Free «Revolutions morality» Essay Sample

Within the scope of this research, we will assess the views of Rousseau, Hobbes and Kant on politics, government and revolution. As the government is essentially flawed, and all people cannot be satisfied by the social order imposed by a certain government in a certain period of time, revolution is the most adequate option in order to ‘renew’ the political elite and to try to create more satisfying social order, satisfying to all people. Therefore, people should sacrifice morality for the greater good, and overthrow the government that does not fulfill its obligations before society at large.

For Rousseau, human nature is nearly unrecognizable, but can none the less be discovered under experimental conditions. But, asks Rousseau, “What experiments would be necessary to achieve knowledge of natural man? And what are the means of making those experiments in the midst of society?” (Rousseau, 2002) Rousseau’s tone in the Preface is tentative, even hesitant: “I began some lines of reasoning. I ventured some conjectures, less in the hope of resolving the question than with the intention of clarifying it and reducing it to its genuine state” (Rousseau, 2002). Yet, when Rousseau says that he is proceeding by conjecture, he is not modestly disclaiming his ability to achieve knowledge. Rather, he envisages conjecture as the only available method of constructing a model to explain events which took place in the past and which cannot be repeated.

The essay question set by the Academy contained two parts, the first concerning the source (or origin) of inequality, the second concerning natural law. Rousseau devotes most of the text to answering the first part of the question. He gives no direct response to the second part until the last pages of the Discourse. But, without answering it directly, he engages with the natural law tradition in the Preface. In an initially puzzling passage, he first appears to dismiss all versions of natural law theory for failing to take sufficiently seriously the difficulty of the question of origins.

In particular, he criticizes “the Roman jurists who subject man and all other animals indifferently to the same natural Law” (Rousseau, 2002). Their mistake was to confuse two senses of law, the prescriptive sense of law as command, and the descriptive sense of law as statement of “the general relations established by Nature among all animate beings for their common preservation” (Rousseau, 2002). The “Moderns”, in contrast, are mistaken in being too restrictive, since they, in “recognizing under the name Law only a rule prescribed to a moral being…intelligent, free, and considered in his relations with other beings, consequently limit the competence of natural Law to the sole animal endowed with reason, namely man”. They wrongly presuppose ‘enlightenment which only develops with great difficulty and in very few People in the midst of society itself (Rousseau, 2002). In stating his own position on the next page Rousseau seeks to recover that strand in the ‘ancient’ tradition, going back through Montesquieu to the Stoics, in which natural law is the way in which all creatures endowed with feeling participate in the natural order through the drives of self-preservation and compassion. At the same time the Moderns, despite their erroneous rationalism and abstraction, are correct in seeing that positive law is exercised over and by human beings alone, creatures endowed with free wills, which can ultimately be fused into a general will.

Rousseau’s recurring criticism of his predecessors is that they have been insufficiently radical in their attempts to distinguish the natural from the social. They have remained at the level of the empirically given: “All of them…have carried over into the state of Nature ideas they had acquired in society: they spoke about savage man and they described Civil man” (Rousseau, 2002). In Rousseau’s system, the state of nature is an ideal type, which he constructs artificially by abstracting from every social factor, that is from the different ways in which men and women have lived in ordered relations, however minimal the order, however transitory the relations.

Rousseau pushes against the limits of the conceivable in conducting his thought experiment. What sense does it make to hypothesize the existence of pre-or sub-social human beings when all human beings do in fact live in societies? Scientists studying other species allow that some species are, and some are not, essentially social. Rousseau is arguing that one should cast skeptical doubt on at least two received doctrines concerning essential human characteristics, the assumption of natural sociability and the assumption of natural aggression. Instead people should adopt the working hypothesis that the human raw material is almost totally malleable by its social environment. Empirical evidence of social diversity, relayed in travelers’ tales and studied by ethnologists, suggests, but no more than suggests, the malleability thesis. But Rousseau is not asserting that the raw material is totally malleable.

Rousseau is distinguishing “general, or political, economy” from domestic, or private, economy”, and explains that he will be addressing only the former (Rousseau, 2002). That distinction leads into a brief but important discussion of the family. He dismisses the patriarchal idea that the political order of the state could be modeled on the domestic order of the family, since the two “differ too much in size to be capable of being administered in the same way” (Rousseau, 2002). The family, even within a developed social order, maintains a closer link with nature than does the state. The father’s rule over the family is based on natural feelings, whereas “political authority…can be founded only on conventions, and the magistrate can command the others only by virtue of the laws” (Rousseau, 2002). Of particular concern is Rousseau’s judgment on domestic economy that “for several reasons derived from the nature of the thing, the father should command in the family” (Rousseau, 2002). The four reasons he adduces are very different in character.

First, authority should not be equally divided between husband and wife because “it is necessary that the government should be one” (Rousseau, 2002). Second, Rousseau alleges the physiological reasons that the woman has periods of inaction during pregnancy, and (provocatively) that the husband should oversee his wife’s conduct, because it is important to him to be assured that the children he is forced to recognize and nourish do not belong to anyone other than himself. The wife, who has no such thing to fear, does not have the same right over her husband, (Rousseau, 2002). Third, Rousseau produces an argument of reciprocal obligation between father and children who “should obey their father, at first through necessity, later through gratitude. After having their needs met by him for half their lives, they should devote the other half to attending to his needs” (Rousseau, 2002). Fourth, “…domestic servants…too owe him their services in return for the livelihood he gives them, unless they break the bargain when it no longer suits them” (Rousseau, 2002).

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Hobbes also considers revolution a lawful way of overthrowing the existing government. Hobbes agrees in consequence with the de facto theorists that subjects are released from their oaths of allegiance as soon as their lawful rulers are conquered. “If a Monarch subdued by war, render himself Subject to the Victor; his Subjects are delivered from their former obligations, and become obliged to the Victor.” (Flathman, 1993) This leads him to endorse the further de facto claim that no valid distinction can be drawn between powers 'ordained' and powers merely 'permitted'. Any power with the capacity to protect us must be regarded as legitimate and entitled to obedience.

It is an axiom in Leviathan that, in all discussions about government, “the present ought alwaies to be preferred, maintained, and accounted best”. (Flathman, 1993) To which Hobbes adds in his Conclusion - very much in the spirit of the engagers - that any attempt to ground political obligation on right rather than possession will leave “no tie of the Subjects obedience to their Soveraign at this day in all the world”. (Flathman, 1993)

Like other de facto theorists, Hobbes grounds these conclusions on the assumption of a mutual relationship between the duty of our sovereigns to protect us and our duty as subjects to obey. As he argues in chapter 21 of Leviathan, “the Obligation of Subjects to the Soveraign, is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth, by which he is able to protect them”. (Flathman, 1993) Anyone who enjoys protection “is obliged (without fraudulent pretence of having submitted himselfe out of fear,) to protect his Protection as long as he is able”. (Flathman, 1993) But if there is “no farther protection of Subjects in their loyalty; then is the Common-wealth dissolved, and every man at liberty to protect himselfe by such courses as his own discretion shall suggest unto him”. (Flathman, 1993) The basic idea, as Hobbes summarizes in his Conclusion, is that anyone who agrees to submit to the powers that be and “live under their Protection openly” is thereby “understood to submit himselfe to the Government”. (Flathman, 1993)

Hobbes's Leviathan can thus be represented as a slightly belated but uniquely important contribution to the lay defence of engagement. It might still be doubted, however, whether this accurately reflects Hobbes's intentions in writing the work. But there can be little doubt that it does. When Hobbes replied in the 1660s to the criticisms made by John Wallis of his loyalty during the revolution, it was his proudest boast about Leviathan that it had “framed the minds of a thousand gentlemen to a conscientious obedience to present government, which otherwise would have wavered in that point”. (Flathman, 1993) And when he published Leviathan he made it clear that he intended his treatise as a contribution to the debate about the rights of de facto powers.

It goes without saying that Leviathan is much else besides. But when Hobbes speaks in his Conclusion about what he has tried to accomplish, it is this aspiration that he emphasizes himself. His book, he says, was “occasioned by the disorders of the present time”. (Flathman, 1993) It was motivated by the discovery “that the Civill warres have not yet sufficiently taught men, in what point of time it is, that a Subject becomes obliged to the Conquerour”. (Flathman, 1993) And it was written “without other designe, than to set before mens eyes the mutuall Relation between Protection and Obedience”. (Flathman, 1993)

The idea of such a mutual relation had already been enunciated by several of the de facto theorists. Hobbes was clearly aware of this fact, and even appears to have recast his own argument to echo the formula they had popularized. The contention that protection and obedience are mutually related is arguably implicit in De Cive. But it is never explicitly stated, and although it is again implicit in the De Corpore Politico of 1650 it is not announced openly until the final paragraph of Leviathan. It is only at that moment - at the height of the controversy about engagement - that Hobbes employs the formula of 'mutuall Relation' for the first time. (Flathman, 1993)

These resemblances between Hobbes's account of political obligation and that of the de facto theorists suggest two reflections about the place of Hobbes's political theory in the ideological contests of the English revolution. First of all, it is a mistake to suppose (as many commentators have done) that Hobbes's theory was an isolated phenomenon in the intellectual world of its time. We shall misunderstand his achievement if we try to give an account of his special status as a political philosopher mainly in terms of the alleged novelty of his doctrines. Hobbes's claim to originality lies to a greater degree at the epistemological level, in the reasons he gave for holding his political beliefs, than in his beliefs themselves. It was in his attempt to deduce his political system from an account of human nature, and in his emancipation from the confines of the providentialist vocabulary, that Hobbes made his most original contributions to the political theory of his age. (Flathman, 1993) It was this achievement that was barely hinted at by the other de facto theorists, even though several of them, independently of Hobbes, articulated a number of political doctrines that have since been associated exclusively with Hobbes's name.

Kant suggests that to be incapable of error and ignorance, a sovereign would have to be divinely inspired and superhuman. Thus freedom of the pen is the palladium of the people's right. To suppress it (according to Hobbes) is to deprive the people of all claim to just treatment at the hands of the supreme power, and to deprive the sovereign of all knowledge of evils that he would modify were he aware of them. The principle governing this right to judge the measures and laws of the government is: "What the people cannot decide in regard to themselves, the legislator cannot decide for them." (Korsgaard, 1997)

It is right, legality, that makes it possible for men to live together in a community. But a perfect state of legality can never be achieved. Tyranny can carry law to the point of lawlessness. Rebellion can threaten its existence. The people have no right that can justify disobedience and violent revolution. The sovereign has no right that can justify him in setting aside the law. Both ought to obey. Kant holds that rebellion and tyranny, like war, imperil the community as a whole. There is no adequate justification for them. Such actions are not based on the principle of right. Here natural causality and perhaps Providence make decisions that man can never fully understand. The principle of right is suspended, and there is no longer a lawful authority. Men call on Heaven to pronounce its verdict or simply put their trust in naked force. There remains something which cannot be justified by law, but which actually makes possible a lawful state of affairs. "Once a revolution has been successful and a new order established," says Kant, "the illegality of the beginning cannot free the subjects from the obligation to bow as good citizens to the new order of things." (Korsgaard, 1997)

In case of conflict, the government may choose between two principles as a basis of its decisions: the principle of right and the principle of practical human experience. Either there is a constitutional law that has binding authority quite apart from the well-being of the citizens; then there is also "a theory of constitutional law and no practice that does not accord with it can be valid." (Korsgaard, 1997) Or else there are only men with their passions and their passivity, who have grown accustomed to a certain state of affairs. Although they have notions of right, they are incapable and unworthy of being treated in accordance with them. Then there is no theory of right, but only a practice of governing, based on experience. A "supreme power which operates merely in accordance with rules of expedience" may and must keep men in a state of order and submission. (Korsgaard, 1997)

These, says Kant, are counsels of despair. But where they are followed, "when right gives way to might, the people may attempt to exert force of their own and so imperil all legal government.

" (Korsgaard, 1997) And "unless there is something, the principle of human right, for instance, which commands immediate respect through reason, all influences are powerless" to check human arbitrariness. (Korsgaard, 1997) But "when right speaks aloud, human nature is sufficiently uncorrupted to hear its voice with veneration." (Korsgaard, 1997) Kant demands that the claims of civil government be recognized in their greatness and harshness. He speaks of right primarily and of the other motivation of history only in discussing the limits of right. But there is another force, Providence or natural purpose, which can bring forth progress from evil or catastrophe. That is why the question of war and peace occupies a central position in Kant's political thinking.

Kant expects change and progress from gradual reforms, nor from revolutions. For because the population at large remains to be enlightened, nothing salutary can be expected from below. A true republican order, characterized by a separation of powers and representative government, is more possible in a monarchy than in an aristocracy or democracy, "for Frederick II at least said that he was no more than the first servant of the state." (Korsgaard, 1997) Yet despite his conservative, reformist attitude, Kant favored the French Revolution. However - and this is essential - he supported it not because of the immediate practical consequences, not because of its "deeds bad and good," but because of the state of mind manifested in its origins.

"The undisguised attitude of the onlookers, the universal, unselfish sympathy they show even at the risk that their partisanship may redound very much to their own disadvantage...bear witness to a disposition of the human race as such. That disposition is ethical in germ. It not only gives us a hope of progress, but is in itself a progress." (Korsgaard, 1997) But what was the object of the general enthusiasm? The desire for a republican order, a state based on justice and therefore peaceful. Even if the actual course of events brings failure or takes a turn to tyranny, the progress disclosed at the beginning cannot be annulled. "For a phenomenon of this kind in the history of mankind can never be forgotten." (Korsgaard, 1997)

In trying to determine whether the human race as a whole is steadily advancing toward better things, Kant speculates on the possibility of a prophetic history. It is possible, he holds, "if the prophet himself makes and promotes the events he predicts." (Korsgaard, 1997) "Our politicians" say that "men should be taken as they are." (Korsgaard, 1997) They should say, "as we have made them by our unjust exactions and treacherous aggressions, to wit, stubborn and rebellious." (Korsgaard, 1997) In this light, the prophecies of doom emitted by these "supposedly clever statesmen" are true, for if the reins of constraint are relaxed a little, the most unfortunate consequences ensue. (Korsgaard, 1997) Clergymen predict the coming of the Antichrist by doing everything they can to bring it about; instead of urging ethical principles upon their community, they demand observances and traditional belief. They deplore an irreligiosity that they themselves have made.

It would be easier to predict the progressive in provement of the race if we could say that man's will, though limited, is invariably good. For then the prediction would apply to something that man himself can make. "But in view of the mixture in man's disposition of good and evil in proportions of which he is unaware, he himself does not know what to expect." (Korsgaard, 1997) Nothing can be proved and nothing predicted on the basis of historical experience. But our experience of an event which points to the existence of a cause of improvement, may justify an inference in respect both to the past and the future. Kant regards the French Revolution as a "historical sign" of this sort, indicating the tendency of human history as a whole.


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