Wednesday, June 2, 2010

What is the role of the State?

I'm cross-posting this both on my personal blog and on the Coalition for Clarity, because it's the rare topic that fits both topics pretty well.

On Virtue Quest, I've been blogging about my reading of Alisdair MacIntyre's "classic," After Virtue. At the Coalition, I've raised the question of what the basis is for actions permitted to agents of the State that are forbidden to private citizens, such as capital punishment and war. So, toward the end of After Virtue, I ran across this passage:
But my present point is not that patriotism is good or bad as a sentiment, but that the practice of patriotism is in advanced societies no longer possible in the way that it once was. In any society where government does not express or represent the moral community of the citizens, but is instead a set of institutional arrangements for imposing a bureaucratized unity on a society which lacks genuine moral consensus, the nature of political obligation becomes systematically unclear. Patriotism is or was a virtue founded on attachment primarily to a political and moral community and only secondarily to the government of that community; but it is characteristically exercised in discharging responsibility to and in such government. ... Loyalty to my country, to my community - which remains unalterably a central virtue - becomes detached from obedience to the government which happens to rule me.

Now, I'm far from being in easy agreement with everything that MacIntyre says - or even with most of it. But his distinction between "political community" and "government" struck me as exactly the sort of thing that I have argued in saying that the State as embodied in modern nation-states is not necessarily the same kind of beast as the State as embodied in the variety of forms known to, e.g., Thomas Aquinas.

Here is how the very modern Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1910) describes the role of the State:
It is the role of the state to defend and promote the common good of civil society, its citizens, and intermediate bodies.

I'm still reading through what Thomas has to say about the State, but my impression thus far is that the power of the State derives from its responsibility for goods that are common to society and therefore beyond the power of any single person as such. And the Catechism agrees, at least insofar as its authority is bound to the common good and does not bind whenever an agent of the State acts against the common good. Or, in a saying at least as old as Augustine of Hippo, an unjust law is no law at all.

Now, the first thing that almost everything I've read says about the authority of the State is that is "orders" things to the common good. That is, it resolves what is otherwise disordered and chaotic when left to individual persons or families. This is clearly the source of authority for laws and lawmaking. It also is fairly clearly the source of authority to tax or conscript, that is, to call individuals to a duty owed to society.

Now, I myself have to this point held the opinion that war and capital punishment are simply "public" forms of self-defense. In other words, I've assumed that the State does not have any "rights" or authority that is essentially beyond what is given to individuals; the authority of the State is simply exercised on a larger scale, with broader consequences. Yet almost everything I am reading implies or assumes that the State's role of ordering things to the common good extends to acts that are different in kind from the moral responsibilities of individuals.

So I'm left with a couple questions at the end of this rather rambling post:

First, does a radical difference in the structure of government make a real difference in the relationship of individual persons to the State (such that Patriotism is no longer the same thing, for example), and in the role or authority of the State itself?

Second, does responsibility for the common good extend to acts that are beyond the normal scope of morality as applied to persons taken singly?


  1. "First, does a radical difference in the structure of government make a real difference in the relationship of individual persons to the State (such that Patriotism is no longer the same thing, for example), and in the role or authority of the State itself?"

    As far as I have read on St. Thomas and other Thomistic scholars, the form of government is not really an issue in governing the principles of society. As long as the action taken in keeping the moral order is just then it can be accepted under any regime form.

    "Second, does responsibility for the common good extend to acts that are beyond the normal scope of morality as applied to persons taken singly? "

    It think the answer is a certifiable yes it does. For example a person cannot singly cannot intend to put someone to death under any circumstances. If it happens during self defense it falls under the Law of Double Effect in which the person did not intend the killing of anyone, just the intention of stopping the unjust action towards them. The State however can intend the death of a guilty person, not only for self defense reasons, but more importantly to keep the moral order and to exact just punishment, which a single person in society can never do on his own authority. There are many things reserved only to the State as an authority which can never extend to a single person in society.

    Again if you have the 15 bucks and you don't mind listening to an MP3 course go to

    There are courses on this very subject as well given by a Thomisitc scholar. Maybe this will help to speed up your research.

  2. A couple random thoughts on the matter:

    First, although I'd have to dig to get a source, I remember learning that the Pope issued a letter (maybe a Bull) to the English people under Henry VIII releasing them, as subjects, from their duty to him. I'm also reminded, in this connection, of GK Chesterton's wonderful treatment of the "virtue" of patriotism in the chapter of Orthodoxy called "The Flag of the World." Patriotism as such remains intact even when the citizens are in practical revolt against the ruling entities of their country, Chesterton maintains. An example would be civil disobedience as practiced by people in the Civil Rights Movement here in America, or by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement during the air raid drills. They maintained a love of homeland, a dedication to the ideal of America, which was precisely what inspired and compelled them to revolt.

    Addressing your first question, as it is phrased, I'd say I agree with Matthew above. But "legitimate authority" is what demands obedience and submission, and a "radical shift in structure" might cause this authority to become suspect. For example, there are some - here, in America - who could say that the legitimacy of the government claims to derive from the constitution, but that many times government has cut itself off from the root of its authority. If, say, the Executive branch, is strengthening itself at the expense of the other powers - even if the other powers are letting it happen - it could be the just responsibility of a citizen to call foul and to cast their vote of no confidence.

    As to your second question, I think there's a lot of debate to be had on that subject. Personally, I think that the traditional method of arguing for States' rights and responsibility by way of analogy to individual moral action is a weak one. Problem is, there hasn't really been a center point for distinction until relatively recently in doctrinal development. I think you will find, however, in the Catholic Social Teaching tradition of the 20th century a development of precisely that sort. The virtues of "social justice" and "social charity" that the Popes write and speak about seem to be a kind of new category, or at least a distinct category from the way we ordinarily view "virtues". And they in fleshing out these concepts, they seem to have deliberately and explicitly avoided the use of analogies to individual virtue ethics. Anyway, those encyclicals and the commentators on them (Oswald von Nell-Bruening in particular) would be a good resource for working through the question, I think.

  3. There are definitely things which it is morally licit for the public authority (sometimes referred to as the "competent authority" or "the sovereign") to do, but never morally licit for an individual to do. Execute the guilty and prosecute a war are two examples. If you review the Just War doctrine, for example, you will see that in order to be moral the choice to wage war must be made by the competent authority as one of the conditions.

    The public authority and individual persons are not the same thing at all, morally, although there are analogies. More generally there are two kinds of justice, commutative justice and distributive justice. Distributive justice is the business of the sovereign, not individuals. A quick google of the terms immediately gets to St. Thomas' discussion of the general subject.

  4. My suggestion, in this and in other matters, is to start with the Magisterium, and then move on to studying what others say.

    On the question of whether structure alters the fundamental relationship between rulers and ruled, the Magisterium answers in the negative:

    The right to rule is not necessarily, however, bound up with any special mode of government. It may take this or that form, provided only that it be of a nature of the government, rulers must ever bear in mind that God is the paramount ruler of the world, and must set Him before themselves as their exemplar and law in the administration of the State. For, in things visible God has fashioned secondary causes, in which His divine action can in some wise be discerned, leading up to the end to which the course of the world is ever tending. In like manner, in civil society, God has always willed that there should be a ruling authority, and that they who are invested with it should reflect the divine power and providence in some measure over the human race.

    5. They, therefore, who rule should rule with evenhanded justice, not as masters, but rather as fathers, for the rule of God over man is most just, and is tempered always with a father's kindness. Government should, moreover, be administered for the well-being of the citizens, because they who govern others possess authority solely for the welfare of the State. Furthermore, the civil power must not be subservient to the advantage of any one individual or of some few persons, inasmuch as it was established for the common good of all. But, if those who are in authority rule unjustly, if they govern overbearingly or arrogantly, and if their measures prove hurtful to the people, they must remember that the Almighty will one day bring them to account, the more strictly in proportion to the sacredness of their office and preeminence of their dignity. "The mighty shall be mightily tormented."(2) Then, truly, will the majesty of the law meet with the dutiful and willing homage of the people, when they are convinced that their rulers hold authority from God, and feel that it is a matter of justice and duty to obey them, and to show them reverence and fealty, united to a love not unlike that which children show their parents. "Let every soul be subject to higher powers."(3) To despise legitimate authority, in whomsoever vested, is unlawful, as a rebellion against the divine will, and whoever resists that, rushes willfully to destruction. "He that resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God, and they that resist, purchase to themselves damnation."(4) To cast aside obedience, and by popular violence to incite to revolt, is therefore treason, not against man only, but against God.

  5. Can you give the citation from After Virtue?


  6. Thanks for the pointers! I'm afraid the only thing that will speed up my own research is my own diligence in doing it.

    Let me give an example of what I'm trying to sort out here. I grew up in a time when calculators were regularly expected for any math above basic arithmetic. I learned to calculate square roots by hitting the square root button on the calculator. My teachers assured me that there was a way to calculate it by hand, but never taught it to me.

    Now, it's pretty obvious that the square root of 4 is 2. It's easy to demonstrate. But it's awfully difficult to demonstrate that the square root of 2 is 1.41421356.... I've never learned the proof of it, or the method of calculating it.

    In a similar way, it's one thing to say that the State has authority to execute criminals or to wage war. It's another thing to say why the State has such authority. And it strikes me that it will always be difficult to distinguish between legitimate authority exercised by a government and illegitimate - for example, to say why the State has the authority to execute but not the authority to torture - without understanding the why.

    That's the object of my current search. I hope it's helpful to you guys as well as to me. And please keep throwing reading suggestions my way. I'll get to them as soon as I can!

  7. @Alexander - I found that passage on p. 254 of the Third Edition. If you're using a different edition, it's at the end of Chapter 17: "Justice as a Virtue".

  8. "It's another thing to say why the State has such authority. "

    I think you will find out that it is rooted in the natural law of society. Understanding traditional natural law is fundamental in making heads or tails of this stuff. I am still learning, but what I have put together so far has helped me immensely.

  9. Matthew - sounds like we're on a similar quest. It's good to have your company!

  10. And it strikes me that it will always be difficult to distinguish between legitimate authority exercised by a government and illegitimate - for example, to say why the State has the authority to execute but not the authority to torture - without understanding the why.

    A government never has legitimate authority to require or carry out any intrinsically immoral act - rape, torture, sodomy, pornography, adultery, sterilization, abortion, killing the innocent, etc. So the "why" when it comes to intrinsically immoral acts is easy. Intrinsically immoral acts are off limits to all people, all the time, whether they are doing those acts as agents of the public authority or as individuals, because such acts by their very nature are opposed to the truth about the good.

    What it is and is not permissible for the State to do when it comes to non-intrinsically immoral acts is a whole 'nother ball of wax, of course.

  11. I think the CCC' section on the person and society, esp. 1886-1889, are helpful on this, too, Robert, particularly with regard to the question as you put it in your post about. The "why" is conditioned, in this case as in all cases, by the end. The end of society, the purpose, is the good of the human person. This is why the particular category of distributive justice attains in the State: its duty is to secure and assure the goods of the members to the greatest extent possible for each.

    So, there might not be any solid litmus test for when a gov't has strayed off course, but a starting point would be to say that when a State stops serving the end to which it is properly ordered, it is illegitimate. Or, in other words, when an ends/means juxtaposition or bifurcation takes place, the State is no longer doing its proper function and needs to be reformed. This may still be one step removed from saying that it ceases to be a State, per se, but it is anyway a starting point.