The Person as a Political Being

 The philosophical and sociological understanding of the person extends to the debate in political theory, for instance, between liberalism and communitarianism or between the philosophes, a group of thinkers in 18th century France who believed on the supremacy of reason, and their conservative critics or between “transcendental institutionalism” and contextualism—or “realization-focused comparison” approach to justice as Amartya Sen (2009) calls it.

In the debate between liberalism and communitarianism is an underlying presupposition of the person. The former contends that individuals are isolated beings, while the latter claims that human beings are primordially social. The former also believes that individuals have inherent rights that cannot be jeopardized in favor of the social life, while the latter believes that the social order, customs, and traditions are more primal in regulating or shaping the lives of individuals. The liberalism-communitarianism controversy is reminiscent of the tension between the philosophes and their conservative critics—personified by Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau on one camp and by Louis de Bonald, Joseph de Maistre on the other.

Like the liberal and communitarian debate, the “transcendental institutionalism” and contextualism debate is grounded on a fundamental understanding of the person. “Transcendental institutionalism”, which stems from Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, to Kant and Rawls, argue that justice, that is, a perfectly just society lies in the “transcendental identification of the ideal institutions.” This means that justice is realized when “ideal institutions” which will regulate social behavior are firmly established. These institutions are deliberately chosen by individuals to address the demands of justice, such as respect for individual rights and dignity.  As rational animals, this tradition believes that human beings ought to transcend their egoistic interests and act on behalf of the interests of all. Thus, it expected that “right behavior” follows after establishing the institutions of the society.

Meanwhile, contextualism, a tradition coming from Adam Smith, Marx, Condorcet, Bentham, and others, starts with a belief that justice, particularly social justice, is achieved by addressing concrete forms of injustices rather than achieving a perfectly just society. This tradition is skeptical to the possibility of “reasoned agreement” even if it is done “under strict conditions of impartiality.” It also believes that the quest for a just society involves an actual choice of several alternative social arrangements and not on the identification of “unavailable perfect situation” (Sen, 2009, 7-10). In other words, contextualism adheres to the idea that a just society is realized in actual social arrangement.

It is important to note, however, that whether or not one adheres to liberalism or communitarianism, to the philosophes or the conservative, or to transcendental institutionalism or to contextualism, is not an issue here. Those viewpoints only serve as blueprints for political actions or as guides or frameworks by which we could improve our political and social arrangements.  I think the lesson that we could learn from these concepts is this: the person ought to live a life of dignity, a life befit of a human being. Each of those political beliefs may have divergent accounts of the person, that they may have differing notions of an ideal society and on how to achieve them, but they tell us one thing: human beings ought to live in a kind of society characterized by justice and peace, where each is valued and where social development is founded on human flourishing. But if this kind of society is to be achieved, then a corresponding political behavior is expected from individuals. To illustrate this point, I will elucidate two political behavior as espoused by philosophical anarchism and deliberative democracy, particularly, Habermas.

Philosophical anarchism is a political position which argues that the person does not have a moral duty to obey the law—a moral duty to obey the law means that the person obeys the law because it requires it. There are two versions of this position, the a priori and a posteriori philosophical anarchism. The former is articulated by Robert Paul Wolff, while the former is argued by John A. Simmons.

Wolff and Simmons argue that the moral duty to obey the law is a concomitant behavior vis-à-vis legitimate authority. But they argue that no political authority is legitimate, thus, making the individual free from her moral duty to obey the law.

Wolff (1970, pp. 18-19), based his philosophical anarchist argument from the mutual incompatibility between autonomy and political authority. According to him, autonomy entails self-rule while political authority requires obedience. Autonomy is man’s ontological condition while the right to rule is the state’s inherent character. Wolff is, thus, saying that if the person wants to exercise her autonomy she must deny the state’s right to rule. If the person recognizes the state’s right to rule she must deny her autonomy. For Wolff, the individual must either deny her autonomy and obey the state or deny the state’s right to rule and exercise her autonomy. But the person cannot deny her autonomy because it violates her ontological condition. The person, therefore, ought to negate the state’s authority which implies that the existence of the state per se is a priori illegitimate. For Wolff, therefore, no state can be legitimate.

On the other hand, Simmons (1979, pp. 196-197), argues that a state is only legitimate if it has the right to command its citizens. And for him, the right to command is only acquired through consent. Consent is only realized when the “particularity “and “generality” requirements are achieved.

The particularity requirement refers to the idea that consent must be given by the particular individual. Through consent a particular moral bond between the individual and the state is established. This bond only holds for the both of them. The generality requirement is met when all individuals, under the domain of a particular state, give their consent to the state; if all individuals have given their consent then the state has gained the right to command to all individuals within its domain. For Simmons, a successful account of the legitimacy must be able to show that each individual is bound to the state. A single non-consenting individual alone renders the state illegitimate; this is hardly the case in all states.

For Wolff and Simmons, state legitimacy “ties” the citizens to the state. Being “tied” to the state means that the individuals are politically obligated to obey the law. But this is not the case rendering the person free from her moral duty to obey the law.

For philosophical anarchists, there are only two alternatives, namely, to obey the state and surrender one’s autonomy or to exercise one’s autonomy and negate the state’s authority. The philosophical anarchists’ position oversimplifies the person’s political condition. Philosophical anarchism may be right to suspect the state’s authority, given its enormous power. For this doctrine, it is right to assert that the person should not blindly follow the law. But it is wrong to think that the state is only a coercive instrument. By asserting that the person has no moral duty to obey the law, philosophical anarchism recommends a withdrawal from the political realm and act only on the basis of her own enclaves.  In this sense, to follow and agree with the philosophical anarchists is to be apolitical. And, hence, following the law in this context depends on the individual.

Meanwhile, deliberative democracy offers an alternative political position, one which does not succumb to political authority while also avoiding a total resentment to the state and its laws. For the deliberative democrats, the person ought to critically engage with the state through the process of lawmaking. To elucidate this point, Jürgen Habermas’s, a famous contemporary German thinker and one of the major proponents of deliberative politics, deliberative politics is succinctly presented below.

For Habermas (1996), deliberative politics is a political ideal which asserts that people’s participation in politics through opinion and will-formation or lawmaking is imperative. Like philosophical anarchism, it believes that the person should not just follow the law. But in contrast, it argues that individuals ought to participate in the process of lawmaking because it makes the law rational. By participating in the process of lawmaking, the addressees of the law also become its authors. In this sense, as Habermas argues, the individuals become the maker and follower of laws.

Habermas (1995) believes that in democracy, the collective goals of the society is realized and implemented through the medium of law. Ideally, therefore, the state does not act without a legal sanction. But once a legal mandate is provided the state is expected to carry and implement it “even though the heavens fall”. In short, the coercive character of the state is sanctioned by the law. And inasmuch as the law sanctions it, then individuals ought to participate in lawmaking to supply the rational character of the law.

Deliberative democracy, therefore, recognizes that the state is necessary to achieve the collective goals of society. It believes that the state is a necessary supplement to compel individuals to follow the agreement reached through public discourse. It is saying that the moment an agreement is reached, the state is presupposed to carry and implement it.

Habermas’s notion of deliberative politics then enjoins individuals to participate in the political life of the society through deliberation and persuasion, because in this process, individual interests are negotiated and tuned-in with the interests of the public.  Without it, as Habermas argues, the laws of the society and the corresponding state actions are disconnected with the society, thus, rendering it empty and useless.

Finally, while philosophical anarchism proposes a withdrawal from public life, deliberative politics encourages it. While the former only sees the law and the state as coercive instruments, the latter views it as both rational and coercive. Public engagement through discussion and persuasion, therefore, supplies the necessary rational character of the law. In this sense, we can rightly say that public life cannot be reduced to either having a moral duty to obey the law or not. Indeed, it is much more complex than that.