As responsible citizens, we must all, so far as we are able, occupy ourselves with the metaphysical question of what good and evil are. The crisis enveloping the West at the moment is in part, a result of confusing what the majority wants with what is objectively good for them. Consider the following argument:
P1: Whatever the majority wants is good.
P2: The majority wants X.
C: Therefore, X is good.
This is a valid argument, but not a sound one: Premise 1 is false. Intuitively, we know this to be true. People behave, even if they do not explicitly say so, as if they were committed to a metaphysical position that holds goodness to be objective, independent of what we think or desire.
The problem is where this thinking hits epistemology. The at-times tyrannical behaviour of the elites is a result of their thinking that what is right is independent of the will of the majority (so far so good), but thinking they are in a better position to know what the good is and that their opinion should be forced on the majority (not so good). Consider this argument:
P1: X is good.
P2: People should do what is good.
C1: Therefore, people should do X.
P3: People do not want to do X.
P4: Where people do not want to perform the good, they should be made to.
C2: Therefore, people should be made to do X.
The problem with this approach is that it is too simplistic, and shows no regard for the relationship between free will and virtue. A good world, of which we all dream, is not simply one of material prosperity, it is also a world of virtue. What good is it to live in a world of luxury food and houses if people are still brutish? We have seen in the lives of the super wealthy that material prosperity does not entail contentment and mental health. To reach a world of goodness, people must learn virtue, but virtue cannot be practised by compulsion – it must be freely chosen.
Where the consequences of immoral choices are sufficiently extreme, we have laws to deter such behaviour and punish transgressors, who owe a debt both to their immediate victims and society at large. Every time someone transgresses the spirit of civil laws, they transgress against society, because they show contempt for society. In showing contempt for society, one is showing contempt for one’s fellowman, society being an aggregate of human beings. Such contempt transgresses the commandments:
- You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, mind, and strength; and
- You shall love your neighbour as yourself.
But we cannot have political laws for everything: to do so would be to strike at the plan of giving people as much liberty as possible so that they can learn virtue. Nor is it wise to assume that the legislature will always know what is right in a given situation. The legislature is a small body of individuals, sometimes from not particularly diverse backgrounds. Even where they have good advisors, that does not entail that they will be in a position to understand what the advisor is really saying, why he is saying what he is saying, or what they should do in response to his advice.
Even when people know in their consciences what they should do, this does not entail that they will do it. In a democracy, where popularity is important in order to be re-elected, when faced with the choice of doing what is popular or doing what is right (where they are at variance) there is pressure to compromise. This will usually be justified by the argument that compromise now allows one to keep power and thereby make a better decision later: in a word, tactics.
But in a world where the state has fewer choices to make, and the constitution prevents inroads into the liberties of citizens, the amount of damage caused by such structural problems is limited. To the extent that one values liberty as a good, an intrinsic component of virtue, one must favour minimal state intervention. Consider this finally from a Christian angle: God is the ultimate Power and the ultimate Good: no-one is greater than He. Yet he lets humans have great autonomy in the world. If He is willing to let us make our own decisions, then surely the state ought to do likewise.
The problem in the world is that the most fundamental principle of ‘why we were created’ is not a shared value. Therefore, it is impossible for the state to pass laws that will be ‘democratically’ accepted by the people. It is like trying to find peace and freedom in a cage where grass eating animals and carnivorous animals are to abide by the same rules and laws. It won’t work.
There is a universal good but few recognize it; and I would submit that the First Principle and Foundation of St. Ignatius state it well (but who can create this state?).
“Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.
The other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him in attaining the end for which he is created,
Hence, man is to make use of them in as far as they help him in the attainment of his end, and he must rid himself of them in as far as they prove a hinderance to him.
Therefore, we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things, as far as we are allowed free choice and are not under prohibition. Consequently, as far as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor or dishonor, a long life to a short life. The same holds for all other things.
Our one desire and choice would be what is most conducive to the end for which we are created.”
Tall order . . . and one I doubt we can create in a nation state . . . but we individually we must try to instill such an ethic to those in our families, our circle of friends etc. But free choice is paramount to giving us the ability to live our lives according to the very reason that we were created. Few are going to buy it . . . even if they are Christian.
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As a simpler explanation: the ‘good’ of something always stands in regards to the reason for its creation; a clock that doesn’t keep accurate time is a bad clock but one that keeps accurate time is a good clock. The same can be said of a government. We have to ask ourselves what the ultimate reason is (the end) for its creation. Then one can judge as to whether a law is just or unjust or a government is a good government or a bad government. It is the only way that one can regard ‘the Good’ as an objective truth to be striven for. For if the ends are different for different people then the good is subjective; e. g. an atheist who thinks wealth, or health or long life is the reason we are made will certainly have a different idea of what is good and what is bad.
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