and conscience. This is what separates the human social effort from the non-human; the bee creates the honey-comb, but he does not criticise it… No state of social good that does not mean the Citizen choosing good, as well as getting it, has the idea of the Citizen at all.”

  • Bonchamps – I see what you mean and it’s why I enclosed the phrase in quotes. It wasn’t necessarily an allusion to charitable or otherwise moral works as much as day-to-day options and civil behavior (overlap notwithstanding,) but your elucidation is spot on. Thanks.

    MPS – would that Dr. Chesterton’s words still rang true in government circles here. Perhaps again, someday.

  • To maintain that there is a “natural order,” governed by Natural Law, consisting of truths accessible to unaided human reason; something that can be kept separate from the supernatural truths revealed in the Gospel is, in practice, to acquiesce in the liberal privatisation of religion and to hold that the state can be self-sufficient, in the sense that it can be properly independent of any specifically Christian sense of justice.

    But there is no such thing as a state of pure nature. “We cannot,” says Blondel, “think or act anywhere as if we do not all have a supernatural destiny. Because, since it concerns the human being such as he is, in concreto, in his living and total reality, not in a simple state of hypothetical nature, nothing is truly self-contained (boucle), even in the sheerly natural order.” This is why Maritain insists, “The rule of conduct governing individual and social life cannot therefore leave the supernatural order out of account.”

    Thus, in “Immortal Dei,” Pope Lo XIII says, “So, too, is it a sin for the State not to have care for religion as a something beyond its scope, or as of no practical benefit; or out of many forms of religion to adopt that one which chimes in with the fancy; for we are bound absolutely to worship God in that way which He has shown to be His will. All who rule, therefore, should hold in honour the holy name of God, and one of their chief duties must be to favour religion, to protect it, to shield it under the credit and sanction of the laws, and neither to organize nor enact any measure that may compromise its safety. This is the bounden duty of rulers to the people over whom they rule.”

Social Contract and Morality

Friday, June 11, AD 2010

Kyle Cupp has a brief post describing the dehumanizing moral effects of seeing human dignity and rights as springing entirely from a social contract (implied or explicit):

This reduction occurs when we understand and act upon our moral obligations to one another only within the framework of a social contract–when we limit our obligations to those who have entered into such contracts and consider ourselves obligated only to those who share our citizenship, have signed a treaty we have signed, or participate with us in some other contractual arrangement. I make this reduction when I don’t care about torturing terrorists because they’re not signers of the Geneva Conventions, when I wish to alienate the immigrant who enters my country against my country’s laws, when I ignore my obligations to those not yet born because the laws of the land do not recognize their personhood, or when I insist that others shouldn’t be given Constitutional rights when the rights I wish to withhold from them are basic human rights.

I think that he’s right as far as he goes, but I don’t think that his point that basic human rights and duties are inherent to humanity (rather than assumed via some sort of contract/relationship) is actually the point usually at dispute in our society. Rather, what seems often to be disputed is what the extent of basic human rights are — and which “rights” are merely agreed civic rights which we grant explicitly via the social contract.

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15 Responses to Social Contract and Morality

  • Of course what are called “human rights” today are almost entirely the product of Western societies since the Sixteenth Century, much of it from Great Britain and America in origin. Much of what we call “human rights” today would have been denounced as pernicious and/or dangerous throughout most of human history by most cultures. To say that “human rights” arise simply due to inherent moral obligations that exist between people, we are confronted with the difficulty that most cultures for most of human history would vigorously disagree.

  • Thank you for the thoughtful response, Darwin. I’m pretty sure that I agree with the points you make, particularly in your last paragraph. To clarify my post, let me say that when the reduction is made, it isn’t usually (if ever) made flat out in a way that covers a person’s entire morality; it’s rather applied here and there inconsistently.

  • Donald,

    You raise a good point about the history of rights language. It is a recent invention. I tend to call rights a useful fiction, myself.

  • I do agree with what Kyle said. But, from other discussions I know that I don’t agree with how Kyle applies his generic or all inclusive definition of basic human rights to all persons of all types of backgrounds, since his definition doesn’t seem to take into consideration ( or very little consideration) certain circumstances and/or the consequences that one must face when committing a crime or an act of war. This is applicable with regards to both illegal immigrants and terrorists.

    While I do believe that enhanced interrogation techniques are justified in very extreme, life saving circumstances, I do think that the Bush administration allowed the use of them too frequently. But, then again, one needs to realize the atmosphere after 9/11, and no person wanted anything like this to ever happen again. I don’t support the three items on your list. They are in violation of basic human rights. With regards to immigration, I am all for legal immigration but am against illegal immigration. One would think that having secure borders would be a good thing, especially for our safety, but certain people deride people who advocate for secure borders and call us other vile names just because we want immigrants to follow our laws and immigrate here via the proper channels.

  • My only issue is that I don’t ever recall Morning’s Minion, whom Kyle is supposedly defending with his post, demonstrating an accurate understanding of classical social contract theory, nor providing and concrete examples of this bad sort of “contract thinking” in our society.

    There is nothing wrong with the social contract. It defines clearly the parameters of government. The alternative is arbitrary authority. We as Catholics can be proud that the resistance to absolute, arbitrary authority probably began in the Salamanca school.

  • Yes, clearly those who support enhanced interrogation do so on the basis that:

    (a.) It is not a violation of basic human rights;

    (b.) Strictures against using such techniques in the civilian criminal and civil code apply only in the civilian criminal and civil code, because they arise from the social contract;

    (c.) Strictures against using such techniques against prisoners of war also arise, not from a fundamental right, but from a contractual obligation; namely, treaty obligations regarding lawful combatants. These do not apply to persons whose status is “unlawful combatant.”

    Of course, (b.) and (c.) depend on first establishing (a.). If in fact everyone does have a basic human right, intrinsic to their dignity as a human person, not to be waterboarded, why then the presence or absence of a contract doesn’t matter a whit. Only if (a.) is true, does anyone even bother with (b.) and (c.).

    So, what about (a.)?

    To repeat, (a.) asserts that enhanced interrogation is not a violation of the basic human rights intrinsic to the dignity of human persons.

    Now it sounds absurd on the face of it to say this. Obviously we know we shouldn’t go grabbing random persons and waterboarding them, so, in obedience to this moral intuition, we conclude that it must be “a violation of their basic human rights” to do so, right? And if it’s a violation of the basic human rights of any random person, it must likewise be a violation of the basic human rights of a war criminal like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, right?

    Well, not so fast. One mustn’t go around waterboarding random persons. One mustn’t go around locking up random persons, either. Does it follow that locking up Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is a violation of his basic human rights?

    Why, no. It would only be a violation if he were innocent of wrongdoing. As he is a particularly nasty terrorist and about as far from innocent as it is possible to be, it’s perfectly okay to violate his basic human right of liberty, which is intrinsic to his dignity as a human being, by locking him up.

    Actually, I said that incorrectly. It’s not okay to violate his basic human right…but locking him up is no violation, because getting locked up is a freely-chosen consequence on his part. He chose, even asked, to be treated that way just by doing what he did. If he wasn’t willing to do the time, he shouldn’t have done the war-crime.

    But that raises a problem. Why can we not likewise argue that, while of course persons in general have a right to not be waterboarded, KSM voluntarily renounced that right by choosing to orchestrate terror plots to kill thousands of innocent people. Why can we not argue that, by doing this, he “chose, even asked,” to be waterboarded?

    Is there some qualitative or categorical difference between the right to freedom from imprisonment and the right to freedom from waterboarding, such that the former right can be voluntarily renounced by evil deeds, but the latter cannot?

    So the question is this:

    Given that people voluntarily renounce certain of their rights (at minimum, their liberty and/or property) when they commit heinous crimes by committing those crimes, it is reasonable, and not a violation of their rights, to forcibly deprive them of the benefits of the rights they have renounced.

    Yet, even before we read Church teachings on the matter, we recognize that the Moral Law forbids us to treat these persons as if they had, by committing whatever evil deed, renounced all of the rights intrinsic to the human dignity. We may lock them up; so, crimes are clearly capable of constituting a rejection of one’s right to liberty. We may not hang them from a mechanized hook and lower them an inch at a time, screaming, into an industrial shredding machine; so, crimes are clearly incapable of constituting a rejection of one’s right to not be shredded alive.

    How then, can one distinguish between the two categories of rights? Which ones may be renounced by crimes of sufficient magnitude, and which may not, no matter how horrific the crime?

    The Right to Not Be Waterboarded seems, according to Church teaching and most thinking Catholic opinion, to fall in the category of rights which are never, ever renounced. Even if one were, say, to personally rape and slowly murder fifty thousand innocent children while enjoying the whole process, one would have, by doing so, renounced one’s rights to both life and liberty, but not one’s right to avoid waterboarding.

    Why so?

    I am perfectly content agreeing that there is a line to be drawn; I am perfectly content saying that that is where the line is drawn; but I am confused about whether it was drawn there arbitrarily and could have been placed elsewhere, or if it was drawn there according to some unalterable moral principle which, when understood, allows us to see that the line could only ever be drawn in that way.

    Does anyone want to propose a principle which explains the positioning of the line? Or is it arbitrary, after all?

  • Joe,

    I agree that there is nothing wrong with the social contract per se. My concern is with the social contract used as a metaphorical framework for moral thought and action. I’m critical of thinking of moral obligations too much in terms of a social contract, moral thought that relies too heavily on the metaphor, that at times fails to account for obligations that exist beyond its boundaries. When someone denies another a basic human right because that other is not a “signer” of the social contract, he has treated a personal moral obligation as if it were an obligation under a social contract.

  • And as others have pointed out, we have to distinguish between civil and “basic human rights.” Who decides what a basic human right is?

    For instance, I believe an illegal immigrant has a basic human right to have their immediate needs met – if they are hungry, feed them, if they are naked, clothe them, if they are sick, care for them, contract or no contract. That is the basic Christian obligation.

    But when it comes to say, access to social services such as medical care beyond the emergency level, or education, or food stamps, etc. – then the public authorities, whose charge is to maintain the common good, have every right to regulate and restrict who has access to these services on the basis of what is fiscally and socially sustainable.

    This used to be understood in Catholic social thought. Now I’m not so sure it is. Now “common good” has come to mean services and spending without limit, in the name of satisfying “basic human rights.” That is to say, more and more things are falling under the umbrella of “basic human rights”, all of which the state is obliged to tax and pay for.

    But unsustainable policies cannot benefit the common good. If society collapses under the weight of entitlements, benefits, and a greatly expanded understanding of “basic human rights”, then I would say a much greater moral harm is done a great many more people. Some may call that “consequentialism”, but I don’t think it is an intrinsic evil for states to set boundaries and limits in order to ensure basic functionality.

  • Who decides what a basic human right is?

    Spoken like a good anti-Christian nihilist!

  • I wasn’t going to allow or respond to this childish nonsense, but for the sake of clarity I will indulge:

    My intention was not to say that it is impossible to decide what a basic human right is, but that in politics, there are many competing claims that demand recognition.

    I am neither anti-Christian nor a “nihilist” (another one of the pet words). I will rephrase the question: who decides which claims to basic human rights are endorsed by the state? Why is it that many more things are considered “basic human rights” than were 100 years ago? I don’t say that there are no basic human rights, but that in the current political climate, the concept continues to expand without limit, without regard for realistic limitations, and in doing so, putting ALL human rights in jeopardy.

  • Joe, don’t let Karlson get under your skin. That’s just how he reacts when he can’t control the discussion and drop the comments that he doesn’t see as advancing his pet agenda. He becomes unhinged and resorts to desperate ad hominems. It’s his tell – like when someone who doesn’t have any good cards tries to bluff his way through a poker hand but doesn’t realize that when he does his unconscious “rub-his-nose-with-his-index-finger-and smile” routine he is telegraphing the fact that he’s got nothing to every skilled player at the table. Pity him.

  • Yeah, sorry, Joe. I didn’t see Henry’s comment while it was still sitting in moderation, or I probably would have just deleted it as the non-comment it is.

    Pity is probably the right move here.

  • Eh. Maybe I should have let you, but it’s good to clear the air. People should see what we’re dealing with too.

  • My understanding, with regard to whether a terrorist or criminal forfeits the right not to be tortured, lies in the distinction between torture and other types of violence. War is inherently violent, and if it is unjust it is a travesty, but if it is just it is permitted (notice I don’t say noble, however, though personal acts of courage that are genuinely noble certainly occur even in unjust wars). Torture is not merely violence, but violence ordered toward a particular end: getting information out of the subject. So, where punishment or defense merits “violation” of the right an aggressor forfeits, the same may not be true of merely getting information from them by force that damages the body or the mind. (That’s my definition of torture in concrete terms, also.) I would suggest that while punishment is oriented directly toward dealing with the action it punishes and defense likewise, torture is on the other hand oriented directly toward information and therefore not, in the moral order, an immediate necessity and justified response to forfeiture of rights (which is a very limited forfeiture even where it does occur, by the way; it’s almost as if the criminal forces his rights out of the picture, although I do not mean by that a necessity argument which is a nicer way of saying a utilitarian argument). I would further argue that we have historically viewed torture as wrong regardless of any contract — things such as the Geneva Convention were put together largely after and in response to the great war crimes of the twentieth century that we prosecuted anyway (waterboarding by the Axis forces in WW2, for example). Finally, I would note that the Church appears (I say appears because the Catechism has been unclear in the past, inasmuch as stating as if it were required what is still technically only pious opinion is technically unclear) to teach that torture, that violence ordered toward extraction of information rather than either punishment or direct defense, is intrinsically evil.

    Thus, while I’m not totally closed to being corrected if I’m mistaken as to any of those moral standpoints, those are the well developed points that would need to be addressed to even begin suggesting torture is permissible on those who forfeit the bulk of their rights.

    Also, if one does argue that torture is permissible on war criminals because they’ve forfeited rights, one has to demonstrate the forfeiture of rights before one can act on it — and in terms of law, that generally means convict the war criminal first and interrogate after — which entirely robs the “necessity” argument of any urgency factor, the way it takes time to convict. One could argue also that an active combatant proves his status by that action, as these are whom one may shoot in a war without any trial or other formal process; however, one may not generally shoot an enemy who is captured and deprived of ability to combat because you’ve removed them from the very situation of immediate combat that both allows and necessitates said immediate judgement, so it’d be questionable whether such a parallel would even make torture of captured foes legitimate or rather prove it illegitimate.

  • I should also note regarding my definition of torture that damage need not be permanent. Also, I’m not sure I shouldn’t include direct infliction of pain in there, but one could argue pain as passing mental damage (since it impairs one’s immediate ability to think clearly)… but it’s the direct infliction, not the result of damage, that makes the difference — not that the classical notion of the direct object of an act means anything to the vast majority even of Catholics today, who would probably fail to realize that that _is_ drawing the line between mere discomfort (which is different from pain in kind, not just degree) or poor living conditions or anything like that and actual inflicting of pain. Let’s see, anything else… Risk. I’d probably count anything that risks such things just as sure as anything that obviously does it, simply because morality doesn’t play loose with possibilities and doubts (even where it acknowledges the _subjective_ effects of doubt, which, mind, can worsen the moral content if one is guilty of allowing the doubt to stay and especially to stay in a thing one knows one will act in).

    There’s a lot of temptation these days to call definitions unclear because we can equivocate around them, as if a clear definition would be immune to equivocation — and yet actually, that’s in the definition of equivocation: when something’s not clear in the first place, there isn’t a good meaning #1 for which to misconstrue with meaning #2, now is there? So anyway… yeah, I felt the need to try to add further qualification. Not sure I succeeded.

    And of course, one can also say all this is my “armchair theologian” pontification, but then, I don’t have to be stolen from to tell you we should criminalize theft either.