First Force

By Edmundson, William A. | Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy, November 2005 | Go to article overview

First Force


Edmundson, William A., Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy


Is the very existence of government morally problematic? Is government morally problematic, that is, in a way that a "state of nature" is not? Many political philosophers have thought so. I will argue that they are wrong. If that seems too easy, I also will argue that the modern welfare state is no more problematic, morally, than a minimal, "nightwatchman" state. (If all of this seems too easy, I hope to convince you that it is not as easy as you might think.)

One vivid way of conveying the idea that government is prima facie wrongful is by employing a metaphor. Just as the gunman, who takes our money upon threat of violence, acts wrongfully, so also the state acts wrongfully by exacting its citizens' obedience by threatening punishment; the state is simply the gunman writ large. (1) Compare the following cases.

Case 1: Highway Robbery

Gunman stops Traveler on the highway and demands, "Your money or your life!" Gunman's proposal is coercive and wrongful. Traveler surrenders his money. Gunman has wrongfully coerced Traveler.

Case 2: Robbery Statute

A state enacts a statute which provides that anyone convicted of highway robbery shall be punished for a term of not less than five and not more than 20 years. It is probably thought that the state coerces its citizens not to engage in highway robbery.

To say that an action is coercive is, normally anyway, to say that it is at least prima facie wrongful. Although the idea that government bears a moral taint could be expressed in other ways, I will focus on the belief that the state, and its law, is coercive. The state is like a gunman writ large, in short, because, and to the extent that, it is coercive in a way that is at least prima facie wrongful.

Our normal response to coercive threats, like the Gunman's behavior in case 1, is to condemn them unless some further facts in justification of such conduct are provided, e.g., that Traveler is bankrolling a terrorist organization and Gunman is acting to frustrate a terrorist plot that can be checked in no other way. Whether a sufficiently strong justification can be provided is a further question, upon which the Gunman bears some sort of burden of proof. (2)

Case 2 has seemed to many to be sufficiently analogous to case 1 to support the analogous claim of presumptive wrongfulness. State stands to citizen as Gunman stands to Traveler, that is to say, the state coerces its citizens and therefore a justification is demanded--a special justification of a kind not needed if, for example, the state failed to enact such a statute or repealed it. (3)

But can anyone seriously argue that the state acts immorally, or contrary to a moral duty, by proposing to punish the highway robber? The answer must be no. But this in turn seems to commit us to saying that case 2 is not a case of prima facie wrongful conduct on the part of the state. (4)

Consider the following variation on case 1:

Case 3: Tables Turned on the Gunman

As in case 1 but, rather than comply with Gunman's demand, Traveler states that he, too, is armed and that he is prepared to defend himself and his wallet with deadly force if necessary.

Is Traveler's conduct toward Gunman even prima facie wrongful? Most of us would answer no.

One might suggest that case 2 is distinguishable from case 3 insofar as, in case 3, coercion is absent only because the putative coercee has initiated the use of force. But case 3 can readily be redescribed to remove that feature, yet without disturbing the intuition that the Traveler has not acted even prima facie wrongfully. Replace the Gunman's threatening conduct with the Traveler's generalized anxiety about the possibility of its occurring, so that Traveler displays a general preparedness to use force not to a manifest threat, but to a world which he supposes to harbor such threats. Prima facie wrongful? Again, most would answer no.

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