Book 2, Chapter 01 : Introduction
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Book 2, Chapter 01
Nature of the inquiry.-Connection of politics and morals.- Mistakes to which the inquiry has been exposed.-Distinction between society and government.
IN the preceding book we have cleared the foundations for the remaining branches of inquiry, and shown what are the prospects it is reasonable to entertain as to future political improvement. The effects which are produced by positive institutions have there been delineated, as well as the extent of the powers of man, considered in his social capacity. It is time that we proceed to those disquisitions which are more immediately the object of the present work.
Political inquiry may be distributed under two heads: first, what are the regulations which will conduce to the well being of man in society; and, secondly, what is the authority which is competent to prescribe regulations.
The regulations to which the conduct of men living in society ought to be conformed may be considered in two ways: first, those moral laws which are enjoined upon us by the dictates of enlightened reason; and, secondly, those principles a deviation from which the interest of the community may be supposed to render it proper to repress by sanctions and punishment.
Morality is that system of conduct which is determined by a consideration of the greatest general good: he is entitled to the highest moral approbation whose conduct is, in the greatest number of instances, or in the most momentous instances, governed by views of benevolence, and made subservient to public utility. In like manner the only regulations which any political authority can be justly entitled to enforce are such as are best adapted to public utility. Consequently, just political regulations are nothing more than a certain select part of moral law. The supreme power in a state ought not, in the strictest sense, to require anything of its members that an understanding sufficiently enlightened would not prescribe without such interference.1
These considerations seem to lead to the detection of a mistake which has been very generally committed by political writers of our own country. They have for the most part confined their researches to the question of What is a just political authority or the most eligible form of government, consigning to others the delineation of right principles of conduct and equitable regulations. But there appears to be something preposterous in this mode of proceeding. A well constituted government is only the means for enforcing suitable regulations. One form of government is preferable to another in exact proportion to the security it affords that nothing shall be done in the name of the community which is not conducive to the welfare of the whole. The question therefore, What it is which is thus conducive, is upon every account entitled to the first place in our disquisitions.
One of the ill consequences which have resulted from this distorted view of the science of politics is a notion very generally entertained, that a community, or society of men, has a right to lay down whatever rules it may think proper for its own observance. This will presently be proved to be an erroneous position.2 It may be prudent in an individual to submit in some cases to the usurpation of a majority; it may be unavoidable in a community to proceed upon the imperfect and erroneous views they shall chance to entertain: but this is a misfortune entailed upon us by the nature of government, and not a matter of right.3
A second ill consequence that has arisen from this proceeding is that, politics having been thus violently separated from morality, government itself has no longer been compared with its true criterion. Instead of inquiring what species of government was most conducive to the public welfare, an unprofitable disquisition has been instituted respecting the probable origin of government; and its different forms have been estimated, not by the consequences with which they were pregnant, but the source from which they sprung. Hence men have been prompted to look back to the folly of their ancestors, rather than forward to the benefits derivable from the improvements of human knowledge. Hence, in investigating their rights, they have recurred less to the great principles of morality than to the records and charters of a barbarous age. As if men were not entitled to all the benefits of the social state till they could prove their inheriting them from some bequest of their distant progenitors. As if men were not as justifiable and meritorious in planting liberty in a soil in which it had never existed as in restoring it where it could be proved only to have suffered a temporary suspension.
The reasons here assigned strongly tend to evince the necessity of establishing the genuine principles of society, before we enter upon the direct consideration of government. It may be proper in this place to state the fundamental distinction which exists between these topics of inquiry. Man associated at first for the sake of mutual assistance. They did not foresee that any restraint would be necessary to regulate the conduct of individual members of the society towards each other, or towards the whole. The necessity of restraint grew out of the errors and perverseness of a few. An acute writer has expressed this idea with peculiar felicity "Society and government," says he, "are different in themselves, and have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness. Society is in every state a blessing; government even in its best state but a necessary evil."4
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