Consent Does Not Determine Justice

June 26, 2008 § 16 Comments

The saying goes that the just powers of a government derive from the consent of the governed.

That, not to put too fine a point on it, is complete poppycock.

A just power is an exercise of government authority which one is morally required to obey. “Give unto Caesar” is an archtypical example for Christians. One is morally required to give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. One cannot excuse onesself from this moral requirement by claiming that Caesar’s powers do not as an historical matter derive from the consent of the governed.

Under the hood the ‘consent of the governed’ narrative is designed to replace the natural law with consent: to equate what is good with what is willed. It is of a piece with the modern revolt against God and nature.

(Cross-posted at What’s Wrong with the World)

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§ 16 Responses to Consent Does Not Determine Justice

  • Anonymous says:

    Zippy, I notice that when you cannot answer a reasonable objection to a theory of yours, you go off and state your position again without presenting any new argument in favor of it. The argument posted by Bobbie Dee is reasonable, and you simply side-stepped it. Twice, I think. So I will ask it for Bobbie – when Julius Caesar ruled Rome with a velvet glove (hidden by subterfuge and behind the scenes threat of force), was he a legitimate ruler? When he was offered the crown, would he have been a legitimate ruler had he taken it? What Bobbie said is in relfection of natural law, I think. The quote from Pope Leo says men can legitimately have different kinds of government. So no one specific kind of government is the only one permitted under natural law. Wouldn’t this mean that the process of choosing one particular kind of government is left to men to decide within natural law? To me this means that when men erect a new government, it can be in accordance with natural law if it governs for the common good, but that it cannot become the actual government (as distinct from other government types that could have been erected) without people choosing it in some fashion or other. What is wrong with calling this “consent.”

  • zippy says:

    <>The quote from Pope Leo says men can legitimately have different kinds of government. So no one specific kind of government is the only one permitted under natural law.<>I agree.<>To me this means that when men erect a new government, …<>The premise here is faulty Enlightenment thinking. Men do not exist in a ‘state of nature’ from whence they ‘erect a new government’.

  • zippy says:

    Oh, and as for what to do about tyrants: that, plainly, is governed by the Just War doctrine. One may be obligated to defend the old order, or not, depending on the particulars, including a reasonable expectation of success. One may also be in a position where prudence dictates submission to a conqueror, or whatever. Different circumstances require different things.But men do not establish governments as tabula rasa projects. That is ‘Enlightenment’ rubbish.

  • Anonymous says:

    Not from tabula rasa, certainly. There are constraints both historical and from nature. But when men overthrow a tyrant, they do in fact erect a new government. They cannot do so without making choices about which kind of government to have, and who shall have them. That much isn’t “Enlightenment” theory. It has been used since recorded civilization began.

  • zippy says:

    Yes, those who govern make choices all the time, including during the time after a just war. And?You can’t get from there to ‘the just powers of a government derive from the consent of the governed’, a restatement of which – indeed the reason for stating it in the first place – is ‘if the powers of a government do not derive from my theory of consent, they are unjust’.

  • Kevin says:

    Whatever you think of the ideas in the Declaration of Independance, this:“<>A just power is an exercise of government authority which one is morally required to obey.<>“is completely circular. A tautology.

  • Anonymous says:

    Dear Zippy,I’m not sure I agree with your supposition here, but I come from a slightly different point of view. I read the quote the the “just powers of a government derive from the consent of the governed as foundational non-exclusive, not as definitional. That is, the first qualification of a just government is that it does not terrorize, torture, humiliate, and destroy the body to be governed. That those to be governed consent to the governing body. But that is only the foundational aspect of the just government–it isn’t the definitional aspect.After that caveat, I think I might agree with you. But I do not thin tht a government that issues decress, however moral, while standing on the necks of its populace is a just government. As an example, I might point out dhimmitude. While a majority of the rules of muslim law would probably meet the criterion of your definition, dhimmitude can hardly be considered a “just government” even when the decrees must morally be obeyed.shalom,Steven

  • zippy says:

    No it isn’t a tautology. It is a definition. I do not propose to say what <>does<> make obedience morally obligatory in detailed terms. (I’m not a positivist – I don’t consider it necessary to explain everything in order to explain something). What I propose is that it isn’t consent, it is the common good, and that this ‘consent of the governed’ trope is designed precisely to replace the common good with the human will, that is, with consent.But I do not propose to define in great detail what is meant by the common good.

  • zippy says:

    <>…the first qualification of a just government is that it does not terrorize, torture, humiliate, and destroy the body to be governed.<>I agree, but that follows from the common good, not from consent. A suitably perverse ‘governed’ might consent to torture, for example, but that would not make it just.

  • Anonymous says:

    Zippy,Got it. Thank you. I think I understand and certainly agree given your definitions. Common good seems a better qualifier, because it is possible that a government that involves no consent as such (a good monarchy, for example) might constitute a just government.I’m not sure the “error” you note is so much an error as it is a piece of deliberate promulgated anti-monarchial propaganda. It justifies several revolutions, at least one of which I am fairly grateful for. However, as you point out, that doesn’t necessarily make it correct. However, I think the thought may embody more a zeitgeist than a philosophy–more an esprit de corps (sound bite) than anything that was meant to be substantive.But without further research, that is mere speculation, and I will not try to defend the point.shalom,Steven

  • zippy says:

    <>I think the thought may embody more a zeitgeist than a philosophy–more an esprit de corps (sound bite) than anything that was meant to be substantive.<>I agree Steven. Yet it is a problem when counterfactual slogans and other propaganda become principles. Treating it as “Hey George, look at me, we don’t want no stinkin’ tea” (YOW!) is one thing; treating it as a founding tenet of a political philosophy is something else entirely.

  • Anonymous says:

    However smart, loving, dignified, wise, and <> productive of the common good <> an order is, it is not binding unless it comes from one who has authority to command. So when a would-be dictator Colonel Quasimoto tries to take over and first starts to order men around without having already become the government, he cannot be giving authoritative commands, and such commands cannot be law. <> For the common good <> is only one of the parts of the definition of law. (From St. Thomas) law is a command, from one who has authority over the community, for the common good, and promulgated. It is right to say that laws (and the powers of the law-giver) do not derive from the consent of the governed alone. But it is in the nature of law to be from one who has authority over the community. And this cannot happen without some level of consent somewhere from the people. Therefore, the authority to issue laws does depend on consent, though is not wholly determined by consent.

  • zippy says:

    <>So when a would-be dictator Colonel Quasimoto tries to take over and first starts to order men around without having already become the government, he cannot be giving authoritative commands, and such commands cannot be law.<>Actually, they can be, depending on circumstances. It also may be the case that defending the old order against Quasimodo is justified under the Just War doctrine. In any case, what one must do is governed not by what one arbitrarily wills, that is, not by consent, but by what best serves the common good and discharges one’s individual duties.

  • […] pragmatic considerations, or it may be ideologically derived from the preliminary doctrine that the just powers of government derive from the consent of the governed.  But whatever the source of commitment, a person who is committed to the doctrine of liberalism […]

  • […] that government by consent of the governed is true: not that legitimate authority derives from consent, but that the things which happen in a society are just those things which that society tolerates […]

  • […] be mediated through the triumph of the human will. Authority as a real organ which transcends the consent of the governed is […]

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