Public Nuisance

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The first Republican president once said, "While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." If Mr. Lincoln could see what's happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
-Ronald Reagan

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Wednesday, November 13, 2002
 

Eve Tushnet beat me to commenting on Matthew Yglesias's odd assertion, "there is actually only one big question in political theory: Is there a God?". in his erudite discussion of various recent writings in political philosophy. A new post modefies this to the clearer but quite wrong, "if you think there is no God, then there are no more big questions in political philosophy".

If you think there is no god, then there still remain the problems of how people are to live together as individuals (ethics) and as a society (political philosophy). I don't see that the existence of God solves these problems at all. Basic problems of political philosophy such as balancing the goals of liberty and equality can be addressed entirely outside theology, and indeed it's unlikely that theology can have anything to say of them. The only question that is clearly impacted by the existence of God is the question of the origins of legitimate authority. Our political institutions are based largely on the belief that Locke's solutions to the basic questions of political philosophy are superior to those reached before him, and atheists, agnostics, and believers are all able to accept those institutions with that implicit belief.

If you do believe in God, that doesn't in any apparent way solve the problems of political philosophy or ethics. All it does is move them into a different category, making them (potentially) theological problems. But unless you also have a divine revelation available to give you the answers to these questions, they still have to be solved in any society.

Stating essentially human problems as theological ones is just likely to lead you to poor solutions. A famous, possibly apocryphal, saying of Dostoevsky is, "If there is no God, then anything is possible." That has always seemed to me the exact opposite of the truth. If you create an ethical or political philosophy without presuming the existence of God, then individuals have claims that are not easily brushed aside. If an ideology is built from the assumption that God created everything, those parts of creation which aren't obeying God's will become very dispensable indeed. No-one does violence more easily or enthusiastically than those who believe themselves to be instruments of God, working towards a new Eden which will appear as soon as those who refuse to see the light have been neutralized.



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