We, humans build communities. As our societies grew, since the dawns of history, so did the size of our communities – and we reaped a lot of benefits from this. Yet, the ‘scaling up’ process -while raising our standard of living - has some costs associated with it, too…
Part 1 of this series looked at the significance of Dunbar’s number (about 150): the number of people who comfortably fit into our Monkeysphere (that is, the people we relate to as individuals, rather than statistics). This is about the maximum size of our community, before we start ‘scaling up’ by perceiving ‘others’ as concepts, rather than individuals….the reason why the suffering of our parent or child ’touches’ us more than that of a stranger.
In Part 2 , I tried to demonstrate how scaling our communities up meant heaving to sacrifice some of our individuality (having to interact with more people than can fit into our Monkeyshpere – and whose Monkeyspheres we cannot fit into) but that the benefits of this, specialization and greater productivity, benefits us by allowing us to reach a higher standard of living. The side-effect of this scaling up of communities is the emergence of governance structures.
Here, I would like to look at one of the many implications of scaling governance structures up – and the emrgence of a specific group of people to administer them: the ‘civil servants’.
I cannot remember which king is said to have uttered: ‘I AM the State!’ – perhaps there were many. Yet, most ’states’ (and here, I use the word state to mean a political association with sovereignity over a defined geographic area) today are not ‘a person’. ’State’ is a concept which only exists when real flesh-and-blood people act as its agents.
In other words, a ‘state’ cannot ‘do’ anything ‘physical’, because it is not a corporeal being in and of itself. A ‘state’ cannot pick up a stapeler, or a gun – or write a constitution. It is individual people, the agents of the state, who act on behalf of the state: they carry out the actions necessary to establish the state’s existence and perform the physical actions needed to fulfill the obligations of the state in the social contract between it and the the polulace which created it.
As we have already seen in the earlier parts, as we, humans, get more successful at ‘community building’, our communities get bigger and we can no longer decide each ‘common position’ in the same way we used to: we no longer know every other member of our society personally, so the methods of the ‘smaller scale community’ are no longer applicable.
By ’scaling up’ our communities, through our social contract, we have chosen to give away some of our individual decision-making choices and agreed, in certain areas of our life, to abide by the decisions that ’the group’ has arrived at. The group may choose to accept the decisions of its leader, or each citizen may be able to vote on every desision, with the majority opinion becoming binding on the group – or any number of other methods…but that is not the point of this post.
The point I am making is that once this ‘group decision’ is achieved on a specific topic, it becomes the ‘law’ (OK, I am simplifying the process – but not the principle) or ‘policy’ of the ‘state’. This ‘group decision’ is implemented/enacted/put into practice/fulfilled through the governance structures of the state – with ‘the civil servants’ acting as ’the agents of state’ who carry out the actions necessary to enact (enforce, fulfill, etc.) it.
In democratic systems – and I am specifically referring to our ‘Western Democracies’ – it is not likely that every citizen will agree fully with every ‘law’ or ‘policy’ of the state. And, in our Western systems, that is a good thing, because it is through open debate that we grow. (OK, so this bit is more theoretical, lately, than most of us would like, but in principle…)
And this is where we run into a real problem, a bit where the ‘scaling up’ of our community creates a moral dilema: what happens when the civil servants – the very agents whose actions are the only means for the state to act in order to fulfill its social contrats with its citizens - what happens when these agents of the states personally disagree with what they are obligated to implement?
While they are ‘off the clock’ as private citizens, they have every right to be the individuals they truly are. Yet, while they are acting as agents of the state – what should govern their behaviour? Their inividual views and opinions, or the policies/laws the society has agreed to accept?
Difficult question, to say the least.
IF they should follow the ‘social contract’ mindlessly, they risk becoming the very agents of injustice, of ‘tyranny of the majority’ – and atrocities like the Holocaust could NOT have happened without ‘agents of the state’ refusing to enact immoral policies, blindly putting into practice the unthinkable. Never again!
On the other hand - what happens if the majority of the citizens approve a just law, yet one which is not favourable to the civil servants? What if it is designed to protect a minority – but not a minority that (for some unknown reason) the majority of civil servants do not respect? Or, what if it is meant to curb the intrusion of civil servants into citizens’ lives? It is not unprecedented that most of the agents of the state would be morally opposed – or, at least, personally unwilling – to bring these policies/laws into practice…
So, where does the balance lie?
At which point should the civil servants set aside their individuality – and their morality – in order to perform the will of the group?
Difficult question, to say the least.
Without the civil servant’s denial of their individual morality, while acting as agents of the state, the state cannot effect its will – and so it will effectively cease to exist. Yet, without applying their ‘morality’ to their actions, the civil servants may be empowering immoral laws or policies.
Where does the balance lie?
In my never-humble-opinion, the civil servants are the ‘last check’ on the state: they cannot but evaluate their own actions based on their personal morality. Yet, while they are acting as agents of the state, they may not act upon this personal morality. It is up to them to weigh the balance between continuing to act as agents of the state – or not. If they choose to no longer act as agents of the state, they must abdicate their role of ‘agent of the state’….
In other words, if enough civil servants resign over moral objections by refusing to enact the will of the state, the state will cease to exist. This must be a heavy weight on the conscience of each and every civil servant!
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