Does Human Nature Justify Political Authority?

 What level of interference we require from the Government

Does our human nature mean that we require authority? Even from a young age it’s drilled into most of us that this is the case with regards to consequentialism or deontology (not doing something based on the consequences, rather than because we know right from wrong). In order to get to the bottom of this question, it’s important we consider what we’d be like in the state of nature (pre-authority).

Thomas Hobbes believed that humans within the state of nature are egotistical brutes who degenerate into nothing more than mindless violence in a society where the strongest prevails (might is right) and therefore a Leviathan is required (an omnipotent monarch/head of state) in order to keep citizens in order – after all, if the Leviathan is the strongest of all men, then citizens shan’t dare question him. In return for citizens’ surrender of their liberty (which includes religion, beliefs etc) then they will gain three key components: safety, security and stability.

In addition to this Conservative viewpoint, both Edmund Burke and Aristocles (Plato) would both fully agree with humans within the state of nature, being animalistic,  therefore require a ruler – more specifically, a ruler with techne (a Greek word which derives from ‘Art’ and ‘Rule’) which is the art/skill of ruling. This is because, they argue, individuals simply cannot grasp the concept of how to rule and even begin to understand what’s in the national interest. Both Burke and Plato vehemently argue that in fact, individuals are far more concerned with their own short-term gain and remain entirely ignorant of what’s best for them in the long term.

But what if we consider a more modern approach which believes political authority is required on the premise of our human nature – more specifically with John Rawls (and Welfare Liberalism)? Rawls’ viewpoint is considered one of a slightly different orientation as he states that it’s human nature to want to ‘maximise the minimum’ from behind the veil of ignorance.

To elaborate, Rawls argues that if all began in what he terms the original position (pre-society) without knowing anything about themselves with regard to social background, gender, ethnicity, etc., and had to decide on the laws of society, then, because they’d be sat behind the veil of ignorance (not knowing anything about themselves) they’d achieve the balance of keeping polarised groups happy on the simple premise of ‘that could be me’.

With this in mind then, Rawls argues that political authority is required, as human nature dictates that these laws need to be abided by because, as soon as the veil is removed, our minds are corrupted by personal factors (eg., if you’re rich, you want to pay less taxes and vice versa): and therefore, human nature does entail political authority.

On the other hand, isn’t Rawls’ viewpoint completely idealistic? How on earth can we sit behind this ‘veil’ that he describes? How can any individual sit in a group without realising that they’re male/female for instance? Nozick would thus dispute Rawls’ viewpoint and put forward his own ‘entitlement theory’ – if an individual has justly earned something, how can anyone or anything even dare attempt to take it away?

This viewpoint would therefore state that the notion of tax is identical to the concept of theft, as it’s taking someone else’s property without justification. In Nozick’s mind, human nature doesn’t entail active political authority, as the only authority required is passive – that of protection, not intervention. This viewpoint would also be supported by fellow classical liberals such as Locke and Mill, as they argued that the state’s role is to only PROTECT the inalienable rights of life, liberty and property.

In addition, is there such a thing as ‘human nature’ at all? Marx(ists) would dispute the idea of the ‘universalistic’ Greetings_from_the_Welfare_State1approach put forward by the Conservatives and Welfare Liberals on the grounds there simply isn’t one – society socially constructs them. With this in mind, this ‘human nature’ is used as an excuse to merely control and exploit citizens through things such as political power and wealth, as displayed in Marx’s illustration of the alienation of the worker – the proletariat works the land but remains entitled to absolutely nothing of what the produce. Therefore human nature doesn’t entail political authority, because the concept of ‘human nature’ is entirely socially-constructed based on the socio-economic demand of society.

So should we even have political authority then? Philosophical anarchists would simply answer with No. We are autonomous and self-governing individuals, who require no political authority due to what Phillip Godwin describes as ‘the principle of private judgment’. This principle derives from (Bentham’s) hedonistic calculus (maximum pleasure against minimum pain) and plainly argues this: we don’t need anyone to tell us what’s best for us, as only we can know what is best for us – an incorrigibility, if you will. To give an example, if I’m facing a dilemma of whether or not to enlist in the army – how much pleasure would it give me? 8. How much pain would it cause me (potentially)? 10. Therefore, it is +2 pain and therefore shouldn’t be done.

On the other hand though, isn’t it considerably naïve to suggest that each of us could govern ourselves and society would still remain harmonious? Furthermore, wouldn’t society merely degenerate into a state where the strongest group prevails – which is exactly what Hobbes said happens in the state of nature? It seems therefore that, if the philosophical anarchist perspective was pursued, society would take ten steps back and zero steps forward – as maximum negative liberty (freedom from interference) not only entails violence, but also removes any support from the state and thus gives people the right to starvation. As Isiah Berlin once stated: ‘the freedom of the pike means death to the minnows’ – one man’s freedom is another one’s loss of it.

Judging by the evidence, it seems logical to presume that political authority is required on the presumption of our human nature. If Hobbes’ viewpoint on humans in the state of nature is correct, then the rest of his argument would follow – human beings tend to do things based on the potential consequences (whether good or bad), and thus a Leviathan is required in order to enforce those consequences.

If they aren’t enforced, society is sure to crumble in a polarised flourish as, after all, negative liberty is a fantastic thing if you have the resources but if you don’t, death for some individuals is almost considered concurrent – which is why a state is required to enforce positive liberty (the freedom to) in order to act as a safety net for all citizens. The most important thing in my opinion is the equality of opportunity (which is enforced by positive liberty) rather than autonomy of each individual.

Reece Warren


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