Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, August 25, 2014

Human Nature and Justice

In Federalist Paper 51, Madison says that government (and the form and structure it takes) can be understood as “the greatest of all reflections on human nature.” This statement is not only a clever observation on how people behave, but a deep philosophical question on the meaning of justice. Notice that Madison never says that the purpose of government is to make people happy or prosperous. For Madison, the best outcome that any government can achieve is to preserve the liberty of its people and to ensure that justice prevails over injustice. As Madison himself noted, “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” From this statement, we can infer that all government results from the observation that men are not virtuous.


Human beings may seek virtue, and they may even, from time to time, behave in a manner commensurate with goodness and mercy, but they cannot be relied upon to either know virtue when they see it, or to act upon it in all circumstances. Therefore, if men are to live together in social harmony, which (according to Hobbes) is preferable to living in a state of nature where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” then some form of government is required to ensure people’s natural rights. And what are these natural rights? As proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, all men are created equal insofar as they have certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Of course, these rights, at the time Jefferson lived, were not actually enjoyed by all men in all parts of the world. Men in slavery certainly did not enjoy the benefits of liberty. But these statements of natural rights were the foundational principles upon which the new government in America was to be constructed. It would be necessary later to enshrine these principles in a constitution whose structure would, as far as humanly possible, ensure their survival and adoption in the new society which would emerge as a united republic.


The problem facing Madison and other proponents of a new constitution was how to persuade people that a stronger federal government, whose central powers were consolidated and superior to those of individual states, was a good thing. The theme of Federalist Paper 51 is to combine two ideas: human nature and justice, and demonstrate why justice is not possible when left to the tender mercies of human nature. Why is this? Is there really such a thing as “human nature”? In other words, is there any common value or belief or desire which all human beings have shared throughout history? Let’s start with the elementary idea that all people at all times have desired life. Then, add the observation that all people in all parts of the world have desired liberty. Finally, it isn’t just Epicureans who believe that it is better to be happy than to be miserable. The other belief which John Locke articulated is the near universal attachment to private property. People like to hold on to what belongs to them. This is why theft is despised and unlawful throughout the world, and for pretty much all of history.


Clearly, these ideas are common to almost all people on Earth. So it was appropriate for Jefferson to enshrine these principles into a document stating these values which all Americans cherish. So, right in the beginning we have a tension between the natural right (and desire) to be free, and the natural right (and desire) to preserve one’s life and property. It is Madison’s belief that the best means of preserving these rights is through a representational form of government backed by a constitution to which all (or a majority) of the people will give their consent. In other words, Madison believes that a constitutional republic is the best solution to the age old problem of how to combine liberty with justice, and by doing so, to obtain not only the consent, but the active participation of a majority of the people.


Madison’s argument depends, in part, on his conception of human nature. Is human nature the same throughout history, and does it apply to all generations of people living in all parts of the world? Well, this is the very premise of natural rights theory which lies at the core of our Declaration of Independence. The truth is that natural rights theory is an articulation of philosophical principles that run throughout recorded history, at least as far back as Genesis. It is based on the idea that human beings have certain characteristics in common which separates them from other creatures in nature. But the differences between men and other mammals goes far beyond biology. Aristotle, Epictetus, and Saint Augustine all believed that human beings have a special desire (and responsibility) for living a moral life. This desire is manifested through man’s aspiration to raise himself above the other creatures of nature and to live in social harmony in cities. The virtuous life is something greater than mere survival in the darkness of caves. To come out of the cave and live in harmony with other people requires that men control their emotions (their primal animal impulses) and make sacrifices for the greater good of the community. In other words, self-restraint, which is a mild form of self-denial, is the basis for civil society. Saint Augustine would say that man is subject to God’s law which is preserved in the Ten Commandments. Epictetus would say that we are always ruled by forces (fate) which we cannot control, so we ought to accept the limits that life imposes on us.


Madison, naturally, does not believe that individual self-control is up to the task of good social behavior. That is where government comes in. Thus, our own constitutional government acts as a kind of proxy for God. It rules over us with our consent just as all mortals live under the eye of God who will judge us according to our deeds. But the advantage of constitutional government over theology is that we feel like we have a voice in our own governments behavior. If we accept the benefits of civil society, then we all agree to be bound by its laws. This is the nature of the social contract. And as Madison would say, without the restraint of law, liberty and peace cannot endure.


That takes care of human nature. So what about justice? Throughout the history of philosophy (and the history of man), there has been a lot of talk about justice. Back in Homer’s day, when Greeks worshiped a pantheon of gods, the only justice worth talking about was the kind backed by the point of a sword or the bolts of lightning thrown by Zeus. Much of the Old Testament is filled with stories of God dealing a harsh kind of justice such as the great flood, or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Either way, the idea of justice is always connected with the idea of law, for law is the primary way that people distinguish good behavior from bad behavior. What is referred to as natural law is simply the extension of God’s law to human behavior. Now, the secular version of natural law might be understood as the physical laws of nature, such as gravity or inertia. But the human equivalent to the laws which govern nature are the civil laws which govern human society. Every society has some version of a penal code which is nothing but a set of rules which describe what the appropriate punishment is for breaking the laws of society.

Justice, as a principle, is a hypothetical state in which the guilty are always punished, and the innocent are protected from harm. In this respect, justice is always a balancing act between chaos and authority. Thus, no society is perfectly just. Every society has its wrong doers and its criminals who ignore the rules which other people obey. On the extremes of society are law and order in which everyone obeys (a police state) and anarchy (no one obeys). The question for Madison and other proponents of the constitution, is which form of government will come closest to bringing about the ideal of a just society. He believes, as I do, that a constitutional republic is the best compromise we have available, given the moral limitations of humanity. By building into the structure of government some reasonable limits on power and authority, and making government officials accountable to voters, the extremes of bad government or anarchy can mostly be avoided. Whether he was right or wrong on this point is debatable. In the long run, only history and future generations can judge.

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