Sunday, March 22, 2009

On Politics and Morality

It seems like I was supposed to say this in an earlier post, but never really mentioned this. In my previous post, I talked rather abstractly about morality. The question I never really dealt with is what does that have to do with politics?

Consider that we say that people, in general ought to be moral. It would seem that the government also ought to be moral. Whatever we mean by moral government, there are 2 reasons why we should want a moral government.

1. The government consists of people too. And the people in government, just like the rest of us ought to act in moral ways.

2. The general populace (i.e you and I and Ah Gong) ought not to support a government we deem immoral. Or maybe, we ought not to support immoral policies. At the very least, the we should take moral considerations seriously when evaluating government.

When thinking about morality and government, it is important to draw the distinction between what is lawful and what is moral. In an ideal case, what is moral is lawful, and what is immoral is unlawful. Or maybe that is not necessarily the case. Maybe morality is best promoted by other indirect means. Any way that we look at it formulation of law requires a moral impetus whether it is in the direct implementation, or if not, in the motivation of the law. To more clearly analyse society and politics, we should aim to separate the 2 conceptually. The way to do that is using  state of nature theories. 

A state of nature is a theoretical construct, a thought experiment, deviced by philosophers like Hobbes and Locke. It is useful because it gives us an opportunity to look at morality without having complicating factors like government approval, or busybody neighbours who go tch tch, or social disapproval etc. Without allt hese socio-political factors influencing our actions, what is it right to do? Imagine that you are like Robinson Crusoe, and stuck on an island all by yourself (instead of 4 million other people). You keep yourself alive by fishing, gathering food, hunting, building yourself a shelter etc. (As if we all have undergone jungle survival training). Certainly one aspect of ethics is about how we treat nature and animals and the environment. However, that is not our immediate focus. Let's say that in your explorations, you happen to come upon someone else who has also been on the island for some time. How do you treat the other person? Do you beat him up and try to dominate him? Make your slave? Become his friend? What if he is an asshole? If you kill him and take his stuff, noone will know. Should you still do it? Why ? What happens when more and more people join the island?

Another situation to consider is: lets say you go to sleep, but when you wake, are in a stateless society. It is full of strangers. How do we deal with it? Does your labour contribute to a common pool? Or do you own what you make/ grow / receive by trading? Are you entitled to something just because you need it?  Or must you earn it, by exchanging your labour or you property for it? What is the principle by which you act? The greatest good for the greatest number? Or something else?

And let me jump the gun a bit. Government in general is coercive. It taxes you for things that you do not use or want. It makes you pay them money and threatens to jail you if you do not. It punishes you for doing the wrong things. It also prevents you from punishing other people who have done wrong to you. If other people did that to us, i.e stole from us made us do things that we did not want to do, we would think that they were real jerks. We would even call them immoral. Is the government immoral? Or, if the government is moral, what are the conditions that a government must satisfy in order to be called moral?

Just some questions for everybody to ponder. I also hope that this gives hints as to where I'm heading with all of this.


  1. PAP Rox my Sox!

  2. Hi Murali, I've posted a reply to your comments at my blog. Thanks for reading my blog and posting comments! :)

  3. PAP! PAP! PAP! GO! GO! GO!

  4. How come Ah Gong gets mentioned by name in your post but not myself? I feel I have more to contribute than him in the general populace

  5. Show me you can contribute Mr Lim. I've said some things that might be considered controversial. Try to make a serious argument against any of my points and you will be mentioned by name, quoted a lot of stuff. Nobody has done that for me and I've contributed plenty of serious arguments. (So I think I'm giving you a fairly good deal) I believe in incentives.

  6. I don't really think your posts are controversial, actually.
    I just want to be acknowledged once in a while. Perhaps in subsequent posts, you can write 'You and I and Ah Lim' instead of 'Ah Gong'. The best version would be 'Lim Din Ghy'. That should be sufficient, thanks.