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 A Theory of Moral Objectivity (Section 8c - Political authority)

By Robert M. Ellis, originally written as a Ph.D. thesis 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity' in 2001. This html version copyright 2008.

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c)      Political authority


i)                    The justification of political authority


The last two sections have focussed only on the justification of moral authority at an individual level. Such moral authority, as I have argued, enables non-dualism to be applied at a specific level of moral judgement in the sense that the relative moral justification of the judgement of a higher level of integration can thus be conveyed to aid the objectivity of judgements made at a lower level. However, this argument clearly does not cover all the types of cases in which the justification of authority is open to moral discussion. Particularly, it does not cover (i) individuals who do not accept any kind of moral authority (whether individual, specific or general), and (ii) the authority of governments where this is accepted by individuals on supposedly non-moral grounds, and (iii) the exertion of power by governments over those who do not accept their authority.


The first category here is likely to prove an empty one. As I argued in chapter 4, there are no morally neutral standpoints: those who claim to have them usually appeal to scientific, political or individualistic beliefs all of which carry moral implications. In addition, such standpoints generally involve implicit appeal to the moral authority of those believed to stand in a neutral position. Even existentialists, who may not be able to justify appeal even to a scientific or political source of authority, are nevertheless socially and politically situated and thus unable to avoid implicit support for the moral authority of a particular tradition, whether an individualist one or (as seems to have been the case with Heidegger[24]) an authoritarian tradition which is supported in counter-dependency to individualism. It is thus the adequacy of the moral authority appealed to rather than its existence which is in question in these cases, but to judge such adequacy when it takes the form of a political authority requires a discussion of the justifiable role of political authorities. When nihilists appeal to political authority supposedly in the place of moral authority (as in the second category), the degree of moral justification for political authority is called into question.


Thus the second and third categories, as well as the first one, call for a non-dualist justification of political authority which clarifies the extent to which such justification exists. Such a justification, as I argued in 6.b.viii, must be pragmatic in the sense of assuming neither an absolute moral justification for government nor that there is no such justification: rather, as with the individual, confidence in the possibility of justification must support investigation into how far government is capable of fulfilling an effective moral role. Given that, when properly incrementalised, morality consists in the effective manipulation of conditions to satisfy desires of the highest degree of integration possible, political authority can be morally justified exactly to the extent that it succeeds in doing this, rather than interfering with integration by maintaining a dogmatic view of its role seen in terms of absolutism or of false neutrality.


The same pragmatic criterion can support the justification of political power as well as of political authority, where political authority refers to a position created by confidence in a political leadership, and political power to an exertion of force to make individuals comply with political leadership. An incrementalisation of this distinction, to avoid its association with metaphysical ideas of freewill, can lead to a conception in terms of degrees of  confidence shading off into degrees of power, with governments finding the latter increasingly necessary as the former fails. But whatever mixture of acceptance and coercion is employed, its justification remains the sole pragmatic one of effectiveness in producing integration in the state.


The attitude taken by a non-dualist to the use of coercive power by the state thus does not need to be discontinuous from the first precept and the role played by the avoidance of violence and killing, or coercion in general in promoting psychological integration. No public-private morality distinction is needed, since non-dualist ethics begin with the situatedness of the individual and the requirement for integration commencing at this point, requiring that the situatedness of the policeman, judge, or other public official, and of the whole group that they represent, be the starting point and their integration only being pursued in a way which is compatible with that of the whole group. In their position as agents representing a whole group, then, no coercive method can be absolutely ruled out: but its effectiveness needs to be considered in relation to the whole range of conditions, including its effects on the agent as an individual, its long-term effects on the individual against whom coercion is being used, and the needs of the whole of the society in which it takes place.


It is our tendency to use coercion as a short-term solution, a way of imposing an egoistic order on a situation when a more sophisticated grasp of conditions would lead us to refrain from it, which supports the application of the first precept here: for a prima facie avoidance of coercion, and of its escalation into violence and killing, involves a recognition of ignorance which supports the maximum possible degree of careful reflection whenever such methods are used. Most of the time such reflection would not prove compatible with capital or corporal punishment, torture, corruption or the abuse of power, simply because such actions are incompatible with progress towards integration in agent, victim, legislator or society as a whole. Milder forms of coercion, such as the threat of fines or imprisonment, are more likely to be justifiable because of the support they provide for the integration of society as a whole by discouraging the conflicts which are created by criminal actions. A basic stability of conditions is allowed by such measures, without which any progress towards integration would be made much more difficult.


Not only agents of the state but politicians thus have no need to appeal to a false neutrality to justify the use of power, so long as such power is actually being used to integrate. Individuals seeking integration also have nothing to fear from such a use of power, for to the extent that it is effective and justifiable it will not remove responsibility from the individual. Where the state has genuine authority it will not serve any interest to replace that authority with an exercise of power, replacing an integrated relationship with an alienated one. Where a government genuinely seeks integration it will also listen and respond to criticism from individuals, just as individuals who seek integration will have respect for the requirements of government.


The extent to which such a balanced and justifiable use of coercion is achieved, however, is a measure of the degree of integration of a government. The integration of a government, as I have already suggested[25], is primarily the integration of the politicians (both as a group and as individuals) who form the legislature and executive, but is also, to a lesser extent, the integration of civil servants, other agents of the state, electors, and the public of the state as a whole. The relative importance of the integration of each of these elements obviously depends upon their degree of influence in the making and application of government policy.


Political authority and political power are thus morally justified to the extent that this integration occurs. In the remainder of this section I will be considering, firstly, how such integration of government could be brought about, and secondly, how problems of priority between moral and political authority can be resolved.


ii)                  The integration of government


Two extremes are to be found in discussions of the moral improvement of government: the utopian, which follows in the tradition of Plato in prescribing a radical and holistic reorganisation of government on rational lines; and the laissez-faire, in which all deliberate attempts at improvement are judged, with equal dogmatism, to be self-defeating, so that the only basis of improvement comes from reliance on Adam Smith’s “invisible hand[26] whereby egoism will miraculously transcend itself. In accordance with the Middle Way as I have outlined it, however, there is clearly no route to objectivity in discussing this area through dogmatic reliance on one of these approaches rather than the other. Likewise, a concomitant reliance on either direct or indirect methods, or either holistic or piecemeal reforms, offer only extremes between which we must navigate.


These polarities also offer an indication of the kind of political system which is most likely to support integration, as opposed to authoritarianism on the one hand and egalitarianism on the other. The Platonic approach, in which the policy of the wise is imposed upon the remainder, indicates the advantages of more authoritarian forms of government at their best: for the enlightened absolute ruler appears to be in unique position to take a long-term view of the welfare of the whole state, taking all the relevant conditions into account. If such a ruler were to be instantaneously installed in the world of 2000 C.E., for example, it may at first appear that he could deal far more effectively with global crises, such as those of the environment and of over-population, than any alternative form of government. Such a view is little more than a deceptive fantasy, however, because it takes a premature leap to an absolutely rational position. It applies a crude egoism to political problems, because it assumes that all that is required for their solution is a strong enough egoism, imposing a strong enough order upon the world-psyche, for such problems to be solved. As a utopian political scheme it fails to recognise the key psychological conditions (those of integration) which would enable such rational solutions to be applied, and the recognition of such psychological conditions in turn rules out the utopian scheme and the authoritarian method it requires. As such it has all the drawbacks of foundationalism.


On the other hand, the strength of democracy[27] consists in the requirement that it imposes on governments to respond to the views of voters and thus maintain apparently greater integration through consensus. Such integration, however, often proves limited because of the lack of integration of the individuals whose views contribute to the democratic process. This lack of integration often expresses itself both in limitations of identification (as particularly manifested in parochialism, nationalism, class prejudice or other forms of insularity) and in a vulnerability to psychological manipulation. Democracy thus betrays all the limitations of coherentist approaches to ethics: particularly in a lack of holism which reflects and rationalises a lack of integration, both at individual and group level. Democracy only succeeds in overcoming a lack of integration at group level by the crude method of majority voting, which is likely to reflect only a very limited consensus. As a political system it is thus certainly not intrinsically non-dualist.


A political system which is to offer the most effective response to conditions, then, must maintain a tension between foundationalist and coherentist approaches. It must balance the needs both to address the whole range of conditions and to seek the consent and co-operation of the governed, for both of these are crucial elements of a consensus which includes the integration of psychological conditions. A strategy which fails to address wider conditions and only concentrates on maintaining the support of the governed will be unlikely to be effective even at maintaining that support in the long-term, because the wider conditions which have been ignored will impact upon the voters and turn them against the government which failed to predict their needs. Conversely, a pure concentration on wider conditions to the exclusion of the immediate concerns of the population will not long support political authority, even when the mode of government is totalitarian. Citizens, then, need to be understood both as egos and as psyches, for whom neither the indulgence of present desire nor confrontation with a long-term absolute are wholly adequate.


The type of political system which will best maintain this tension can obviously not be universally prescribed, because it will depend on the prevailing conditions. The more relatively integrated the citizens, the more relatively effective a democratic type of political system will be in addressing the whole range of conditions as well as maintaining immediate political support. However, in situations where the citizens are relatively unintegrated and a simple imposition of order is more of a basic priority, a more authoritarian method may well be justified, provided that the authorities are more integrated than the populace (by this criterion the rule of the vast majority of dictators is nevertheless clearly morally unjustifiable, even in conditions of near-anarchy).


We are not, however, necessarily confronted only with a crude choice between populist democracy and authoritarianism. There may well be ways in which either type of system may be modified to more fully represent the strengths of the other at its best. To modify democracy to offer more of the strengths of the Platonic approach, for example, might involve the imposition of certain constraints on the democratic process calculated to improve the objectivity of government in which it generally results. Such modification is likely to involve greater institutional recognition of the dispositional, rather than abstract nature of the objectivity which will support successful government, and could perhaps be brought about through legislation within an existing democratic system.


Foremost among such measures might be a greater professionalisation of politics, ensuring that all the candidates permitted to offer themselves for office are not only technically but morally qualified to do so by an adequate degree of integration. This would require some sort of training and formal testing for aspiring politicians, administered by those already experienced and advanced in the reaching of suitably balanced political judgements. Such a system would doubtless have many imperfections, reflecting those already found in established self-administering professions such as the academic, legal, and medical professions, but may be preferable to the election of highly unsuitable politicians with popular appeal but little integration or even (in some cases) little technical expertise in the skills of government. It might perhaps inject a little of the strengths of Plato’s scheme for a highly trained ruling class into the context of democracy.


But such a political change may have little effect so long as the wider requirement for integration amongst the public remains unaddressed. Here, then, we pass from ways in which a political system can promote integration to ways in which a governmental policy can do so. The chief way to address the requirement for integration of citizens seems to be through education (as has been urged by such figures as Plato, Aristotle and Dewey). Again, utopian schemes of education cannot be successfully introduced wholesale, but existing schemes can be modified so as to transcend the dualisms which currently dominate educational thinking by exploring the ways in which their normativity implies non-dualistic normativity. The crucial features of such modification would, again, involve a recognition of the dispositional nature of objectivity. This would imply a recognition of the crucial role of the moral disposition of teachers, perhaps requiring a much larger element of the cultivation of integration in their training. It would also imply a recognition of moral integration as a central goal of education which potentially unites the normativities promoted by eternalists and nihilists in education[28].


The education of the public is also affected by governmental attitudes to a whole range of issues, including for example religion, censorship, drugs, environmental pollution, and transport. The dualism of negative and positive freedom occurs in the debates in all these areas in modern Western democracies: requiring that governments inconsistently promote both the freedom of the individual and a prescriptive line which in “private” matters (religion, censorship, drugs) is largely expressive of theistic religious concerns, and in “public” matters (pollution, transport) expresses the requirements of a holistic survey of conditions. Both the split between negative and positive freedom and that between public and private morality could be healed by the official adoption of a secular non-dualism. This would address many of the concerns of both theistic and non-theistic religion without needing to create divisions by giving state support to a particular religious tradition, yet at the same time create a more inclusive and effective form of secularism than the transcendental humanism or nationalism which often currently fills this role in the modern secular state. Secular non-dualism could stop short of Buddhism by avoiding any appeals to the Buddhist tradition, but basing itself only on the type of moral and political case I have offered here by working from first premises.


The distinction between Buddhism and secular non-dualism is, of course, a pragmatic one based only on the probably wider acceptability of secular non-dualism as a basis for public policy and the need for the state to be perceived as remaining neutral between religious communities, even if the prescriptions of some of these communities are relatively more acceptable (on the grounds of secular non-dualism) than others. A case could also be made for the continued separation of religion and state on pragmatic grounds even in a country where 100% of the population were committed Buddhists, so that religious and governmental organisations each continue to offer a critical perspective on each other’s policies[29]. Whilst the basic non-dualism of the state would be inescapable in such a scenario, and society thus likely to be a much more hospitable environment for Buddhism, acceptance of the moral authority of the Buddhist tradition and its precepts would necessarily continue to be an individual decision.


The implications of this could be seen in the rationale which guides moral policy. On the issue of censorship, for example, a non-dualist approach can offer an approach supportive of freedom of expression on pragmatic rather than metaphysical grounds. Where freedom of expression is thus not pragmatically supportive of integration, as perhaps in the case of racist material or hard pornography, a policy of censorship thus has a clear moral justification. In this case as in that of drugs policy, one of the issues to be addressed is that of the extent to which morally prescriptive law can be enforced and the extent to which it is counter-productive because repressive or unenforceable. Again, then, non-dualism could offer moral support to the kind of balanced policy which may in any case emerge through open-minded experimentation. The consensus between government and citizens would increase on such issues as they were gradually understood to be based on pragmatic morality rather than a hypocritical mixture of pragmatism that is taken to exclude morality and morality taken to exclude pragmatism. Exactly the same type of approach, rather than a discontinuous one, could be made to issues such as pollution and transport: namely that of assuming a moral normativity to begin with situated cases as well as holistic demands. Whatever strategies a government then uses to, say, discourage car use would take into account all the relevant conditions, such as the psychology of car users, without any lessening of recognition of the holistic demand.


The integration of government is only likely ever to occur through a gradual modification of existing systems and policies, in countries which are already integrated enough for democracy to succeed in addressing a broad range of conditions (which include its own limitations). It can only occur incrementally, together with interdependent integration of individuals and social groups, but this does not mean that it can only occur “piecemeal”, since an incremental approach is more likely to result from a broad survey of conditions, including holistic ones. There are some signs that such a modification is already occurring[30], but also many dualistic forces working against it that I have identified in Part 1. A wider theoretical recognition of non-dualism as the basis of morality, whilst not enough by itself to bring about such modification, forms an important condition for the continued progression of such a pragmatic modification of public policy.


iii)                Conflicts between moral and political authority


As I have suggested, the distinction between moral and political authority is in many respects unjustified: since political authority, seen non-dualistically, is merely moral authority found in the context of government. Even the exercise of political power is justified in exactly the same way as any other moral judgement, through the relative integration of the person or group wielding power, in this case relative to that of the person against whom power is being wielded. However, this does not mean that there is no pragmatic justification for separating moral and political authority.


The main pragmatic justification for the separation of moral and political authority lies in the possibility of self-deception. It is easy to believe that we, or others, possess integration which we or they do not have, and thus either exert or subject ourselves to unjustified power. Such power can be exerted at an individual level, for example through the influence of a charismatic leader, just as much as at a political level. Non-dualism does not increase the possibility of self-deception when compared to dualistic justifications of authority (for whenever it is explored thoroughly it will undermine the dogmatic foundations of such self-deceptions), but nevertheless it may be interpreted superficially or partially and used to justify abuses of power. It is for this reason that moral authority may need an independence from political authority which may enable the former to check the latter.


If our inability to fully assess the complexity of many conditions around us leads us to rely on moral authorities in order to support our moral judgements, this judgement may sometimes be in conflict with our respect for political authorities, even though both types of authority are based on adequacy to conditions. For either type of authority may not be fully integrated and thus vulnerable to errors. In some cases, governments operate on such a clearly unintegrated basis, obviously having a very poor understanding of conditions and a narrow dogmatic basis of judgement, that we really have no grounds to respect their authority. Such a government may still be, on balance, justified in exerting power against a person (such as a criminal) who is less integrated than that government, but certainly not against a person who is more integrated. Compared to a moral authority which is much more clearly integrated, there is no doubt about the priority between authorities. 


The duty of obedience to political authorities, then, only extends as far as the integration of that authority relative to my own or to the moral authorities on which I rely. Since, as I suggested in the previous sub-section, a government can be relatively integrated either through the integration of individuals who rule in a relatively authoritarian manner (pursuing policies which are relatively adequate to conditions), or through the relative integration of the group, who consent to policies even though they are less wise because they have been arrived at democratically, no moral duty to obey a government can be justified simply through the nature of the political system through which it achieves power or simply through the nature of its policies. Rather, either of these can offer relative integration according to which the rule of government is relatively justified. A government which is truly both wise and democratic becomes a moral authority in itself, but one which is neither may be little better than a criminal gang imposing its rule on the populace.


However, where I merely disagree with the policy of a government I will still have two kinds of reasons for obeying it: the realisation of my own ignorance relative to the degree of knowledge on the basis of which the government has formulated its policy, and the reflection that it has broad popular support, indicating a recognition at least of all the conditions which those who support it identify with. This latter kind of reason amounts to a recognition of my ignorance compared to a view which has at least been through the test of being conventionally accepted by a large group[31]. However, neither of these indications of the objectivity of a government policy beyond my immediate judgement may be sufficient for me to nevertheless decide that I have a moral duty to obey it.


Where it is merely my own judgement which is at stake, I still have many reasons to suspect that that judgement may be inadequate. However, where a political authority disagrees with a moral authority and their policies are irreconcilable, I have much stronger reasons for believing that I should disobey the political authority. When this occurs, political authority, which is based only on its recognition, disappears, and moral authority becomes the sole justifiable basis for my action. The separation of moral and political authority, then, in this case enabled me to see the precedence of moral authority, and that political authority is only justified insofar as it coincides with moral authority in the sphere in which it operates.


In some other imaginable cases we might think of apparent political authority justifiably correcting apparent moral authority: but there the labels “political” and “moral” only mean “public” and “private”. We might unjustifiably put our faith in a cult leader who gives instructions for us to subvert the state, or asks us merely to behave immorally in a way that she dubs “moral”: but if the state then interferes, either through force against the cult or at least through educative propaganda, then it is the relative integration of the state relative to the cult which makes the state in fact the moral authority and the position of the cult leader, who has perhaps been using psychological coercion, analogous to that of a political power without moral justification.


The precedence of genuinely moral authority over political authority which is not morally justified, though, many operate quite widely and yet rarely require disobedience of the state and its laws. This is because direct conflicts between the requirements of the state and those of morality are much rarer than the theoretical precedence of moral authority. If, for example, I am a soldier conscripted into a national army, I may be quite clear that the standard of moral judgement offered by the first precept takes precedence over the instructions of my commanders and yet happily serve in several armed conflicts, given my judgement (which depends on my interpretation of the precept) that the government’s role in these is morally justified. However, when one day the government begins to use the armed forces in unjustifiable war or repression, the precedence of moral authority is suddenly activated: I disobey my commander and desert. This action is no more or less the effect of respect for moral authority than my previous obedience and involvement in armed conflict.


Any decision to disobey the state naturally also has serious consequences which need to be taken into account when the decision is made. The state is likely to use coercion and violence against those that disobey it, and disobedience may in many cases achieve no modification in the state’s policy, unless I can also influence others to join me. A decision to disobey the state on the grounds that irreconcilable moral authority overrides the state may thus not necessarily lead immediately to overt defiance. It is an aspect of the requirement for me to reflect on the consequences of applying a precept wherever possible that I should also do so when the precept implies disobedience of the state and its laws, and avoid disobedience which is likely to bring about worse consequences than obeying the state. If I wish to disobey a policy of the state that brings about loss of life, for example, I would probably not be justified in doing so if the result brings about more loss of life, whether or not this includes my own life. Martyrdom, for example, thus has little moral justification from a non-dualist viewpoint, either as an immediate strategy or as an example to others[32].


Others can be influenced by behaviour which either obeys or disobeys the state, so that the example set should certainly be another of the conditions taken into account when deciding whether and how to defy the state. However, the strength of the argument that every breach of the law undermines political authority should not be overestimated, since if justifiable political authority is indeed a type of moral authority, a breach of the law on grounds which can be understood by others as moral simultaneously strengthens the moral authority on which justifiable political authority relies, even if it does undermine the conventions which support obedience to a particular political authority. Any action which promotes reflection and/or respect for genuinely accepted moral authority in the place of unreflective conventional behaviour carries an influence for good from a non-dualist perspective, in which conventions are not to be confused with ethics.


This concludes my discussion of non-dualist ethics and political ethics, which in this context can be not much more than an outline. The main aim of it has been to show, at least, that non-dualism can be applied to ethical issues in a specific way. I have not been able to pursue my arguments about particular ethical or political issues in much detail, but merely to indicate the lines along which they can be tackled. I hope to address practical and political ethics from a non-dualist standpoint in much more detail in future work.


On the issues raised in 8c, also see A New Buddhist Ethics, Chapter 9, Political Ethics 

[24] See 4.h.iii

[25] See 6.b.viii

[26] See 3.k.i

[27] “Democracy” is here defined as a political system in which all or most adults are eligible to elect representatives which fulfil the chief functions of legislative and executive power. See also 4.f.v.

[28] I have discussed this approach to moral and religious education in more detail in Ellis (1997)

[29] See next sub-section (8.c.iii)

[30] One example of this would be the increasing abandonment of left-wing and right-wing economic dogmas by Western governments, as exemplified by Tony Blair’s “Third Way”. Whilst the “Third Way” should on no account be confused with the Middle Way as a whole, it may offer an encouraging move towards genuine pragmatism in one particular area which now needs to be followed through in others.

[31] See 6.d.iii

[32] See 5.b.iii. and 3.f.ii.


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A Theory of Moral Objectivity: quick links to other sections


1. introduction

2a. Psychology of belief

2b. Heuristic process

2c. Psychology & philosophy

3ab. Eternalism

3cd. Plato

3e. Stoicism

3f. Christianity

3g. Kant

3h. Hegel

3i. Marx

3j. Schopenhauer

3kl. Utilitarianism

4a. Nihilism

4b. Scepticism & Aristotle

4c. Hume

4d. Analytic Philosophy

4e. Wittgenstein

4f. Pragmatism

4g. Nietzsche

4hi. Existentialists

5. Integration

6. Philosophical Problems

7. Normativity

8. Middle Way Ethics

9. Conclusion

10. Appendix



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