Morality and the State

Morality exits because of evolved behavioral traits.  They are its ultimate cause.  Without them, morality as we know it, in all of its various complex manifestations would cease to exist.  Without them, the subjective perception in the brains of individuals of such things as good, evil, and rights would disappear as well.  We perceive all of these as objects, as independent things-in-themselves, because individuals who perceived them in that way were more likely to survive and reproduce.  However, they do not exist as things-in-themselves, a fact that has led to endless confusion in creatures such as ourselves, who are capable of reasoning about these nonexistent objects that seem so real.

It follows that, in spite of the legions of philosophers over the centuries who have presumed to enlighten us about the objective “should,” such an entity is as imaginary as unicorns.  There is no objective reason why individuals “should” do anything in order to embrace good and reject evil, because good and evil are not objects.  The same applies to the State.  From a moral point of view (and it can be assumed in what follows that I am speaking of that point of view when I use the term “should”), there is no objective reason why the State should act one way in order to be good, or should not act another way in order to avoid evil.  When an individual says that the state should do one thing, and not another, (s)he is simply expressing a personal desire.  That, of course, applies to my own point of view.  When I speak of what the State should or should not do, I am merely expressing a personal opinion, based on my own conjecture about the kind of state I would like to live in.

In the first place, we can say that there is no essential connection between the modern State and morality, because no such entity as the modern State existed during the time over which the behavioral traits we associate with morality evolved.  However, a State that does not take morality into account is unlikely to be effective at achieving the goals its citizens have set for it, because it is the nature of those citizens to be influenced by moral predispositions.  If a sufficient number of them perceive that the State is acting immorally, or violating what seem to them to be their rights, they may resist its laws, or rebel.

If the State is to act “morally,” does it follow that there should be an establishment of religion, whether of the spiritual or the secular variety?  Based on the empirical evidence of our history, and what I know of human behavior, it seems to me that it does not.  The value to the state of an established moral system lies in the potential of welding all its citizens into a single ingroup.  It seems plausible that a single ingroup would be more effective at achieving the common goals of a State’s citizens then a collection distinct ingroups, each of which might perceive one or more of the others as outgroups.  In such cases the expression of hatred and hostility towards the outgroup(s) would likely be disruptive.

Unfortunately, established moral systems throughout history have all tended to be unstable and counterproductive.  From the time Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire until the final fall of its Byzantine remnant, there was constant strife between Trinitarians and Anti-Trinitarians, iconodules and iconoclasts, those who accepted the Three Chapters and those who condemned them, etc.  Later attempts to preserve single ingroup orthodoxy spawned the massacre of the Albigensians, the long decades of the Hussite wars, the century of intermittent warfare between the Catholics and the Huguenots in France, and many another bloody chapter in human history.  Established religions became instruments of exploitation in the hands of the powerful, resulting in the bloody reprisals of the French Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, etc.  A problem with established religions has always been that people cannot change deeply held beliefs at will, and they resent being forced to pretend they believe things when they don’t.  Typically, force is necessary to suppress that resentment, as we have seen in modern Iran.  The “right” of Freedom of Religion” is basically a recognition of these drawbacks.

The more recent secular religions have fared no better.  The two most familiar examples of the 20th century, Communism and Nazism, for example, both found it necessary to brutally suppress any opposition.  The “great rewards” of such religions, whether in the form of a utopian classless society or a Teutonic golden age, are worldly rather than in the great beyond, and eventually become noticeable by their absence.  All moral systems have outgroups as well as ingroups and, in the case of the secular religions, these also tend to be worldly rather than spiritual.  In the case of the Communists and the Nazis, this led to the mass slaughter of the “bourgeoisie” and the Jews, respectively, robbing the State of many citizens, who often happened to be among the most intelligent and productive.  It would seem that these two dire examples would be enough in themselves to deter us from any further experiments along similar lines.  Remarkably, however, as those who have read the books of the likes of Sam Harris and Joshua Greene are aware, we continue to cobble away on new “scientific” versions, seemingly oblivious to the outcomes of our past attempts.

As an anodyne to all these problems, the philosophers of the Enlightenment sought to limit the power of the State by establishing Rights, such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, etc.  While these Rights are not things-in-themselves, they are perceived as such.  Though they are merely subjective constructs, they can still acquire legitimacy if they are generally accepted and hallowed by tradition.  Democracy was held forth as the proper vehicle for promoting these rights and guarding against the abuse of power by autocratic rulers.  As implemented, modern democracies have hardly been perfect, but have been more stable than autocratic forms of government, and have often, although not invariably, survived such challenges as hard economic times and war.  However, their drawbacks are also clearly visible.  For example, recently they have been powerless to resist the massive influx of culturally alien populations that are far more likely to be a source of future civil strife if not worse than to be of any long term benefit to the existing citizens whose welfare these democratic states are supposed to be protecting.  They benefit elites as a source of votes and cheap labor, but are likely to be harmful to society as a whole in the long term.  In short, the jury is still out as to whether the post-Enlightenment democracies will eventually be perceived as Good or Evil.

It is not clear what if any alternative system might actually be better than democracy.  The Chinese oligarchy has certainly had remarkable success in expanding the economic and military power of that country.  However, its legitimacy is based on its supposed representation of the bankrupt, foreign ideology of Marxism.  In spite of that, in a traditionalist country like China it may hold onto “the mandate of heaven” for a long time in spite of the glaring contradictions between its supposed ideology and its practice.

In general, “virtuous” states – those free of corruption, that do not cheat or steal from their citizens, and that are effective in enforcing laws that are perceived as just – are more effective at promoting the common weal than their opposites.  Heraclitus’ dictum that “character is destiny” likely applies to states as well as individuals.  I personally think that states are far more likely to be “virtuous” in that sense if their powers are carefully circumscribed and limited.  Whenever new moral systems are implemented, “scientific” or otherwise, those limits tend to be dissolved.  When it comes to the State, it is probably better to think in terms of “Thou shalt not” than in terms of “Thou shalt.”  Two that come to mind include Thou shalt not kill (except, as Voltaire suggested, in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets), and Thou shalt not torture.

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