Machiavelli: Principality and Republic
Among the most widely-read of the Renaissance thinkers was Niccol Machiavelli, a Florentine politician who retired from public service to write at length on the skill required for successfully running the state. Impatient with abstract reflections on the way things “ought” to be, Machiavelli focussed on the way things are, illustrating his own intensely practical convictions with frequent examples from the historical record. Although he shared with other humanists a profound pessimism about human nature, Machiavelli nevertheless argued that the social benefits of stability and security can be achieved even in the face of moral corruption.
In 1513 Machiavelli wrote his best-known work, Il Principe (The Prince). Dedicated to Lorenzo de’ Medici, this little book offers practical advice on how to rule a city like sixteenth-century Florence. Its over-all theme is that the successful prince must exhibit virt variously translated as “strength,” “skill,” or “prowess” in both favorable and adverse circumstances. This crucial quality of leadership is not the same as the virtuous character described by ethical philosophers, since Machiavelli held that public success and private morality are entirely separate. The question is not what makes a good human being, but what makes a good prince.
Since all governments are either republics or principalities, Machiavelli noted, their people will be accustomed either to managing their own affairs or to accepting the leadership of a prince. (For that reason, the safest princes are those who inherit their rule over people used to the family.) A prudent leader, however, will be able to anticipate problems long before they actually arise, using virt to forestall what would otherwise be great difficulties. Whatever vitality a former republic may have, then, Machiavelli counselled that it either be destroyed or ruled carefully by a resident prince. (Prince 5)
One of the most obvious ways of doing so is by the careful use of military forces, and to this Machiavelli devoted great attention. In fact, in a separate work entitled L’Arte della guerra (The Art of War) (1520) he offered extensive advice on the acquisition, management, and employment of the army of the state. In The Prince he was content to distinguish types of forces which one might acquire, noting the advantages and disadvantages of each, and to emphasize that such matters are the most vital component of any prince’s interest. (Prince 14)
Machiavelli’s insistence on the practicality of his political advice is most evident in his consideration of the personality, character, and conduct of the successful ruler. (Prince 15) No matter what idealistic notions are adopted as principles of private morality, he argued, there is no guarantee that other people will follow them, and that puts the honorable or virtuous individual at a distinct disadvantage in the real world. In order to achieve success in public life, the ruler must know precisely when and how to do what no good person would ever do.
Although private morality may rest on other factorsdivine approval, personal character, or abstract duties, for examplein public life only the praise and blame of fellow human beings really counts. Thus, Machiavelli supposed, the ruler needs to acquire a good reputation while actually doing whatever wrong seems necessary in the circumstances. (Prince 18) Thus, rulers must seem to be generous while spending their money wisely, appear to be compassionate while ruling their armies cruelly, and act with great cunning while cultivating a reputation for integrity. Although it is desirable to be both loved and feared by one’s subjects, it is difficult to achieve both, and of the two, Machiavelli declared, it is far safer for the ruler to be feared. (Prince 17)
Since the modern state is too complex to be managed by any single human being, the effective ruler will naturally need to have advisors who assist in governance. Choosing the right people for these jobs and employing their services appropriately, Machiavelli supposed, is among the practical skills most clearly associated with good leadership. (Prince 22) A good ruler will invariably choose competent companions who offer honest advice in response to specific questions and carry out the business of the state without regard for their private interests; such people therefore deserve the rewards of honor, wealth, and power that unshakably secure their devotion to the leader. Ineffective leaders, on the other hand, surround themselves with flatterers whose unwillingness to provide competent advice is a mark of their princes’ inadequacy.
All of this talk about skillful leadership would be pointless, of course, if human beings do not in fact have control over their own actions, but must constantly live at the mercy of blind fate or fortune. In the end, Machiavelli argued that even if sheer luck determines the greater portion of our destinies, we can still take full responsibility for whatever remains. (Prince 25) Acknowledging the possibilities for failure, the skillful ruler does better to act boldly than to try to calculate every possible eventuality.
Even more than Bacon, Thomas Hobbes illustrated the transition from medieval to modern thinking in Britain. His Leviathan effectively developed a vocabulary for philosophy in the English language by using Anglicized versions of the technical terms employed by Greek and Latin authors. Careful use of words to signify common ideas in the mind, Hobbes maintained, avoids the difficulties to which human reasoning is most obviously prone and makes it possible to articulate a clear conception of reality. (Leviathan I 4)
For Hobbes, that conception is bound to be a mechanistic one: the movements of physical objects will turn out to be sufficient to explain everything in the universe. The chief purpose of scientific investigation, then, is to develop a geometrical account of the motion of bodies, which will reveal the genuine basis of their causal interactions and the regularity of the natural world. Thus, Hobbes defended a strictly materialist view of the world.
Human beings are physical objects, according to Hobbes, sophisticated machines all of whose functions and activities can be described and explained in purely mechanistic terms. Even thought itself, therefore, must be understood as an instance of the physical operation of the human body. Sensation, for example, involves a series of mechanical processes operating within the human nervous system, by means of which the sensible features of material things produce ideas in the brains of the human beings who perceive them. (Leviathan I 1)
Human action is similarly to be explained on Hobbes’s view. Specific desires and appetites arise in the human body and are experienced as discomforts or pains which must be overcome. Thus, each of us is motivated to act in such ways as we believe likely to relieve our discomfort, to preserve and promote our own well-being. (Leviathan I 6) Everything we choose to do is strictly determined by this natural inclination to relieve the physical pressures that impinge upon our bodies. Human volition is nothing but the determination of the will by the strongest present desire.
Hobbes nevertheless supposed that human agents are free in the sense that their activities are not under constraint from anyone else. On this compatibilist view, we have no reason to complain about the strict determination of the will so long as we are not subject to interference from outside ourselves. (Leviathan II 21)
As Hobbes acknowledged, this account of human nature emphasizes our animal nature, leaving each of us to live independently of everyone else, acting only in his or her own self-interest, without regard for others. This produces what he called the “state of war,” a way of life that is certain to prove “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” (Leviathan I 13) The only escape is by entering into contracts with each othermutually beneficial agreements to surrender our individual interests in order to achieve the advantages of security that only a social existence can provide. (Leviathan I 14)
Unable to rely indefinitely on their individual powers in the effort to secure livelihood and contentment, Hobbes supposed, human beings join together in the formation of a commonwealth. Thus, the commonwealth as a whole embodies a network of associated contracts and provides for the highest form of social organization. On Hobbes’s view, the formation of the commonwealth creates a new, artificial person (the Leviathan) to whom all responsibility for social order and public welfare is entrusted. (Leviathan II 17)
Of course, someone must make decisions on behalf of this new whole, and that person will be the sovereign. The commonwealth-creating covenant is not in essence a relationship between subjects and their sovereign at all. Rather, what counts is the relationship among subjects, all of whom agree to divest themselves of their native powers in order to secure the benefits of orderly government by obeying the dictates of the sovereign authority. (Leviathan II 18) That’s why the minority who might prefer a different sovereign authority have no complaint, on Hobbes’s view: even though they have no respect for this particular sovereign, they are still bound by their contract with fellow-subjects to be governed by a single authority. The sovereign is nothing more than the institutional embodiment of orderly government.
Since the decisions of the sovereign are entirely arbitrary, it hardly matters where they come from, so long as they are understood and obeyed universally. Thus, Hobbes’s account explicitly leaves open the possibility that the sovereign will itself be a corporate persona legislature or an assembly of all citizensas well as a single human being. Regarding these three forms, however, Hobbes himself maintained that the commonwealth operates most effectively when a hereditary monarch assumes the sovereign role. (Leviathan II 19) Investing power in a single natural person who can choose advisors and rule consistently without fear of internal conflicts is the best fulfillment of our social needs. Thus, the radical metaphysical positions defended by Hobbes lead to a notably conservative political result, an endorsement of the paternalistic view.
Hobbes argued that the commonwealth secures the liberty of its citizens. Genuine human freedom, he maintained, is just the ability to carry out one’s will without interference from others. This doesn’t entail an absence of law; indeed, our agreement to be subject to a common authority helps each of us to secure liberty with respect to others. (Leviathan II 21) Submission to the sovereign is absolutely decisive, except where it is silent or where it claims control over individual rights to life itself, which cannot be transferred to anyone else. But the structure provided by orderly government, according to Hobbes, enhances rather than restricts individual liberty.
Whether or not the sovereign is a single heredetary monarch, of course, its administration of social order may require the cooperation and assistance of others. Within the commonwealth as a whole, there may arise smaller “bodies politic” with authority over portions of the lives of those who enter into them. The sovereign will appoint agents whose responsibility is to act on its behalf in matters of less than highest importance. Most important, the will of the sovereign for its subjects will be expressed in the form of civil laws that have either been decreed or tacitly accepted. (Leviathan II 26) Criminal violations of these laws by any subject will be appropriately punished by the sovereign authority.
Despite his firm insistence on the vital role of the sovereign as the embodiment of the commonwealth, Hobbes acknowledged that there are particular circumstances under which it may fail to accomplish its purpose. (Leviathan II 29) If the sovereign has too little power, is made subject to its own laws, or allows its power to be divided, problems will arise. Similarly, if individual subjects make private judgments of right and wrong based on conscience, succomb to religious enthisiasm, or acquire excessive private property, the state will suffer. Even a well-designed commonwealth may, over time, cease to function and will be dissolved.
Locke: Social Order
John Locke’s intellectual curiosity and social activism also led him to consider issues of general public concern in the lively political climate of seventeenth-century England. In a series of Letters on Toleration, he argued against the exercise of any governmental effort to promote or to restrict particular religious beliefs and practices. His epistemology is directly relevant to this issue: since we cannot know perfectly the truth about all differences of religious opinion, Locke held, there can be no justification for imposing our own beliefs on others. Thus, although he shared his generation’s prejudice against “enthusiastic” expressions of religious fervor, Locke officially defended a broad toleration of divergent views.
Locke’s political philosophy found its greatest expression in the Two Treatises of Civil Government, published anonymously during the same year that the Essay appeared under his own name. In the First Treatise Locke offered a point-by-point critique of Robert Filmer’s Patriarchia, a quasi-religious attempt to show that absolute monarchy is the natural system of human social organization. The Second Treatise on Government develops Locke’s own detailed account of the origin, aims, and structure of any civil government. Adopting a general method similar to that of Hobbes, Locke imagined an original state of nature in which individuals rely upon their own strength, then described our escape from this primitive state by entering into a social contract under which the state provides protective services to its citizens. Unlike Hobbes, Locke regarded this contract as revokable. Any civil government depends on the consent of those who are governed, which may be withdrawn at any time.
From the outset, Locke openly declared the remarkable theme of his political theory: in order to preserve the public good, the central function of government must be the protection of private property. (2nd Treatise 3) Consider how human social life begins, in a hypothetical state of nature: Each individual is perfectly equal with every other, and all have the absolute liberty to act as they will, without interference from any other. (2nd Treatise 4) What prevents this natural state from being a violent Hobbesian free-for-all, according to Locke, is that each individual shares in the use of the faculty of reason, so that the actions of every human agenteven in the unreconstructed state of natureare bound by the self-evident laws of nature.
Understood in this way, the state of nature vests each reasonable individual with an independent right and responsibility to enforce the natural law by punishing those few who irrationally choose to violate it. (2nd Treatise 7-8) Because all are equal in the state of nature, the proportional punishment of criminals is a task anyone may undertake. Only in cases when the precipitate action of the offender permits no time for appeal to the common sense, reason, and will of others, Locke held, does this natural state degenerate into the state of war of each against all. (2nd Treatise 19)
Everything changes with the gradual introduction of private property. Originally, Locke supposed, the earth and everything on it belongs to all of us in common; among perfectly equal inhabitants, all have the same right to make use of whatever they find and can use. The only exception to this rule is that each of us has an exclusive right to her/his own body and its actions. But applying these actions to natural objects by mixing our labor with them, Locke argued, provides a clear means for appropriating them as an extension of our own personal property. (2nd Treatise 27) Since our bodies and their movements are our own, whenever we use our own effort to improve the natural worldthe resulting products belong to us as well.
The same principle of appropriation by the investment of labor can be extended to control over the surface of the earth as well, on Locke’s view. Individuals who pour themselves into the landimproving its productivity by spending their own time and effort on its cultivationacquire a property interest in the result. (2nd Treatise 32) The plowed field is worth more than the virgin prairie precisely because I have invested my labor in plowing it; so even if the prairie was held in common by all, the plowed field is mine. This personal appropriation of natural resources can continue indefinitely, Locke held, so long as there is “enough, and as good” left for others with the gumption to do the same. (2nd Treatise 33)
Within reasonable limits, then, individuals are free to pursue their own “life, health, liberty, and possessions.” Of course the story gets more complicated with the introduction of a monetary system that makes it possible to store up value in excess of what the individual can responsibly enjoy. (2nd Treatise 37) The fundamental principle still applies: labor is the ultimate source of all economic value. (2nd Treatise 42) But the creation of a monetary system requires an agreement among distinct individuals on the artificial “value” frozen in what is, in itself, nothing more than a bit of “colored metal.” This need for agreement, in turn, gives rise to the social order.
The first instance of social organization, on Locke’s view, is the development of the family, a voluntary association designed to secure the propagation of the human species through successive generations. (2nd Treatise 78) Although each individual in the state of nature has the right to enforce the natural law in defence of property interests, the formation of a civil society requires that all individuals voluntarily surrender this right to the community at large. By declaring and enforcing fixed rules for conducthuman lawsthe commonwealth thus serves as “umpire” in the adjudication of property disputes among those who choose to be governed in this way. (2nd Treatise 87-89) An absolute monarch, by contrast, can only remain in a state of nature with respect to the subjects under its rule.
Securing social order through the formation of any government invariably requires the direct consent of those who are to be governed. (2nd Treatise 95) Each and every individual must concur in the the original agreement to form such a government, but it would be enormously difficult to achieve unanimous consent with respect to the particular laws it promulgates. So, in practice, Locke supposed that the will expressed by the majority must be accepted as determinative over the conduct of each individual citizen who consents to be governed at all. (2nd Treatise 97-98) Although he offered several historical examples of just such initial agreements to form a society, Locke reasonably maintained that this is beside the point. All people who voluntarily chooses to live within a society have implicitly or tacitly entered into its formative agreement, and thereby consented to submit themselves and their property to its governance. (2nd Treatise 119)
The structure or form of the government so established is a matter of relatively less importance, on Locke’s view. (2nd Treatise 132) What matters is that legislative powerthe ability to provide for social order and the common good by setting standing laws over the acquisition, preservation, and transfer of propertyis provided for in ways to which everyone consents. (2nd Treatise 134-8) Because the laws are established and applied equally to all, Locke argued, this is not merely an exercize in the arbitrary use of power, but an effort to secure the rights of all more securely than would be possible under the independence and equality of the state of nature.
Since standing laws continue in force long after they have been established, Locke pointed out that the legislative body responsible for deciding what the laws should be need only meet occasionally, but the executive branch of government, responsible for ensuring that the laws are actually obeyed, must be continuous in its operation within the society. (2nd Treatise 144) In similar fashion, he supposed that the federative power responsible for representing this particular commonwealth in the world at large, needs a lengthy tenure. Locke’s presumption is that the legislative function of government will be vested in a representative assembly, which naturally retains the supreme power over the commonwealth as a whole: whenever it assembles, the majority of its members speak jointly for everyone in the society. The executive and federative functions, then, are performed by other persons (magistrates and ministers) whose power to enforce and negotiate is wholly derived from the legislative. (2nd Treatise 153) But since the legislature is not perpetually in session, occasions will sometimes arise for which the standing laws have made no direct provision, and then the executive will have to exercize its prerogative to deal with the situation immediately, relying upon its own counsel in the absence of legislative direction. (2nd Treatise 160) It is the potential abuse of this prerogative, Locke supposed, that most often threatens the stability and order of a commonwealth.
Whether any specific use of executive prerogative amounts to an abuse of power, is a question that transcends the social contract itself, and can only be judged by a higher appeal, to the divinely ordained law of nature. (2nd Treatise 168) Remember that according to Locke all legitimate political power derives solely from the consent of the governed to entrust their “lives, liberties, and possessions” to the oversight of the community as a whole, as expressed in the majority of its legislative body. (2nd Treatise 171) The commonwealth as a whole, then, is dissolved (and a new one formed) whenever there is a fundamental change in the membership of the legislature. (2nd Treatise 220)
The most likely cause of such a revolution, Locke supposed, would be abuse of power by the government itself: when the society unduly interferes with the property interests of the citizens, they are bound to protect themselves by withdrawing their consent. (2nd Treatise 222) When great mistakes are made in the governance of a commonwealth, only rebellion holds any promise of the restoration of fundamental rights. (2nd Treatise 225 ) Who is to be the judge of whether or not this has actually occurred? Only the people can decide, Locke maintained, since the very existence of the civil order depends upon their consent. (2nd Treatise 240) On Locke’s view, then, the possibility of revolution is a permanent feature of any properly-formed civil society. This provided a post facto defense of the Glorious Revolution in England and was a significant element in attempts to justify later popular revolts in America and France.
The Enlightenment: Continental
Among Germans, the Enlightenment was studiously academic. Development of the German universities fostered a preference for synoptic philosophizing: the goal of German philosophers was often to combine rational and empirical elements in a single comprehensive system. Both Leibniz and Christian Wolff had tried to develop complete metaphysical systems that could explain the phenomena of nature in rationalistic terms. Lessing fondly recalled the metaphysical monism of Spinoza, and Moses Mendelssohn mounted a lofty defense of the immortality of the human soul. But many of these efforts ignored the force of Hume’s skeptical arguments, rather than responding to them constructively. The greatest philosopher of the German Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant, took a different approach.
In France, the skepticism promoted by Bayle helped to promote opposition to the church and to encourage political revolution. The Encyclopedists and “free-thinkers” of the eighteenth-century sought to undermine confidence in established social positions of every sort. Voltaire’s, for example, was a brilliantly mocking voice that aimed to deflate any and all claims of certitude. If we agree that god exists, he supposed, we must then face the severe difficulties presented by the existence of evil in the world. (In Candide Voltaire savagely attacked the practical consequences of Leibniz’s claim that this is “the best of all possible worlds.”) If we suppose that morality is vital for human life, we must somehow learn to deal with the evident determination of the will. Above all, Voltaire bitterly rejected all claims of social or religious authority.
Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau also harbored a profound dislike for authority (or even structure) of any sort and sought to restore a proper respect for the creativity and worth of individual human beings. But Rousseau also explored the political implications of these ideas: his notion of individual liberty and his convictions about political unity helped to fuel the romantic spirit of the French Revolution.
In the second of his essays for the Dijon competition, the Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’ingalit parmi les hommes (Discourse on the Origin of Inequality) (1755), Rousseau emphasized that the natural condition of humanity is disguised by the corruptive influence of civilization. Reliance on the feeling of compassion and on native respect for sentience, he believed, was an adequate guide for human life.
Although some few natural inequalities among individual human beings are inevitable, Rousseau argued that the far more significant moral and political inequalities are purely conventional in origin. Savage human beings, like animals of any species, are well-adapted by nature to their surroundings in the natural world. In the absence of any discursive reasoning about themselves, such beings have no need for morality or a concept of duty. Their lives are wholly guided by their feelings of pity and love for each other, and conventional inequalities do not arise.
It is concern for private property, according to Rousseau, that gives rise to civil society. Everyone’s well-being is served by reliance on each other in the basic cooperation that characterizes the family as a primitive social unit, designed to secure the necessities of human life. But the very success of this cooperative effort produces time for leisure, which in turn leads to the production of agriculture and industry. These developments require ownership of land and promote acquisition of wealth, both of which entail the protection of a stable government. Thus, Rousseau held, a body politic must be established by means of a contract that unites many wills into one.
The Social Contract
The details of this process Rousseau described in Du contrat social (On the Social Contract) (1762). At the outset, Rousseau notes that since perfect freedom is the natural condition of human beings, it is the existence of social restrictions that requires explanation. Only the family is truly a natural association, and its features are commonly extended far beyond the basic needs from which it arises. Military conquest and slavery in its usual forms cannot establish any genuine right for one person to rule over another. So, Rousseau concluded, society must devolve from a social contract in which individual citizens voluntarily participate.
Each citizen chooses to trade the natural liberty of independent life for the civil liberty secured by the state, allowing social rights over property to outweigh individual rights. But according to Rousseau, this surrender of each to the good of the whole must take place in a way that also secures the unity of all in a desire for what will most benefit the whole. “Trouver une forme d’association qui dfende et protge de toute la force commune la personne et les biens de chaque associ, et par laquelle chacun s’unissant tous n’obisse pourtant qu’ lui-mme et reste aussi libre qu’auparavant.” This is the fundamental problem of all social organization: to secure the participation of every individual in the general will.
The General Will
As Rousseau envisioned it, the general will Fr. volont gnrale is not merely the cancelled-out sum of all the individual wills of those who participate in the social contract, the will of all Fr. volont de tous. Indeed, he warned that the influence of parties representing special interests is directly inimical to the sort of sound public deliberation that can arrive at a consensus regarding the welfare of all. So thoroughly must each individual surrender to the whole as to acknowledge that “sa vie n’est plus seulement un bienfait de la nature, mais un don conditionnel de l’Etat”. By entering into the original agreement, I have sworn to seek only the welfare of the community, no matter what the consequences may be for me. The general will must be concerned solely with the general interest, which is the inalienable responsibility of the sovereign body, expressed through legislation.
Although the general will must be arrived at through reasoned deliberation in the state as a whole, its execution depends upon an embodiment in the structure of government. Thus, for Rousseau, distinct forms of government have to do only with the execution of the sovereign laws: democracy is dangerous in application to particular cases, where the general will can easily be lost in the pressure of private interests; aristocracy is acceptable so long as it executes the general will rather than serving the welfare of the ruling elite; and monarchy clearly raises the temptation to serve private welfare at the expense of the common good. The appropriate form of government for any state depends upon the character of its people and even its physical climate, Rousseau supposed, and its success can be measured easily by the extent to which its population thrives.
Abuses of power can, of course, threaten the very life of the state. When the governmentproperly responsible only for carrying out the general willtakes upon itself the sovereign responsibility of establishing legal requirements for the people, the social contract has been broken. For Rousseau, then, the establishment of a government is always provisional and temporary, subject to the continual review by its citizens. Since the legitimacy of the social contract depends upon the unanimous consent of all the governed, the sovereign general will is fully expressed only in an assembly of the entire population. Even the effort to establish a representative legislative body is an illusion, according to Rousseau, since the general will can be determined only by each for all.
The general will, abstractly considered as a commitment to the welfare of the whole, is indestructible in principle, Rousseau held, even though it may be overridden by undesirable motives in practice. The original contract requires perfect unanimity, and major issues should be decided by a major portion of the population, but simple matters requiring quick action may be determined by a simple majority. In each case, Rousseau supposed that open inquiry and debate will converge on an awareness by each individual of what is truly in the best interest of the community as a whole; and that is the general will. Positions of leadership that require skill should be decided by election, while those that demand only good sense should be chosen by lot.
In a final reminder of the nature of the general will, Rousseau noted that it is distinct from the social customs that may be endorsed or expressed as public opinion. These are not determinations of what is best for all, but merely codifications of the conventional mores of the people, and should occupy a correspondingly lesser status. Even when incorporated into the civil religion, with an appeal to the full force of divine as well as human approval, he insisted, social customs are merely that.
At the outset of the nineteenth century, an influential group of British thinkers developed a set of basic principles for addressing social problems. Extrapolating from Hume’s emphasis on the natural human interest in utility, reformer Jeremy Bentham proposed a straightforward quantification of morality by reference to utilitarian outcomes. His An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) offers a simple statement of the application of this ethical doctrine.
Bentham’s moral theory was founded on the assumption that it is the consequences of human actions that count in evaluating their merit and that the kind of consequence that matters for human happiness is just the achievement of pleasure and avoidance of pain. He argued that the hedonistic value of any human action is easily calculated by considering how intensely its pleasure is felt, how long that pleasure lasts, how certainly and how quickly it follows upon the performance of the action, and how likely it is to produce collateral benefits and avoid collateral harms. Taking such matters into account, we arrive at a net value of each action for any human being affected by it.
All that remains, Bentham supposed, is to consider the extent of this pleasure, since the happiness of the community as a whole is nothing other than the sum of individual human interests. The principle of utility, then, defines the meaning of moral obligation by reference to the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people who are affected by performance of an action. Similarly, Bentham supposed that social policies are properly evaluated in light of their effect on the general well-being of the populations they involve. Punishing criminals is an effective way of deterring crime precisely because it pointedly alters the likely outcome of their actions, attaching the likelihood of future pain in order to outweigh the apparent gain of committing the crime. Thus, punishment must “fit” the crime by changing the likely perception of the value of committing it.
John Stuart Mill
A generation later, utilitarianism found its most effective exponent in John Stuart Mill. Raised by his father, the philosopher James Mill, on strictly Benthamite principles, Mill devoted his life to the defence and promotion of the general welfare. With the help his long-time companion Harriet Taylor, Mill became a powerful champion of lofty moral and social ideals.
Mill’s Utilitarianism (1861) is an extended explanation of utilitarian moral theory. In an effort to respond to criticisms of the doctrine, Mill not only argued in favor of the basic principles of Jeremy Bentham but also offered several significant improvements to its structure, meaning, and application. Although the progress of moral philosophy has been limited by its endless disputes over the reality and nature of the highest good, Mill assumed from the outset, everyone can agree that the consequences of human actions contribute importantly to their moral value. (Utilitarianism 1)
Mill fully accepted Bentham’s devotion to greatest happiness principle as the basic statement of utilitarian value:
” . . . actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.” (Utilitarianism 2)
But he did not agree that all differences among pleasures can be quantified. On Mill’s view, some kinds of pleasure experienced by human beings also differ from each other in qualitative ways, and only those who have experienced pleasure of both sorts are competent judges of their relative quality. This establishes the moral worth of promoting higher (largely intellectual) pleasures among sentient beings even when their momentary intensity may be less than that of alternative lower (largely bodily) pleasures. Even so, Mill granted that the positive achievement of happiness is often difficult, so that we are often justified morally in seeking primarily to reduce the total amount of pain experienced by sentient beings affected by our actions. Painor even the sacrifice of pleasureis warranted on Mill’s view only when it results directly in the greater good of all.
Against those who argue that the utilitarian theory unreasonably demands of individual agents that they devote their primary energies to the cold-hearted and interminable calculation of anticipated effects of their actions, Mill offered a significant qualification. Precisely because we do not have the time to calculate accurately in every instance, he supposed, we properly allow our actions to be guided by moral rules most of the time. Partly anticipating the later distinction between act and rule utilitarianism, Mill pointed out that secondary moral principles at the very least perform an important service by providing ample guidance for every-day moral life. Finally, however, he emphasized that the value of each particular actionespecially in difficult or controversial casesis to be determined by reference to the principle of utility itself.
What motivates people to do the right thing? Mill claimed universal agreement on the role of moral sanctions in eliciting proper conduct from human agents. (Utilitarianism 3) But unlike Bentham, Mill did not restrict himself to the socially-imposed external sanctions of punishment and blame, which make the consequences of improper action more obviously painful. On Mill’s view, human beings are also motivated by such internal sanctions as self-esteem, guilt, and conscience. Because we all have social feelings on behalf of others, the unselfish wish for the good of all is often enough to move us to act morally. Even if others do not blame or punish me for doing wrong, I am likely to blame myself, and that bad feeling is another of the consequent pains that I reasonably consider when deciding what to do.
In Chapter Four, Mill offers as “proof” of the principle of utility an argument originally presented by his father, James Mill. The best evidence of the desirability of happiness is that people really do desire it; and since each individual human being desires her own happiness, it must follow that all of us desire the happiness of everyone. Thus, the Mills argued, the greatest pleasure of all is morally desirable. (Utilitarianism 4) The argument doesn’t hold up well at all in logical terms, since each of its inferences is obviously fallacious, but Mill may have been correct in supposing on psychological grounds that seeking pleasure and avoiding pain are the touchstones by which most of us typically live.
Finally, Mill argued that social applications of the principle of utility are fully consistent with traditional concern for the promotion of justice. Justice involves respect for the property, rights, and deserts of individual citizens, along with fundamental presumptions in favor of good faith and impartiality. All of these worthwhile components of justice are adequately preserved by conscientious application of the principle of utility, Mill supposed, since particular cases of each clearly result in the greatest happiness of all affected parties. (Utilitarianism 5) Although a retributive sentiment in favor of punishing wrong-doers may also be supposed to contribute to the traditional concept of justice, Mill insisted that the appropriately limited use of external sanctions on utilitarian grounds better accords with a legitimate respect for the general welfare. Mill also pointed out that the defence of individual human freedom is especially vital to living justly, but that had been the subject of another book.
John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859) is the classic statement and defence of the view that governmental encroachment upon the freedom of individuals is almost never warranted. A genuinely civil society, he maintained, must always guarantee the civil liberty of its citizenstheir protection against interference by an abusive authority. This is true even when the government itself relies upon the democratic participation of the people. (On Liberty 1) The tyranny of the majority is especially dangerous to individual liberty, Mill supposed, because the most commonly recommended remedy is to demand that the recalcitrant minority either persuade the majority to change its views or learn to conform to socially accepted norms.
Mill had a different notion. The proper balance between individual liberty and governmental authority, he proposed, can be stated as a simple principle:
“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” (On Liberty 1)
Although society has a clear responsibility for protecting its citizens from each other, it has no business interfering with the rest of what they do. In particular, anything that directly affects only the individual citizen must remain absolutely free. On Mill’s view, this entails in particular that the government is never justified in trying to control, limit, or restrain: 1) private thoughts and feelings, along with their public expression, 2) individual tastes and pursuits as efforts to live happily, or 3) the association of like-minded individuals with each other. (On Liberty 1) No society is truly free unless its individual citizens are permitted to take care of themselves.
Considering first freedom of thought and discussion, Mill argued that because even a majority opinion is fallible, society should always permit the expression of minority views. There is a chance, after all, that the unconventional opinion will turn out, in the long run, to be correct, in which case the entire society would suffer if it were never allowed to come to light. Sincere devotion to the truth requires open inquiry, not the purposeful silencing of alternative views that might prove to be right. (On Liberty 2) Even if the unconventional opinion turns out to be incorrect, Mill argued, there is still good reason to encourage its free expression. The truth can only be enlivened and strengthened by exposure to criticism and debate through which the majority view is shown not to be merely an inadequately grounded superstition. (On Liberty 2) In the most common instance, Mill supposed, there will actually turn out to be some measure of falsity in the clearest truth and some element of truth in the most patent falsehood. Thus, on every possible occasion, encouraging civil discussion of alternative views genuinely benefits society as a whole.
Mill supposed that behavior as well as thought often deserves protection against social encroachment. Human action should arise freely from the character of individual human beings, not from the despotic influence of public opinion, custom, or expectation. No matter what patterns of behavior may constitute the way we ought to be, he argued, each person must choose her or his own path in life, even if it differs significantly from what other people would recommend. (On Liberty 3) No less than in the realm of thought, in the realm of behavior unconventionality and originality are often signs of great personal genius, which should never be curtailed by social pressures.
In summary, then, Mill emphasized that individual citizens are responsible for themselves, their thoughts and feelings, and their own tastes and pursuits, while society is properly concerned only with social interests. In particular, the state is justified in limiting or controlling the conduct of individuals only when doing so is the only way to prevent them from doing harm to others by violating their rights. (On Liberty 4) Where the conduct in question affects only the person who does iteven if it clearly results in harm to that personthe state has no business in even trying to suppress the mode of being that person has chosen. Thus, on Mill’s view, legislation that attempts to promote good conduct or to prevent people from harming themselves is always wrong. The line he drew between private and social concerns is a fairly clear one: society should not endeavor to limit my drinking, but rightly prosecutes me for harming others while drunk.
In the essay’s final chapter, Mill carefully noted several apparent exceptions to the general principle. (On Liberty 5) Governmental interference is not necessary even in some of the instances where it might be justifiable. Economic life involves social interest and may therefore be subject to regulation, even though free trade is often more effective. Speech or action by one individual that encourages someone else to commit self-harm is appropriately restricted. Indirect action by the state designed to encourage or discourage (without requiring or restraining) individual conduct is permissible; in fact, doing so is simply good utilitarian legislation. According to Mill, the state’s legitimate interest in preventing harm to its citizens extends even into the domain of family life, as in forbidding spousal abuse or providing for the education of children.
Finally, Mill noted that even if the involvement of the government in some specific aspect of the lives of its citizens does not violate their individual liberty, there may remain other good reasons for avoiding it. If the conduct to be regulated can be performed better by individuals themselves, if it is more desirable that it be done by them, or if regulation would add significantly to the already-dangerous power of the social establishment, then the state ought not to be allowed to interfere. (On Liberty 5) Mill’s conclusion, then, is strictly in favor of liberty: governmental action is legitimate only when demonstrably necessary for the protection of other citizens from direct harm caused by the conduct in question. On every other contingency, the liberty of the individual should remain inviolate.
The Subjection of Women
One of Mill’s last and finest literary efforts was written in support of a political cause of which he had long been a leading champion. The Subjection of Women (1869) offered both detailed argumentation and passionate eloquence in bitter opposition to the social and legal inequalities commonly imposed upon women by a patriarchal culture. Mill granted the practical difficulty of arguing successfully against an opinion that is widely-held and deeply-entrenched even though it relies upon nothing better than a vaguely-expressed presumption of the natural superiority of males. In fact, Mill pointed out, the domination of men over womenlike conquest or slavery in any other formoriginated in nothing more than the brute application of physical power. But this reliance upon physical force as a means of obtaining and maintaining control over other human beings has been abandoned in every other area of political life.
“The social subordination of women thus stands out an isolated fact in modern social institutions; a solitary breach of what has become their fundamental law . . . .” (Subjection of Women 1)
Mill argued that reliance upon physical strength and violence should not be tolerated in this instance, either.
Although it is often claimed that male domination over women is a purely natural expression of biological necessity, Mill found little genuine evidence for this. Any conventional social discrimination, made familiar by long experience and social prevalence, will come to seem natural to those who have never contemplated any alternative. The appearance of voluntary submission by women is even more misleading, on Mill’s view, since it could as easily reflect enslavement of mind and feeling as genuine sentiment. Certainly men, whose awareness of women’s thinking is severly limited, are in no position to speak confidently about what women really want:
“Many a man thinks he perfectly understands women, because he has had amatory relations with several, perhaps with many of them. If he is a good observer, and his experience extends to quality as well as quantity, he may have learnt something of one narrow department of their naturean important department, no doubt. But of all the rest of it, few persons are generally more ignorant, because there are few from whom it is so carefully hidden.” (Subjection of Women 1)
If society really wanted to discover what is truly natural in gender relations, Mill argued, it should establish a free market for all of the services women perform, ensuring a fair economic return for their contributions to the general welfare. Only then would their practical choices be likely to reflect their genuine interests.
In the patriarchal culture, many women are trapped by social expectations in the traditional forms of marriage, which had its origins as bondage or involuntary servitude. Although Mill granted that some men are less despotic toward their wives than the laws would permit, he supposed this a mixed blessing and noted those who wish to do so find little difficulty in securing a slave-wife. Mill saw no reason why either partner in a marriage should dominate the other; he proposed that a family governed by consenual separation of functions could, in principle become a profoundly serious example of free association.
“What marriage may be in the case of two persons of cultivated faculties, identical in opinions and purposes, between whom there exists that best kind of equality, similarity of powers and reciprocal superiority in themso that each can enjoy the luxury of looking up to the other, and can have alternately the pleasure of leading and of being led in the path of developmentI will not attempt to describe. To those who can conceive it, there is no need; to those who cannot, it would appear the dream of an enthusiast. But I maintain, with the profoundest conviction, that this, and this only, is the ideal of marriage; and that all opinions, customs, and institutions which favour any other notion of it, or turn the conceptions and aspirations connected with it into any other direction, by whatever pretences they may be coloured, are relics of primitive barbarism.” (Subjection of Women 4)
Although few men can presently tolerate the prospect of living in intimate association with a genuinely equal partner, Mill clearly believed it not only possible but highly desirable to do so.
Thus, the liberation of women from patriarchal restrictions holds great promise for human life generally. The individual property rights of women ought to be wholly independent of their marital status, for example, and their right to participate in the political process ought to be granted completely. (Efforts to secure suffrage for women had been a major issue of Mill’s own service in the British Parliament.) Not only can women think as well as men, Mill argued, but their thought and experience inclines them to be more flexible and practical in applied reasoning and, perhaps, therefore morally superior to men. Certainly the provision of social equality for women would serve the general welfare of society by promoting justice, enhancing moral sensitivity, and securing liberty for all.
Marx and Engels: Communism
Nineteenth-century hought about social issues took a different turn with the work of such reformers as Godwin and Proudhon. The most comprehensive and influential new way of thinking about social, economic, and political issues was that developed by German philosopher Karl Marx. Like Ludwig Feuerbach, Marx belonged to a generation of German scholars who appropriated but diverged significantly from the teachings of Hegel.
Early in his own career, Marx outlined his disagreement with the master’s political theories in A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Hegel’s emphasis on the abstract achievements of Art, Religion, and Philosophy overlooked what is truly important in human life, according to Marx. Religion in particular is nothing more than a human creation with its own social origins and consequences: it gives expression to human suffering without offering any relief from it by disguising its genuine sources in social and economic injustice. Even philosophy, as an abstract discipline, is pointless unless it is transformed or actualized by direct application to practice.
Marx maintained that progress would best be founded on a proper understanding of industry and the origins of wealth, together with a realistic view of social conflict. Struggle between distinct economic classes, with the perpetual possibility of revolution, is the inevitable fate of European society. Specifically, Marx argued that the working-class of Germany has become the ideal vehicle for social revolution because of the loss of humanity it has suffered as a result of the industrialization of the German economy.
The section on “Alienated Labor” from the konomisch-philosophische Manuskripte aus dem Jahre 1844 (Economic and Political Manuscripts of 1844) (1844)
Kierkegaard: The Passionate Individual
An entirely different kind of reaction against the severe rationalism of Hegel came from Danish philosopher Sren Kierkegaard. Although he wrote extensively, Kierkegaard employed the rhetorical device of irony so successfully that it is difficult to be sure what views he would have defended seriously. Approaching the work through some of his self-conscious reflections upon the task may prove helpful.
Becoming an Author
At first, one might be inclined to accept Kierkegaard’s straightforward declaration that his entire career as an author is nothing more than an earnest desire to achieve worldly fame. But even this appears in a work he published pseudonymously! Perhaps his claim to be preaching Christianity to the Christians is closer to the mark. Opposing the staid, traditional complacency in which many people live out their lives is a worthwhile goal that calls for an unusual approach.
Kierkegaard’s life and work exemplify the paradox that he saw at the heart of modern life. Ever scornful of human pretensions, he deliberately chose the reverse deception of pretending to be less than he was. Since serious work should stand on its own, without deriving any arbitrary force from the presumed authority of its creator, Kierkegaard wrote privately and published under a variety of pseudonyms while frequently making flighty public appearances in his native Copenhagen. Perhaps this was a great project of personal ironic exhibitionism: how better to illustrate the uselessness of customary “social” life than by living it out to the fullest?
But why would anyone take such great pains in a deliberate effort to be out-of-step with his own world? For Kierkegaard, this was the only way to be sure of the truth, by eliminating every possible ulterior motive for what one says. The pseudonymous writer is notably freed from any temptation to tailor his message to popular opinion, since it is impossible for him to achieve any fame. This is what mattered to Kierkegaard.
With regard to everything that counts in human life, including especially matters of ethical and religious concern, Kierkegaard held that the crowd is always wrong. Any appeal to the opinions of others is inherently false, since it involves an effort to avoid responsibility for the content and justification of my own convictions. Genuine action must always arise from the Individual, without any prospect of support or agreement from others. Thus, on Kierkegaard’s view, both self-denial and the self-realization to which it may lead require absolute and uncompromising independence from the group. Social institutionsembodying “the system” of Hegelian idealismare invariably bad; only the solitary perception of self can be worthwhile.
Freedom and Dread
Utter self-reliance, however, is a frightening prospect. Although we are strongly inclined to seek human freedom, Kierkegaard noted, contemplation of such a transcendence of all mental and bodily determinations tends only to produce grave anxiety in the individual person. Genuine innocence entails an inability to forsee all outcomes, which thereby renders one incapable of gaining control over one’s own life.
Thus, in Begrebet Angest (The Concept of Dread) (1844), Kierkegaard examined the only appropriate emotional response to the condition of human freedom. Anxiety (Ger. Angst) is the dizziness produced in any reasonable being who stands at the brink of genuine freedom. Knowing that we can think and do as we will naturally inspires deep fear about what we shall think and do.
Even religious verities, Kierkegaard supposed, offer no lasting relief from the predicament. Christianity (as Paul had pointed out) makes no sense; its genius lies not in any appeal to the dictates of reason but rather in its total reliance on faith. But from our point of view, the content of an authoritative command is entirely irrelevant; all that matters is the claim that the command places upon our lives. There can be no proof of the authority behind the command, since any such demonstration of its value would make it impossible for us to accept it as a matter of faith.
What is at stake here is Kierkegaard’s theoretical distinction between objective and subjective truth, worked out in the Afsluttende Uvidenskabelig Efterskrift (Concluding Unscientific Postscript) (1846) to the Philosophical Fragments. Considered objectively, truth merely seeks attachment to the right object, correspondence with an independent reality. Considered subjectively, however, truth seeks achievement of the right attitude, an appropriate relation between object and knower. Thus, for example, although Christianity is objectively merely one of many available religions in the world, it subjectively demands our complete devotion.
For Kierkegaard, it is clearly subjective truth that counts in life. How we believe matters much more than what we believe, since the “passionate inwardness” of subjective adherence is the only way to deal with our anxiety. Passionate attachment to a palpable falsehood, Kierkegaard supposed, is preferable to detached conviction of the obvious truth. Mild acceptance of traditional, institutional religion is useless, since god’s existence can only be appreciated on wholly subjective grounds.
At one level, this amounts to acceptance of something like the slogan, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you’re sincere.” But of course the Kierkegaardian standards for sincerity are very high.
Nietzsche: Beyond Morality
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche shared Kierkegaard’s conviction that philosophy should deeply reflect the personal concerns of individual human beings. But for Nietzsche, this entailed rejection of traditional values, including the Christian religion. Nietzche’s declaration of “the death of god” draws attention to our culture’s general abandonment of any genuine commitment to the Christian faith.
According to Nietzsche’s Die Gtzendmmerung (Twilight of the Idols) (1889), Western philosophers since Socrates represent a degeneration of the natural strengths of humanity. A noble taste for heroic styles of life can only be corrupted and undermined by the interminable debates of dialectical reason. Traditional Western morality philosophyand the Christian religion in particulartherefore opposes a healthy life, trying vainly to escape unfortunate circumstances by destroying native human desires.
Only perverse tenacity and cowardice, he believed, encourages us to cling to this servile morality, It would be more brave, more honest, and much more noble to cut ourselves loose and dare to live in a world without God. In such a world, death is not to be feared, since it represents nothing more significant than the fitting conclusion of a life devoted to personal gain.
All of this is, of course, a variety of nihilism. Nietzsche insists that there are no rules for human life, no absolute values, no certainties on which to rely. If truth can be achieved at all, it can come only from an individual who purposefully disregards everything that is traditionally taken to be “important.” Such a super-human person Ger. bermensch}, Nietzsche supposed, can live an authentic and successful human life.
Beyond Good and Evil
Nietzsche offered a quasi-historical account of the harmful consequences of traditional ethics in Zur Geneologie der Moral (On the Genealogy of Morals) (1887). “Good” initially and properly designated only the right of those individuals with social and political power to live their lives by sheer force of will. But a “priestly” caste, motivated by their resentment of their natural superiors, generated a corrupt alternative that would appeal to “the herd” of less capable persons, turning values inside-out. In the “slave morality” endorsed by religious establishments, Nietzsche argued, forceful action which should be admired gets labelled as “evil,” while the cowardly tendency to think through everything in advance is transformed into the supposed virtue of prudence.
Genuine autonomy, Nietzsche maintained, could only mean freedom from all external constraints on one’s behavior. In this (natural and admirable) state of existence, each individual human being would live a life without the artificial limits of moral obligation. No other sanction on conduct would be necessary than the natural punishment involved in the victory of a superior person over a vanquished enemy.
But the wish of lesser people to secure themselves against interference from those who are better gives rise to a false sense of moral responsibility. The natural fear of being overwhelmed by a superior foe becomes internalized as the self-generated sense of guilt, and individual conscience places severe limits on the normal exercize of human desire. Thus, on Nietzsche’s view, the fundamental self-betrayal of the human race is to submit its freedom to the ficticious demands of an imaginary god. Afraid to live by the strength of our own wills, we invent religion as a way of generating and then explaining our perpetual sense of being downtrodden and defeated in life.
Moore: Analysis of Common Sense
Cambridge professor G. E. Moore was the single most influential British philosopher of the twentieth century. His critique of the idealism of his teachers helped to break its hold on Anglo-American thought. His ethical theories and the example of his own life contributed significantly to the development of contemporary life. Most of all, Moore’s profound caution and sincerity in argument became the model for application of analytic methods in philosophy.
Moore studied philosophy at Cambridge and Oxford with the idealistic philosophers McTaggart and Bradley, but soon declared his independence from their influence. In an early paper on “The Nature of Judgment” (1899), he insisted that propositions have a quasi-Platonic existence independently of the mental judgments or beliefs they express. Truth, Moore therefore argued, must be a simple, non-relational property that some of these propositions possess, again without respect for the minds that entertain them. The subjective explanation of false beliefs in particular raises significant doubts about the legitimacy of an idealistic account.
A few years later, in “The Refutation of Idealism” (1903), Moore rejected the core principle of idealism and offered a distinctly realistic alternative. Every form of idealism, he noted, relies on the principle expressed by Berkeley in the Latin phrase, esse est percipi, “to be is to be perceived.” This belief that everything is really just an object of experience in some mind, Moore pointed out, must be necessarily true in order to have its intended consequences for the idealist scheme. Yet it seems clear that the belief is not analytic, since there is at least a conceptual difference between being on the one hand and being perceived on the other.
Thus, Moore claimed, idealists simply assume without evidence the truth of their most important principle. Each object of experience is assumed to be nothing more than a part wholly contained within the organic whole that constitutes the subject or perceiver. The sensation of something blue is, on this view, merely the perceiver’s blue sensation, a mental entity with no external referent. Not only is this position unsupported, Moore argued, but it also tends to collapse into solipsism, since it leaves individual perceivers with no evidence of anything outside their own experience.
Moore maintained that the object of any experience must be clearly distinguished from the experience itself. Indeed, experience itself should be analyzed as an irreducible relation between an external object and the perceiver’s conscious awareness of that object. If we begin with this view of the perceptual situation, Moore supposed, the reality of the object iWords
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