Friday, November 13, 2009

Reflections on the Nature of Government

10 Pilate therefore said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” 11 Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore he who delivered me to you has the greater sin.” (John 19:10-11).

It has been a turbulent few weeks politically and morally in terms of what our government is trying to do, and facing religious opposition to it.  The contentious aftermath about the House Health Care bill including the Stupak Amendment has pro-abortion supporters in the government wondering what to do to counteract this.

This isn't an article about health care or abortion or the Obama administration per se.  Rather, it is about the nature of government itself.  What is its purpose?  When is it a good government or a bad government.

Part I: Reflections on Aristotle's Politics.

Aristotle, in his Politics, described the difference between a good and a bad government as:

The conclusion is evident: that governments which have a regard to the common interest are constituted in accordance with strict principles of justice, and are therefore true forms; but those which regard only the interest of the rulers are all defective and perverted forms, for they are despotic, whereas a state is a community of freemen. (Book 3 Part 6)

We have here two key elements: first, that a government needs to have a regard to the common interest, and second that it has to act in accord to strict principles of justice.  A government which acts according to the interest of the rulers is a despotic government.

This need not be a willful attempt to unjustly keep certain people suppressed.  Aristotle also noticed that the human nature of self deception also has its role to play:

…all men cling to justice of some kind, but their conceptions are imperfect and they do not express the whole idea. For example, justice is thought by them to be, and is, equality, not. however, for however, for but only for equals. And inequality is thought to be, and is, justice; neither is this for all, but only for unequals. When the persons are omitted, then men judge erroneously. The reason is that they are passing judgment on themselves, and most people are bad judges in their own case. And whereas justice implies a relation to persons as well as to things, and a just distribution, as I have already said in the Ethics, implies the same ratio between the persons and between the things, they agree about the equality of the things, but dispute about the equality of the persons, chiefly for the reason which I have just given- because they are bad judges in their own affairs; and secondly, because both the parties to the argument are speaking of a limited and partial justice, but imagine themselves to be speaking of absolute justice. (Book 3 Part 9)

The disgust many Americans felt over the actions of the Supreme Court in the 1960s and 1970s seems to spring from this kind of thinking.  For example, the focus on the rights of the criminal alone without reflection on how these rights impacted the rights of the society as a whole.

Likewise, restrictions on individuals because of laws like segregation or apartheid can be opposed because they give justice to some, but not others.

I think this comes into play in America today in regards to how certain partisan ideals are portrayed as "rights" and those who oppose the partisan ideals represented as "rights" are demonized.

For example, we have in America a debate on Health Care and whether it should be universal.  The idea behind it is the belief it is not right that the poor should suffer due to the lack of ability to pay for coverage, since the costs of being able to save a life often could mean the financial ruin of someone who could not afford health insurance.  As far as this goes, it is legitimate to discuss what role the government should play in making sure that all are able to receive necessary care.

What becomes unjust however is when one seeks to force through a benefit for a special group, which benefits that group only.  Hence the debate over including abortion in Health Care. 

Abortion is generally acknowledged to end the existence of an unborn person, and the dispute is over whether the mother should have the right to decide on a whim whether or not to end the existence of this unborn person.  A certain segment of the population insists on the availability of this convenience for the mother.  Another segment argues that this is immoral and objects to people who object being forced to support it against their will.

With this being considered, the demand to include access to abortion as a part of "health care reform" is in fact promoting inequality, where all are obligated to support something which benefits only a certain segment of society (those who insist on engaging in sexual activity without considering the consequences and insisting on the right not to be responsible for the consequences).

A similar case could be made for the push for "gay marriage."  Marriage has long been recognized as an institution which is the building block of society.  It recognizes that sexual activity between males and females result in offspring, and recognizes that a bond exists between husband and wife, between parent and child.  Laws which protect marriage recognize that these bonds are inviolate, and actions which harm the marriage bond will ultimately bring harm to society ("the common interest" referred to above).

The push for "gay marriage" seeks to set this aside, allowing the rights of marriage to those who cannot produce offspring by the nature of their being.  This is not the same thing as a heterosexual couple who is infertile marrying.  While the infertile heterosexual couple could have children except for the accident of their own health issues, homosexuality simply cannot produce offspring by its very nature: Two lesbians cannot have a child.  The child is the offspring of one of the partners and another man.  Two homosexual males cannot have a child.  The child is the offspring of one of the partners and another woman.  (This is one reason why one can validly say that "gay marriage" attacks society.  Homosexual couples seeking to reproduce must necessarily violate the marriage bond to do so)

Seeking the legal benefits which comes with marriage without the framework the legal benefits are intended to support is to merely privilege a certain segment of society. This is based on the idea that since all persons are equal, all persons should have access to the same rights regardless of whether it is fitting they should have them.

Aristotle observed:

…political society exists for the sake of noble actions, and not of mere companionship. Hence they who contribute most to such a society have a greater share in it than those who have the same or a greater freedom or nobility of birth but are inferior to them in political virtue; or than those who exceed them in wealth but are surpassed by them in virtue. (Book 3 Part 9)

From this, it seems to follow that the rights of marriage under the law of a society must be based on the contribution of the family to society, and not on the basis of sexual intercourse between two individuals.

Unfortunately, in America we have a sense that every person must have a right to do anything they want.  Therefore we see nonsense like insisting males have the right to join the "Girl Scouts" to avoid injustice, ignoring the fact that things like gender are real things.  (It is wrong to treat a person as less of a person on account of their gender, but it does not follow from this that we must treat a person as if gender does not exist).

From this, we can consider more clearly what Aristotle had to say about the nature of good and evil in relation to government.

Aristotle pointed out:

The true forms of government, therefore, are those in which the one, or the few, or the many, govern with a view to the common interest; but governments which rule with a view to the private interest, whether of the one or of the few, or of the many, are perversions. (Book 3 part 7)

Those who would promote a view of government which insists on protecting private interests as a civil right are indeed perversions.

Part II: Reflections on Christian Obligation In Regards to the State

It is true that one cannot apply to the state the idea that one who is a Christian has freedoms that another individual does not.  This would make Christianity merely a "private interest," in the sense similar to legal persecutions by radical Hindus in India or the state mandated support of Islam in the Middle East.  Christians need to remember that when Christian teaching and Christian ethics form the basis of society, it must be that the ethics and teaching apply equally to all.  (It is because of this view that the Church takes a stand against secularism in government and society.  When the government is ruled in a way that benefits the irreligious over the religious, it is acting in the favor of a private interest).

However, the Christian view is that God is the center of reality, of truth and of life regardless of whether one believes in Him or not.  Their view of good derives from this.  Likewise, the one who professes a secular view, that God has no role to play in society, has to establish what is good from a secular view. 

I believe Thomas Aquinas had some good insights into what is necessary in law to be considered good:

…it is evident that the proper effect of law is to lead its subjects to their proper virtue: and since virtue is "that which makes its subject good," it follows that the proper effect of law is to make those to whom it is given, good, either simply or in some particular respect. For if the intention of the lawgiver is fixed on true good, which is the common good regulated according to Divine justice, it follows that the effect of the law is to make men good simply. If, however, the intention of the lawgiver is fixed on that which is not simply good, but useful or pleasurable to himself, or in opposition to Divine justice; then the law does not make men good simply, but in respect to that particular government. In this way good is found even in things that are bad of themselves: thus a man is called a good robber, because he works in a way that is adapted to his end. (Summa Theologica I-II Q92 A1)

For the Christian, the Divine Justice is the yardstick for the good the lawgiver must follow.  If it does not, then while it may be beneficial to some, it is not good.

St Augustine speaks of the idea of the kingdom without justice in his City of God:

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, "What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor." (Book IV: Chapter 4)

If the state has impunity to place injustice as law, then the state is arbitrary like a band of robbers, and cannot be said to be just.  Since the Christian is obliged to oppose injustice, they must speak up when the state is unjust.  If the state insists that the Christian cannot speak up on the grounds of "separation of Church and State," this is unjust because it deprives the Christian the right to speak when those who speak from other convictions are not similarly deprived.

It is because of this that reports of complaints against Bishops taking a stand in accord with their beliefs becomes ominous.

Part III: Christianity and Other Views within a State

Whether or not the atheist or the non-Christian religious believer likes it, America is largely made up of people who believe in the Christian notion of God, and any discussion of a good government must take this into account, because these standards are assumed.  If one wishes to reject these standards, something must be shown to be acceptable to replace them.

The Christian, with a properly formed faith, who acts in accord with their beliefs is in fact doing what the citizen of a state is supposed to be doing: acting for the common good based on what they believe is right.  Agree or disagree, the Christian with the properly formed faith does indeed have a world view on what justice is and what it requires.

The view of one who holds Christianity is wrong, and insists on forming society in a way which runs counter to the Christian view however. is not doing this unless they demonstrate why their actions do appeal to absolute justice and the common good and not to a private benefit.  Those who would object to "under God" in our Pledge of Allegiance or "In God We Trust" on our money is not objecting in terms of supreme justice, but under the private benefit of not wanting to see religious activity in public.

So if one proposes the state is to be governed by something other than the Christian view of Good, we need to be able to look at what this "other" holds, and why it should supplant the view the Christians hold on the nature of good and evil.  If such a case cannot be made, but proponents make this change anyway, then this is an arbitrary action by a group acting with impunity, not with justice.

Part IV: The Problem of Partisanship

The problem we have with the state in America today is that rather than a government acting for the public good with a clear understanding of what is good, we have a government of factions, each seeking to promote its agenda, and calling it good for the whole.  Both Liberals and Conservatives focus on material wealth, and differ on whether it is good to let the "free market" decide or the "state" decide.

Under this view, a majority in both houses and a president who shares these partisan leanings are enough to do what one wants with impunity — until the power structure shifts and those who were out of power enter power and those who once ruled are cast out.  Then that which was a majority view becomes a minority view and the formerly minority view becomes a majority view.

In this case the government veers "right" to "left" and then "left" to "right."  Those who support the government call it "good" while those who do not call it "bad" (or "a step backwards").  None of this considers what is the true good however, and I believe if Aristotle were alive today, he would have to call our governing of state a perversion.  Private interests run key.  The citizens become marginalized and our government becomes a government of few governed by self interest, with growing dissatisfaction from the faction falling out of power with each pendulum swing.

Part V: What Then Should We Do?

Ultimately if America is to be a land of justice, we need to step back and understand what it means to be an American citizen.  We need to recognize what is the source of ultimate good and justice and we need to make sure our laws follow this vision as accurately as possible.  Democrats and Republicans will no doubt differ on ways and means on how to carry it out, and not all of these views will be compatible with the ultimate good, due to the person's ability for self-deception.

However, if we are to be a land of justice, we need to understand what the yardstick is to be, and ensure that those who we bring to office are people who live up to this justice and not to partisan concerns which are made first.

Those things which run afoul of the ultimate good must be opposed.  The idea of vox populi vox dei (The voice of the people is the voice of God) is of course nonsense.  Indeed, the person who is crediting as having coined the statement (Alcuin) actually said the opposite:

Nec audiendi qui solent dicere, Vox populi, vox Dei, quum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit. (And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.)

The appetites of the individual lead people to do many things which are problematic, contradictory and focused on self-gratification.  The state exists to serve the good of the people, but the good is not the self gratification.

Therefore, we need to oppose those actions which deal with self-gratification or the reducing the consequences of self-gratification, and ask ourselves what is the greatest good?

Conclusion: The Christian Way

As Christians, we have an answer to this which guides our behavior, and is shown in two passages from Matthew:

36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” (Mattt 22:36-40).


16 And behold, one came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which?” And Jesus said, “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19 Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. (Matt 19:16-22)

We have conditions in two areas as to what is good.  To follow God, and to treat our fellow man as ourselves.  A state which goes astray on either area fails to do what is good and just.

The Bishops and the laity who speak out against the evil of the government are not being partisan.  They are not imposing their own views.  They are in fact teaching us what we are required to do in the Light of the ultimate good.

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