Consent to be Governed

Amanda is currently taking a Political Theory class, and they are discussing some things I found interesting. One of the papers she had to write is presented below: an answer to the question (paraphrased): “Are we obligated to obey government?” The paper draws heavily on a few previous papers that discuss the arbitrary nature of morality and such, but nonetheless I thought it’d be pretty interesting on its own. I thought it was a great answer, but it probably raises as many questions as it answers. Enjoy!

Amanda Harasty

Morality is a social construction. Ideas about what is right and what is wrong emerge from different institutions in a society and function to create order and context. Each culture evolves its own singular moral system that guides that given society through social interaction. In this way the concept of morality is important. It gives individuals a framework against which to shape and judge their actions. The belief in the morality upheld by the system allows individuals to interact with convenience. For example, in the United States, two people can approach each other confident that the other person will not kill them because these two individuals share same moral code, which states that murder is wrong. In other words, a moral framework allows people to interact without having to start from “square one” at the onset of every interaction.

Morality creates context but is also contextual itself. Each moral system is localized, because it is the result of factors operating in a specific time and a specific place. For example, the moral system of the United States is very different than the moral system of Iran, because one was created from a Judeo-Christian context while the other emerged from an Islamic context (among other reasons). When two moral codes clash, neither code has more of a claim to goodness or correctness than the other. This is because no larger overarching or universal morality exists through which to judge the actions of the others. Another example is the practice of female circumcision in Eastern Africa. Most Americans see this practice, the removal of a woman’s clitoris and/or the suturing of her vagina into a very small opening, as extremely barbaric, unnecessary and cruel. Yet, to most East African women, this practice is mark of status and femininity. They go through with this painful procedure in order to enjoy the benefits of the status it imparts. The practice is neither right nor wrong. It simply is. This example also demonstrates how deeply rooted the belief in moral codes run. Although this procedure is no doubt painful and potentially dangerous women still value it because the culture values it.

Morality is also the framework from which individuals and societies can make decisions about which things they find valuable or not. This is important in the formation of government. Societies must choose which of the conflicting principles of freedom, equality and order to privilege. These things can only exist in proportion to one another. For example, to create order through laws inherently infringes on the idea of freedom. Laws make it so an individual cannot do something, yet to not be able to do something is to not be completely free. None of these principles are intrinsically superior to another. So, in creating government, a society must choose to privilege freedom, equality, and order in ratio to each other.

If a society constructs its government in an organic fashion, that is if the government values order over freedom and equality, and this decision is harmonious with that culture’s moral code, then that system is legitimate. An example of this is India’s caste system. To the Western mind, the caste system seemed horrible. It confined people to a position in life and never allowed them an equality of opportunity (something Americans value highly). Yet it was complementary to the society’s religious tradition, functional and generally accepted. Therefore it was legitimate. Many people, touchable and untouchable, still abided by the modes of conduct after it was abolished, again demonstrating the power the accepted moral system.

Another important factor is that the government stays responsive to the changes in a society’s moral system. As morals are social constructions they change, often slowly, over time. This is often the problem with authoritarian regimes. Often this form of government arises out of a period of chaos and creates order. In this sense it is very functional and responsive to the wants of the people. As time passes though, and the society demands more than simply order, such as an expansion of freedom and equality, the government does not often comply. By not being responsive, the government has made itself illegitimate. One can view this dysfunction in other government systems as well. To borrow the vocabulary used by Carroll Quigley in The Evolution of Civilizations, a government can move from being an “instrument”, that is something beneficial (in that society’s moral system) to a society to an “institution”, which is when the government no longer serves the needs of society but serves its own needs in an effort to perpetuate itself. When this transformation happens, a government is illegitimate.

The discussion of moral systems above has perhaps been given with an assumption that moral systems evolve “naturally”, unencumbered by personal or group interests. This is perhaps not always so. In fact a government can use its position as a disseminator of socialization to shape a society’s conception of morality. Some might also call this propaganda. I argue that this is still legitimate. Given that morals are simply deeply socialized opinions, there is nothing inherently good or bad about it and it remains legitimate. This is especially true if there are other socializing structures in society, for example, religion. One could argue that in the United States the government’s ability to socialize is less or at best equally effective as religion. One could imagine many instances where people would potentially disobey their government for their religion, but not many instances if the situation were reversed.

The above has been a discussion of why societies obey law. This raises the question of the individual. Is the individual obligated to obey law when one does not accept their culture’s moral code and the government is constructed around it? This is a much harder question. In an attempt to answer this I believe it is first important to understand that there is not such thing as crime or disobedience outside the context of laws. In other words, laws create crime/disobedience. As such, any time a government chooses to make a law, it is by definition marginalizing some people. For example, it was once legal to smoke marijuana in the United States. At some point in time the government made a law saying it was illegal. So, anyone who smoked marijuana after this point became a criminal even though they didn’t change anything in their life whatsoever. It no longer mattered in the eyes of the government if these people had perfectly rational reasons for smoking marijuana and had been doing so for years, because doing so would make one a criminal. Given this example one can see the problems that could arise. What if a government decided to outlaw a minority religion, given that freedom of worship was not a constitutional right, forcing all its adherents to either abandon their faith or become criminals? I argue such action is legitimate. It is perhaps unfortunate to the Western mind that these individuals are not afforded a basic freedom that includes freedom of worship, but this is a criticism arising from our culture and the value we place on freedom. It might also seem unfortunate that an individual in the above scenario has only three options: to obey, to civilly disobey (if such an avenue even exists) or to organize a revolution. So, an individual never has to obey the government as laws make arbitrary distinctions about what it right and wrong. Although if the government does not value freedom or equality and there are no avenues through which to try to change the system, the individual will be obliged to suffer the consequences outlined by the state. The choice between obeying the state and bringing revolution against the state may not be palatable to the Western mind or seem like much of a choice at all, but it is a choice.

One ramification of this argument is the problems it causes in terms of governments from different moral traditions interacting with each other. For example, the American moral system encourages us to propagate our form of government and actively oppose those fundamentally different, for example, communism. To some extent we have been successful in this. I think problems arise from the assumption that since societies are behaving in ways where we have no framework to judge that it is somehow wrong to attempt convince the society of the superiority of the American moral system. So while societies and individuals might be misguided in making value judgments about other cultures, they are not when they attempt to replace that culture’s moral system with their own. Sometimes conflict will arise out of this. Perhaps many of the problems faced between the Western and Islamic worlds comes out of the Western world’s desire to spread the Western moral system and the Islamic world’s resistance. So while these actions are neither right nor wrong, they are potentially dangerous in terms of loss of human life and destruction of property.

Although many of the arguments outlined above may be unappetizing to the Western mind, I believe that in many ways serves my point. Discomfort with the idea a system of government could be at once oppressive and legitimate is simply because of the depth of our socialized beliefs about morality.