Common Sense Morality vs. Common Sense Political Philosophy

Huemer contrasts common sense morality with common sense political philosophy:

My attitudes toward common sense might seem inconsistent. On the one hand, I consider the most widely shared ethical intuitions reasonable premises on which to rely. On the other hand, I claim that some very widely shared political beliefs are fundamentally mistaken. The claim that there are some legitimate governments is not very controversial; nearly everyone, whether on the left or the right of the political spectrum, takes that for granted. Why, then, do I not accept the existence of legitimate states as a starting premise, just as I accept common sense beliefs about personal ethics?

One reason is that I have never shared other people’s political intuitions, if that is what they are. I share most of the normative intuitions of my society, such as that one must not steal from, kill, or otherwise harm other individuals (except in certain special cases, such as self-defense); that one should generally tell the truth and keep one’s promises; and so on. But it never seemed to me that there were people with the right to rule over others, and it never seemed to me that anyone was obligated to obey a law merely because it was the law.

My intuitions are not entirely idiosyncratic. In contemporary political discourse, there is a vocal minority who advocate drastic reductions in the size of government . Often, they defend their views in practical terms (government programs don’t work) or in terms of absolutist claims about individual rights. But I think these arguments miss the main issue. I believe the true, underlying motivation is a broad skepticism about political authority: at bottom, the advocates of smaller government simply do not see why the government should be permitted to do so many things that no one else would be permitted to do. Even if you do not share this skeptical attitude, I would caution against simply dismissing the intuitions of those with differing ideologies. Human beings are highly fallible in political philosophy, and clashes of intuitions are frequent. Objectivity requires each of us to give serious consideration to the possibility that it is we who have the mistaken intuitions.

Those who begin with an intuition that some states possess authority may be brought to give up that intuition if it turns out, as I aim to show, that the belief in political authority is incompatible with common sense moral beliefs. There are three reasons for preferring to adhere to common sense morality rather than common sense political philosophy: first, as I have suggested, common sense political philosophy is more controversial than common sense morality. Second, even those who accept orthodox political views are usually more strongly convinced of common sense morality than they are of common sense political philosophy. Third, even those who intuitively accept authority may at the same time have the sense that this authority is puzzling – that some explanation is required for why some people should have this special moral status – in a way that it is not puzzling, for example, that it should be wrong to attack others without provocation. The failure to find any satisfactory account of political authority may therefore lead one to give up the belief in authority rather than to give up common sense moral beliefs.

Huemer, Michael (2012-10-29). The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey (pp. 16-17). Palgrave Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

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