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Fr. 745

December 9, 2016

Can there be a political justification for a policy which is at the same time not a moral justification?

Before giving an answer, it is important to lay out a number of terms and points of interest. Let us begin by supposing that a moral justification includes some notion of values or norms. Consequently, an amoral political justification would lack any such notion. Secondly, attention should be paid to the relationship between the person justifying and those being justified to. Three relevant relations present themselves here: a.) between government officials; b.) between government officials and citizens; c.) between citizens. Finally, it may prove important to distinguish essential from nonessential cases, i.e. those policies which (directly) concern basic rights and economic distribution and those which do not. Both cases would seem to share the exercise of a collective coercive force, such that the distinction turns on the ends to which that force is applied.

With all of that said, what would an amoral political justification look like? It may prove helpful to a posit a number of cases to which the above distinctions shall apply. These are five in number: 1.) institutionalizing freedom of speech, 2.) promoting tax reform, 3.) creating a new government agency, 4.) setting up a neighborhood compost; 5.) proposing to repaint a government building.


1.) Freedom of speech:

How would one go about justifying the institutionalization of free speech in the different forums alluded to above, i.e. a.) – c.)?

a.) Between government officials, we might suppose that it would prove difficult for them to find any merely practical reasons to support it. Such a freedom would not intuitively seem to increase government efficiency or jurisdiction or to fulfill a descriptive function such as allowing for a census or polls to be taken. On the contrary, freedom of speech seems to do much to limit government jurisdiction in that it makes certain kinds of speech free from government legal action. What reason then could officials give each other for so limiting government influence? The most well-known appeal to ethico-political doctrines: human rights, individual dignity, self-realization, etc.. Naturally, these represent forms of moral justification on behalf of citizens.

b.) Between government officials and citizens, our initial observations would apply as well. No merely practical or descriptive reason would seem to form part of the political justification for freedom of speech. If government officials attempt to justify to citizens the institutionalization of such a freedom, this takes the form of a self-limitation on the part of government (i.e. the government will not prosecute the citizen for saying certain things) or a limitation on the part of citizens (i.e. citizens cannot be prosecuted for saying certain things but could be prosecuted for saying others). Again, it seems difficult to imagine such justification having the form of an amoral justification, both because the reasons seem lacking and the justification could come across as callous or controversial to citizens (e.g. the citizen’s freedom to speech is justified in that it increases government efficiency).

Reversing the direction of justification does not seem to change much. Were citizens to attempt to justify freedom of speech’s institutionalization, this would take the form of a limitation on the part of government (i.e. the government cannot prosecute the citizen for saying certain things) or a self-limitation on the part of citizens (i.e. citizens will not be prosecuted for saying certain things but will be prosecuted for others). Although practical reasons for such restriction again seem lacking (does reducing government scope improve efficiency?), citizen justification using such terms would not appear callous or controversial in the same way, merely misguided. Regardless, in both cases, would the person justifying seem to appeal to a notion of good or justice, values with normative force.

c.) Between citizens, certain of the above reasons would no longer carry justificatory force. Practical or descriptive functions of government (e.g. efficiency, census-taking) are irrelevant between citizens. Rather, their justification would again seem to lean on some notion of (self-)limitation: one citizen will limit her coercive force or contribution to the collective coercive force over the other if the other is willing to do the same in turn. What reason could citizens give one another for limiting coercive force in this way? The only reason which comes to mind is that of the citizen maintaining that it is wrong or illegitimate to use that coercive force, either as a vigilante or through majority rule, to prevent others from voicing their opinions. Both wrongness and illegitimacy turn on a notion of good or justice, values with normative force.

In short, justifying the institutionalization of freedom of speech does not seem to proceed from practical or descriptive reasons. An amoral political justification thus proves unlikely at all three levels. This would suggest that freedom of speech is an essential matter which involves either exercising or not exercising an individual or collective coercive force as regards others.


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