Can We Be Moral Without the State?

by Benjamin Studebaker

I noticed an interesting consequence of the moral theory I outlined yesterday–if it’s true, it is not possible to be moral beyond a limited scope in the absence of a state. Let me explain what I mean.So yesterday, I argued that there were three levels of morality:

  1. The Human Interest
  2. The State Interest
  3. The Individual Interest

The higher level governs the level below it. At present, we have no superstate to represent the human interest, so states exist in anarchy, but individuals are governed by states. So while individuals can pursue their own interests, they can only do so to the extent that the state determines that said individual pursuits do not conflict with a wider social interest.

What I find interesting is how very different the moral obligations of states seem to be because there is no superstate. Because there exists a state of international anarchy, it is unreasonable to expect states to care about the welfare of other states to their own detriment. States are not expected to self-sacrifice for each other, but to pursue their own interests. You can call this an amoral state of affairs or a moral state of affairs characterised by egoism on the part of the states, the point is that there is no wider concern for human welfare. The United States doesn’t decide whether or not to intervene in country X based on how an intervention affects country X; it decides on the basis of how intervening affects itself. If the United States were to act in the human interest, it would start giving away its wealth to poor parts of the world or intervening in foreign affairs purely for altruistic reasons. With the exception of a small minority on the far left, most of us agree that the US is not morally bound to do that. A state is not morally required to act as though it is a superstate; it is allowed to prioritise its own citizens and its own needs over the needs of other people and other states.

Even the liberal institutionalists, who think that anarchy need not be violent and that states can learn to get along, expect cooperation not because doing so is moral but because doing so enriches the cooperating states through trade. It is still, fundamentally, an amoral or egoist system.

So if we shift these same principles to an imaginary state of anarchy in which people live on their own, with no state or powerful regulating social institution, it looks like we are plunged into a completely amoral or egoist condition without the state. If without the superstate it is okay for states to look out for themselves and take advantage of other states, then without the state it is okay for individuals to look out for themselves and take advantage of others. It looks as if the existence of the state not only enforces a moral concern for the social interest among individuals, it looks as if its very existence is crucial for there to be a wider morality than the egoist one.

This sounds strange to me. If we woke up tomorrow and there was no government at all, suddenly it would be okay for people to rape each other, kill each other, take each other’s stuff, and so on? Desire satisfaction can become the only priority for people, and we have to just say that that’s okay?

Well, after trying to find a way out of it, I have to concede that yeah, we do. Here’s why.

Without the state, we are not responsible to anything. People often say that we are responsible to ourselves through our consciences, but they have made a basic metaphysical error. An individual cannot be divided against himself. Plato is wrong when he says that the soul is divided into a “ruling” reason and a “desiring” emotion. While reason and emotion can be talked about in the abstract as though they are distinct, in real people they are not separated out but mixed together. If I have a strong desire to do something, I will rationalise that desire with my reasoning. If I have a strong logical belief about something, I will come to desire that belief’s reality. We may sometimes be unsure of what we think or how we feel, but this is not because the different views are separate forces, but because we simply have not finished processing our priorities and coming out with what we desire. More difficult problems take longer to solve. In the end, I believe or desire or do something not with a part of my being, but with all of it.

So what is the conscience? Are we really judging ourselves? We cannot do that, because when we do a thing, we do it with our whole being. No, what we are really doing is comparing what we are doing to what is generally thought to be moral–what is generally thought to be in the social interest. So if I steal something, I do not feel bad because I have some intrinsic knowledge of “stealing is bad”, but because I am comparing myself to the social standard I have been introduced to. Many children take things from stores when they are very young because they simply are not aware that this behaviour is considered by those around them not to be in the social interest, to be wrong. The guilt they feel is the result of being informed of this social judgement; it does not come from within. It is not what is truly moral that we feel bad about violating, it is the social norms introduced to us. Now, if we live in a good society, our social norms will more or less correspond to what is truly moral, and so it can be hard to see the distinction. But if, say, you were brought up in 1830’s South Carolina and born the son or daughter of a slave-holding plantation holder, you would likely not feel any tinge of guilt at all about being a slave-holder despite the immense immorality of being in that position. The social norms you will have learned will not have corresponded with the true social interest. If you do a bad thing that is thought to be good by your community, you’re default reaction will be to think it good and feel no guilt. If you do a good thing that is thought to be bad by your community, you’re default reaction will be to think it bad and feel bad. It’s the connection between the norm and what we do that makes us feel good or bad, not whether or not what we actually do is good or bad. For this reason, our moral intuitions cannot be trusted–they reflect our cultural norms, not metaphysical truths. People are born with no moral knowledge at all; they learn from the community.

There is no community without the state, because communities are social structures, and social structures are not maintained without power relations, and where there are power relations, there is a state. No one will be taught social norms without the state or some primitive substitute for it (the family, the tribe, the village, or what have you).

If there’s no state and I decide to start taking people captive and torturing them for my own amusement, I am making the world a worse place in which to live, but I am not acting immorally, because I do not have any social ethical standard to which to compare my behaviour. Morality requires responsibility, and those who are ignorant through no fault of their own cannot be held responsible. It is the state’s job to create that standard and to come as close as possible to matching that standard with what is truly in the social interest. States that do a bad job of this too often are bad states, and if we live in a bad state and can think of a better structure that’s more likely to produce this harmony between our social norms and what is actually good for us, then we are obliged to overthrow the current state and replace it with the new one.

Now, what about god? Say we accept, for the sake of argument, that everyone is born with an idea of god. It is nonetheless demonstrably true that the nature of this idea varies widely. People who are born in some parts of the world have the Hindu idea of god, in other parts the Christian, in other parts the Muslim, and so on. And thinking fourth-dimensionally, people in the past had other ideas as well–the Greek, or the Norse, or what have you. In each of these permutations, the moral views said to belong to the god or gods in question differed. It therefore stands to reason that even if everyone were born a deist, no one is born a specific type of theist. The moral views we attribute to deities cannot come from them but must come from our communities and social structures. They represent social norms that correspond in varying degrees to the true social interest, and are in no way different from the social norms we get from our parents, our schools, and, ultimately, our states. Given that our states usually are the ones emphasising, to some degree or another, religious belief, whether it be a particular religion or simply permitting our parents to teach us whatever they like, even social norms derived from religion are ultimately from the state.

Thankfully, true anarchy is very nearly impossible. The breakdown of the state typically just results in smaller primitive state structures through the family or through various local institutions, and even were there to be a true interval of anarchy, people would hold onto the social norms taught to them by the previous regime until new institutions arose, though they would do so without any ability to expect reward for following them or punishment for failing to do so beyond what the stateless individuals around them would inflict. It becomes in the self-interest to act as one would in a state in anarchy to the extent that the vestigial social norms left by the departed state continue to influence the way individuals expect to be treated by one another during the anarchy. Of course, given enough time, and a true lack of any state institutions at all (even parenting, in the absence of all else, is a primitive state institution), those vestigial social norms would fail to be replaced in the next generation and would rot away. The penalties or rewards inflicted by one’s fellows for not following or following the old moral system would decrease to the point at which the egoist thing to do would be entirely divorced from the social interest altogether. But of course, such a condition can’t happen as long as parents act as states unto their children, which I imagine is more or less a permanent facet of human nature even in the most chaotic of political climates. The states may be very small, and the communal interests very narrowly defined (the family interest, the tribal interest, the city-state interest, or what have you), but it is always in man’s nature to create states and to aspire to moral goals larger than himself. Even the egoist senses ultimately, on some level, that it is in his own interest to be governed by some greater interest than himself, and that is perhaps the very best element in the human character.