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Monday, April 30, 2012

Contract Theory and the Abandonment of Final Cause

In the classical and Christian epochs, few people would have worried about exactly how a government was constructed from parts or what operating procedures those parts followed when it came to deciding whether a particular government was justified. Instead, it was justified because it brought about a good end: generally speaking, because it was the most concrete expression of and ultimate protector of the civic order that underlay its existence. The details of how the government had been composed -- out of the monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements combined, or only one or two of those -- and how it operated -- by voting and of what sort, according to what sort of constitution, and so on -- were of interest not as ways to justify the existence of the government, but as methods that could be evaluated according to the extent to which they did or didn't help a government achieve its end.

But with the overthrow of Aristotelian philosophy, the baby was tossed out with the bathwater, and final and formal causes became disreputable. I think it is no coincidence that now, with, for instance, Hobbes and Locke, we begin to see governments justified by the mechanisms of how they came about, and we get social contract theories. A possible efficient cause of government, the consent of the governed, came to replace the idea of a government achieving its proper end as its justification. We see this in the extraordinary evaluations typically given to governments like those of, say, Singapore and India. India is constantly praised for being a democracy, even though it was, for a long time, a corrupt mess that kept the nation mired in poverty with wild socialist schemes, while Singapore is condemned for being a dictatorship, although that dictatorship appears to be presiding over a well-governed nation.

There is, I think, more to be said about this, but enough for tonight.

10 comments:

  1. Wasn't Hobbes' main justification for the sovereign that it avoids a brutal war of all against all that would otherwise result from a state of nature? That sounds like bringing about a good end to me...

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    1. Mike, of course, the ideal of a final cause has not disappeared from our thought -- we could hardly make sense of the world if it had! -- and it was even more present in those days. But their is a shift going on: yes, there is the avoidance of a bad that is the end of the state, but its justification is now seen as the fact that everyone ought to rationally agree to surrender their natural liberty to it.

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  2. I agree with Mike, that Hobbes is innocent of this particular charge. It seems to me that he was only concerned with the telos of government, and not nearly concerned enough with it's methods and "legitimacy". I do not concede to Hobbes the idea that maintaining the monopoly on violence is the only ultimate purpose of government (and not any positive good), but he at least prioritizes a final cause.

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    1. Charge, Gabe?! Hobbes would have been thrilled to have been told he had abandoned teleology: he was a fierce critic of scholasticism, and a big proponent of the mechanical philosophy. Look at the mechanical psychology he puts forth in the first part of Leviathan. And the whole book is an argument about the legitimacy of government, and that legitimacy stems from how it is constructed.

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    2. I suppose I should actually read the whole book before using popular conceptions to form half-baked opinions. I've only ever read excerpts, so I appreciate the correction.

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    3. And Gabe, my point isn't that there is no teleology in Hobbes -- there is, the old ideas don't die in a die, and the idea of final causes I think will never die -- but that Hobbes is striving to move away from the idea, and that's what drives his search of a material or efficient justification of the state.

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    4. Hobbes may not have wanted to do away with final causes entirely, but today there are many thinkers who do. What I don't get is why *they* spend so much of their time trying to justify their pet theories (whether in ethics, politics or law). If we're all just automatons being driven by blind mechanical necessity, then what sense does it even make to justify (or condemn) anything?

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    5. Excellent point, Mike.

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  3. Well, a king had some sort of claim to the land as well, so the first evidence of a legitimate government back in those days some form of ownership. Then there were the oaths taken- did the king keep his word, his side of whatever bargain, or did he not? Forget Aristotle- people determined whether or not the king (and his government) was legitimate in much the same way they determined whether or not they wanted to do business with the wool merchant at the market.
    And, of course, this view fits well with your observations in the second paragraph. The Singapore government is preferable to so very many so-called democracies precisely because it provides a better product. All democrats promise you is 'voice,' and then they take even that away when they conjure some sort of consensus on a subject.

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  4. For forms of government let fools contest;
    Whate'er is best administer'd is best:

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