From Great Issues in Philosophy, by James Fieser


Copyright 2008, updated 4/1/2011




A. The Social Contract

Ending the State of Nature

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

Social Contracts and Bigotry

B. Rights

Natural Rights and Revolution

Are Natural Rights Grounded in Fact?

Do We Need Rights?

C. Political Liberalism and Property


Welfare Liberalism

D. Individual and Community

Plato’s Republic


E. Governmental Coercion

Four Justifications

Liberty and Harm

F. War

Just War Theory



For Reflection

1. What would society be like if there were no governments?

2. Do the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness guarantee us anything concrete?

3. Is the government justified in taxing us to pay for welfare programs for the needy?

4. What is more important: your individual freedom, or your role in the community?

5. Should the government prevent you from harming yourself in a dangerous sport, even if your conduct doesn’t harm anyone else?

6. What sorts of wars are morally justifiable?


An organization was formed some years ago called the “Interim Government of the Republic of Texas” whose aim was to move Texas towards independence. One member wrote, “Imagine a country where the people have no freedom -- where a corrupt government controls every aspect of life. How would your life be in a country like that? The government would regulate everything you did.... The people of Texas now have an opportunity for change. We have an opportunity to restore freedom and liberty to Texas.” The group created a Declaration of Independence, held a Constitutional Convention, elected an interim President, and established a Defense Force. Today they have regular demonstrations and many members have stopped paying taxes. The United States Government was not amused by this experiment in nation-building and responded by arresting participants and confiscating their property.

            In spite of efforts like the Republic of Texas, the United States, like many governments around the world, is securely established, and don’t have to think much about justifying their existence. When we do think about the issue, though, some important philosophical questions arise, such as what validates the creation of a government, and what are the limits of its authority?  The discipline of political science focuses on the structure of specific governments, such as that of the United States or Canada. Political philosophy, by contrast, looks at the issue more abstractly, focusing on the arguments and principles which justify many governments, not just those of the United States or Canada. In that respect it parallels the philosophy of religion, which looks broadly at the notion of God’s existence, without necessarily referring to any specific religion such as Christianity or Hinduism. In this chapter we will look at the more pressing philosophical issues surrounding governments, such as what justifies their very existence and how much they should meddle in our lives.



In their Declaration of Independence, the Republic of Texas justifies itself in very familiar language:


When a government has ceased to protect the lives, liberty and property of the Texian people, from whom its legitimate powers are derived, ... in such a crisis, the first law of nature, the right of self-preservation ... enjoins it as a right towards themselves, and a sacred obligation to their posterity, to abolish such government, and create another in its stead....


The similarity between this and the United States Declaration of Independence is intentional, and the underlying philosophy of both documents is social contract theory. In a nutshell, this theory states that, to preserve our individual lives, we mutually agree to set aside our hostilities and live in peace under governmental protection. On this view, preserving peace is the only justification for political rule, and, according to some theorists, if a government fails in its assigned task we can abolish it and establish another. There are many versions of social contract theory, but the inspiration for all modern ones is British philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).


            Ending the State of Nature. Hobbes asks us to imagine life in primitive times before the creation of any governments. We would all be on our own to find food and other necessities, without the protection of law or the police. Two main factors make this a dangerous task. First, life’s necessities are scarce, which creates competition. Suppose that everything I needed in life could be easily acquired by pulling things from a tree: food, clothing, electronic devices would be there in abundance for the picking. No one would be interested in stealing from me since everyone could quickly get identical items by going to the nearest tree. That’s not how it is, though, and as long as we need these things and they’re difficult to come by, we are heading for conflict. Second, we are naturally selfish and thus not inclined to make sacrifices for others in need. Suppose that you and I are hunting for food and come upon a single apple at the same time. If I was naturally generous, I’d be willing to let you have it, or at least agree to split it. Since we’re selfish, though, we’ll both want the whole thing for ourselves and will be prepared to fight for it. This, according to Hobbes, is the state of nature for human beings, and it is nothing less than a war of all against all. I would be suspicious of everyone that I see and act with hostility in an effort to gain a reputation as a tough guy. Traditional notions of morality would be useless, and the most important values I could adopt would be force and deceit. In his most famous passage, Hobbes describes life’s gloomy prospects in the state of nature:


In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. [Leviathan, 13].


Hobbes’s point is that civilization would grind to a halt as we try to survive. Even planting a vegetable garden would be a futile task since others would just kill me and take what they wanted.

            It’s easy to envision a life better than that in the state of nature, and, if possible, all of us would like to have long and prosperous lives. So how do we move beyond the state of nature? Hobbes has a plan which he maps out in three fundamental laws. First, we should seek peace as a means of self-preservation. That is, as rational creatures, we should recognize that the best way of surviving is to live in peace with others to the extent that this is possible. If we can’t achieve peace, then as a backup plan we can destroy whoever we need to in order to survive, but the more effective plan would be to seek peace. The second law is that we should mutually divest ourselves of hostile rights. In the state of nature, there are no moral restraints whatsoever, and I have complete rights to everything, including my neighbor’s property and even my neighbor’s life. At the same time, though, my neighbor has rights to my property and my life. The key to peace is for me to voluntarily give up my hostile rights towards my neighbor under the condition that he gives up his hostile rights towards me. Thus, I agree not to steal from him under the condition that he agrees to not steal from me. As selfish people, we will be stingy about the rights that we give up, and will only relinquish those that are essential for the peace process. Clearly, giving up hostile rights is essential for peace. This agreement between participants, then, constitutes a “social contract.”

            It’s one thing to agree to the terms of the social contract, but it’s entirely another to abide by those terms. I could, for example, agree to live in peace with you and, once your guard is down, kill you and take your possessions. Law three for Hobbes is that we should indeed keep the agreements that we make. The mechanism for guaranteeing this is the creation of a government. The only way we can make people abide by the contract is to catch violators and punish them. This means establishing a governing body with strong policing powers and the authority to penalize contract breakers. Again, as a selfish person, I will hesitate about relinquishing more personal rights for the creation of such a powerful and potentially threatening government. The sacrifice, though, is worth it when I consider that the alternative is being stuck in the brutal state of nature and dying at an early age.

            How powerful does this newly created government need to be? Hobbes argues that it must have absolute authority over citizens in order to keep peace effectively. Any perceived weakness of governmental power will invite contract breakers, which will undermine the peace. Thus, citizens make an unbreakable agreement with the government when establishing its authority, and from Hobbes’s perspective, revolutions against a prevailing government are never justified. This would include the American Revolution, which occurred a century after Hobbes.


            The Prisoner’s Dilemma. In view of the enormous impact that social contract theory has had over the past three hundred years, it is not surprising that it has been a continual target of attack by defenders of rival political theories. As soon as Hobbes’s theory appeared, critics argued that his view of the state of nature was far too pessimistic and, left to their own devices, people would not launch a war of all against all. Maybe an instinctive sense of human kindness would overcome our more selfish inclinations. Maybe human reason would show us the folly of engaging in conflict with others. In any event, critics charged, Hobbes has just not persuasively shown that human nature is as dark as he claims. In the face of such criticism, subsequent defenders of social contract theory painted a kinder, gentler picture of the state of nature, attempting to distance themselves from Hobbes as much as possible.

            In recent years, though, many political philosophers have felt that Hobbes actually got the story more or less correct. While in his own time Hobbes could only speculate about how people would behave in the state of nature, today we have sophisticated ways investigating these kinds of questions. One approach is based on a tactic that police investigators commonly use with great success, popularly known as the prisoner’s dilemma. Suppose that I and an accomplice named Joe are caught robbing a convenient store. The police investigator has some evidence against us, but it’s too weak for a slam-dunk case. What the investigator needs is a confession from one or both of us. Joe and I are not naive enough to volunteer information, so, applying psychological pressure, the investigator offers a plea bargain depending on who cracks first. The conditions of the plea are these:


§  If I confess and Joe does not, then I will get only a 1 year sentence, but Joe will get a 10 year sentence.

§  If Joe confesses and I do not, then Joe will only get a 1 year sentence, but I will get a 10 year sentence.

§  If neither of us confesses, then we will each get a 2 year sentence.

§  If both of us confess, then we will each get a 5 year sentence.


Clearly, the best mutual arrangement would be for Joe and me to keep our mouths closed and just serve two years each. Unfortunately, the investigator has placed Joe and me in separate rooms, and we can’t discuss our options. I’m now wondering what Joe is going to do and he is wondering what I’m going to do. I’m thus on my own and have to decide what the best deal is for me, regardless of how Joe responds. As a rational person motivated by self interest, I see that it is best for me to confess, which will guarantee that I won’t serve the big 10 year sentence.

            How does this apply to social contract theory? Suppose that you and I are in the state of nature, standing in front of a single apple. As we wonder which of us will get that apple, we are in much the same situation that Joe and I were in. While you and I might talk about our options for splitting the apple, I don’t really know what is going on inside your mind, and I can’t trust anything you say. So, while splitting the apple might be the best mutual arrangement for us, I have to consider what is best for me irrespective of what you do. I then see that it is in my best interests to attack you and take the apple before you attack me. If you and I are family members, I may very well have a natural sense of kindness towards you, and I may just give you the apple outright. If you are a stranger, though, all bets are off and I’ll always be postured for war, just as Hobbes maintains. So, in the absence of government, life in the state of nature would very likely be “nasty, brutish and short,” as Hobbes words it.


            Social Contracts and Bigotry. A recent line of criticism against social contract theory is that the social contract is an exclusive club whose membership is not necessarily open to everyone. Hobbes depicts the typical social contract club member very generically, as a rational person who cuts the best deal with others to obtain peace. In point of fact, critics argue, there is an opportunity for a dominant group to take charge and craft the contract in ways that will be to their own advantage. Men, for example, might negotiate contracts on behalf of themselves, and demote the interests of women. One race might call the shots of another. Animal rights advocates charge that club members might direct contracts for human benefit, disregarding the interests of animals. The excluded groups, then, could be assigned the status of second class citizens or declared the mere personal property of club members; they might even be banished completely from the club, with no political status except that of a potential enemy to be destroyed at will.

            Not only is this a problem for the social contract as a political theory, but, critics charge, it is a problem that we find in the actual contractual policies that governments have made throughout history. Governments run by men have routinely created laws that restrict the economic and social freedoms of women. In colonial times European countries declared the natives of foreign lands to be less human, and thus subject to colonial rule. Laws of countless governments have permitted the torturing and killing of higher animals for the benefit of human labor, nourishment or sport. In the real world, then, the social contract club has been an organization run by oppressive bigots.

            The key philosophical question here is whether there is something about an original social contract which allows for the potential domination of bigots. We could of course imagine a contractual situation in which men and women of all races – and spokespeople for higher animals – all had an equal voice in determining the laws of the land. But the chaotic atmosphere of the state of nature itself prevents us from knowing who the first negotiators will be. Dominant groups may very well highjack the negotiation process and leave weaker groups with no choice: join our club in a second-class status, or continue at war with us. Some peace is better than no peace, and, so, a rationally self-interested minority may willingly accept the offer. It seems that Hobbes’s version of social contract theory does not guarantee a society of equals. Fortunately, there are other political theories – and even modified versions of social contract theory – that aim to protect the idea of equality. One of these is rights theory.



Perhaps the most fundamental concept in political thought today is that of rights, and we see people assert rights to just about everything. For example, Hooters, the infamous restaurant chain, even claimed that it had a unique right to use scantily clad women to sell food and beer, and it sued a rival eatery for copying their approach. Most typically, we assert our rights to privacy, speech, and religion, and we claim that our rights are violated when the government or some person obstructs our freedoms.  A “right” is best understood as a claim against another person – for example, Hooters’ claim against a rival’s copycat tactics. Sometimes my rights are claims to be free from harm that others might inflict on me, such as being robbed, beaten up, or murdered. Other times my rights are claims to be free to act how I please, such as to speak, write, or travel as I wish. In either case I am staking out a territory of freedom and telling others to leave me alone.  

            Some of our rights are clearly created by governments: they are voted on by government bodies and can be altered or retracted by the same government. The right to drive at age 16 is a good example: different governments can set different age requirements for driving, and we can’t say that one convention is necessarily morally superior to another. Because of their dependence on legislative processes, these rights are commonly called legal rights. Other rights, though, seem to be independent of governments, and these are commonly called natural rights. This special set of rights has three key features. First, they are natural in the sense that we are born with them. Second, they are universal since all humans world wide possess them. Third, they are equal in that every person regardless of race or gender has them to the same degree.


            Natural Rights and Revolution. In spite of the universal nature of moral rights, ironically, the concept of “rights” was invented only about 300 years ago. Our modern view of the subject was forged by British philosopher John Locke (1632–1704). Locke was familiar with Hobbes’s view of the social contract and he uses that theory as a way of introducing the concept of rights. Locke asks, what would things really be like in a state of nature? Would it be moral chaos as Hobbes maintained? No, Locke answers. Even in the state of nature all people have fundamental and God-given rights to life, health, liberty and possessions. That is, I have a natural right not to be killed or physically harmed, to behave as I please, and to acquire property without people taking it from me. I retain all of these rights, Locke argues, as long as I respect the rights of others. Suppose, though, that I violate your property rights by stealing your lawnmower. According to Locke, I thereby forfeit my own rights and you’re entitled to hunt me down and, if you so choose, imprison me in your basement; when you grow tired of me, you can even kill me. The point is, even within the state of nature there are moral constraints on our behavior which are determined by our natural rights.

            While the state of nature may not be as ruthless as Hobbes contended, it is still a potentially warring environment since people would still prey on each other, especially if they thought they could get away with it. So, Locke argues, to improve our safety we create governments whose sole responsibility is to protect our natural rights. More precisely, we create an agreement with the government: we give the ruler power and authority over us, in exchange for which the ruler protects our natural rights. Suppose, though, that our government fails to keep its part of the bargain; its police force, for example, may not be up to the task of dealing with organized crime, or the government itself may be so corrupt that it routinely violates our natural rights by unjustly confiscating our property or executing us. Would we be entitled to revolt against the government? Hobbes, we’ve seen, felt that the governments that we create need to have absolute and uncompromising authority over us in order to adequately do their jobs and, so, revolutions would never be justified. Locke disagrees. The deal that we cut with governments does not give them absolute authority; we certainly need to give them enough power for them to do their job, but, a deal is a deal, and if our government fails in its task, then we can remove it and create another.

            In the 18th century, Locke’s theory was enormously popular among the British who felt that it offered a perfect justification for the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which deposed their king. In time, Locke’s theory became the philosophical inspiration for other revolutions, most notably the American Revolution of 1776. Locke’s influence is especially evident in the Declaration of Independence, penned by Thomas Jefferson:


We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness -- That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.


Like Locke, Jefferson states that people have God-given natural rights, and governments are created to protect these rights; when a government fails in its assigned job, it can be overthrown and replaced.


            Are Natural Rights Grounded in Fact?  The success of the American Revolution inspired other revolts, which used a similar justification, namely, protection of natural rights. Although the idea of natural rights is now permanently etched in the political imaginations of people throughout the world, it nevertheless faces conceptual challenges. One problem, voiced by British utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), is that the concept of natural rights has no foundation in fact, and is only an imaginary fabrication. While legal rights are completely legitimate, Bentham argues, natural rights are not. In general, “rights” just don’t emerge from thin air, and instead come at the end of a chain with three links: legislators create laws, and these laws grant us rights. For example, governmental legislators create laws allowing 16 year olds to drive, and from these laws qualified 16 year olds have the right to drive. All three of these links – legislators, laws, rights – involve facts. We can read the legal statutes that define our legal rights; we can visit our Capital and ask the legislators themselves about the laws they enacted. When we turn to natural rights, we find a similar three link chain: a divine legislator creates natural laws, which in turn give rise to natural rights. The problem, though, is that none of the links in this chain are subject to factual scrutiny. There is no official codebook of natural law for me to consult; if I seek clarification from the divine legislator himself, I get silence. While many philosophers have written books in defense of divinely inspired natural law, there is no consensus about what these laws are, and no clear procedure for even investigating the matter. Thus, the concept of natural rights is founded less on fact than it is on imagination and perhaps wishful thinking.

            Bentham recommended that we abandon the idea of natural rights and instead limit our notion of rights to the legal arena. We thus can rely on governments to confer on us the rights to life, liberty, happiness, and anything else that it deems appropriate for a happy society. Many political philosophers agree with Bentham, and recent political documents are more cautious about their use of the word “natural.” The most important example of this is the United Nations’ 1948 document titled The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The work lists dozens of rights that everyone world wide is entitled to. Echoing Locke, the United Nations’ list begins stating that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the security of person.” It goes on to denounce slavery, torture, arbitrary arrest, and acknowledges rights of marriage, travel, speech, assembly, employment, leisure, food, housing, and health care. What is conspicuously missing from the document is the word “natural,” and in its place we find the word “human.” Rather than claiming that human rights are God-given and grounded in natural law, the document states more modestly that member countries are pledging themselves to “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” The authority behind this common standard of human rights is the United Nations itself and its member countries. While avoiding the sticky issue of whether rights are “natural”, the United Nations still maintains that human rights are universal and equal – based on the consent of the member countries. Universality and equality is what really matters to us, and not necessarily whether rights are divinely embedded in nature.


            Do We Need Rights? A second problem for rights theory – natural or human – is whether we really need the concept of “rights” at all. Let’s assume that we have moral duties to refrain from robbing and murdering people. Let’s also assume that we have moral duties to allow people to speak and travel freely. What do we gain by adding that we have rights to these things as well? Political philosophers recognize an interesting relation between rights and duties: the rights of one person entail the moral duties of another. For example, if I have a right not to be robbed, this means that you have a moral duty not to rob from me; if I have a right to speak freely, you then have a moral duty to not interfere with my speaking. This view is called the correlativity of rights and duties. The critical question is whether we can just drop all talk of “rights” and make our point using the concept of “moral duty”. Thus, instead of me shouting “Hey, you violated my right not to be robbed!”, I might say, “Hey, you violated your duty to not rob me!” Both statements equally suggest that I was morally harmed, and that I am making a claim against the offender. It thus seems redundant to have both the notions of rights and moral duties. If we were to eliminate one in the name of conceptual efficiency, it would be the concept of rights: the language of rights emerged only a few hundred years ago, whereas notions of moral duties have been with us for millennia.

            There is, though, an important psychological distinction between duties and rights, which might explain why we place so much emphasis on rights today. Specifically, it’s harder to challenge claims about rights than it is to challenge claims about duties. Suppose that you take my wallet and I shout, “You violated your duty to not rob me!” You’re in a position to dispute my claim since this is a statement about you and the duties that you supposedly hold. You might argue that you’re absolved from your duty because your children are starving and you need to feed them. Even if your argument is flimsy, the burden is nevertheless on me to expose its weakness. On the other hand, if I shout “You violated my right not to be robbed” I can stand fast in my claim since it is a statement about me and the rights that I hold. It makes no difference if your children are starving: I can say that I have a right not to be robbed and that’s that. The difference between rights and duties may only be an issue of rhetorical force insofar as claims about my rights seem more imposing than claims about your duties. But if we’re fighting a tyrannical government, every little bit counts for building an opposition movement, and claims about rights violations may attract more sympathizers. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the notion of rights plays such a prominent role during revolutions and when minority groups rise up against social oppression. When the dust from social conflict settles, though, perhaps all that we really have is a system of moral duties that can be expressed with the word “rights” when it suits our purposes.



Locke influenced a long-standing theory known as political liberalism, which is the view that governments exist mainly to protect individual rights. Foremost among our rights, according to this theory, is the right to private property. Locke himself listed this among his top four rights, and he offers a clear account of how we rightfully acquire property. Suppose that I go to a patch of woods that nobody owns, cut down a tree and carve it into a boat. I am taking some object that is held in common, mixing it with my labor, and thereby making it my property. Once I own the boat, I can keep it, give it away, or sell it as I see fit. If I sell it to someone else, that person then becomes the rightful owner, and I can use the money I’ve made to buy something else. Following this formula, I can accumulate more and more property, all of which I rightfully own. Since property ownership is one of my fundamental rights, part of the government’s task is to protect this right by catching and punishing anyone who tries to steal what is rightfully mine. While Locke’s notion of private property seems reasonable enough, it raises a critical question: can the government tax me – essentially take some of my property – to help people in economic need? The social contract certainly permits governmental taxation for some purposes, particularly to cover the costs of the police and military as they keep the peace and protect my various rights. But can the government rightfully tax me to pay for welfare programs such as those that provide food, housing and financial assistance to the unemployed? The question involves the concept of distributive justice: what is the just way of distributing wealth and poverty in a society? Philosophers within the tradition of political liberalism have vastly different answers to this question.


            Nozick and Libertarianism. On one side of the dispute is a theory called libertarianism, which holds that governmental power should be limited to a few basic policing functions. On this view, it’s not part of the government’s job description to pay for welfare programs. A modern champion of libertarianism is American philosopher Robert Nozick (1938-2002) and, like many libertarians, he presents his position within the framework of social contract theory. In the state of nature, Nozick argues, I’m certainly entitled to defend myself against attacks by others; that task, though, is enormously time consuming, and if I devote all of my efforts to that, there will be little opportunity for me to do much of anything else. Suppose that a salesman approaches me and says, “Good afternoon, sir, I run a small private protection agency in this neighborhood, and for a modest fee I’ll assume the responsibility of defending you against attackers. We’ll not only protect your property, but we’ll track down and punish any violators. Would you be interested in subscribing to this service?” This is exactly the kind of arrangement I need to normalize my life and I’d happily sign up. In fact, the need for this service is so obvious that neighborhood protection agencies would pop up everywhere. To streamline their effectiveness – and prevent war between the agencies themselves – many would band together, creating larger regional agencies. As these consolidate over time, one dominant protection agency would emerge, which would in essence be a bare bones government.

            How far should governments expand beyond the role of a dominant protection agency? Not much, Nozick argues. Only a minimal state is justified, and anything more than that will infringe on our rights, particularly our property rights. The manner in which we can accumulate property in this minimal state involves two key principles, which Nozick calls entitlement theory. First, we must initially acquire property by just means – such as by mixing our labor with a commonly held object, as Locke suggests. Second, we must voluntarily transfer that property to another person by just means – such as through a gift or sales contract. No other mechanism of property ownership is available outside of these two principles, such as through theft and fraud. For Nozick, the government itself must respect these principles of property ownership and not reach into our pockets to pay for extraneous projects. For example, if the government taxes me to cover the costs of free housing for the poor, it would be imposing forced labor on me since I’d be working for the advantage of other people without any choice or benefit to myself. While we should sympathize with underprivileged people, any help we give them should be done voluntarily through private charity efforts, and not through governmentally coerced welfare programs.

            Nozick offers only one of many possible defenses of libertarianism, but libertarians typically agree that governmental welfare programs are not only unjust for taking our money, but ineffective because they tempt welfare receivers to take advantage of the free ride. Libertarians commonly offer a three-pronged strategy for dealing with poverty. First, libertarians argue, if governments would stop placing restrictions on businesses, the economy would flourish and there would be plenty of jobs for the poor. Second, to protect myself if I ever do become unemployed, I can voluntarily pay into an unemployment insurance program; this would be run by a private company, though, and not by the government. Third, as a last resort we can encourage people to voluntarily donate to charities; these would help only the deserving poor, though, and not lazy free-riders.

            As freedom-loving and efficiency-minded as libertarianism is, it faces several obstacles. One is a practical question: would the libertarian solution to poverty actually work? Even without governmental restrictions we can’t always count on a thriving economy. Droughts, population explosions, natural disasters, foreign competition and even bad business decisions routinely throw economies into ruin. The problem can become so great that unemployment insurance and private charities can’t come close to fixing things. Since we look to the government for protection against thieves, murderers and invaders, it makes sense for the government to also protect us from economic disaster, especially when it isn’t our fault.

            A second and more critical question about libertarianism is whether its conception of property ownership is fair. Is there really a fair way of originally acquiring property according to the libertarian scheme? A rival branch of political liberalism called welfare liberalism contends that it isn’t, which we turn to next.


            Rawls and Welfare Liberalism. Welfare liberalism is the view that, to address unfair distributions in wealth, the government may tax us to help the needy. Welfare liberalism acknowledges that governments need to protect our rights, including property rights; however, they add, it’s equally important for governments to make sure that some people don’t have an unfair advantage in the race to accumulate wealth. Imagine that an angel was responsible for inserting fresh human souls into the bodies of newborn babies. The angel would reach into a box, randomly pick out a soul, and stick it into the next baby that was born. One soul goes into a baby whose family is living on the streets of Bombay India. The next soul goes into an Eskimo’s baby, and the next into the baby of Bill Gates. Where our souls are placed will almost inevitably determine our financial status in life. The baby in Bombay has no realistic chance of rising above the street-dwelling status of its parents. Bill Gates’s baby, by contrast, will receive private education, go to the best universities, and have an inside track for a very lucrative career. Your financial fate, then, will have been set in motion based on which baby your soul was placed into, and you simply have no say in the matter. While you might like to have your soul placed into Bill Gates’s baby, the odds of that happening are slim, and you can’t claim entitlement to it in any event. American philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) calls this arbitrary arrangement of wealth the natural lottery, and he argues that justice demands that governments fix the problem rather than perpetuate it.

            Like Nozick, Rawls uses social contract theory to make his case. Picture a group of rational, yet self-interested people who gather together to work out the rules of a peaceful society. In this original position, as Rawls calls it, we debate the merits of different systems. Suppose that I’m a homeless person and propose that all of society’s wealth be distributed equally among everyone. Thus, I’d receive $5,000 a year and Bill Gates would also receive $5,000 a year. When we put my scheme to a vote, though, only the poorest people support it while most people who make a decent living oppose it. If most people make over $5,000 a year, there’s no reason why they should support my scheme. We next vote on a plan that a billionaire proposes: everyone keeps all the wealth that they earn, and no money is redistributed among the poor through welfare programs. The richest people in society vote in favor of this while the poorest oppose it. Every time a new scheme is proposed, there is no consensus since each person supports the scheme that benefits him or her the most. It seems that we’ve reached an impasse in our negotiations.

            Rawls, though, has a solution: let’s all step behind a veil of ignorance – in essence take an amnesia pill – so we forget what our actual social status is in society. The homeless man doesn’t know that he’s homeless, and the billionaire doesn’t know that he or she’s a billionaire. We then vote once more on our various schemes. Should we divide wealth equally at $5,000 a person? This seems like a bad risk for me since, once the amnesia pill wears off, the odds are slim that my annual income will really be that low. I’ll want some opportunity to make more money if I can, and perhaps even become rich. Should we be allowed to just keep all the wealth that we accumulate? This also seems like a bad risk; while the odds are slim that I’ll be homeless once the amnesia pill wears off, I’ll at least want some financial safety net to catch me if I slip into poverty. The most reasonable scheme we’ll agree to will be a compromise: it will allow financial flexibility for the rich, yet ample protection for the poor.

            The precise scheme we’ll accept, according to Rawls, will involve two principles of justice:


First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.

Second: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all.


Regarding Principle 1, even under the amnesia pill, we’ll all have a basic desire for freedom, and, so, we will want a system that gives us as much liberty as possible, so long as our actions do not violate the liberty of other people. Principle 2 addresses the question of how unequal we should allow people’s wealth to become. Part A of this Principle maintains that the interests of the poor count, and we can redistribute wealth by lowering that of the rich and raising that of the poor. We don’t want to distribute wealth equally, since this will kill personal incentive to work harder. However, in the interest of the poor, we should cap off wealth at the high end. Part B states that everyone should have a realistic shot at the better paying jobs in society, and we should not allow job discrimination, nepotism, or other kinds of favoritism.

            The central question for Rawls’s theory is how much taxation should we allow on behalf of the poor? That is, behind the veil of ignorance, how much of a poverty safety net are we willing to create out of the pockets of the rich? Rawls holds that reasonable people will want a lot of economic protection and be willing to place a hefty limit on the wealthy. But Rawls’s critics argue that he is overly-cautious in his efforts to protect the poor. According to his critics, even rational people are gamblers by nature, and, behind the veil of ignorance, I might very well gamble on a scheme that will allow me the greatest financial reward, even if that means putting me at risk of impoverishment. In defense of Rawls, though, while humans certainly are gamblers, we also hedge our bets. We spend large amounts of money on insurance – on our cars, homes and lives – just to feel secure in the off chance that tragedy strikes. This is precisely the reasoning that we’d employ behind the veil of ignorance: risk it all or hedge our bets. It is impossible to know for sure how rationally self-interested people would vote behind the veil of ignorance, but perhaps Rawls is right: we might create a very comfortable financial safety net for ourselves.



In the animated film Antz, a lowly worker ant named Z is in crisis about his personal place in the larger ant colony, which he explains to his therapist:


Z: My mother never had time for me. When you’re the middle child in a family of 5 million, you don’t get any attention.... It’s this whole gung ho, superorganism thing that I can’t get. ... I’m supposed to do everything for the colony, and what about my needs? What about me? I mean, I’ve got to believe that there’s some place out there that’s better than this, otherwise I’ll just curl up in a larval position and weep. The whole system makes me feel insignificant.

Therapist: Excellent! You’ve made a real breakthrough.

Z: I have?

Therapist: Yes, Z. You are insignificant.

Z: I am?


Returning to his job, a fellow ant tries to cheer Z up: “It’s not about you, it’s about us, the team!” Ants are remarkably community-oriented; within their colonies they have complex divisions of labor, all of which focus on sustaining the colony as a whole. Other animals, though, like turtles, have little social structure; except for brief periods of mating, they are on their own from the moment of birth until death. Human beings are paradoxically like both ants and turtles in our community orientation: while we live in complex communities, we typically have a strong sense of individuality. What should come first, though, the individual or the community?

            All of the political theories we’ve looked at so far – by Hobbes, Locke, Nozick and Rawls – are individualist: personal liberty is of primary importance, and governments exist to protect us from harms inflicted by others in the community. Even Rawls’s welfare liberalism is individualistic since, behind the veil of ignorance, I’m concerned for the poor only because I myself might be poor. While individualist political theories attract much attention today, rival theories stress the community side of human nature. On these views, we are first and foremost part of a community, and the governments we create should reflect that fact. We will explore two community-oriented political theories – those of Plato and Marx.


            Plato and the Republic. Imagine a society where men and women live in a totally communal setting. They own no property, receive no pay, eat together in mess halls and sleep in barracks. Men and women have sex with whoever they want, except during a twenty-year period when they are in their prime for reproduction. At that stage, couples are paired for creating offspring with the best traits, and, once born, children are removed from the parents and their identity is kept from them. Children are educated under strict moral supervision and sheltered from degenerate music and literature. There are no squabbles over private possessions or family loyalties; everything is done for the sake of the larger community. While this sounds like the setting of a science fiction movie, it is actually part of Plato’s vision of the perfect society as described in his book The Republic. What makes this especially unusual is that members of Plato’s society recognize that their personal identities are intimately intertwined with others in the community, and it makes no sense to strive for private wealth or power.

            What led Plato to propose such a community-oriented conception of society? He explains that societies originally formed to provide for the complex range of needs that we all have. If left to my own devices, I’d have to gather my own food, make my own clothes, build my own house, and learn the countless skills that go into these tasks. We simply can’t do this individually and so, by establishing societies, we specialize in our tasks: I, for example, would make plows, you would grow crops, another would make furniture, and industries of all types would develop to provide us with both necessities and luxuries.  In a sophisticated society like this, tensions will invariably develop between our community and other ones on the outside in the competition for natural resources. There’s only so much water, land, and lumber to go around, and we’d like access to these resources just as much as our rivals would. For our society to work effectively and succeed in protecting ourselves from inevitable competition and attack from our rivals, all the parts of our society must work together in perfect harmony. In that sense, we should think of our community like a giant human being, whose physical and mental features must all work together in complete agreement. After all, it wouldn’t work if the mind of this giant person thought “I’ll get a drink of water” while its body grabbed a handful of dirt and ate it.

            According to Plato, there are three groups of people in society, which constitute the main parts of this giant person. First there are trades-people – farmers, carpenters, clothiers, merchants – who provide for people’s basic needs. These people are the lowest on the social hierarchy and serve those who are higher up. Second there are guardians who protect society from outside attackers. In fact, the communal lifestyle described above is specifically that of the guardians. They are on the frontlines with warring countries, and nothing should be left to chance in making them the best soldiers possible. Their focus should be on the good of the entire community, and not on themselves. While all classes of society certainly work together for the sake of the larger community, the day to day life of the guardians needs to be infused with community devotion. Third, there are the rulers who decide the best course for society. Selected from among the most outstanding guardians, the rulers constitute the brains and commanding force of the society’s giant person. The top ruler is nothing less than a philosopher-king, who has devoted his life to understanding truth in its purest form and uses this knowledge to direct the entire community.

            No society has ever existed along the lines that Plato describes, and Plato himself may not have even intended this to be a blueprint for an actual society. Still, his vision inspired countless depictions of the perfect society, including Thomas More’s famous book Utopia. A key question that arises in response to Plato’s community-oriented society is why should we accept our assigned positions? There’s enough individuality in human nature so that we may not feel like participating in a group enterprise like this and instead pursue our private interests. Why am I stuck being a farmer when I prefer the life of a guardian? Plato has an interesting, though somewhat sinister response. We need to trick people into thinking that Mother Nature herself assigned people to their respective social slots. We should convince people that, while all of us are born from the earth, some of us have precious metals mixed into our being. Trades-people are made with a dash of iron and brass, guardians with some silver, and rulers with some gold. The more precious the metal, the higher we are on the social ladder. If this noble lie works, Plato argues, then we should all be content with our social positions, even the humble farmer. In short, sustaining the social hierarchy requires an element of social repression, and this discomforting fact makes Plato’s whole utopian enterprise less than perfect. George Orwell, in his book 1984, paints a ghastly picture of a community-oriented society which stays together only through governmental lies, intimidation, and brainwashing. The primary challenge of any utopian theory, including Plato’s, is to avoid collapsing into tyranny when reigning in its more independently-minded citizens.


            Karl Marx and Communism. While Plato may have intended his ideal community to remain just a theory, German philosopher Karl Marx envisioned a community-oriented society for the real world. He dubbed his theory “communism” and devoted much of his life to spreading its message. In spite of how few people adopted his theory at the time, he felt that global acceptance of communism was inevitable. There are four key ingredients to Marx’s theory. First there is what he calls historical materialism. Marx argued that the world is composed entirely of material stuff, with no spiritual component, and that all events mechanically unfold according to rigid laws. Human history in particular emerges very predictably through economic forces. In essence, property and possessions determine everything, and a society’s economic infrastructure is the foundation upon which all other elements of society are built. Second, there is class struggle. Throughout history, societies have evolved through conflict between social classes. For example, in ancient times, there was a fundamental class struggle between masters and slaves. This economic system eventually collapsed but it gave way to a new tension in the middle ages between land-owning nobles and serfs who had no choice but to work that land. This conflict was resolved with the creation of a middle class of private business people. In Marx’s own time, he saw a towering class conflict between capitalists who owned industries, and the workers who were virtual slaves to them. He felt that this conflict would also inevitably be resolved – with the creation of communism – but getting there was the trick.

            The third element of Marx’s theory is alienated labor. We might ask Marx, what’s so bad about rich industrialists providing jobs for factory workers who need the money? It seems like a reasonable economic relationship. Marx’s answer is that human beings forge their identities through labor and, by working for the rich industrialist, a worker’s identity is fractured. As hard as we labor, it’s all for the company, in exchange for which we receive a measly paycheck. It’s not just that we’re underpaid for our hard work, or that our jobs are torturously monotonous as we perform the same task hour after hour, and day after day. As bad as these things are, the real insult is that we’re forced to hand a piece of our identities over to our bosses, just to survive. It’s much like what a prostitute does, Marx argues, insofar as she sells off the most intimate part of her being in exchange for some financial security. We are alienated from our labor, and, for that reason, alienated from a part of ourselves. Everything within a capitalist society supports this alienation – the laws, the government, and even art. We see this most clearly in religion, though, where we’re taught that God requires that we suffer on earth through our miserable jobs, for which we’ll be rewarded in the afterlife.

            The fourth component of Marx’s theory is communist revolution. He argues that when enough workers are fed up with their oppressive conditions, they will launch a communist revolution, the aim of which is to abolish private property. In some countries the revolution will be catastrophic and bloody, since rich property owners won’t willingly hand their possessions over to the masses. In others, it will be progressive, where a growing number of workers eventually overtake the crumbling capitalist infrastructure. In The Communist Manifesto (1748) Marx explains that, along with the elimination of private property, the state will act on behalf of workers and take control of the country’s economic resources. Education and other essential social services will be free. In time, class distinctions within society will disappear; governments, which historically have existed to oppress the working class, will no longer be needed.

            Marx’s theory might have remained a 19th century curiosity were it not for the Russian revolution in 1917 which embraced communism wholeheartedly, and transformed much of 20th century political ideology. Critics of communism throughout the 20th century have questioned whether humans were capable of following a community-oriented economic system. Personal greed is an important element of social progress, they argue; we work harder and are more creative when the prospects of wealth and power are dangled before us. While it’s nice to think that I’d work my hardest on behalf of the larger community, I don’t seem to be designed that way. As proof of this point, critics today often draw attention to the widespread collapse of communist governments in the late 1980s: if Marx was right, why have these countries abandon communism in favor of capitalism? Marx recognized that people have an enormous capacity to be selfish; still, he argued, we are indeed designed to be community-oriented. We have a special human quality, which he dubbed our species-being, which reflects our more evolved human nature and prompts us to see ourselves as part of a collective whole. This, Marx thinks, is what will drive all people in the future. The issue between Marx and his critics, then, is whether something like species-being is embedded in our notions of personal identity.



Governments have a difficult task of deciding which kinds of actions should be legal or illegal. Lawmakers in Virginia considered imposing a $50 fine on people wearing low riding pants that expose their underwear. They abandoned the idea, though, when it drew public ridicule. A man from New York was arrested for telling lawyer jokes in a courthouse. For years he had used confrontational devices like this to push for greater public access to the courts. In this situation he was accused of being abusive and causing a disturbance; the charges, though, were dropped for lack of evidence. A man from New Mexico was charged with distributing sexually oriented material to minors because of cartoon bumper stickers on his car that depicted bare-breasted female devils in sexually provocative positions. The man said “I’m offended by church people saying I can’t drink on Sundays, so I put the devil chicks on my car, because I figured it would offend them right back.” He stated that police were charging him with this crime only because “some overzealous, churchgoing detective got offended by it, and got even more offended by it by the fact that I didn't take it off after he threatened me.”

            All three of these examples are startling since they illustrate the government’s tendency to restrict our freedom more than we’d prefer. Governments are by their very nature coercive. In their efforts to keep the peace, they must set boundaries for our conduct and punish us when we cross those lines. We understand why governments prohibit theft and murder, and we’d be outraged if our laws permitted serious offenses like these. At the same time, though, we expect the government to allow us freedom to act as we individually see fit – such as wearing low riding pants or making lawyer jokes in a court house. One task of political philosophy is to examine general guidelines for determining when governments may restrict our conduct.


            Four Principles. Governmental restrictions are often justified on four distinct grounds. The first and most important is the harm principle, which is that governments may restrict our conduct when it harms other people. Laws against assault and murder are clear examples of this. But the notion of “harm” is a little fuzzy, and we’re faced with an important question: what counts as harm? When we think about harm, physical attack is what immediately comes to mind. What is central to the notion of harm, though, is that it is an invasion of an interest, and avoiding physical injury is just one of these. I also have an interest in my property, and so I’m harmed when someone steals from me. My interest in my personal reputation means that I’m harmed when someone slanders me. My interest in privacy means that I’m harmed when you trespass on my property or peek through my window. We have so many interests, though, that what counts as “harm” can quickly get out of hand. I have an interest in emotional happiness, so should there be laws preventing people from telling me unhappy news, such as news about a car wreck down the road? But key to the notion of harm is that it involves a serious injury to an interest, and not merely a trivial injury. Hearing bad news is part of life, and even if it makes me sad to hear about a car accident, there is still something very commonplace about this, and it would not count as a “harm” to my emotional happiness. So, while our common concept of harm is vague, it helps to think of it as a serious injury to an interest.

            Second is the offense principle, which is that governments may keep us from offending others. Virginia lawmakers, for example, attempted to prohibit low-riding pants on the grounds that the public display of one’s underwear is offensive for many people. Flag burning, pornography, foul language and even lawyer jokes might be restricted on the grounds of offense. Like the notion of “harm,” what qualifies as an “offence” may quickly escalate. Suppose that I’m on a park bench and a man sits down next to me. He smells horribly, starts picking his nose, and then sings “Who Let the Dogs Out” at the top of his lungs. I try to ignore him but eventually I’m forced to walk away. As bothersome as this might be for me, it certainly wouldn’t require legal intervention, and the whole experience would be more like a nuisance rather than a full blown offense. Offenses, properly speaking, involve a more intense reaction of outrage, and they typically involve situations that I can’t avoid without major inconvenience. My park bench experience didn’t outrage me, and it was easy enough to remove myself from the situation.

            Third is the principle of legal paternalism, which is that governments should prevent people from harming themselves. While the harm principle, noted above, focuses on the harm that I might cause other people, the principle of legal paternalism involves the harm that I might do to myself. As such, the government would restrict my choices for my own good. The term “paternalism” – literally “father-ism” – means treating people in the way that a father treats a child. The very notion is degrading since it presumes that we behave like reckless children and need the government to save us from ourselves. Sometimes, though, this is indeed an accurate description of our behavior. Sports such as bare knuckle boxing are outlawed for this reason, and others like football are heavily regulated to minimize harm to participants. Laws requiring seat belts, motorcycle helmets, and doctors’ prescriptions to purchase drugs all aim at preventing harm through our carelessness, stupidity, or desire to take dangerous risks. There is quite a lot of harm that I can voluntarily do to myself and, according to paternalists, society should prevent that harm if it has a chance.

            Fourth is the principle of legal moralism, which is that governments may restrict conduct that is especially sinful or immoral. While harmful acts such as stealing are certainly immoral, this principle focuses on actions that don’t necessarily cause harm. What is at issue is the moral or religious well-being of a society, and the need to stop people who undermine this. For example, in religiously conservative Saudi Arabia, celebration of Valentine’s day is banned and, along with that, the sale of red flowers. The group responsible for enforcing this and similar morally-based laws is “The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.” Even in the much more liberal country of Great Britain, their laws prohibit publishing religiously blasphemous material. Legal moralism is the justification behind many sex laws, such as those prohibiting homosexuality and oral sex, even when these acts are done privately between consenting adults. Legal moralism is most prevalent in countries that have a moral or religious code that most citizens share. Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, which are governed by Islamic law, are good examples. But in more pluralistic countries such as the United States, it is more difficult to find a core set of values upon which everyone agrees, so laws grounded in legal moralism, such as those against homosexuality, often look like one group ganging up on another.


            Mill’s Principle of Liberty and Harm. The central point of dispute surrounding the above four principles involves determining which of them are valid reasons for governmental coercion. In perhaps the most famous discussion of this subject, British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) argues that only the first principle – the harm principle – is justified. He makes his point here:


[T]he sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. [On Liberty, Chapter 1]


Mill states here that individual liberty should only be restricted when our actions harm others, but not when they simply harm ourselves. Thus, he rejects the principle of legal paternalism. Elsewhere in this work he criticizes religious groups that seek to restrict behavior on moral grounds or because it offends. Thus, he also rejects the offence principle and principle of legal moralism. For Mill, this means that I am free to harm myself, behave immorally and offend others, so long as I don’t harm anyone else. It would be difficult to articulate a concept of personal liberty any stronger than this, and many people think Mill has gone a little too far.

            Why would he propose such an extreme view? Part of his motivation undoubtedly owed to his own experience as an open-minded person in a traditional 19th-century society. He held liberal views about God, the equality of women, the social role of government, and other issues which conservative critics would have liked to suppress. In On Liberty he explains why it is so important to allow people a zone of free expression. Each of us, Mill argues, understands his or her own interests better than any well-intentioned outsider. We spend much of our time creating a lifestyle that works for us individually. There is no one-size-fits-all way of life, and it is typically through trial and error that I discover what’s best for me. This involves making mistakes – and sometimes mistakes that harm me. Nevertheless, Mill argues, society will be a better place if we’re allowed to make decisions on our own without the intrusion of others. In a nutshell, his point is that a wide sphere of personal liberty is essential for a happy society.

            Mill’s “happy society” argument is just one way of defending the harm principle, but a more common approach is based on social contract theory. In the state of nature, we have complete liberty to behave as we please; the price we pay for this absolute freedom, though, is brutal war with everyone. To end the state of war, we’re willing to give up some of our freedom, but no more than is absolutely required for achieving peace. To attain peace, all that we really need to do is mutually agree to avoid harming each other; that is, we should adopt the harm principle, which will permit the government to punish me if I harm others. Peace will not come about any more quickly by also adopting the principles of offence, legal paternalism, and legal moralism. Rather than having the government punish us for offensive, self-harming, or immoral conduct, we can simply be tolerant and live peaceably with each other. Embracing these three extra principles, then, is an unjustified restriction on our freedom.

            The idea of a maximally free society is certainly appealing; we’d all like the opportunity to at least occasionally do odd-ball things without the government clamping down on us. The “happy society” and social contract arguments each attempt to defend this intuition in a different way. As compelling as these two arguments are, though, societies are reluctant about completely throwing aside the principles of offence, legal paternalism, and legal moralism. Take the principle of legal paternalism, for example. Assume Mill is correct that society is better off when we have the freedom to explore possibilities. Still, society might be slightly more happy if governments paternalistically blocked us from our most stupid and harmful actions. This might be particularly so for people who continually make bad choices for themselves by gambling their income away, being in a continual drunken stupor, eating rotten food from dumpsters, or living in a shack that’s about to collapse. Suppose also that social contract theories are right that we can achieve a peaceful society through the harm principle alone. We need to remember, though, that the reason I sign the social contract to begin with is to make my life safer; in Hobbes’s words, I want something better than a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” The principle of legal paternalism aims exactly at making our lives safer – essentially by keeping us from attacking ourselves. So it makes sense for signers of the social contract to agree to some principle of paternalism along with the principle of harm.



While the Interim Government of the Republic of Texas has not yet declared war on the United States, they came close to doing so several years back when their leader threatened war if authorities attempted to arrest him. “Once they make the move,” he stated, “we’ll have millions of Americans on our side – including every militia in the country. We’re talking war here.” Had authorities arrested him, the truth of the matter is that very few Americans would have come to his defense. Imagine instead, though, that their leader was right and events unfolded like this. Once arrested, millions of Americans sympathize with him, just as he predicted. Paramilitary and survivalist groups around the country load up their pickup trucks with weapons they’ve been secretly stockpiling for years, and head down to Texas to take a stand. Declaring war in a campaign they call “Texan Freedom” they ambush police, free their leader from jail, and roll into Austin taking control of the capital. Initially caught by surprise, the U.S. military then descends on Texas, attacking rebel strongholds and arresting sympathizers. In spite of mass casualties, the rebels retain control. The war abruptly ends when a nuclear bomb explodes in Austin – each side accusing the other of detonating it.

            Would this war of “Texan Freedom” be a morally justified one? That is, are there specific features of this war that show decisively whether it was either on the side of right or the side of wrong? Since the middle ages, philosophers have weighed in on the subject of war, particularly on the moral question of when, if ever, wars are permissible. Two traditions are central to the debate. First is just war theory, which maintains that wars are sometimes morally justifiable. Second is pacifism, which is the view that wars are never morally justifiable.


            Just War Theory. In Western Civilization, just war theory has been the dominant philosophical view of war since the Roman Empire was threatened by barbarian invaders. While the earliest Christians were largely pacifists, Saint Augustine argued that Christians could with clear conscience answer the Empire’s call to military duty. Following Augustine’s lead, philosophers over the centuries have developed specific criteria for determining when a war is or is not justified. Just war theorists distinguish between two issues: first, the moral requirements for initially waging a war, and, second, the moral requirements for conducting a war once it’s been started.

            The issue of initially waging war is traditionally designated by the Latin phrase jus ad bellum, which literally means “law to war.” While just war theorists have offered different criteria for waging war, four points are central. First and most important is that there must be just cause for waging war, and the most crucial of all causes is resistance of aggression. The aggression must be quite serious in nature, such as physical violence through bombing campaigns or military invasion, and threaten an entire population’s rights. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, their aggression was serious enough to justify the U.S. in declaring war. Does the war of “Texan Freedom” described above have just cause? It may very well be that the Interim Government of the Republic of Texas has a legitimate complaint against the U.S. government for continually limiting the liberties of its citizens by increasing taxes or limiting gun ownership. Libertarians have been arguing as much for years. Nevertheless, even if this complaint is legitimate, the U.S. government cannot be accused of anything like serious physical aggression that threatens all Texans. And, without the threat of serious aggression, the war of “Texan Freedom” would be without just cause.

            The second criterion is right intention. The motive behind waging war must be proper, such as wanting to return to the state of peace prior to the aggression. Wrong intentions would be the desire to acquire land, to plunder the resources of another country, to take vengeance, or to vent racial hatred. One motive behind the war of “Texan Freedom” is a desire for liberty, which on face value seems legitimate. However, behind their campaign is a longing for the good old days when Texas had a more independent identity as a sovereign country. Nostalgia, though, does not qualify as right intention. It is normal for people to have some feelings of local pride, but the danger is when this expands into a zealous nationalism which gives countries a false sense of superiority and motivates them to impose their will on their neighbors. Japan was seduced by this zeal in World War II, which prompted them to seize control of surrounding countries. Determining right intention sometimes involves hunting down hidden motives, such as nationalism, which lurk beneath more noble ones like the desire for liberty.

            The third criterion is proper authority: the war must be publicly announced by the legitimate authority and made known to the enemy. The U.S. Government was the proper authority for declaring war on Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it did so with a public declaration. With the war of “Texan Freedom,” we need to consider the authority behind the Interim Government of the Republic of Texas. Who do they really speak for? If they had the support of most Texans, then perhaps they would be legitimate. On the other hand, if their support came principally from their own members and sympathetic militia groups, then they would not have proper authority.

            The fourth criterion is reasonable success: the war shouldn’t be pointless, since it is wrong to sacrifice human lives and squander economic resources if the outcome is unlikely. Determining the odds of victory is often difficult since it involves complex calculations about weaponry, support from allied countries, fuel supplies, and unpredictable factors such as the weather. At least sometimes, though, the likely outcome is clear. In World War II, France realized that declaring war against Nazi Germany would be futile, so they reluctantly accepted German occupation. Any effort like the war of “Texan Freedom” would similarly be doomed to failure and would thus not have a prospect of reasonable success. All in all, the war of “Texan Freedom” does not fulfill any of the four criteria of initially waging a just war.

            Let’s turn now to the other issue of just war theory, namely the moral rules of conducting a war; this is designated by the Latin jus in bello, literally “law in war”. The point is that neither side of the conflict can use reprehensible techniques in achieving its cause, regardless of how just that cause is. There are two criteria here. First is discrimination: both sides of the conflict must identify legitimate targets. War should aim at the people responsible for the wrong, not the innocent; this means that soldiers can’t target civilians in residential neighborhoods. Some civilian deaths are inevitable in war, but they should be minimized, and, in any event, not be intentional targets. Wars of independence, like “Texan Freedom,” are especially troubling for blurring the distinction between combatants and civilians. What starts out as combat between soldiers may quickly escalate to the genocide of sympathetic civilians. The second criterion is proportionality: the military should only use the amount of force that is required to achieve their goal. The aim here is to minimize war’s destruction. Weapons of mass destruction typically go beyond such goals and thus their use would be unjust. The more civilian deaths, the more questionable the justness of the war appears. In the war of “Texan Freedom,” the use of a nuclear weapon clearly went too far regardless of which side was responsible for launching it.

            The principles of just war outlined above are theoretical – devised by philosophers for assessing the more abstract problem of the morality of war. In addition to these theoretical discussions, though, there have been historical agreements worked out by governments that establish codes of conduct for actual military forces. The most famous of these is the Geneva Convention, which is a series of international treaties that regulate the treatment of civilians in occupied countries and prisoners of war.


            Pacifism. While just war theory has predominated among philosophers since the days of Augustine, there have continually been pacifist groups opposing war. Pacifists certainly recognize the dangers of aggressive countries, such as Germany and Japan in World War II. They also recognize the importance of taking action against aggressors, such as through non-violent resistance, economic boycotts and shunning by the international community. What they oppose, though, is a campaign of killing. Some pacifists – called absolute pacifists – feel that all wars, with no exception, are wrong. Others – called conditional pacifists – object to wars in principle but feel that some are permissible in extreme emergencies. It is the position of absolute pacifism that is more philosophically interesting, which we will explore here.

            Considering how crucial some wars have been in stopping aggression, such as World War II, why would someone hold to absolute pacifism? The most common justification is religious pacifism: war is contrary to religious teachings. Most religious scriptures from around the world contain some general condemnation of killing, such as “Thou shalt not kill” from the Ten Commandments. Some theologians have interpreted these injunctions literally as condemning any intentional killing, even in self-defense or in times of war. Further, many religious founders, such as Buddha and Jesus, conducted their lives non-violently, and some believers feel that they represent a model of pacifism which we all should adopt. Religious pacifism, though, is largely a theological question that hinges on subtle interpretations of a faith tradition. It will thus be compelling only for believers who adopt a specifically pacifistic understanding of their faith.

            There are, though, more secular grounds for pacifism. One argument is that the benefits of war never outweigh its costs. This is particularly evident in modern warfare which is especially destructive and doesn’t seem to serve the long-term interests of society. The threat of nuclear war is the best example of this. If the only way to subdue an enemy is to destroy much of the world with nuclear weapons, it’s hard to see how society would benefit from engaging in war in the first place. While this cost-benefit argument may compel us to morally condemn nuclear war, it might be different with more modest wars. This would be so if by declaring war we can quickly subdue an aggressor using only conventional weapons and causing only a minimal number of deaths. The cost-benefit argument, then, may only apply to the more extreme types of war, and not to all wars.

            A second and more compelling secular argument is that war violates our foundational duty to avoid killing innocent people. This is a basic moral obligation that all civilized countries recognize, irrespective of religious traditions. Now, in modern warfare we can count on enormous numbers of innocent civilian deaths – perhaps even more than the numbers of soldiers that die. No matter how hard a country tries to restrict casualties to soldiers, it invariably spills over into the civilian population. While it may be difficult to precisely determine what a morally acceptable level of civilian deaths might be in an otherwise well-intentioned war, modern wars have almost certainly gone beyond that level.

            While these arguments for pacifism may not be 100% convincing, they nevertheless show that the pacifist position has some reasonable foundation and that pacifists cannot be simply dismissed as irrational.  But just war theorists respond to pacifism with a common criticism: pacifists are free-riders. In spite of their noble talk about the evils of killing, pacifist themselves enjoy the benefits of a protected society without participating in its defense. Thus they are reaping the benefits of war and military defense without paying the costs. This criticism is unfair, though, since pacifists are not given the opportunity to try out their own non-violent solutions. They are forced to live in a society controlled by warmongers who continually reject more peaceful solutions. It’s possible that the pacifist’s solution would be substantially better for society than the warmonger’s. In that case, pacifists – and everyone else – end up suffering from the decision to go to war, and by no means benefit from it. Pacifists are thus not free-riders: it’s more like they’ve been overpowered by leaders who are devoted to war.

            War is an unfortunate concern for any government, and the history of human civilization is connected by a string of bloody conflicts, one after the other. Political philosophers from Plato to Hobbes to Nozick have argued that societies were in fact first formed as a means of protection from inevitable outside attack. Maybe wars will end in the distant future, but for the time being they are a fact of life for virtually all countries around the world. While the time for pacifism may not yet be here, it still makes good sense to think hard about the justness of military conflict before declaring war on an enemy.

            Throughout this chapter the running theme of political philosophy as been protection: it is the principal justification of a government’s existence, and it remains its fundamental task. We expect governments to protect us against criminals, rights violations, economic injustice, exploitation, poverty, offense, our own personal stupidity, and foreign invasion. At the same time, though, we have a strong pull towards individuality and personal freedom, which often conflicts with government efforts to protect us. Is there a happy middle ground? One of the more unique features about political philosophy is that it doesn’t search for absolute truth as much as other branches of philosophy do. With philosophy of religion, for example, we want to know as a matter of fact whether God exists. In the realm of politics, though, there is great latitude regarding the kinds of governments that human beings can establish. This changes over time, and the larger question becomes what kind of political systems are most suitable in the present state of affairs. Thus, in attempting to find the right balance between government protection and personal freedom, a one-size-fits-all solution may not be realistic. The best we can do is consider whether, at this particular point in history, our society could benefit from either more protection or more freedom with the myriad of issues that we face. Should our government provide universal health care, or make college education more affordable, or force business to protect the environment, or restrict gun ownership? When we do attempt to find a balance between protection and freedom on these issues, the theories we’ve examined in this chapter will inevitably play an important role.


For Review

Please answer all of the following questions for review.


1. Describe Hobbes’s state of nature and list his laws of nature.

2. How does Hobbes’s state of nature parallel the prisoner’s dilemma?

3. Describe Locke’s account of natural rights and how it may justify revolution.

4. Explain Bentham’s criticism that natural rights are not grounded in fact.

5. What is Nozick’s theory of the minimal state, and what does this imply about taxation to help the needy?

6. What is Rawls’s theory of the veil of ignorance, and what does this imply about taxation to help the needy?

7. Describe the three classes of Plato’s perfect society, and what governments must do to keep people content with their assigned social class.

8. What are the four key elements of Marx’s theory?

9. Explain the four grounds of governmental coercion.

10. What is Mill’s view of liberty and harm, and what is his “happy society” argument?

11. Explain the four criteria of waging a just war, and two criteria for conducting a just war.

12. What are the religions and secular arguments for pacifism?


For Analysis

Please select only one question for analysis from those below and answer it.


1. One criticism of social contract theory is that it allows for the possibility of a dominant group subjugating minorities. How might a social contract theorist respond to this criticism?

2. Write a dialogue between Locke and Bentham on the subject of natural rights.

3. Write a dialogue between Nozick and Rawls on the subject of welfare taxation.

4. Criticize Marx’s view of communism from Locke’s perspective of natural rights.

5. Defend the principle of legal paternalism against Mill’s “happy society” argument.

6. Write a dialogue between a just war theorist and a pacifist on the subject of the moral permissibility of war.





Works Cited in Order of Appearance.

Documents of the Interim Government of the Republic of Texas appear on this website:

Hobbes, Thomas, Leviathan (1651). A recent edition is by Edwin Curly (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994).

Locke, John, Two Treatises of Government (1689-1690). The standard edition of this work is by Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967).

Bentham, Jeremy, Anarchical Fallacies, Conclusion (in Works, ed. John Bowring, Vol. 2, p. 522 ff.) and Pannomial Fragments, Chapter 3 (in Works, Vol. 3, p. 217 ff.). Both of these titles remained unpublished during Bentham’s life.

Nozick, Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974).

Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971).

Plato, The Republic (4th cn. BCE). A recent translation is by G.M.A. Grube, revised by C. D. C. Reeve (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992).

Mill, John Stuart, On Liberty (1859). The standard edition is included in J.M. Robson, ed., Essays on Ethics, Religion and Society (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969).

Marx, Karl, The Communist Manifesto (1848). Included in The Portable Karl Marx, Eugene Kamenka, ed. (New York : Penguin Books, 1983).

Marx, Karl, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844). A recent Translation is by Martin Mulligan (Progress Publishers, Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1959).

Augustine, The City of God (413-427). A recent translation is by J. O’Meara, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972).


Further Reading.

Barcalow, Emmett, Justice, Equality, and Rights (Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing, 2004).

Goodin, R. and Pettit, P., eds., A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993).

Kymlicka, Will, Contemporary Political Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Pojman, Louis, ed., Political Philosophy: Classic and Contemporary Readings (New York: McGraw Hill, 2002).

Pojman, Louis, Global Political Philosophy (New York: McGraw Hill, 2003).

Rosen, Michael and Wolff, Jonathan, eds., Political Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Walzer, Michael, Just and Unjust Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1977).

Wolff, Jonathan, An Introduction to Political Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).