[Home]Anarchism and natural law theory

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<The following is a portion of Larrys Text, wikification is invited>

But now I want you to consider carefully what, exactly, is being claimed here. The claim is that the reason the state exists is in order to protect our rights. But if the essence of the state is the initation of force, that means that it is the initiation of force that protects our rights. And that of course makes sense: in order to prevent criminals and foreign invaders from harming us, police officers and soldiers are authorized to initiate force against criminals and foreign enemies.

Remember, though, that the state has a monopoly on the initiation of force; we can protect ourselves from criminals in self-defense, but we cannot go out and punish them ourselves. That is left up to governments. Here's another example. We can give money to charity voluntarily; but we cannot go out and force other people to give money to poor people. Only the state is permitted to do that, not individual citizens.

What this means, then, is we have to give up some of the freedom that we would otherwise have, in order to have a government. At the very least, what we cannot do is initiate force against other people, no matter how annoying or immoral we may think they are. That is a liberty, a freedom, that we don't have. And why don't we have it? Because we have given that liberty up to government. If that liberty, the liberty to initiate force, were retained by many ordinary people, that would undermine the government. The state exists, and works, only if it has that monopoly on the initiation of force; if it does not, then there are, in fact, any number of as it were competing governments running around within the same geographical area. In other words, we'd have anarchy in that case.

I hope this makes it clearer to say that, in order to get protection of your rights from the state, you must give up your liberty to some extent. And indeed, the more that you want government to do, the more liberty, to do what you like, you have to give up.

Now there are some people who think, first, that government always winds up violating the very rights it is supposed to be protecting; and, second, liberty to do what you want to do is for various reasons extremely important. These two claims are different from each other, but the people who hold one view very often hold the other. As regards the first, they think no government does a good job of protecting rights; they say power corrupts, and so governments are always corrupted eventually, no matter how noble their beginnings are. As regards the second, which is perhaps more important for these people, liberty to do what you want to do is definitely one of the goods in life. Some people have written as though they thought liberty was intrinsically good -- desirable for its own sake. But I think you'll agree with me when I say it seems very odd to say that liberty is something that is desirable for its own sake. Aren't there reasons for which we want liberty? For example, many people think that in order to pursue our own happiness, we must have a great deal of liberty; meaning that we must not be restrained by other people or by government from doing what we choose. If that's right, then liberty would be an instrumentally good thing -- not intrinsically good.

Anyway, however that is, having views like this, there are some people who think there is no moral justification for government. Of course, they say a lot more than the two things I listed, in defending this view; but we don't have time to go into their arguments in any depth. But let's at least name and define the position:

Anarchism is the view that there is no moral justification for the state, i.e., there is no moral justification for government agents initiating force, and any monopoly that a government may have on the power to initiate force is morally illegitimate.

Now, if we're going to answer our question, "What is the justification of the state?" then we had better have some reason to reject anarchism, because anarchism says there is no justification for the state.

But notice what anarchism doesn't say. The way I've defined it, anarchism does not say that a society with no government would certainly be better than a society with some particular kind of government, such as a constitutional, mixed-economy republic like the United States. It just says that there is no moral justification for any state; that's all it says. But you have to admit -- it sounds kind of strange to say that the government could greatly improve the lives of its constituents, and yet have no moral justification. I mean, if it does improve the lives of the people under its authority, isn't that at least the beginnings of a justification? The fact that the government does help everyone out, in various ways -- isn't that what gives government a right to exist? We'll see about that later.

Notice another thing that anarchism doesn't say. As I've defined it, it doesn't say that we ought to go out and overthrow governments. It might be entirely morally wrong to revolt, even though there's no moral justification for the state. As experience has shown repeatedly, it almost always ends up doing far more harm than good, to try to overthrow the government violently. Sometimes, as in the case of the American Revolution, it does some good; but of course, you'll notice that in that case a government was established in the place of the rejected English colonial government. It's not like those American revolutionaries were fighting to establish a situation in which there was no government at all! Indeed, all revolts of any major size have been revolts aiming to change the government -- not to do away with all government entirely. That would just be silly and destructive, I think. I doubt I'm going very far out on a limb in saying that, either!

In saying that a state should do these things, we say that the state should have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force in an area. That means that our liberty to do various things is infringed; the state must exercise authority over us, in order to protect our rights. But liberty is a good thing, something desirable for various reasons. So we should desire to give it up to a state only for excellent reasons. Indeed, this raises the question: What, if anything, justifies any particular government's removal of (some of) our liberties? Because, remember, the people in the government are human beings like the rest of us; and thus they too are also apt to harm our rights, just as might happen if there were no state at all. So it becomes pressing to explain when a state is legitimate, or what makes a particular state legitimate.

Now what anarchism (or, as it is also called,theoretical anarchism) does say, is that there is no way to give a moral justification for the state. Government agents are never morally justified when they create a monopoly on the initiation of force within a given area. That's what anarchism says.

So it's pretty clear how we can refute anarchism, right? What we have to do is to come up with a moral justification for the state. If you look at it like that, you can regard anarchism as a challenge: because it is what you are stuck with if you fail to adequately explain why the existence of government is morally justified. So let's get to work trying to explain that.

I'm going to discuss one first attempt to justify the state only very briefly. We've already mentioned it: it's called the natural law theory. Now (as our text says), just by itself, the natural law theory does not offer any justification of the state. Because all it says is that there is some set of natural laws, which specify rules of conduct that prescribe our natural duties and natural rights. We can say all we like that there is some body of law that is natural or appropriate for humankind. But it requires separate argument, another argument, to show that natural law requires that we establish a government; or to show that natural law can be enforced only if there is a government. I mean, after all, what if something rather unusual should happen -- what if it turned out that the natural law forbade us from establishing any government? What if government agents were never morally justified, by natural law, in initiating force against people? If you think that's just a ridiculous notion, then I just wonder how you're going to argue for it. One thing here at least is clear, and that is that some separate argument is required. The mere assertion that there is a body of natural law doesn't even come close to giving a moral justification of the state.

Now there has been a version of the natural law theory, which did include a justification for the state. It's something you've probably heard about -- the so-called "divine right of kings." According to the doctrine of the divine right of kings, monarchs were justified in holding their power by a sort license from God. Their rule was regarded as a reflection of natural law, which was, in the end, God's law, God's intentions for the political organization of human beings.

If you ever talk about "God-given rights," you are, probably unwittingly, continuing this ancient tradition of regarding natural law as God's law about how we should be organized politically. If you think it's God that gives you the rights to life, liberty, and property, then to that extent at least, you are buying into this notion that God writes the rules in heaven, and our duty is to follow them.

But remember, if you can, what we said about theological ethics back when we were discussing the philosophy of religion. The same point we made then applies again now. We should ask: Why does God want us to establish governments that protect our God-given rights to life, liberty, and property? I might, I suppose, sound impressive to some of you to say that God does want us to establish governments. I won't quarrel with that; if God exists, he probably does want us to establish governments! And if God exists, then his wishes probably are as good as law! The question in any case is why God would want us to establish governments. Surely there's something about human nature, and about the situation we find ourselves in, that would explain why God commands us to establish governments. If there is any reason at all, it is that reason that we can use to justify the existence of the state. And in a way then -- not to be impious -- we can as it were bypass God. We can bypass God in giving our explanation of why the state ought to exist. Because we can say, simply: "Our reason for thinking that the state should exist is just the same as God's reason, which is X." Then we just have to fill in the X!

But of course, that's the whole problem to begin with. We aren't any further along in discovering the justification of the state than when we started. So let's consider some positive theories about why the state is justified.

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Last edited December 10, 2001 11:35 pm by 24.249.173.xxx (diff)