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Judging states

By Andrew Cohen

One way to define liberalism, as I have previously indicated here is by reference to the normative principles of toleration it is committed to (as I suggested in that previous post).  I think that such a definition also allows a clear way to judge states.  Let me spell out what I mean.

I endorse the harm principle—the principle that government interference is prima facie warranted to prevent or rectify harms or to punish harm-doers, where harms are understood as wrongful set-backs to an individual’s interests.  The harm principle is a normative principle of toleration: it indicates when it is morally permissible (though perhaps not required) to not tolerate.  It indicates a clear (or clear enough) normative limit to toleration.  The version of liberalism I consider here is committed to the harm principle as the sole normative principle of toleration.  (I am not here saying that is the correct version of liberalism.)

Assume that this version of liberalism (or “libertarianism,” if you prefer) is correct.  Given that assumption, it should be clear how we ought to judge states.  We ought to judge them according to how well they abide by the harm principle: how well they (and their various agents) refrain from interfering with any individuals that do no harm and how well they prevent, punish, or rectify harm.  A state that interferes to prevent rational adults from smoking pot is, to that extent, unjust.  A state that allows murderers, rapists, and thieves to harm others, is, to that extent, unjust.  (Talk of state action needs to be understood in a specific way since states do not have intentions, but I leave that to the side.)

For my purposes, a state is a social grouping of people with a sovereign governance structure where to be sovereign means no other entity (social, political, or other) is successfully and systematically challenging its ability to execute the rule of law (where laws need not be codified).  Often, but not with necessity, those social groupings are organized geographically contiguously (in a loose sense) and have shared norms (esp. of language and behavior).

In existing states, there is not merely a governance structure, but a government (though perhaps there is a question of degree here).  Obviously, if such states are to be just, on this view, those governments (and all of their agents) must also abide by the harm principle and accept it as the sole normative principle of toleration.  (Talk of government action needs to be understood in a specific way since governments do not have intentions, but I leave that to the side.)

But it is not merely the governments that we should be concerned with.  A state wherein the government abides by the harm principle, but wherein a church or a corporation does not, is, to that extent, unjust.  (What I say above about talk of state and government action likely applies also to churches and corporations.)  To be truly libertarian, on my view, is to be concerned with the liberty of all persons and committed to the protection of that liberty against all agents—other individuals, the government, churches, corporations, and whatever other powers there are.  We should be concerned with all concentrations of power—because where power is concentrated, liberty is too easily curtailed.

Obviously, if the correct version of liberalism is different then what I specified above, we have to adjust the way we judge states.  We would first need to know the normative principles of toleration the correct version of liberalism is committed to and then judge states according to those principles.  Of course, there will be debate about what the correct version of liberalism (or, I suppose, other political theory) is, but there is little doubt that whatever the correct political theory is, it will warrant interference to prevent, rectify, or punish harm.  Hence, even given the continued debate needed to determine the best political theory, we can now judge states according to how well they prevent, punish, or rectify harm.  We should.

*This article was previously published on Bleeding Heart Libertarians


Andrew J. Cohen is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Georgia State University. He has published articles in journals including Ethics, the Canadian Journal of Philosophy, the Southern Journal of Philosophy, the American Philosophical Quarterly, the Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, and the Journal of Ethics. He holds a PhD from Georgetown University.

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