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?