Politics and Ethics: Moral Foundations of a Just State

Politics and Ethics: Moral Foundations of a Just State

(A version of this article was published in Blogcritics on March, 2009)


Ethics and politics, which are the practical sciences, deal with human beings as moral agents. Ethics is primarily about the actions of human beings as individuals, and politics is about the actions of human beings in communities – The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (It is important to remember, adds the writer, that for Aristotle ethics and politics are closely linked and each influences the other.)

Nicomachean Ethics is Aristotle’s monumental work on morality, whereas Politics remains one of the definitive texts on the nature of the state and the beginning of all critical thinking in political theory. At the end of his work on ethics, Aristotle concludes that the inquiry into ethics necessarily follows into politics. Consequently, both works comprise a more comprehensive treatise dealing with the “philosophy of human affairs.” 

I’ll be bolder, however, than the writer of the Encyclopedia and assert that the notion of a just state presupposes a resident idea of a basic morality; that the two are inseparable; that the former is but an extension of ethical thinking to affairs of human beings as they interact with one another in the context of, and with respect to, a just state or polity.


It’s not feasible to offer here a comprehensive, foolproof argument. Suffice to say. I regard Aristotle’s proposition as a given. Let me cite, however, from a more recent source, John Locke:

Locke acknowledges the state-of-nature point of origin and subsequent transition to civil society. Even at their earliest, humans were rational and had the notion of the fundamental rights of life, liberty, property, etc. To guarantee these rights, men entered, via a contract, into society and conceded their natural rights to the sovereign, together with the power to defend them.

From man’s natural condition to the state of society, there is hence a progression; but no innovation is involved. The sovereign who fails in his obligation to defend the rights of his subjects is no longer justified in his sovereignty and is subject to removal.


A state-of-nature theory by Thomas Hobbes was the subject matter of the first installment in the “Politics and Ethics” series. We’ve seen that Hobbes’s depiction of “man’s natural condition” is entirely at odds with that provided by Locke. For the former, life under those conditions was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” For Locke, humans are already “rational and [have] the notion of the fundamental rights of life, of liberty, property, etc.” 

We shouldn’t be too disturbed by such a glaring discrepancy because aside from historical circumstances and the philosophical demands of the day, Hobbes’s was a thought experiment and an all-consuming project. There was a dire need to re-establish the rule of the sovereign. And the best way of drawing attention to the fact was by portraying the state of nature as a condition no one in their right mind would choose. In short, the state of nature was for Hobbbes nothing but a philosophical construct – a brilliant construct but a construct nonetheless.


What was it for Locke? Well, Locke’s concerns were different. With the concept of a sovereign firmly in place, Locke’s main preoccupation was safeguarding the subjects’ fundamental rights from possible violation. Hence an entirely different picture of the state of nature, where those rights are taken for granted, commonly recognizable, and natural. 

And so it is with the transition from a less- to a fully actualized stage at which the civil society is operating on all four, its political system fully intact. The transition is smoother and more intuitive because it’s contingent on the simple notion of consent, or contract, formalized later by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in another masterpiece, The Social Contract

Both Locke and Rousseau made use of the Hobbesian model but put it to different purposes.


In what follows, I’d like to argue: 

  1. that the very qualities which Locke attributes to the denizens of the state of nature could well go, and be altogether subsumed, under the name of morality; and further,
  2. that it is precisely some basic morality, shared in common, which Locke’s version of the state-of-nature presupposes and which, in turn, makes those qualities possible. 

Consequently, since the transition from Locke’s pre-political or quasi-political stage in the development of civil society to a stage at which that society is thoroughly politicized is made all the more natural and easier to stomach because of those qualities, I will argue a corollary thesis as well: namely, that the formation of a just state is predicated on the existing or pre-existing moral relations between the individuals, and represents thus an extension of those relations, or their projection, upon a larger plane. 

However, we must bear in mind Locke’s all-important proviso. Once the state ceases to exercise its proper function as the ultimate guarantor of the said relations, it’s subject to dissolution.


Can we attribute to moral thought the kind of significance that our argument requires to serve as a precondition to political thought and organization? And if so, how is the priority of “morals” to be grounded?

There is a sense, of course, in which all moral thinking predates religious thinking. The point is not simply about the chronology of events. From that aspect alone, it’s possible to argue either way. Thus, we could say, for instance, that the ethical teachings of the ancient Greeks predated Christianity; and we would be right. 

By the same token, we could point to any number of indigenous, primitive peoples who had occupied Asia Minor, any region in fact which would later become a part of the Athenian Empire. And we would be correct to say of those peoples — i.e., “the barbarians,” as the Greeks would eventually call them — that for these “primitives,” the religious response came before the moral one. 

So perhaps it would be more accurate to say that any ethical component in religious thought involves an act of “borrowing,” in a manner of speaking, from pure moral thinking –thinking that’s unadulterated and unencumbered by any religion-woven context or concern!


But even this restatement is subject to misinterpretations. 

The ancient Hebrews, for instance, held that the moral law had come directly from Yahweh in the form of the Ten Commandments handed on two stone tablets to Moses on Mount Sinai. And most Christians would agree. Consequently, the mainstream of the Judeo-Christian tradition has it that religious and moral thinking are, in a sense, inseparable. and if anything, that moral or ethical thinking is God-given as well. (Eventually, this gave rise to the doctrine of the divine right of kings, but that’s another tale)

At the risk of sounding sacrilegious let me state the following. It’s highly improbable that the Hebrews had no concept of right and wrong before Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai; such reading of Exodus and Deuteronomy represents the extreme in fundamentalism. 

The proper significance of the narrated events concerns the codification of the already-known moral laws and precepts and their acceptance by the children of Israel to form a covenant between them and their God. 

The point of contention is that moral or ethical thinking is embedded in our language, not religion. (Which doesn’t preclude anyone from embracing a theological view if he or she would so choose – namely, the belief in God, the Creator, from whom everything, including language and morality, ultimately springs. But that’s a bird of another feather and subject matter for another time and place.)


What is the force of moral injunctions or precepts, such as “stealing” or “adultery” is wrong?”

We may trivialize all we want the content of these pronouncements. We may think them old-fashioned and passé, imagine extenuating circumstances under which they mightn’t apply. (Jean Valjean’s case in Les Miz, when a loaf of bread had nearly cost him his life, is a paradigm example.) And we’d be all the more justified if we held “private property,” or “fidelity,” in lesser regard than our parents and grandparents, and so on. Still, I submit that we’d feel somewhat uneasy about dismissing these injunctions offhand. Indeed, there’s something very compelling about them, what exactly, I’m not sure, but we can’t just disengage. The imprint is in our minds!


It’s characteristic of all moral type of statements or injunctions that they tend to trump all other considerations and circumstances – pragmatic, practical, or otherwise. Thoughts of benefit or gain, of what’s cost-effective or cost-efficient – all those fade into insignificance when measured against a possible violation of a moral precept.


There’s only one kind of circumstance when morality might come secondary and with justification.  Kierkegaard had provided us with an example, as when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his one and only son, Isaac, presumably to test his faith.1  Other than that, morality rules. It’s in our language and in our blood. We’re moral beings to the core!

It isn’t to say that the same morality necessarily spans across all civilizations and cultures. Cannibalism, for instance, may seem abhorrent to our sensibilities. But to the indigenous peoples who (still?) engage in the practice, the meaning of the act may well have altogether different, amoral significance. It may have to do with rites and rituals, with the idea of celebration, even with paying homage to the conquered. The very term “mores,” from which the English words “morality” and “moral” derive, refers to the established practices of a society, its norms, and customs.


It’s arguable, thus, that at least parts of the accepted moral code within a society – the fringe part, at least! – could be relative to the culture in which it is rooted. And it may well be so since there’s no question that our mores are constantly evolving. Someday all our moral codes might converge, and all our sensibilities could become universal – if for no other reason that, ultimately, we’re the same. Indeed, human history lends credence to this progression toward ever-expanding, unified consciousness. But that’s in the future.


There’s another complication: not all social customs or mores carry moral import. More precisely, perhaps, morality is a subset of mores –only social norms of central importance qualify. And then, they’re often formalized in some kind of moral [though not necessarily legal] code – such as the Ten Commandments, for instance. 

In “primitive” cultures, the mechanism of enforcement is through a taboo. (Taboos are the most extreme as they forbid a society’s most outrageous practices, such as incest or murder. And ostracism is one of the most likely penalties for breaking a taboo.) In more “advanced” societies, there are laws. And for the less egregious of the offenses, moral rebuke will usually suffice.


It’s time to recap our argument. I tried to show that Locke’s view of the state of nature, though modeled after Hobbes’s, is much more intuitive than the one offered by his predecessor. And further, that when reinforced by the writings of Rousseau, especially in the area of “social contract,” it’s almost palatable. It’s more intuitive and palatable because the rights Locke ascribes to the denizens of the state of nature are rooted in, and presupposed by, a certain morality held in common by all members of a pre-political society.

That’s why Locke is justified to refer to those rights as “natural rights,” as rights with which we are endowed because of our makeup – moral beings that we are. (Forget for now Locke’s implication that we’ve been so blessed by the act or will of God: I think it’s possible to argue to the same effect regardless.)

In a sense, therefore, Locke is the first in the series of “natural rights” theorists. And his mode of accounting of the eventual transition — from a pre-political stage to a civil society that’s thoroughly politicized — is the most natural, most intuitive, and the least objectionable!

Because morality was the cornerstone for Locke, rooted in our language and form of life –regardless of culture or other affiliations, irrespective of who we are, where we’re at, or what we happen to believe. And further, because the consequent transition from a moral to a political community was but a matter of taking one small step — the notion of consent, or contract, regarding the codification of the existing moral code into laws!


How does it all relate to the point under discussion – the privatization of prisons in the present instance?2

If we accept the thesis that politics (and the idea of a just state) is but an extension of “the moral,” we must also accept the results. Some actions and functions simply must remain in the sole province of the state. And it’s no use arguing that privatization would be more cost-effective or cost-efficient. Whatever argument we could muster on behalf of privatization, pragmatic or otherwise, is no consequence here: it can’t be allowed to trump moral considerations.


That’s why I’m not going to examine the pros and cons of the issue –whether the reported abuses are causal or coincidental; I’ll leave it to other minds. The very fact that there exists a possibility of collaboration between private and public interests is reason enough to discredit the idea – because the suspicion of taint looms in the background. And it always will.

“Abstain from every appearance of evil” may be a mistranslation, but it’s a wise saying and a good adage for all times.

Ultimately, the argument against privatization of prisons — or any other such service or function the government might want to deputize to an outside agency — is not that it’s simply immoral. It’s egregious because it undermines the very moral structure and the integrity upon which a just state must rest.


  1. According to Kierkegaard, the case exemplifies the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” See Fear and Trembling. 
  2. Also see “The Case For Fraud: Our Prison Industry.”


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