Ethics & Politics


Political authority:
“Authority” in a political matter concerns proper and improper governance.  When can the state or a magistrate be authorized to control your conduct or convictions?  There are several models of authority.

Perhaps the most frequently cited source of authority is on the consent of the governed.  So, in a representative democracy, those governing a political community do so because of the agreement among the governed to be so governed.  This model is plausible, though some who are governed (those not old enough to vote, the impaired) are not in a position to give their
consent through voting and, in some cases, an explicit pledge.  The reason why some revolutionaries often do not vote in elections is on the grounds that if one votes for a candidate or policy and looses, one is thereby committed to recognizing the legitimacy of the winning person or policy. Voting is not the only way that some philosophers think a person indicates their consent to be governed.  Some hold that voluntary residence amounts to an implicit consent to agree to follow the laws of the land.  Some object that this places an undue stress on individuals for whom migration is either impossible or burdensome. This model also allows for ways in which the consent of one’s forebearers may bind future generations to a structure of political authority.  For example, a constitution may create certain offices with proscribed powers and these offices remain in tact until they are invalidated.

This first model is often considered a form on contractarianism, the idea that a contract can set up obligations and duties.  This is very much akin to promise-making or the taking of oaths.  This position needs to be weighed carefully, however, in cases when the contract is made to do or permit something unjust.

Another model is paternalistic and it often comes into play in conditions of destitution, chaos, and potentially exploitative circumstances.  So, the military in some country may seize power on the grounds that elected officials are incompetent or unjust.  Some European powers based their authority to rule over foreign territories on the grounds that indigenous persons were not capable of mature, just governance.

Other models of political authority stem from purchases (the USA purchased what is now Alaska from Russia), monarchical claims (in cases where there is a tradition of hereditary monarchy, for example), conquest (the USA acquired some of its property through the conquest of other people, empires, and nations), or divine authority (e.g. a land may be thought of as owned by a people on the basis of a divine gift).

Political authority needs to be understood in at least two respects.  The first is normative or evaluative; some one or institution has authority on the grounds that is worthy of governance.  This is a matter of correctly or justly following what is and ought to be the law: power de jure.  But there is another sense in which a person or entity may have power (it can and does impose sanctions on a people) but this is a de facto power and not necessarily a justified authority.

Conservative versus Liberal values: In the 19th century, being a conservative meant being faithful and honoring the customs and traditions of one’s society.  So, a conservative in the UK might support the monarchy, not because of a belief in the divine right of kings or on the grounds that similar societies ought to have monarchies, but because the monarchy, for a conservative, is justified simply in virtue of it’s being a part of the culture.  Liberals may or may not be monarchists, but they tend to give primacy to individual freedom rather than deferring to custom.  In the 19th century in the UK, it was the liberal who largely favored the industrial revolution and with little appetite for imposing constraints, whereas conservatives showed more interest in the health and welfare of workers.  Today, the terms in the USA are practically reversed: it is the “conservative” who seeks to maximize liberties, at least in economics and taxation, whereas the “liberal” resembles the 19th century “conservative.”


Separation of Church and State: 
A political theory concerning religion, articulated in 1802 by U.S. President Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson wrote a letter to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut, explaining that the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution democratically built “a wall of separation between Church and State.”  Jefferson wrote, “religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God,” and “the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions.”  In consequence, the state shall not establish a church, nor privilege a church in matters of legislation.  In this, Jefferson was drawing on the work of both Hobbes and Locke. Hobbes held that the church was not sovereign over the state, and that it therefore had no right to legislate.  Locke argued that the state had no right to legislate concerning matters of conscience, but only concerning actions. Roger Williams, in the Seventeenth Century, and Thomas Paine, in the Eighteenth, also articulated views akin to Jefferson’s. The French political doctrine of laïcité (or secularism) and the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights offer similar (though not identical) views of the relationship between religion and politics.  Some contemporary political philosophers, notably René Girard and Gianni Vattimo, argue that while secularism has its roots in modern political liberalism, liberalism has its roots in Christianity, leading to the ironic conclusion that the separation of church and state is made possible by the influence of a church on the state. 

For a look at democracy from an epistemological standpoint, CLICK HERE to read Professor Michael Fuerstein’s paper, “Epistemic Democracy and the Social Character of Knowledge