Morality, The State’s Way

Written by Gene Callahan June 6, 2003

On May 16th, New York City police were hoping to catch Melvin Boswell with a cache of drugs, guns, and pit bulls. They broke down the door of what they believed to be his apartment, and then tossed a flash grenade inside.

Unfortunately, Boswell lives on the ninth floor of his apartment building, but the police were on the sixth floor. The apartment they raided was actually occupied by Alberta Spruill,–a 57 year-old–church-going grandmother with a heart condition.

When their grenade sent Spruill into cardiac arrest, the police responded by rushing to get her medical treatment? What, are you some sort of idealist? No, in response to her distress, they handcuffed her. Even though they were looking for a 35-year-old man, they apparently weren’t sure that this 57-year-old woman wasn’t him.

Spruill died as a result of the raid. The response of the NYC police was to assert that they would “examine their procedures.” Now, imagine that a private individual had conducted such an operation. Let’s say Mr. Boswell owed me money. Attempting to collect my debt, I “raided” what I thought was his apartment, and wound up killing the innocent lady inside. Certainly, I would be facing several years in prison as a result. But, when brought up on trial, in my defense I claimed that I would be “examining my procedures.” Does anyone think such a defense would get me off the hook?

The difference in our scenarios is that, over the last several centuries, the state has been able to sell the idea that it is exempt from the standards of morality that apply to private individuals. The roots of this distinction can be traced back to Niccolo Machiavelli.

Throughout his work The Prince, we find Machiavelli advising rulers that they must not be constrained by the moral strictures that apply to private persons. For instance, he says:

Hence a prince who wants to keep his authority must learn how not to be good, and use that knowledge, as necessity requires.

Ordinary morality, which for medieval thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas bound the prince as much as his subjects, for Machiavelli is something the prince must appear to have:

A prince must be shrewd enough to avoid the public disgrace of those vices that would lose him his state.

Machiavelli is the key figure in the transition between medieval and modern political thought. As Ernst Cassirer says:

No political writer before Machiavelli had ever spoken in this way. Here we find the clear, the unmistakable and ineffaceable difference between his theory and that of all his precursors–the classical as well as the medieval authors. No one had ever doubted that political life, as matters stand, is full of crimes, treacheries, and felonies. But no thinker before Machiavelli had undertaken to teach the art of these crimes.

Whereas for Aquinas civil government is justified by its conformance to divine law, for Machiavelli, civil government is justified, at least in the earthly realm, by its success in establishing its own sovereignty:

Let a prince, therefore, win victories and uphold his state; his methods will always be considered worthy, and everyone will praise them.

Although met with repulsion at first, gradually Machiavelli’s doctrines gained acceptance. Today, the behavior of individuals still is judged based on the degree to which it conforms to an existing moral practice. But the state is judged to be behaving morally when it’s actions forward it’s own interests! Victor David Hanson, writing at National Review Online, has practically made this point into a mantra: Once those whiners see how good we are at bombing other countries to smithereens, they’ll stop their carping.

A friend of mine recently told me that he thought that going to war was usually a foolish idea. Nevertheless, he said, if a state does go to war, it must be prepared to do anything necessary to win.

Such an idea, applied to the private realm, would suggest that while bank robbing is a bad activity to undertake, should I decide to rob banks, I should not hesitate at slaughtering all those inside the bank that obstruct my plans.

Certainly, people have a right to defend themselves against aggressors. But who would contend that, because my neighbor chopped down my tree, I now have the right to firebomb his house, killing him and his whole family, as well as any guests they happened to have over that day? That, however, is just the sort of justification that is put forward for the conduct of the state during wartime. Since the Iraqi government might possibly, at some point, have some nefarious plans in mind for the US, therefore, our government can kill however many Iraqi citizens are necessary in order to subjugate the Iraqi government.

The idea that the state is exempt from ordinary moral strictures has no reasonable justification. It is merely a convenient excuse put forward by state agents and their apologists, who, like everyone else, would prefer to operate without any limitations on their own actions, while binding everyone else to obey moral rules.

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, Second Edition, trans. and ed. R.M. Adams (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1977), pages; 42, 43, and 49.

Ernst Cassirer, The Myth of the State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1946), p. 150.

Permission to publish Morality, The State’s Way given on 1/1/17 by Gene Callahan.