May 25, 2011

The State of Nature: Whence Politics?

William A. Edmundson, Georgia State University College of Law, has published Politics in a State of Nature. Here is the abstract.

Aristotle thought we are, by nature, political animals. Political philosophy in the tradition of Hobbes and Locke sees political society not as natural but as an artifice. For this tradition, political society emerged from a pre-political state of nature by the exercise of innate normative powers. Those powers, together with the rest of our native normative endowment, both make possible the construction of the state, and place sharp limits on the state’s just powers and prerogatives.

Thus described, a state-of-nature theory has three components. One is an account of the native normative endowment, or “NNE.” Two is an account of how the state is constructed using the tools included in the NNE. Three is an account of the state’s resulting normative endowment, which includes a (purported) moral power to impose duties of obedience.

State-of-nature theories disagree about the NNE. For Hobbes, it consists of a moral permission to do whatever seems to one to be necessary to survival, and a moral power to covenant. Locke specified a more constraining NNE, which also included a “natural executive right” to punish wrongdoing. Rawls excluded personal desert from the “original position,” his refurbishing of the state of nature. In each case, the NNE is not treated as though it were a matter of empirical investigation and discovery, but rather were one of reflective adjustment to the other two components of the theory.

The work of social psychologist Stanley Milgram and his students suggests a quite different NNE, one far more constrained than what state-of-nature theories have allowed. Norms that constrain moral reproof are of particular interest here. Contrary to Locke, people do not behave in experimental settings as one would predict if they possessed a “natural executive right” to punish wrongdoing. Moral reproof is subject to standing norms. These norms limit the range of eligible reprovers.

This paper draws on this work to support two claims. One, is that the native normative endowment is (as Aristotle held) already political. The other is that political authority should be re-conceived as a matter of standing - that is, as the state’s unique possession of a moral permission to enforce moral norms, rather than as a moral power to impose freestanding duties of obedience.
Download the paper from SSRN at the link.

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