Saturday, July 02, 2022

The justification of the state

 The state is a form of organized violence or the threat of such violence. This is among its essential and defining features. I can imagine a community or a society that didn’t have the power to punish or to fight against enemies—there are pacifist communities, after all—but I can’t imagine such a state. I don’t think that’s just a failure of imagination on my part. At least in one long political tradition, police and defensive powers are definitive of the state; I’m thinking of Plato’s auxiliaries, the power to punish in Aquinas, the role of the Sovereign in Hobbes, the magistrate and the powers
he’s been given in Locke, …. What is law without the power of compulsion? 

Other than those pacifists, most people hold that, at least in some cases, violence can be justified. There aren’t many people who would deny the right to violence in self-defense. I hold the view that self-defense isn’t sufficient to justify taking a life. From conversations with students and my husband, I know that this is not a very common view—it might even seem outlandish—but even I think mere self-defense justifies some lesser forms of violence. (For what it’s worth, I think other-defense alone can justify taking a life.)

So, if violence can, in some cases, be justified, the most important question about the state in general or any particular state or particular state action—in ethics and politics, it is really the particular and concrete rather than the general and abstract that matters—is whether it is justified in this case, here and now. That is the most important question, the question of moral status. Whether it’s justified or not is not, of course, the only question: it is often prudentially advisable to comply when threatened with violence, even if that violence isn’t justified, maybe especially then.