Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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MORALITY, Political. There is but one morality, as there is but one geometry. Moral rules, logically expressed, are self-evident propositions, which, like all necessary truths, compel conviction, and they have never been disputed except with a wrong intent.


—Hence the words political morality do not designate a particular morality, but universal morality applied to politics. Interest and passion have never deformed truth more than in this matter. But in attacking the distinction between good and evil, interest and passion attack their enemy. Doubtless there may be sincerity with error, even in morals. Duty in itself has not been disputed, but men have not always been agreed either as to its principle or its applications. The first point belongs especially to philosophic discussion, the second depends more upon the general state of enlightenment and manners. It is for these two reasons that notwithstanding the immutability of moral distinctions, a certain diversity, and consequently a certain progress, is possible in estimating the use which must be made of them. In this, as in everything else, prejudices may exist, and one of the most widespread, as well as most stubborn and persistent, is that which withdraws politics from morality, or subjects it to a morality different from that which is universal.


—This is not what we have learned from the political writers of antiquity. As Montesquieu remarks, they were greatly superior to moderns by the moral character which they gave to social science. The leaders of the great schools are of one mind. Plato thinks that the good is the object of the state. He founds his republic on a system of education conformable to true philosophy; he considers law as worthy of the name only in so far as it is reason itself. According to him, power exists only to lend physical force to reason. According to Aristotle, virtue did not found the state, but it is its final cause, being the object of society as well as of the individual; what is required of the laws, is to establish the reign of reason. They are the expression of the general will only because it is supposed that the latter is wiser and juster than the will of a single man or a small number of men. We know what importance Aristotle attaches to sociability. Therefore he goes so far as to regard morality as only a part of politics. Society is founded on justice, said Zeno; right reason, which commands and which forbids, is the law which rests on the nature of things, and which consequently extends from God to man.


—If the ancient republics were not always constituted nor especially governed in conformity with these principles, it was, first of all, because no ideal can be fully realized upon earth; secondly, because customs and prejudices upheld many grave errors in morality; and, finally, because in free states popular passions sometimes mislead the public conscience. But political morality in the Greek and Latin world always remained superior to what it was everywhere else. Even at Rome it often struggled successfully against the violence of a harsh and ambitious people. Later, when all was enfeebled and corrupted, philosophy continued to protest against the examples and the principles of the government of the Cæsars. Unfortunately, wearied with its own powerlessness, it soon took refuge in private life to save the dignity of the man in the absence of that of the citizen, and Christianity, which for various reasons gave the same example, by abstaining from interference in the affairs of the state, by preaching contempt for human affairs, contributed to the decline of public morality. Both permitted the establishment of the odious doctrines brought forward by the jurisconsults of the empire in aid of despotism. Their science, under the last form which it received at Byzantium, became, and long remained, the corrupter of political society. Morality was proscribed by it the day when the maxim of Ulpian was proclaimed; Quidquid principi placuit legis habet vigorem. This doctrine, the scourge of modern monarchies, has not ceased to produce evil in Europe, and its tradition is not yet obliterated.


—Nevertheless the philosophy of the middle ages, drawing inspiration from that of antiquity, honorably but vainly opposed this maxim. We know what was sid by St. Thomas Aquinas and Ægidius of Rome. The church, either to defend the honor of Christian morality, or to vindicate its own authority, often opposed praiseworthy censures to the abuses of power and legislation; and it was a pope, Pius V., who, on the eve of St. Bartholomew, first defined "reasons of state" to be a fiction of wicked men. At the same time, the renaissance, by restoring to the human mind the liberty which it had long lost, caused to prevail independent philosophy, which dared to consider matters of state and questions of government as within the province of the human mind. Machiaveli, in approaching them with great critical profundity, it is true, was far from having immediately re-established truth in all its rights; he went too far in the way of taking prudence for wisdom, and success for arbiter between powers and parties; he gave his name to politics separated from morality. At least he admitted that morality was an art which had its rules, which governments were obliged to observe; that the object of their existence was not the satisfaction of the governing power; and that, finally, the governed had duties toward the state. Better inspired, or less carried away by false models, other publicists appeared. Who, far from sacrificing everything to adroitness, have made these very simple truths more and more popular, that governments are created for society and not society for governments; that justice is the law of laws, and consequently the rule of society as well as of individuals, and of governments as well as of society. In this manner the grand thought of the sages of antiquity re-entered the political world: that justice is the mistress of all things, both mortal and immortal.


—From these truths may be deduced all the rules for the application of morality to politics. They may all be reduced to the principle of justice. Even the duties which moralists connect more willingly with the principle of love, assume another character when they are fulfilled by government. It is not a question of sentiment, but a strict obligation for powers, instituted buy the consent of society, to aid in contributing, so far as their authority permits, to its happiness; and citizens may demand public wellbeing of the state as a debt. For a much greater reason have they a right to everything which assures these rights themselves: their liberty, their dignity. Those who believe that public utility is the only rule of the laws and of power, neglect to remark that there can not be for the legislator and for the government any necessity but a moral one of providing for the public utility. Duty, therefore, bears on politics as upon everything else, and respect for legitimate interests is itself not an interest, but an obligation.


—It is no longer disputed in principle that legislation should be in accordance with morality. The civil laws of all civilized peoples have been, for about a century past, purified from almost everything which they might have contained contrary to equity, honesty and humanity. What still remains to be removed is of small import in comparison with what has disappeared.


—It is a little more difficult to establish the reign of morality in politics, properly speaking: let us denote by this term everything which concerns the constitution of the state, or the conduct of the government. It can not be said that the question of the constitution to be given to a country is purely a question of morality. We should consider what the situation of the country is, its beliefs, its manners, its opinions, its wants. What duty prescribes is to give it the best institutions possible, considering all these circumstances. Morality does not command the choice by way of preference of a monarchy, or a republic, but of that one of the two which appears most suited to gain the national consent, to attain the good of the state, of the public and of the citizens. Every impossible government is, by this fact alone, a bad government. But it does not follow that a government is good, provided it is possible. Thus, power absolute in itself is bad, and no circumstance can correct its essential viciousness. It is beyond the rights of human nature to exercise it. It is contrary to the rights of human nature to accept it. He who accepts it is a usurper; he who bestows it degrades himself. The institutions, which limit it are guarantees of public honesty. We might show, if space permitted, that constitutional principles are all connected with some principle of morality under the form of simple utility. It is a recognized principle, for example, that all powers should not be united in the same hand, and especially that judicial should be separated from executive power. It is not so evident at first what relation such a rule can have to morals; an ancient prejudice, and long popular, upheld a system altogether opposed to this. For a long time the right of dispensing justice was considered as an attribute of royalty, and St. Louis is still spoken of as dispensing justice in the woods of Vincennes. But if experience proves that every man intrusted with governmental action, daily struggling with the difficulties and necessities of politics, is destined to attach himself exclusively to the interests of his power, and to consider as mad or guilty the man who opposes it, and to become devoted to the success of his ideas and his measures, it is evident that he can not be a disinterested, impartial and just judge, in all cases in which he thinks his authority concerned; and consequently it is just, that is to say, obligatory, to give to others the right of judging.


—This brings us to the question of the rights of morality in the conduct of government—a more difficult question, and one which has divided sincere minds. It seems to be solved, however, by the principles which have just been established. Governments, after all, are not really things, but men, and how can we raise the question whether men should act honestly on all occasions? That they should so act will not be disputed in the great majority of cases. Cruelty, spoliation, iniquity, treason, corruption, even colored by the pretext of political utility, will not find apologists; but if we leave generalities, differences of opinion commence, and it is certain that history, in all its pages, even in those which can be read without shame and indignation, shows us governments prompt to attribute to themselves rights which neither private morality nor ordinary justice would avow. Hence the idea that there are two kinds of morality, one of which, political morality, has no resemblance to the other. The almost always improper use which has been made of the phrase "reasons of state," could not have been introduced and tolerated for so long a time, unless through a specious application of the suspicious adage. "The end justifies the means"; so suspicious, in fact, that no one would dare to use it publicly in order to defend an action of doubtful character. But under forms less evident and more dignified, it is the essence of the thought which authorizes all the questionable measures of government. Public utility, the interest of the state, the dignity of the crown, the safety of the republic, the maintenance of order or tranquillity, are the reasons which are given by men, both to others and to themselves, to obtain absolution for acts which, stripped of this pretext, would be acknowledged as reprehensible. It can not be denied that in many cases the gravity of the motive is so much superior to the gravity of the fault, that the indulgence of nations and historians who judge them is conceivable. In the most virtuous private life, two duties of unequal importance may be found in opposition, and one must prevail over the other, which would be to do a wrong for the sake of a greater good. But it is necessary that the choice should be between two duties, and not between an interest and a duty. Now in politics, interest, being or appearing public, easily acquires, even in the eyes of honest men, the importance of a duty, and lulls the scruples of the statesman to such a degree that he makes it a matter of conscience to sacrifice his conscience. To one placed on this incline, the danger of slipping is so great, the bad examples are so numerous, the sophisms so easy, that we do not hesitate to think that, in the ordinary practice of government, the dictates of morality remain absolute, and that no public interest authorizes an action which can not, at any given moment, be publicly avowed.


—A distinction should be made. Of course society is not an individual; the state is not a private person. Public powers are, therefore, within the circle of their attributes, clothed with prerogatives denied to citizens. They are force at the service of reason and justice. They are authorized therefore to employ force, almost as private persons themselves are, when the right of natural defense leaves them no other means of saving justice, violated in their persons. For a greater reason, the state, representing the right of all, is authorized to employ force, when necessary, and force itself is organized and regulated for this purpose in advance. Although the prerogatives, which the law grants it, exceed the rights which it recognizes as belonging to individuals, they are just and legitimate, and morality recognizes them in every well-constituted state.


—The execution of laws is not open to condemnation unless the laws themselves are. It is, therefore, only in cases unforeseen by the laws, or rather in the cases in which a certain conduct is legally optional or even legally prohibited, that the question just indicated can arise. In the first case it is impossible to lay down a rule. The law is supposed to be disinterested; it permits action or abstention; a choice must be made. Here are the living problems of practical politics. In order to solve them in one sense or another, we can only consult experience, reason, conscience; we must have serious motives and pure intentions; we must be attentive in our examination and sure in our convictions. With these conditions we can dare to act, come what may. If we are wrong, the wrong is excusable. The best means of convincing ourselves whether the conditions are fulfilled, appears to be to ask ourselves what we should say if summoned to explain our conduct before an independent public. This rule shows well enough what the responsibility of depositories of authority is in governments in which free discussion obtains.


—Finally, there are cases in which, the laws being silent or opposed, we should have to examine whether certain circumstances would authorize action outside the laws. Acts of this kind are called, when they are accomplished by governments, coups d'état; when by peoples or parties, revolutions. (See these words.) Here it is the law which is in question, not morality. It is self-evident that if it can ever be permitted for people or prince to rise above the law, a just cause is needed, and the law of duty should assume more power in proportion as the written law has lost its power. Neither words nor celebrated examples are wanted to authorize successful iniquities or even useful crimes. "If right is to be violated," said Julius Cæsar, "it should be in order to reign." This hypothesis must be rejected, and the answer given that right is inviolable. "Little morality kills big morality," said Mirabeau. And it may well have been that he was lacking in big morality because he was lacking in little morality. "This is worse than a crime," said an expert, "it is a blunder." Now crimes are the only irreparable blunders. Finally comes the formidable maxim before which Montesquieu himself bowed down: "The safety of the people is the supreme law." The safety of the people is not above justice.


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