Civil Government

What is government?

Government is the restraint that a person exercises either on himself or on others.


What is civil government?

The word civil refers to a community.  It comes from the latin word civilis which originally referred to a citizen or a member of a given community.  Ove time, it came to be used as an adjective referring to those matters that pertain to citizens or to life as a citizen.  Thus civil rights are the rights people enjoy in a community; a civil war is a war between the members of the same community.  A civil government is the restraint exercised on a group of people.


What gives a person the right to govern himself?

Because he is born as a human person.


Why are human persons entitled to self-government?

It’s not that humans are entitled to self-government but only humans are capable of governing anything.  This is because only humans are moral.


What do you mean here by moral?

The word moral is used to refer to our choices.  Humans act for a purpose or end.  Once they have determined on this purpose, they then go on to act in such a way that they think will best enable them to reach that goal.  This purpose is what we call a motive, and this is why human behavior can be either moral or immoral.


Are humans unique in this respect?  Can animals not be moral?

Only humans are moral because only human actions are free.  Every choice an animal makes is determined by their instincts; they do not freely choose their purpose for acting; and therefore they cannot make free decisions.  Furthermore, God has also given every human person the ability to step out of himself and to look back at himself.  Humans have the ability to think reflexively or to assess their own behavior.


Did God create people with this ability?

Yes, this is what the Bible calls the image of God.


But why does this give every human the right to govern themselves?

Because every person has the right to freely choose his own reasons for acting.  No one should be compelled to act in a way that they did not freely choose.  This is what it means to be free.  If a person chooses to restrain himself in a given area of his life, he has the right to do that.


Does one person have the right to constrain another?

Normally, he does not.  There are two exceptions to this.  First, God can directly give a person this right; second, someone can receive this right when the people who will be governed give their consent to be governed by him.


What is the purpose of civil government?

The purpose of government is to protect the rights of every person to act freely.


What do you mean here by rights?

A right is something over which you have power.  In this case, every person has the power to choose his own ends or goals.  It is something other people are bound to respect.  Wherever there are rights, there are duties; these two always go together.  Where a person has a set of rights, other people have the duty and obligation to respect those rights.  Blackstone distinguishes (p87):

Rights are however liable to another subdivision; being either, first, those which concern, and are annexed to the persons of men, and are then called jura personarum or the rights of persons; or they are, secondly, such as a man may acquire over external objects, or things unconnected with his person, which are styled jura rerum or the rights of things.


But on what basis can a person claim to have a given right?

Some rights belong to a person simply because he is a human.  Other rights, are given to us by governing authorities.


What rights does a person have simply because he is a human?

There are different ways of stating these.  A lengthy elaboration of these rights are given in the universal declaration of human rights.  The US declaration of independence states them simply as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  That to secure these rights…

Others have changed these slightly to life, liberty, and property.  Blackstone calls them “absolute rights” (p89):

The absolute rights of man, considered as a free agent, endowed with discernment to know good from evil, and with power of choosing those measures which appear to him to be most desirable, are usually summed up in one general appellation, and denominated the natural liberty of mankind. This natural liberty consists properly in a power of acting as one thinks fit, without any restraint or control, unless by the law of nature: being a right inherent in us by birth, and one of the gifts of God to man at his creation, when he endued him with the faculty of free will.

The important thing to remember is that these rights are unalienable.


What do you mean by unalienable?

Unalienable means inseparable.  The point here is that these rights belong to a person simply because they are human.  No other person gave him these rights and no person or group of persons can remove them.  They are inseparable from the person himself.  As long as he remains a person, he is entitled to these rights.


You stated above that the function of government is to ensure that people’s rights are protected.  In what way are rights in danger of being lost or damaged?

In two ways:

  • Some people are evil and will use their greater strength to force people to give up their right to self-government and to be governed by another.
  • Rights often come into conflict.  When person A claims a right to practice shooting his high-powered rifle in an urban setting, person B, who also lives in that neighborhood, is bound to complain that her rights are being violated.  Here we have an example of one person exercising his right to act, but in such a way that it compromises the exercise of someone else’s right.  Now there is a conflict; who gets to keep their right?  How will this be resolved?  Many hate speech laws are based on this principle; i.e. that one’s right to free speech is limited by another person’s right not to be offended.


Governments then are established to adjudicate and resolve these conflicts.   

Yes, that is correct.  Governments are established both to apprehend and punish those who would take someone else’s rights by force and to resolve a clash of rights.  Locke writes (p191):

But though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of license: though man in that state have an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions, yet he has not liberty to destroy himself, or so much as any creature in his possession, but where some nobler use than its bare preservation calls for it. The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for our’s. Every one, as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station willfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.


What principles are to guide us in resolving a conflict between rights?

In a word, justice.  The principles of justice must be applied to each situation, specifically here the principles of distributive justice.  This starts with the idea that every person owns himself.  From this, we go on to conclude that every person also has a right to the products of their own labor.  If you go out in the woods, chop down a tree, and form that tree into a chair, then that chair is yours.  You own it, and you have a right to it.  Locke writes (p209):

Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labor of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labor with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state nature hath placed it in, it hath by this labor something annexed to it, that excludes the common right of other men: for this labor being the unquestionable property of the laborer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.

You do not have a right to anything that you did not produce.


What are we to think of the UN’s definition of human rights?

The UN’s website has the following definition:

Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status.  Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more.  Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.

First, regarding the words “…or any other status.”  Those persons who forcibly violate the rights of others, by this action, forfeit their own rights and are subject to punishment and to make restitution.  Second, the list of rights is correct with the exception of work and education.  If this is understood to mean that everyone has a right to seek work, start their own business, and to work wherever they please, then it is certainly correct.  Same is true with regards to education.  No one, however, has a right to a job or to attend a school.  They have a right to purchase such things and to pursue them any way they are able.


How do governments protect the rights of people?

By writing laws and punishing those who disobey them.


What is the purpose of these laws?

They articulate in words the principles of natural law.


What is natural law?

Natural law are all those moral principles which we can discover without reading the Bible.  Or to state it another way, all those moral principles which come to us via general revelation and not special revelation.  See here.


















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