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A legitimate role for government?

By Phillip Elias - posted Wednesday, 24 August 2005

Is there a legitimate role for the government in shaping the values and attitudes of its citizens?

The answer for most individuals in Western democratic nations is a resounding “No”.

“There is no such thing as a good influence Mr Gray. All influence is immoral - immoral from the scientific point of view.” Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray.


We generally acknowledge the reign of individual self-interest in market matters, and equivocally hail the private conscience in moral matters. We are “moral sovereigns”. We have crowned ourselves. Like Napoleon at Notre Dame, we have wrested this title from temporal and spiritual authority.

In this short essay I will attempt to replace our spontaneous “No” with a qualified “Yes”. I question the viability of a social order that upholds the person as absolute individual, its values as absolutely personal and its freedom as absolute autonomy. First, I question our ability to put these theoretical absolutes into practice. Second, I think in the extent to which they are practiced, they are creating what Anne Manne calls “the shadowland of moral chaos”: increasing suicide rates, depression, drug and alcohol abuse and the breakdown of marriage and families.

Our “No” rests on the philosophical presumptions of the Enlightenment. Since then, society, values and freedom have been considered as “accessories” to the human person, rather than as constitutive elements. As a result, our concept of the human person has been losing weight. We are at a stage where Milan Kundera can talk about “the unbearable lightness of being”.

Thus my focus is not political, juridical or sociological. It is fundamentally about the philosophy of the human person. I believe that by reviving an Aristotelian conception of the human person, its natural rights and the natural law, we will have a basis for answering “Yes” to our original question.

The role of government in shaping the values of citizens depends very much on how one understands the relationship between the individual and society. Socialism claims that the individual can be fulfilled only by dissolving into the projects and aims of the state. In this scenario, the values of the government are those of the individual. Liberal thought has resisted socialism over the past century by reasserting the human person’s individuality and rationality. It draws upon the definition of a person given by Boethius; an individual substance of a rational nature. There will be no end to the need for this insistence. It is the basis for Kant’s categorical imperative. A human person must always be treated as an end in itself, never as a means to an end.

The problem for liberalism has been how to join individuals into an authentic social unit. The theory of the social contract contains some anomalies that I believe are closely associated with our current moral crisis, and may explain our philosophical inability to reconcile the state and the individual.


First, if our rights in society are governed merely by the social contract we happen to be a party to, what is the basis for so-called human rights? For example, if a particular society values the circumcision of women, do other societies have any right to interfere? Human rights, or natural rights, are rights that we have by virtue of our humanity. And as Roger Scruton succinctly points out in Modern Philosophy: An Introduction and Survey, “natural rights lie outside the social contract”.

Second, does the exclusion of government from our values-choices automatically make these choices autonomous? We are influenced by and draw our ideas from a multiplicity of social settings. Among these upbringing, education and the media are probably most significant. These influences can be positive or negative.

Finally, are we really satisfied with a social contract as the basis for our being governed? In the postmodern West we are witnessing what Scruton in The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat continuum, calls a “culture of repudiation”. It is the consequence of an inadequate anthropology. We espouse a quasi-anarchism while almost unconsciously being supported by the structures of government. In our fixation with the idea of a voluntary contract we forget that “obedience is part of life for people who think themselves autonomous”.

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This essay will be published in the Spring edition of Policy magazine. It won joint first prize in the Centre for Independent Studies Ross Parish Essay Competition 2005, supported by the John Bonython Lecture and Scholarship Fund.

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About the Author

Phillip Elias is an Arts/Medicine student at UNSW. He completed Honours in History last year.

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