Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The state as a necessary evil

[A follow-up to Church and state: four theses]

I'm currently working through an anthology of essays by philosopher Paul Ricoeur, Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination. I've just finished "A Philosophical Hermeneutics of Religion: Kant", in which Ricoeur summarizes Immanuel Kant's Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone.

Tough slogging? Yes, easily the most difficult of the four Ricoeur essays I've studied so far.

In this post, I'd like to call attention to Kant's view of Church and state, as summarized by Ricoeur. The Church's raison d'ĂȘtre is to effect what the state cannot:  the liberation of human beings' bound will.
No political institution can satisfy the requirements of a community devoted to the regeneration of the will. …

Historical action can engender only a relative state of public peace, motivated by the antagonism Kant calls our "unsociable sociability." The civil peace we call a state of law is not virtue, but rather an armistice in the war among interests. …

Kant even goes so far as to say in his essay "Perpetual Peace" that "the problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved even for a race of devils." Establishing peace "does not require that we know how to attain the moral improvement of men but only that we should know the mechanism of nature in order to use it on men … in such a way that they must compel themselves to submit to coercive laws."

For this reason, no political philosophy, and more generally no philosophy of culture, can satisfy the requirement of a community that aims at the regeneration of the will through specific public means.1
I agree with Kant's view of the state. I would sum it up in the following propositions:
  1. The state cannot accomplish what the Church sets out to achieve:  namely, the regeneration of humankind's corrupt will (= the liberation of humankind's bound will).

  2. The state has a lesser, but still significant (and, I would add, God-ordained) role:  to establish social order despite the evil that is always present everywhere among human beings.

  3. The state employs unethical, coercive means to achieve its end.
Kant's cynical perspective on human beings is captured in the pithy phrase, "unsocial sociability". We stubbornly persist in forming communities, despite our constant prickliness toward one another. Moreover, within any given community, there are sub-communities:  tribes or cliques bound together by shared interests, inevitably opposed to other sub-communities with competing interests.

The best we are capable of, Kant observes, is an armistice of interests. When we arrive at that modest achievement, we call it "the rule of law".

Kant sums up the state's limited role in his remark about a race of devils. The state does not have the capacity to effect an improvement in humankind's morals. The human will remains corrupt but still the state manages to establish (relative) peace.

The state does so by using the "mechanism of nature" on human beings in such a way that they are compelled to submit to coercive laws. It isn't clear, from Ricoeur's essay, what precisely Kant means by the phrase "mechanism of nature". But I think the gist of the statement is clear:  the state assumes wickedness on the part of human beings, and establishes institutions (laws, police forces, courts, jails) to contain wicked conduct within tolerable bounds.

Thus the state is not a benign institution:  it employs coercive tactics. Nor, on the other hand, is the state absolutely evil:  it responds to a real need (the need to contain human wickedness) and accomplishes a significant good (social order).

The state is a human institution, corrupted by the evil that is always present everywhere among human beings. (So is the Church, as I argued in my earlier post.)

The state may be relatively good or relatively evil; in exceptional cases, it may be extremely good or (more likely) extremely evil; but it is never absolutely good or absolutely evil. Hence Paul could instruct us to submit to the state "not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience" (Ro. 13:5).

[For the crucial importance of the Church as a check on state totalitarianism, see my post on Outside the Box.]

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
1Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination, Fortress Press, 1995, p. 89.


Knotwurth Mentioning said...

Excellent summation of the role of the State, and its relation to the people and their religion!

Of course, that kind of view lends itself to a very Machiavellian vision. If social order is the State's role, then surely morality is something that should not be taken into consideration. Political scientists are divided on whether Machiavelli can be taken as an absolute, since human nature still desires some sort of morality in their dealings with one another.

That's where the church comes in, I suppose. The State, Machiavelli would argue, should use any means at its disposal to ensure civil order. The Church, and other such institutions, should assume the mantle of "benign" and work to have social value. A real pity, then, that the Church has been collapsing so quickly lately. I suppose it's a sound argument to throw out that states like the USA couldn't pull off what they do if people had a truer appreciation for the church. If they expected the State to act out against them, they would be far quicker to take precaution and gather in groups that are ready to defend themselves in the name of morality.

Cliff Martin said...

Good post, Stephen. Do you have a comment, based on your reading of Kant's view, on the American experiment of governance? and/or the Canadian? in light of your stated alternatives, "The state may be relatively good or relatively evil; in exceptional cases, it may be extremely good or (more likely) extremely evil"?

Andrew Compton said...

Nice post. Nice distinction between the kingdom of the right and the kingdom of the left - to use Luther's terminology.

If you get a chance to check out the book "A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State" by Darryl Hart, I think you'll find some real likemindedness on this issue.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

• Knotwurth:
That kind of view lends itself to a very Machiavellian vision.

I agree. Whatever Kant meant by using the "mechanism of nature" on people, it sounds distinctly sinister! When I say that the state is not benign, I mean it from the heart. It is a fearful matter to fall afoul of the state.

The question of enforcing morality is vexed. I think the state should, as much as possible, let individuals (and churches, etc.) determine morality for themselves. But the distinction can't always be maintained in practice.

Abortion is a classic example. If there is no law prohibiting abortion (which is the situation in Canada), that allows the woman to choose. But the state has already made a significant moral decision by not regarding the developing fetus as a human life, worthy of protection under the law. Because of course the state does protect children (even from their parents, in cases of abuse) after birth.

Laws in general may be regarded as establishing a minimum degree of morality. The question then becomes, when has the state transgressed too far into the moral realm?

• Cliff:
Did you notice that I have a second blog with the same name as your blog? I've been meaning to point that out to you.

I think the Government of Canada is relatively benign. (Full disclosure here: I am an employee of the Government of Canada, so my bias is undeniable!)

A friend who works with street people in Vancouver begs to differ — he sees the government (in particular, the police) as a large, menacing presence.

And he has a point. Governments create winners and losers when they establish order. Maintaining order always means protecting the status quo — stomping down hard on anything that looks remotely revolutionary. Marginalized people are monitored and, in a sense, their marginalization is perpetuated. Once again I conclude that the state is not benign.

Turning my attention to the USA —
The Bush Administration, in my view, deliberately exaggerates people's fears in order to justify intrusive measures (monitoring people's phone calls, detaining people without bringing charges against them or allowing them access to a lawyer, even torturing people). I have spoken out quite forcefully on this issue on Outside the Box.

Broadening my gaze beyond the Bush Administration, I note that the USA also meddles in the affairs of other states to a much greater extent than Canada does. Whether it is justified in doing so (for the sake of "U.S. interests"), I don't presume to judge. But inevitably, the USA is going to end up with dirtier hands than Canada.

That said, I think people on the political left grossly exaggerate the evils of the U.S. government. Obviously I would rather live in the USA than Iran, for example, or many other parts of the world. That by itself is a clear indication that the US government is on the "relatively benign" end of the spectrum.

• Andrew:
Thanks for the book recommendation.

I wouldn't be surprised if Kant had read Luther. I found the essay peculiar, because in the end Kant wants to utilize Paul's concept of "justification" while somehow reinterpreting in along strictly rational, philosophical terms (hence "philosophical hermeneutics of religion").

Kant is obviously under the sway of German Protestantism, even as he's trying to establish a philosophy that transcends history and culture. It's a remarkable blindspot — but the point is, I wouldn't be surprised if he was familiar with Luther.