Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Basic Principle of Political Philosophy

My friend Byron Borger passes along a link to an article that will be of interest to anyone who has done any reading in political philosophy. The essay is written by David Koyzis, and in it he considers four main approaches to politics in the contemporary west, pointing out the weaknesses of each.

He concludes with what he believes must be the essential elements of any political philosophy that seeks to maximize human welfare. His crucial sentences are the ones he closes with. He says this:

Finally, a solid political theory - one that adequately accounts for reality and bears fruit as it is practiced - must recognize that ultimate authority belongs not to the state or any mere human institution, but to God who has called the state to its task of doing justice in the midst of societal pluriformity. In the words of an ancient, political authority, "The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all" (Psalm 103:19) (Italics his).

Koyzis is certainly correct about this. Almost everyone would agree that the task of the state is to do justice, but why do we think that? And how do we know what justice is anyway? Where does our modern notion of justice come from if not from a transcendent lawgiver?

Let us suppose there is no such Being. If such were the case the word "ought" would be emptied of any moral meaning. There would be no content to the assertion that the state "ought" to be just. Why should it? Nor is there any basis for grounding the concept of justice in our notion of equality. If there is no God then Thrasymachus was right when Plato has him declaim in The Republic that justice is merely "the interest of the stronger."

Marx was incensed that the state catered to the interest of the bourgoisie, but as an atheist Marx couldn't rationally say that this was morally wrong (although he tried). He couldn't protest that it was unjust or unfair, he could only resent it because it offended his own subjective predilections. Much of the bloodshed and oppression of the twentieth century, sadly enough, arose ultimately out of Marx's personal pique.

Where do we get our notion of justice from, and from whence do we derive the idea that we are obligated to do it if not ultimately from God mediated through both special revelation and the natural law? Again, if there is no god then our ideas about justice are at most products of our evolutionary past. As such they can be seen as vestiges of a blind process that suited us for life in the stone age, but there is no reason why we should feel compelled to heed them today. They have no moral value or heft. We do not offend heaven if we disregard them. We might offend our fellow man if we discard the popular notions of justice, but so what? To maintain that the state in a godless world has an obligation to provide justice for its citizens is as nonsensical as maintaining that the wolf has an obligation to provide justice for the sheep.

The history of the political philosophy of the last two hundred years is littered with the corpses of attempts to build a just society on an atheistic premise. Such philosophies always have and always will revert, sooner or later, to a might makes right ethic where justice is whatever the ruling power says it is. And, inevitably, the ruling authority will decide that justice is whatever promotes its own self-interest, its own survival, its own hold on power. This was Machiavelli's view, it was Nietzsche's view, it was the view of the heirs of Marx, and it was the view of the Nazis. It will invariably be the view of any state that denies the existence and sovereignty of God.

It is one of the ironies of modernity that a logically rigorous embrace of atheism, which seems to so many to be so philosophically and morally seductive, leads individuals and states ineluctably to nihilism. Modern man can't live without God and won't live with Him. Therein lies the tragic source of most of his troubles.