WHAT PURPOSE SHOULD THE STATE SERVE?
The Ethical Basis of Politics
Written by Gabriela Manea
September 27, 2019
Political theorists have asked themselves throughout history, what is the purpose of the state? This issue has long been debated. The purpose of the state was, for thousands of years, to serve the interests of monarchs, dictators, or the ruling class. In the modern era, most states base their functioning on the interests of the people, a process known as democracy.
The contemporary approach to this issue would be accepting that each nation has different needs and desires which, in turn, depend upon its people. But then another question arises: what rules shall be created? The range of possible answers in this case is just as vast. It is important to note that, throughout history, different governments have created a variety of laws based on the priorities dictated by their context.
A continually manifested belief is that the main priority of the state should be the promotion of justice. Justice is a normative concept demarcated by time and place. Plato was fond of this concept and presented it as the answer to the question of state function. He explained that justice consisted in following what comes as natural. And this nature was understood as a person’s “calling”. Through following this vocation, people would assign themselves to one of three possible groups: workers, auxiliaries, or rulers. By remaining true to vocation, people would be correct and honest, which would lead them to acting justly. An injustice is any action not following nature, such that if someone “naturally inclined” to be a worker aspired to become a ruler, that would represent an injustice. With this, it can be observed that Plato was not a supporter of democracy, and his teachings are viewed as hierarchical by many.
On another front, Thomas Hobbes paints a more complex and disheartening picture of humankind: human nature is inherently determined by violent and aggressive impulses. Once this idea is accepted, the purpose of the state becomes that of creating a power that protects individuals and does not deal with them unless they commit an aggression toward another.
Hobbes classifies Plato’s theory as utopian and rejects the idea of a perfectly just state, under the consideration that it is unfeasible. And proposes an approach through which punishment shall be applied to people if they commit aggression. In this way, the fear of being punished will deter them from committing such offenses. The American Government believes in this notion and includes it in the Constitution, where it is declared that its purpose is to “insure domestic tranquility”.
This idea displays a clear link to the perspective of the Founding Fathers of the United States, who based the writing of the Constitution on the teachings of John Locke. In consonance with his theories, the highest priority of the state should be ensuring the natural rights to life, liberty, and property, a set of rights that cannot be protected per se in a state of nature. Without state and laws, these rights would not be safe. For this reason individuals concur to create governments.
The creation of governments can most likely be attributed to the need of protection, and they came into being when individuals decided they were required. Not only does a nation require laws to control and protect citizens from one another and avoid conflicts within the territory, but also to prevent attacks stemming from other nations. Provide law and order.
In our contemporary world, it is believed that the purpose of any government should be ensuring the well-being of its citizens. And thus, the most fundamental priority of the state should be the promulgation of rules that guarantee order and justice. An example of the purposes and legislation assumed in a modern, democratic state include the following: maintaining order, ensuring economic growth, providing public goods, redistributing income to promote equality, and defending the nation from both internal conflicts and external threats.
It can be concluded that, in spite of the diametrically different nature of the purposes of states throughout history, one thing is certain: a government must ensure the well-being of citizens, and opt to achieve this through the elaboration of laws that ensure protection and order.
This discussion lays the foundation of the article “The classification of political theories according to the societal purpose of the state”.
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