The State as a Moral Institution

Download 58.87 Kb.
Size58.87 Kb.
Akanmidu, R.A. “The State as a Moral Institution”, in Michael Toper(ed) Law, Justice and the State II. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1995 pp. 25-33

R.A. Akanmidu

University of florin, Nigeria

The State as a Moral Institution


In this paper, we try to show that the state, as a corporate body, is capable of acting morally as individuals do. When this position is fully argued for, it will become clearer that corporate bodies as the state can be seen as moral as individuals are. The position argued for in this paper is that States have moral character such that are of the same mode as individuals in spite of the fact that States are made up of many individuals of differing character backgrounds. The widely acceptable thesis on the morality of States which is the problem this essay is attempting to solve is that "group relations can never be as ethical as those which characterise individual relations" (Niebuhr 1960, p. 83). This thesis is otherwise reworded by Nardin when he says that, "moralities are often understood as pertaining in one way or another to the conduct of individuals rather than groups or organizations" (Nardin 1983, p. 234).

As it is true in the running of the State, the mode of communication and routine of actions in terms of policy formation and implementation can have something to say about the morality of collectivities such as the State. Therefore, any theory on the morality of the State should be seen in the context of the general characteristics that the State shares with individuals whose principles of moral responsibility can easily be adjudged. However, in the attempt to show that the State is a moral institution a basis must be established suggestive of the view that though different character backgrounds are represented by individuals in the State, it is on collective judgement that the morality of the State is based. Afterall, the State has no obligation of its own except those prescribed or given to it by those who constituted it.

For the purposes of justifying our argument on the State as Moral Institution, we shall predicate our views on three positions; namely, first, that corporate bodies such as the State have features as individuals do which ascribe to them the status of moral agents; second, that the purpose, functions and objectives of the State collectively suggest its status as a moral institution. Third, that some theories which retain some credibility in both political and legal philosophy; namely, Locke's State of nature, Rousseau's Social Contract theory and Rawls' Concept of Social Cooperative System in his theory of Justice are of some use in determining the State as a moral institution. Opinions are most likely to differ on the moral contents of these theories, nevertheless, our attempt here is aimed at giving each theory some moral interpretation with the view of establishing our argument on the moral status of the State. His to be noted that the words 'State', 'Nation' and' Society' shall be used interchangeably carrying the same meaning in this essay.

The Concept of Morality: A Definitional Difficulty and Possibility

In all periods of recorded history the moral order in the world as a whole has very largely been the product of the consciousness of social settings or groups. For this same reason, the attempt to have only one universally acceptable definition of morality is extremely difficult. Even when this is contemplated, "it is not only unreasonable but impracticable in the face of vagaries and complicated concepts of morality in the different societies represented in the world" (Akanmidu, 1992 MSS, p. 5). This position as expressed here only addresses one of the reasons why it is difficult to have one universally acceptable definition of morality.

Since different moral interests are represented by different social settings, the problem of definition is introduced into the concept of morality. This problem or difficulty expresses itself the most in the effort to contemplate the notion of international morality. The State possesses in its organs of governmentthe symbols of moral unity and greatness which inspire reverence in the citizenry. Apparently this inspiration is peculiar to specific nations. It is in recognition of this peculiarity that the definitional difficulty becomes inherent in the concept of morality. This difficulty has nothing to do with acknowledging what the notion of morality should be or ought to be, rather, it has to do with the distinctions that are warranted in moral perceptions by distinct societies.

Although the distinctions remain undoubted, we can still design a way to overcome the difficulty by constructing the notion of morality in the universal sense. This is plausible when we tie down the notion of morality from the conceptual point of view . The demarcation that exists between the process of conceptualizing morality and conceiving that which is contained (i.e. content) in what is classified as morality is clear-cut. The conceptual point of view predicates on the principles of right conduct which retains common background in all societies while what the idea of morality contains of retains its distinction status. At this point, we can invoke Nardin's idea of 'moral supremacy thesis' .

According to this thesis; "moral considerations are not on the same plane as other sorts of considerations and cannot be overridden by them. Moral considerations are always supreme" (Nardin, 1983, p. 252). In his attempt to give support to this thesis, Cohen states that, "the principles of morality are not one among a number of competing interests and cannot be subordinated to other interests. They are, rather, the principles that govern the pursuit of all interests" (Cohen 1974, p. 88). Other than this position maintained by Cohen in defense of the 'moral supremacy thesis'; it can be added that this thesis can further be defended by saying that it inaugurates in the mind the view that conducts that merit the classification of morality are the best of conducts among others. It is in this sense that it can be taken that such conducts are supreme.

The 'moral supremacy thesis' looks tenable for the perception of morality in all States (societies) since the forms of conduct considered are best among the rest. It should also be mentioned here that considerations of prudence and interests (particularly general interests) are expected to be integral to the concept of morality. In the light of this position, it can be said that what is moral can be distinguished from what is immoral. The 'Supremacy thesis' provides solution to the doubts which are often entertained in the attempts to define morality. This is because the thesis reveals the fact that the class of human conducts that are deemed moral share identical characteristics in the context

of supremacy concept in all human societies. This reasoning achieves two major points; namely, that it is plausible to contemplate a universally acceptable definition of morality and also that corporate bodies such as the State is a moral agent. The first of these two points stands in absolute conformity with the view that whatever represents what morality stands for or connotes in each society retains the status of supremacy. To that extent, there can be uniformity in the conceptualization of morality among distinct societies with distinct moral backgrounds. For each stands to conceive its own notion of morality in the supreme sense just as others do.

The second of these points is supportive of the idea that at the instance of the supremacy thesis we can contemplate the view that corporate bodies remain the reservoir for the determination of which human conduct is to be classified as moral and which not to be. Since every society has an instinctive notion of morality, to that extent, corporate bodies are embodiments of morality.

There is no doubt as it has been highlighted earlier-on about the fact that there is in the content of some human conducts which are classified as moral in some societies which express out-right ambiguities in the judgement of persons from other societies. This judgement only has direct reference to the contents of the forms of human conduct deemed moral and not to the underlying conceptual sense of morality. Therefore it becomes imperative that in our attempt to overcome the difficulty of having a universally acceptable definition of morality we must turn to the conceptual sense of morality and not to its contents.

So far, we have described a process whereby morality can be defined. But even this possibility, there is the need to highlight one important property of morality. This property is within the context of the aims that the idea of morality is booked to serve. The mutual alliance that exists between the central core of the notion of morality and human welfare forms the basis of this property. This property is the consideration that morality ought to consist of actions that have values that acknowledge "human beings as having intrinsic worth ... and lessening (human) suffering" (Nielsen, 1984, p. 82). From the perspective of this property, itlooks obvious that it is not easy to deviate from Nielsen's position because "when actions are aimed at putting into disrepute the worth of human beings and increase their sufferilng they can no longer be deemed as moral" (Akanmidu, 1992, MSS, p. 5).

Considerations such as these clearly point to the basic intention inherent in morality concept. When the property such as we have pointed out here is in alliance with the Supremacy Thesis, it is then contemplate the definition of Morality. This alliance allows morality to be defined as categories of human conduct which have superior status to other forms of conduct. This definition eschews all the ambiguities that look inevitable in the consideration of the contents of morality and take the conceptual sense of morality as guideline. We should also take cognizance of the fact that such categories of behaviour are supreme in moral considerations.

Features of individuals as moral agents vis-a-vis Corporate Bodies

We can say, at this point, that there is an existing definition of morality which helps to establish the view that the notion of universality is no longer an obstacle against the effort to define morality. An important by-product of this process is that what morality means in one society is what it means in another conceptually . We can suppose further that this definition does not change in meaning when morality is considered both from the perspectives of the State as a corporate unity and of the individual.

Perhaps, our subsequent assessment of the features that identify individuals as moral agents will enhance further clarifications. One important argument raised by Niebuhr is with respect to the ineptitude of the State to have 'rational capacity of self-transcendence' . Niebuhr argues that;

... the nation is a corporate unity, held together much more by force and emotion, than by mind. Since there can be no ethical action without self-criticism, and no self-criticism without the rational capacity of self-trancendence, it is natural that national attitudes can hardly approximate the ethical (Neibuhr, 1960,p. 88)

The assertion inherent in this argument is such that makes swift generalization. Ethical action is not dependent on self-criticism for existence even when we are willing to accept that self-criticism remains one out of many other factors that can be used to arrive at moral judgments. Rather, its existence transcends self-criticism and capitulates on social intelligence that no individual can be wiser than this intelligence. We shall further allude to some of these positions below.

The other point raised does not maintain any proximity with Neibuhr's argument. The point is an implied position from the view earlier pointed out that "moralities are often understood as pertaining ... to the conduct of individuals ... " (Nardin, 1983, p. 234). From this disposition it can be implied that moral considerations require 'a self to act as nucleus for assessment and this cannot be done for want of a self. The strength of Nardin' s view that "morality consists of principles for individuals and, by extension, for individuals acting in concert" rests on this point (Nardin, 19483, p. 236). The self represented in the State consisting of individuals of vagaries personified moral conduct is articulated as a product of joint concensus such that this self acts on behalf of the State. It is taking cognizant of this point that the behaviour of one individual cannot be seen as overriding nor representing the behaviour that is an outcome of joint concensus in a collectivity such as the State. The notion of 'self' as it relates to the State equivalently forms the basis upon which the State just as individual persons has got conduct, character, attitude or behaviour which can be judged moral or immoral.

The position of those who deny the State the status of 'a self, is one that does not see in a corporate body such as the State to be capable of acting, reacting to issues, capable of making judgements such features that are present in the conduct of the individual self. Those who have been concerned about the way to articulate the ideals of the State as a corporate body often read transparent meaning into the unity of the State and in this meaning the State is seen as 'a self'. This position is well entrenched in Niebuhr's view that, "from the standpoint of analysing the ethics of group behaviour, it is feasible to study the ethical attitudes of nations first; because the modem nation is the human group of strongest social cohesion of most undisputed central authority and of most clearly defined membership" (Neibuhr, 1960, p. 83).

This point can further be complemented with the view that a State represents an embodiment of morality as much as individuals do. Indeed, the State is 'a self that represents the (moral) conscience ofthe individuals in it. It is in 'self that the State can be self-assertive, proud or even self-complacent and egoistic if it chooses to do so. These characteristics jointly make possible some parallels between the State and the individual as moral agents.

The idea of 'self' accords the individual as well as the State some privileges from which we can draw the conclusion that the State has moral attributes much the same way as the individual. Another point of vital importance is that individuals as moral agents have rights (may be political, moral, economic), States also share this attribute. In Walzer's words, "the State is constituted by the union of people and government, and it is the State that claims against all other States the twin rights of territorial integrity and political sovereignty" (Beitz,, 1985, p. 220).

Further on this is another point that hinges on the same 'Self' concept in relation to the State. Since it is acceptable that moralities are often understood as partaining to human conduct, conduct is deducible or discernible in the capability of corporate bodies to perform duties. As the' self' concept connotes, the State as a model of corporate bodies performs certain duties which are inevitable and unavoidable. These duties are of various forms some of which are within the State itself and some others beyond its boundaries. The former can be classified as 'internal duties' while the latter can be articulated as ~external duties'. To the extent that people attempt to rely on the State to guarantee their safety and maintain security for them both point to one sensitive aspect of the 'internal duties' ofthe State.

This notion of 'internal duties' enters into Lockean theory on the State of nature in which the establishment of the State is a deliberate attempt to part ways from political ignorance but go forward to opt for a common consent to be the standard of right and wrong (Locke, paragraph (ii), p. 22). The idea of internal duties which the State performs are collectively central to the general interests of the people and always in search of factors that promote domestic common good. As regards 'external duties' the State, in the process of ensuring or guaranteeing fulfilment of some aspects of its internal duties, fulfils part of its 'external duties'. This connection is most pronounced when external aggressors threaten the internal peace or interests of citizens. The State, in this kind of situation performs the duty that favours the restoration of the threatened internal peace and subsequently advance the interests of the citizens. Other than the protection of internal interests against external aggression, external duties of the State can also be comprehended in terms of one State giving aid, with the aim of lessening some unbearable conditions, to other States. Apparently, external duties can be political, economic, moral, or social. These forms of duties express themselves in interesting fashions as to eschew and jettison the view that the State as a Corporate body has no conduct as individuals do.

Following this fairly long treatise is the consideration of the extent to which the State is a Moral Institution. So far, we have endeavoured to establish the position that the State, although a collectivity, has moral status as individuals have.

Theories on the Genesis of the State

The reference that is being made to the theories mentioned here on the genesis of the State derives from the importance given to them in Political and Legal Philosophy. There has been no major work in Philosophy that has replaced them, rather, the contemporary estimation of political and legal theorists has given these theories some credit which further enhances their durability in philosophical discourse. We want to use them here to assist our argument that the State is a Moral institution. These theories are Locke's State ofN ature, Rawls social cooperative System in his theory of Justice and Rousseau's Social contract. We shall briefly highlight each of these theories and then give their moral implications.

The genesis of the consciousness of man to start thinking politics and in the process conceive the need to group together has some explanations in Locke's State of nature, and in the current philosophical conception of Rawls ' hypothetical or ahistorical original position. Rousseau's Social contract theory differs in content from Locke's State of nature on the ground that the former was conceived in far less primitive political culture than the latter. Rawls' original position in what trimmed up to be christened 'Social cooperation' is ahistorical in perception but from it comes the 'principles of Justice' chosen behind a veil of ignorance (Rawls, 1971, p. 12).

Each theory specifies starting points processes through which the State came as an Institution of political unification which incorporated in man political civilization. For Locke, the 'state of nature' is the State in which all men were free from any "established, settled known law, received and allowed by common consent to be the standard of right and wrong, and the common measure to decide all controversies between them" (Locke, paragraph (ii), p.124). This position, in Locke's political thought, represents man's pre­political experience or situation where "there wants a known and indifferent judge, with authority to determine all differences according to the established law (Ibid, paragraph (ii), p. 125).

This pre-political state gives allowance for the maximization of individual interests even at the expense of other's well being. Consequent upon this, prejudiced and partial behaviour were compatibles of the obtaining situation in the State of nature. In order to avoid this precarious political primitiveness, men acquienced to disregard the State of nature together with its false values and made a solemn compact with one another. The terms of the solemn compact in Aaron's rewordings of Locke's view "includes individual giving up that power which was rightly his in the State of nature, of judging and punishing, and allows these functions to be performed by the State" (Aaron, 1973, p. 285). This solemn compact has moral implications in that it gives birth to a duty and right based society or State. This is in the view that in the compact, everyone is required to act in accordance to the law.

The theory of Social contract which Rousseau presents, in Raphael's view helps, "to justify political obligation as being based on an implicit promise, like the obligation to obey the rules of a voluntary association" (Raphael, 1981, p. 85). Before the agreement, each individual, according to Rousseau, has "private will". However, as a result of the compact, each individual acquires a "general will". In other words, the will of every individual has explanation in the will of the society. From this standpoint, the State, from

the point of view of the theory of Social contract, represents some moral embodiment judging from the goals it (the State) pursues, and the moral factor that binds the contractees together.

Much as Rawls' theory on the Social Cooperative System addresses the genesis question on the existence of the State, nevertheless the ahistorical background that characterizes it at the initial stage distinguishes Rawls from both Locke and Rousseau. Whatever suspicion that may surround this starting point, Rawls suggests that "society (State) is interpreted as a cooperative venture for mutual advantage ... based upon a public system of rules defining scheme of activities that leads men to act together so as to produce a greater sum of benefits and assigns to each a certain recognized claim to a share in the proceeds" (Rawls, 1971, p. 7).

We have seen from these theories that as an institution, the State provides basis upon which its purpose, functions and objectives can be articulated from moral standpoint. The remaining part of this essay shall examine this moral standpoint.

Moral Interpretations of Locke, Rousseau and Rawls theories on the state

The theories we have considered in brief do not insist on identifying the State as merely a political institution. Rather, in them are ample reasons to accept the view that morality is a central ingredient to the political purpose of the State. We may begin by making reference to what we called property of morality as put above. This reference is with the aim of identifying the protection and promotion of human well-being as a standard sense of morality. The considerations from which the State was conceived identified political gains as primary and these gains are realizable from the point of view of morality. There is scarcely any political task thatthe State has which is exclusive of moral considerations. At a somewhat deeper level, such political task is with reference to the well-being of the citizenry having relevant moral implications. This point is further strengthened with the view that State policies are not made with the aim of putting into disrepute the dignity and the moral personality of the citizenry.

From this point of view, we shall start by examining the moral implications of Locke's post-state of nature. These implications are true under the spectrum of the property of morality; namely, the positive effects that the existence of the State has on the well-being of persons who established it. We shall highlight two crucial points of moral relevance in Locke's theory. First, the willingness to part ways with the insecurity inherent in the State of nature has moral purpose that carries along with it the goal of protecting and promoting the well-being of citizens. This is at the instance ofthe factthat the political State beyond the 'State of nature' provides a centre that prevents conflict, keeps and ensures security for all. Second, Locke's conception of the State beyond the State of nature puts in place a Spectrum of unity upon which everyone takes collective interest as overriding self-interest. For this collective interest removes fear among the people and asserts discipline among them. These moral implications, as they are represented here, are moral in the extent to which they relate to the well-being of people. The point they collectively establish is that the principle of coming together to bargain for collective interest of all brings to view that it is false to say that moral discourse and principles apply only to individuals.

Now the picture of the State in Rousseau's social contract theory also admits some moral picture. This moral picture centres on the concept of 'general will' as contained in the social contract theory. The 'general will' notion in Rousseau derives from particular will of the individuals who collectively bargained to have a strong central 'general will' . The moral implication of this is that it makes man to be mutually free and in the process stifles personal selfish desires by considering the desires of others. Rousseau himself alludes to this when he says that in the notion of general will, "human freedom includes duties to others" (Rousseau, 1913, p. 55). Such duties do not give room for the 'private will' to override the 'general will'.

On the account of 'general will', everyone has his or her own will represented and consequently everyone is of some significance and important in his or her own right. Indeed from both Locke and Rousseau, the notion of the State is established for the sake of the well-being of humanity. Any diversionary is a clear abberation. Since the concept of 'general will' is a product of a concensus, the background of it suggests a collective interest as the State. The political status of Rousseau's 'general will' is encapsulated in morality.

It may be argued that our considerations of the moral status of the State from the standpoints of Locke and Rousseau address the genesis of the State. Rawls' conception of the State (Social Cooperative System as put by him) is a step beyond Locke and Rousseau since it dwells largely on the aspects of the functions of the State. Rawls suggests that;

... society is interpreted as a cooperative venture for mutual advantage ... a public system of rules defining a scheme of activities that leads men to act together so as to produce a greater sum of benefits and assigns to each a certain recognized claim to a share in proceeds (Rawls, 1971, p. 7).

As it will not serve any purpose to rehearse Rawls' theory on Justice here, it is enough to say that the goal of justice, in his theory is identical to the goal of morality. This point brings to view the relationship between justice and morality. This relationship raises one important question; Are cases of justice moral? It is perfectly sensible to say that conceptually what is regarded just is moral. However, the different routes that lead to what can be called justice may give justice a different identity such that what is regarded as justice may not in the long run be moral. For instance, the technical ilnterpretation of the law by lawyers stands as a good example. As justice reflects in Rawls' theory it is fairness that pursues the interest of all with fair-play. The overall focus or intent of fair­play actions is justice. As Rawls' theory of Justice suggests, this kind of view is a fact. Rawls displays clearly the intellectual model underlying his consideration of the State. In his theory, we can see a clear remodelling of the mutuality that should characterise the political, economic and social character of people in the State. This mutuality disowns selfish interests, encourages justice and efforts aimed at achieving the best for all in the State.

The moral status of Rawls' theory of justice is determined from the point of view of the values it places on the individuals who jointly constitute the Social Cooperative System (the State). The processes through which some important issues were dertermined by the original contractees; e.g. how they arrived at their two principles of justice may make the moral content of the theory far less identified. This notwithstanding, the priority given to the individuals restores in the Social Cooperative System (the State) some moral image.

As the reader of Rawls is aware, there is still an enormous number of issues to note in the theory, still, the fact that the State represents a moral culture which is designed to defend the liberty of individuals and ascertain rules of distribution for the benefit of all cannot be denied.

The net effect of our position in this paper is that the concept of the State from Locke through Rawls makes the State a moral institution. Indeed it can be maintained that it is ensuring the moral welfare of people that the State came into existence. Even in cases where the State cannot be trusted beyond the interests of the people in it, still, this selfishness is built upon the persuasion of seeking after the welfare of those concerned.

We have established in this paper that the State as a corporate unity shares moral moral characteristics with individuals and to that extent national attitudes approximate the ethical. Furthermore, that the existence, purpose, functions and objectives of the State are primarily articulated within moral context and secondarily within the political context. From these standpoints, the State is a Moral Institution.

Aaron, R.I. (1973), John Locke, Oxford.

Akanmidu, RA. (1992), The Morality of Democracy, in EPHA: Journal of Humanities, Edo State University

Cohen,M. (1974), Morality and the Laws of War, in Philosophy, Morality and International Affairs, New York.

Lively I Roeve, A. (1989), Modern Political Theory from Hobbes to Marx, London/New York.

Locke , J. (1694), Two Treatises of Government, New York.

Nardian,T. (1983), Law, Morality and the Relations of States, Princeton, NJ.

Neibuhr, R(1960), Moral Man Immoral Society, New York

Nielson, K. (1984), Why Should I Be Moral? Revisited, American Philosophical Quarterly.

Raphael, D.D. (1976), Problems of Political Philosophy, London Basingstroke.

Rawls, J. (1971), A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, MA.

Rousseau, J. (1913), Social Contract, London.

Walzer, M. (1985), The Moral Standing of States: A Response to Four Critics, in: Beitz, C.R et.a!. (eds.), International Ethics, Prineton, NJ .

Wolff, R.P. (1977), Understanding Rawls, Princeton, NJ.

Download 58.87 Kb.

Share with your friends:

The database is protected by copyright © 2023
send message

    Main page