Eric Massengill's Ethics Class Blog

The Morality of the Government | November 19, 2008

The reason Hobbes runs into the issue of Government being above morality is that he only concentrates on the social contract formed between fellow citizens. There is also another (whether explicit or not) contract between citizens and their government, which is usually how we judge the morality of government actions (are they living up to their promise to protect us, etc.).

Though I think it is easier than not to defend his theory. The government itself is immoral, but one is only acting as “the government” if one is acting in the duty of the government, which is to defend the contract (think of how Kant says that the Will of humans must follow duty, so I say so too must government follow duty). It can be argued that it is hard then, to determine whether someone is acting as the government, or as a citizen, since it depends on the motivation of their action, which is very hard to determine. Honestly, I don’t think that makes Hobbes’ theory wrong, just bad law, and as we’ve discussed, law and morality are different. Kant’s theory is legistically rediculous, but that doesn’t make it wrong, just legistically rediculous. So too, determining the morality of individuals in the government (of the “Sovereign”, I suppose) is hard, but isn’t that true in real life? If determining motivations and morality was ever easy, wouldn’t trials cease to exist?

(I won’t argue here about redefining Hobbes’ idea of social contract, because that would take forever and no-one would read it, and I probably wouldn’t get it in on time.)


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  1. As I said in class, I think the problem of determining whether the sovereign is acting as the sovereign or as an individual in a given case by looking at his intentions is more than just a practical one. You’re right that it’s difficult to determine motivations. But the real problem is that motivations can themselves go astray. One might delude oneself into thinking that one is acting for a certain end (i.e. with a certain motivation) when in fact there is something else going on. Another sort of problem: one might be honestly acting to a certain motivation that is itself a “bad” motivation, whatever that might mean. What guarantees that the sovereign will be smart enough to determine the actions that will fulfill his job duties?

    A technical point. The notion of a contract between government and citizens is intuitively plausible, but it’s not clear how it will work on Hobbes’s notion of a contract. A contract will only emerge, he says, if both parties are assured that the other party will be coerced by some greater power to abide by the covenant. Thus a government-citizen contract would require an even higher arbiter – a meta-government – and the same issues would rise again.

    Comment by Boone B. Gorges — November 20, 2008 @ 10:31 am

  2. I’m not talking about enforcing the contract, I’m talking about determining the morality of the government under a Hobbesian model. Directly, Hobbes’ conception of an all-powerful ruler negates this concept, but it you allow for a balanced government you can, in theory, have it be self enforcing by having each branch enforce the others’ contract with the people (which is the basic argument for an independent judiciary). Also, a contractual democracy has the people removing the government from power, which is a form of enforcement of the contract between citizens and government (in fact, I think if you think about a lot of the enlightenment argument for democracy, contract theory – at least in general, not necessarily Hobbes’ conception – played a large part).

    Comment by ericmassengill — November 20, 2008 @ 5:10 pm

  3. I like the thought of having a second Contract between the government and the citizens to judge the governments morality. Although Hobbes doesn’t directly state a second contract it is important to have a way to judge the morality of the government, such as the Constitution.

    Comment by ccerne1 — November 25, 2008 @ 6:47 pm

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I am a person. I am alive. I am capable of mechanical motion. My respiratory system is functional, as is my digestive, and circulatory system. My neurons operate.







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