A Philosopher's Blog

God’s Vigilantes

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on January 6, 2012
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In anticipation of teaching my Modern philosophy class in the upcoming spring semester, I have been perusing my notes. Since I recently did a post on God and punishment, re-reading Locke got me thinking about this matter once again.

Locke, like other political thinkers of his age, made use of the state of nature in his consideration of rights and authority. Roughly put, the state of nature is a situation in which there is no political authority: no politicians, no police, no judges, no man-made laws and so on. In short, there is no artificial society-just people existing in a natural state.

Thomas Hobbes also envisioned such a state, but he saw this as  a state of perpetual war. Since many of my students play video games, I always illustrate Hobbes as presenting a “death match” view of the state of nature: everyone against everyone, whatever you can grab is yours (until someone kills you and takes it), and so forth.  Locke, however, envisioned a nicer state in which people possessed natural rights to life, liberty and property.

Locke also contended that there is a law of nature that should be observed and that this law “wills the peace and preservation of all mankind.” Locke also noted the obvious: if there is no one to execute or enforce the law of nature, this law would be in vain.

To solve this problem, Locke claimed that in the state of nature everyone has the right to execute the law of nature by punishing wrongdoers who violate the right to life, liberty or property.  Locke, of course, grounds these rights on God. Our right to life rests on his view that we are God’s property and our right to property rests, in part, on God’s gift of the world to us. Put a bit simply, God is the legislator of the law of nature and the author of our rights. However, given what Locke claims, God respects the distinction between the executive and the legislative in that He does not enforce the law of nature nor does He act to prevent or punish (on earth) the violation of rights. He does not even dispatch angels to act as divine police. As such, on Locke’s view the state of nature is governed by divine law but God does deploy any enforcers.

In human societies when laws exist but there are no official enforcers, people sometimes turn to vigilantism. That is, people take the law into their own hands. In human societies, this practice is generally frowned upon-at least when law enforcement does exist. It is, as might be imagined, tolerated more (or even encouraged) when official law enforcement is lacking.

Given that in the state of nature there is law (the law of nature) but no official enforcers, what Locke is arguing for is vigilantism. In short, he calls upon people to serve as God’s vigilantes. Naturally, it might be wondered why God would need vigilantes rather than having official law enforcement in operation. After all, God surely cannot lack the funding or personnel to provide adequate policing. Given that He supposedly created the universe and all its contents, surely He could create a divine police force to supervise us here on earth. This force would not, of course, impede our free will anymore than our own police forces do: people are always free to chose to do wrong-they just get punished if they get caught and convicted.

As far as the view that God does not punish and hence does not need police , given what most faiths claim, God has no compunction against punishing people. He just seems rather reluctant to do so when people are watching.

It might be argued that God has deployed a police force, namely us. We are, of course, also the criminal element and the judges as well. However, this seems a rather odd way of doing things. Consider the following analogy: imagine a federation or empire with unlimited resources that is engaged in colonization. The way it colonizes is that it just dumps people on a habitable world, but provides them with no technology, no police, no education and so on. While this would make some sense for a poor empire that cannot afford proper colonization efforts, this would seem absurd for such a wealthy empire.

In the case of God, it seems absurd that He would just dump us on a planet and have us “go to it” on our own with no support or police.  This hypothesis seems, on might suspect, more absurd than the hypothesis that humans are the result of a seriously lame (or badly failed) colonization attempt by a space empire. After all, to say that we are ruled over by a God who makes rules, but provides no police or judges here on earth seems rather like saying that we are ruled over by a space empire that laid down our laws, but provides no police, judges or any contact with us.

This analogy also provides the obvious response to the claim that God punishes people in the afterlife. Imagine if someone claimed that we are part of a space empire and that just before people appear to die they are whisked away by transporters and their bodies replaced with duplicates. The supposedly dead people are then brought to the Court of the Space Empire and then tried by Space Lawyers before the Space Judges. If they are found guilty of crimes, they are cast into Space Hell to be punished. If they are found to be innocent, they are transported to Space Heaven and rewarded. Naturally, we are all really immortal-we just seem to die when we are transported away and replaced by a fake corpse (or ashes or whatever).

Just as we have every reason to think that the space empire story is just bad science fiction, it would seem that we should think that the story about God is just a bad fantasy story.

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2 Responses

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  1. anon said, on January 6, 2012 at 9:25 am

    I’d have to agree that “natual law” equates to a “death match”. Locke’s beliefs of a natural state where EVERYBODY possed natural rights to to life, liberty and property is an old, and ignorant way of thinking that
    1) people are more special than we really are
    2) what I want MUST be natural (I’ll throw in god somewhere too so if somebody disagres w/ me I can call them a non believer)

    The ironic/funny thing is that a lot of people who shared beliefs with Locke don’t truly believe it to be so since some of those same people owned slaves which I’d say violates his “natural rights to liberty”. Even Locke himself was an investor in the slave trade, a trade that was all about removing/preventing the liberty of people as well as the right to life in many cases as well.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 6, 2012 at 3:07 pm

      Interestingly, Locke argues that an attempt to enslave a person creates a state of war and warrants killing the person trying to enslave.


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