The Question Of Good And Evil And How It Informs Governance
The Question of Good and Evil and How it Informs Governance
I recently began revisiting a question I dealt with several months ago in my Hub "Musings On The Meaning Of Life". The question is "What is the nature of good and evil?" It is a dilemma that I have examined on and off dating back to a college philosophy course I took in 1977. Different events over the years have caused my reexaminations. Personal events had heretofore influenced these introspections. This time it was different. I was attempting to get my arms around why there were such diametrically opposed political views on almost every issue facing the United States. Why did our politics become so polarized? Everyone seems to see every issue in black and white, right and wrong, or good and evil terms. This realization brought me back to the question of the nature of good and evil.
In this article I will again offer my analysis of this question and I will expand upon it. There are of course examples of absolute or close to absolute goods and evils in both individual conduct and governmental action. Yet there is also so much fertile ground in the middle of these two extremes where most actions fall. I will examine the three major categories of governmental actions and how this question of the nature of good and evil informs them. These categories are national defense and homeland security, the administration of justice and maintenance of civil order, and government social protection. This final function is currently the moost controversial and divisive. I will strive to show where different actions in these three governmental categories fall on my scale of good and evil and why. I will also discuss my personal vision of good governmental actions in these categories. I have performed this exercise because I feel that it is essential for a person to reconcile one's own morality with his or her own vision of the proper roles of governance. I hope this sparks similar considerations for those who read this as well as some healthy and much needed debates on the important questions of our time.
My primary definition of good that I described in my earlier Hub stated that an action is good if it advances oneself or society without hurting someone else or society. Evil is the purposeful hurting of someone else or society for one's own gain or amusement. I also stated that simply going about one's life optimizing one's own good without regard to the damage caused to others is an evil life.
I believe that these definitions hold true for governments also. Government should attempt to create an environment that promotes the most good for the most people. Winning in the marketplace and other areas is good. But that does not mean that governments should also ignore those that lose in the same marketplace and are left without basic human goods and needs. My belief is that government should ensure a fair and safe playing field in the marketplace. The key though in judging how good a government operates is in how it protects all of its citizens and ensures that they have their basic needs met.
In other words, a government should and must protect its people, provide justice and order, and maintain fairness in commerce and society. This is the minimum that I believe a government should provide to its people. What it provides beyond this will determine how good or great that government is. What it provides below this point will in my estimation determine how bad that government functions and in extreme cases how evil they are. Let me now expand upon this in the three main categories of government that I have listed.
I would like to begin with the primary function of all national governments of the world. This is national defense and homeland security. These functions exist to protect a nation's citizens from any external threats to their country. There is no dispute that this is a necessary and proper function of government. Differences arise as to how this should be carried out and how a nation should respond to different national security threats. Everyone agrees that it is a good and vital action to defend against a nation or force that militarily attacks your country. This governmental defensive response would be on the totally good side of my good and evil scale. What about a preemptive action against a neighboring country that is drastically building up its military? Is this a good and just action or is it an evil one?
The keys to assessing this are in the details. If the threat is imminent and totally lethal such as with nuclear weapons, then it certainly could be a good and justified act. If no diplomacy and negotiation has been conducted or attempted during this buildup then the action may be less justified and thus less good. A government would be considered to be evil if they simply invaded another country to acquire their resources, wealth, or for any other reason that did not constitute genuine national defense. The best example of this was Hitler's Nazi Germany. Other examples are Stalin's Soviet Union and Pol Pot's Cambodia where both dictators massacred millions of their own citizens.
We can also measure a nation's diplomatic stances and actions in the same way. A government that promotes its country as a benevolently involved world neighbor and acts as a good friend around the world promoting peace and prosperity is higher on the scale towards being a very good foreign policy actor. A government that chooses to keep its country totally out of world affairs is neutral on my scale. One that stirs up trouble amongst other nations is further away from good and closer to evil depending on the extent of these malevolent actions.
The United States has made great strides under the Obama Administration in moving farther along towards a very good grade in its foreign policy stances and actions in my view. They have intensified their diplomacy around the world and are no longer ignoring the concerns of other nations. The United Nations action in Libya is an excellent example of this. The U.S. joined this action after intensive debates amongst the Arab League and the the U.N.'s Security Council. The United States spent much time marshalling forces for this concerted multinational effort. This action was announced and undertaken for the expressed purpose of protecting the Libyan people from attacks on them by the Qaddafi government forces. The Obama Administration has taken major steps to steer the U.S. away from the neoconservative policy of saber rattling to produce diplomatic results. The diplomatic corps is now in the ascendacy where negotiations come first with military power being held in abeyance as talks move forward. President Teddy Roosevelt's "Speak softly but carry a big stick" policy is wisely guiding current American foreign policy.
Now let me turn to the administration of the criminal and civil justice systems and the maintenance of societal order. A government must perform these functions efficiently and fairly or the society will malfunction. Civil order depends heavily on government successfully administering in these areas. The criminal and civil justice systems of a government are expected to be fair and consistent to all parties regardless of race, religion, class, gender, sexuality, or any other classification. All local, state, and federal law enforcement departments are expected to keep order in their jurisdictions and to not show preference to one group over another. They are supposed to live by the motto that "Justice is color blind".
Those that target and arrest ethnic minorities and the poor to the relative exclusion of all others are failing their communities. Thus they are closer to evil than good on my scale in this category depending on the extent of this discrimination. This also holds true for the criminal and civil courts. Courts that hand out more severe sentences to one group as opposed to another for the same crime are further away from good on my scale than courts that pass out equal sentences. The results of inequalities of court administration and law enforcement manifest themselves by way of unrest in that community. Order is subsequently disrupted and trust in the system greatly diminishes. Law and order subsequently breaks down and the system becomes much less effective. It becomes evil when discrimination within the criminal and civil justice administrations becomes rampant and systemic.
How do we measure a government in regards to its social programs? Of course people have greatly varying views on this subject. Many people feel government should provide no social safety net at all for its citizens. This governmental function illicits much more controversy and disagreement than the other two functions previously described. My personal definition of a good action is one that enhances one's own self or society. My definition of good governmental action in this category would be extended to help prevent and also remediate its citizens' losses of basic goods and needs.
These include lack of food, shelter, education, and healthcare. These are the most important and basic human needs though not the only ones. Most of us measure our personal feeling of good and self worth through the assistance we provide to family, friends, co-workers, church, and charities. I believe the same can be similarly projected on to our governments. A government that provides law and order and preserves free markets and contracts is highly efficient. Is it good if that efficiency causes some of its citizens who lose in the marketplace to suffer alone?
A government should ensure and provide all of its citizens with access to their basic needs at least at a minimum level. This level of social protection would give that government good grades for the providing to its citizens. This does not mean that government needs to provide luxury for the disadvantaged. They should attempt to provide a path to personal independence for these down on their luck citizens. This could be through education, job placement, and transportation assistance to name a few. A government that allows its citizenry to fend for themselves in a "survival of the fittest" manner in my mind is close to evil. Most people's vision of social protection governing lies between these two extremes. Generally one's own perception of good and evil will determine your vision of how government should operate in this area.
Why would I engage in this exercise of reconciling my personal morality with the morality that I expect from my governments? I believe that everyone should examine their beliefs about what constitutes good and evil. I also believe we must be consistent with these beliefs when we select our political leaders. We should vote for politicians who reflect these beliefs and will carry them out in the administration of their office. Some leaders may govern better in one of these areas than in the others. Is this because they are inconsistent or is it because you are inconsistent in your views?
It is essential that we examine our moral beliefs closely so that we are able to accurately make this determination. For example, strict Libertarians such as Ron and Rand Paul, stress individual freedoms and limiting government to performing only essential functions. They want government to stay out of American lives as much as possible. They are opposed to the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. They believe in only defending our borders from attackers and not engaging in distant wars. They also believe in legalizing many currently illegal conducts such as illegal drug use and prostitution. Their belief is that government has no business criminalizing actions that do not harm anyone else in the society. They would also eliminate most, if not all, social programs. They believe that it is the individual's responsibility for taking care of themselves. Government should stay out of it as part of their system of individual liberty. These are consistent Libertarian views across the governmental spectrum. My views are mostly opposed to them but I do admire their honesty and consistency. I do not admire their lack of compassion for the downtrodden.
I also believe strongly in individual liberty as long as others are not being hurt in its exercise. I also do not believe that we are islands unto ourselves. We are a community. Government cannot be an island unto itself either. It must care and provide for all of its citizens no matter their circumstances. We are all responsible for others in our communities. The governments that we elect are charged by us to carry out this responsibility. This social compact has been developed through legislation by our elected leaders over the past eighty years.
We also require government to keep order and execute justice fairly. This is because our elected government is the government of all of us and not just the privileged class. Our social compact relies on this fairness because otherwise government becomes illegitimate and society begins to break apart. Our government must also protect us from foreign enemies but that is not the full extent of our proper foreign policy. They must conduct effective, respectful, and collegial diplomacy amongst the other nations of the world.
We as individuals do the same amongst our friends, colleagues, neighbors, and our community as a whole. Solid respect and admiration in the world community begets us tremendous influence and prestige in the world. We are then able as a nation to preserve our national security in a much more effective and proactive manner. A strong military is important as a last resort and an impetus for other countries to support us. Friendly and truly cooperative relations though is our most important national security tool.
To sum up, my vison of governmental actions in all categories reflects my nature of good and evil view. I consider an individual to be most truly good when he or she uses their individual liberty to maximize their own good in concert with maximizing the good of their entire community. A government must do the same to achieve a maximum good grade in my opinion. It must protect all of its citizens while also being fair to all. The government must also ensure that the basic needs of its citizens are met. Our government foreign policy must portray us as a good global neighbor just as we aspire to being good community neighbors. This way far fewer nations will look to attack us and our prestige will grow. This is similarly true in our own communities. I hope my reflections have been consistent and clear.
This is an exercise that I intend to continually reflect upon and revise where I find it necessary. No one is perfect. Besides, events and experience help to broaden our knowledge and wisdom. My hope is that everyone will give this subject and exercise some consideration so they may develop a more consistent and honest theory of government. After all, without this self knowledge one cannot truly make correct decisions when they enter their voting booth or when they petition their leaders.