Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Enlightenment Philosophy: The Purpose of Government...

What are the primary purposes of government? Explain using examples from the writings of Enlightenment thinkers.

At the beginning of man’s existence, humans lived in a natural state.  There was no concept of society, government, or politics – people simply sough to live instinctively and efficiently.  Survival was key.  There was neither a moral nor ethical set of rules nor any accepted behavioral codes, just self-interest.  However, this unconditional freedom, in which anybody could do whatever they pleased, was not to everyone’s benefit.  Life and security were very volatile and could be dramatically altered at anybody’s unquestioned whim.  This insecurity and lack of reliability gave way to the creation of society and government. 
            Humanity wanted an institution whose purpose it was to protect their “life, liberty, and property.”  Notably, this could only be done if people surrendered some of their natural rights, for their benefit, nevertheless.  Thomas Hobbes, the English author of Leviathan, explains that there is natural conflict when in this state of nature.  He argues that governments come about to withhold some of these natural rights in return to stifle conflict and better society.  John Locke, an English philosopher of the Enlightenment period, explains in his Two Treatises of Government that government arises because the people want it to protect their natural rights, in this case: “life, liberty, and property.”  Therefore, power lies in the hands of the people.  This idea is also known as popular sovereignty, which was a major challenge to the monarchies of the day.  In England, for example, monarchs claimed to rule by the divine right of kings.  John Locke suggested that monarchs do not possess the power they so arrogantly think they have, but rather that it lies “essentially in the nation.”  To further the example, the British monarchy was very harsh and blatantly rescinded rights from its people.  Locke goes on to propose that because the people consent to the creation of a government with intended purposes, its straying from these intentions allows the people to institute a new, more fitting government.  In other words, when the government fails to protect the lives, liberty, and property of its people, then they have a “right of rebellion.”
            Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a French philosophe, expounds on Hobbe’s and Locke’s ideas with his Social Contract.  He affirms the idea that the losing of certain natural rights bears in return a society characterized by security and freedom.  More importantly, he argues that the only way to benefit from government is to directly participate in it.  This would challenge the ideas held by monarchs at the time, who believed that civilians should be completely deprived of all say in the government.  Rousseau also believed that there should be a separation of church and state, and consequently, freedom of religion.  These two ideas affirm the idea that governments should not limit the wants of the people if they do not threaten the general will.
            In essence, Enlightenment philosophers proposed revolutionary ideas that challenged the rulers of their time.  BY proposing their rational ideas on what governments are intended to be, they set the ball rolling for future governments and their relations with the governed.

No comments: