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Why Even Morally Perfect People Would Need Government*

  • Gregory S. Kavka (a1)

Why do we need government? A common view is that government is necessary to constrain people's conduct toward one another, because people are not sufficiently virtuous to exercise the requisite degree of control on their own. This view was expressed perspicuously, and artfully, by liberal thinker James Madison, in The Federalist, number 51, where he wrote: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Madison's idea is shared by writers ranging across the political spectrum. It finds clear expression in the Marxist view that the state will gradually wither away after a communist revolution, as unalienated “communist man” emerges. And it is implied by the libertarian view that government's only legitimate function is to control the unfortunate and immoral tendency of some individuals to violate the moral rights of others.

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1 Hamilton, Alexander, Jay, John, and Madison, James, The Federalist (New York: Modern Library, 1937), p. 337. This edition identifies number 51 as written by Madison or Hamilton.

2 For a recent sympathetic treatment of the Marxist view which makes use of ideas from Kant and Rousseau, see Levine, Andrew, The End of the State (London: Verso, 1987), pp. 164–73.

3 A sophisticated philosophical work in the libertarian tradition is Nozick, Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974).

4 Kavka, Gregory S., Governing Angels: Human Imperfections and the Need for Government, in progress.

5 This characterization modifies, in a Weberian direction, the account of government offered in Kavka, Gregory S., Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), pp. 157–60. It rules out classifying street gangs or the mafia as governments, under normal circumstances, since these groups do not usually have the power to enforce their decisions (including on nonmembers in their territories) in defiance of public authorities, and rarely claim the legitimacy of their doing so. When public authority has broken down, or cannot penetrate a geographical area effectively run by a gang or group of rebels claiming legitimate authority in that area, this account properly allows the gang or rebel organization to count as the government of that area. Being a government, in my sense, clearly does not imply moral or political legitimacy, only the claim to it.

6 Reasonable completeness does not mean the system has a precise answer to every possible practical question that might arise. It refers instead to the system leaving no main area of moral concern unaddressed, and providing guidance appropriate to the tasks and capabilities of moral agents.

7 I plan to pursue these matters in Kavka, Governing Angels.

8 Cf. the discussion of the “burdens of judgment” in Rawls, John, Political liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), pp. 5458.

9 Nozick, , Anarchy, State, and Utopia, ch. 7. I ignore complexities in Nozick's position that are not germane to the present point.

10 Such angels may have disagreements about the scope of moral principles, the theoretical meaning of moral terms, or the application of principles to specific cases.

11 Beliefs conforming to the agent's current evidence count as “motivated beliefs” if the agent's motivations introduced a relevant bias in the gathering of evidence.

12 Taylor, Shelley E., Positive Illusions (New York: Basic Books, 1990).

13 Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan (1651; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968), pp. 120 and 192. For discussion, see Kavka, , Hobbesian Moral and Political Theory, sections 2–3.

14 Butler, Joseph, Sermons, Preface and Sermon XI, in Ethical Theories, ed. Melden, A. I. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967), pp. 238–39, 259–60.

15 For a somewhat similar use of the term, see Hare, R. M., Moral Thinking (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 44.

16 Cf. Hampton, Jean, “Should Political Philosophy Be Done without Metaphysics?Ethics, vol. 99, no. 4 (07 1989), pp. 800804.

17 Such angels are like the comic-strip character Caspar Milquetoast, whose “main goal is to avoid a quarrel. All else takes second place.” See Lewis, David, “Mill and Milquetoast,” Australasian Jounwl of Philosophy, vol. 67, no. 2 (06 1989), p. 162.

18 Dawkins, Richard, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), pp. 198201. In the argument given below, the “compromisers,” “uncompromisers,” and “avengers” correspond to Dawkins's “suckers,” “cheats,” and “grudgers,” respectively.

19 New members may emulate successful present members, or success may lead to control of the resources needed to educate or indoctrinate new members in one's own mold. Note that these are cultural or learning phenomena. The analogy to biology is not intended to imply genetic transmission of relevant dispositions. Further, given cognitive complexity and moral pluralism, there is no single model of angelic behavior. Hence, new members may adopt the dispositions of the more “successful” present angels without thereby acting immorally.

20 My analysis assumes that the number of first-order disputes one has, and who they are with, is independent of one's strategy.

21 Dawkins, , The Selfish Gene, p. 200. Apparently it is possible that, over the very long run, the population may flip back and forth between the two equilibrium states of being dominated by uncompromisers and by avengers.

22 Guardians may usefully be thought of as being like conscientious inhabitants of Locke's state of nature, who exercise the right to punish (by ostracism) transgressions of the laws of nature whether or not they themselves were victims of those transgressions.

23 Bendoir, Jonathan and Mookherjee, Dilip, “Norms, Third Party Sanctions, and Cooperation,” Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization, vol. 6, no. 1 (Spring 1990), pp. 3363. The authors acknowledge (p. 43) that the formal assumptions needed to yield this result are quite restrictive.

24 Axelrod, Robert, “An Evolutionary Approach to Norms,” American Political Science Review, vol. 80, no. 4 (12 1986), pp. 10951111.

25 Gauthier, David, “Authority without Coercion: Reflections on Kavka and Morris,” paper presented at the American Philosophical Association meetings, Pacific Division, March 1990.

26 Hobbes, , Elements of Law, Part II, ch. 8, section 1; reprinted in Body, Man, and Citizen, ed. Peters, Richard (New York: Collier Books, 1962), p. 369. For useful discussion on this point, see Lloyd, S. A., Ideals as Interests in Hobbes's Leviathan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 209–10.

27 It may not always be known to be futile, because potential resistors may not know that the government has sufficient force to defeat their challenge, i.e., that the government is a “government” in our technical sense.

28 A fourth main objection is that angels would voluntarily set up a system of binding arbitration to settle disputes, and promise to abide by the resulting decisions. In general terms, my reply is that to the extent adherence to settlements is voluntary, this objection is subject to the same sorts of problems as the voluntary-settlement objection: angels who rank other substantive values above agreement (and promise-keeping) will either not promise to abide by the resulting decisions, or will act in violation of those decisions when values that they regard as more important are threatened by adherence to them. On the other hand, if the decisions reached by arbitration are coercively enforced, then there is what amounts to a government.

29 Madison, in The Federalist, number 51, writes: “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be needed.” I plan to argue against this claim, and discuss the problems of a government of angels, in Governing Angels.

30 Of course, the costs of government are, as noted above, likely to be higher among non-angels, so it is not immediately obvious in which situation there is a stronger “net” justification for government.

31 Kavka, , Hobbesian Moral ana Political Theory; and Kavka, , Moral Paradoxes of Nuclear Deterrence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

* An earlier version of this paper was presented at a symposium of the Pacific Division meetings of the American Philosophical Association in March 1990, in which Christopher Morris, David Gauthier, and Debra Satz were my fellow participants. I thank them, and members of the audience on that occasion, as well as the other contributors to this volume, for helpful discussion.

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Social Philosophy and Policy
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