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Ethical foundations of the State's authority

1 From anthropology of indigence to justice and from justice to love: the ethical foundation of authority and participation.

   Human life is enclosed within two parentheses that open and close it and that are expressed emblematically in the crying of the newborn and in the rale of the dying. These gestures, whose immediate explanation is in the biological field, can be assumed as a sort of metaphysical parable of the person. They are the sign of a need, not a need focused on a particular good, but, much more radically, they express "the need to be". The person is able to respond to many of his or her needs, but can never eliminate the need for his or her life. The perspective of which we speak is not that of Marx or Freud, for whom man is rich in needs; in these authors the needs are grasped at the moment of their historical expression. In the argumentative line of reflection that is instead presented here, one does not want to deny the existence of needs in the plural, but to emphasize the fact that they find their hermeneutic root in the person as "being of need". 

    Therefore, the relational dimension is constitutive of the person as open to the other and not closed on him/herself, like a monad. Sociality is not an "app" to be used when needed, but it is a structure that belongs to the person as such, to the point that the state can be understood as the structure interpretating the nature of the person in history. The well-known Aristotelian definition cannot be left out here: ὁ ἄνθρωπος φύσει πολιτικὸν ζῷον (by nature, human being is a political animal). Of course, the traditional notes (territory, people, sovereignty) that contribute to defining a state are still valid, in part. At the same time, however, one cannot escape the critical pressure to which they are subjected under the weight of new problems caused by mass migrations and the presence of many different ethnic groups, carrying cultures and moral customs different from those of the host state and sometimes even conflicting with them. It is not only the conception of people and citizenship that is challenged, but also the very redefinition of state and authority.

    The state cannot be seen as a closed reality in itself, without being open to welcoming those who enter its national territory. In this case, in fact, it would contradict its natural constitution, that of being the structure interpretating the social and community dimension proper to the person. On the other hand, the state would also contradict its nature by allowing such a reception to take place in disorder, in an illegal manner and without respect for the rights of the people, which is the very reason for the existence of the state. Hence the always difficult need to combine together the duty to welcome minorities and the right to demand from them "cooperation for the common good of the State in which they are inserted".

 Based on the above considerations, the ethical foundation of the authority of the state can be found, as in a root, in the anthropology of indigence, in the light of which exercising the right to offer concrete answers to the real needs of citizens becomes possible and credible. In fact, to return to the initial metaphor of the crying of the newborn and of the rale of the dying, the ethical instance arises at the moment outside of the metaphor, when the cry, that is the "need to be" intercepts the passer-by and invests him with the responsibility of deciding on what to do. The answer can take two opposite directions: on the one hand, to ignore, exploit or stifle that invocation of help; on the other, to accept it and try to respond to it, as concretely as possible. This attitude not only produces two models of ethics, respectively selfish and altruistic ethics, but also two models of law. Law as an expression of power or law as a response to need. In the first system, who possesses more power possesses more right, in the second, on the contrary, who has more "need to be" has more right, and the ultimate reason lies in the fact that the foundation of law is not power, but the "need to be".

    Of course, this applies not only on a personal level, but also in reference to the state, as a structure interpretating the person, in the necessity of his socially structured living. For this reason there must be a way to decline the same dialectic, starting from the state. In reality, in any case, law cannot be understood or justified outside a dialectical relationship with duty. Therefore, one could say that the ethical foundation of the authority of the state is the duty to respond to the "need to be" of the citizens. This means that if the state were to go beyond this duty, its right would lose the demanding force that is proper to it, because it would deprive it of its foundation which is the guarantee of the common good for every citizen. This perspective, moreover, makes more evident the fact that the law does not have its source and its origin in the state, but in the person, as it lives and expresses itself in a socially structured way. And this contributes, on the one hand, to curb the danger of the ethical state and the positivistic drifts of the law and on the other, to guarantee an increasingly widespread and truly representative democracy.

    It goes without saying that the duty to respond to the "need to be" is also the ethical foundation of participation in community life. (…). But what appears clear is that participation is written within the very constitution of the person who, as said, is structurally relational. This means that de facto responsibility is always co-responsibility: "It is a strange illusion to believe [...] to hurt oneself without hurting anyone else [...] It is a naive mistake to imagine that one can miss oneself without harming others [...] But in the same way, whatever we do [...] doing well means doing a public service [...] "In what we do there is always something that we make the other do, and in what we make the other do, there is always a latent reserve of energy that escapes our foresight and our government" (BLONDEL, L'azione, 327 e 346 passim)

    It should be emphasized that this answer is presented in synthetic terms, since the foundation sought is identified in the "need to be" even before in the individual concrete needs of the person. And this, on the one hand, refers to the personal horizon of the fundamental human rights present in the Constitutions, avoiding to crush and knead the authority of the state in the jungle of contingent needs. But, on the other hand, it requires juridical mediations, institutionally recognized, that are able to discern the existing link between these historically present needs and the fundamental "need to be" of the person. In other words, it is a question of verifying whether the claim of a particular need is actually a requirement of the dignity of the person, and therefore a historicisation of his right, or an individual or group whim.

    This answer is certainly open and indeterminate, but these characteristics must not be considered as synonymous with arbitrariness or with a relativism that makes everything equally acceptable from the point of view of the law. Rather, the analogy it evokes is that of the totipotency typical of stem cells with an open destiny, in the sense that, when properly treated, they can specialise in different organs.

    The person, therefore, finds himself in the condition of having to present his "need to be", that is of love, to whom he can respond and, at the same time, in the condition of recipient of the same need presented to him by the other. If an answer can authentically translate the demands of love required in that particular situation, it is not contained in a rubricistic form in any law or even in natural law, but becomes a responsible commitment of the person, who may even misinterpret it. The indetermination of love is not the same as the undifferentiated freedom to act in a capricious way, but rather the scrupulous search for what is good for the loved one. For this reason, there are actions that may seem good, but which, in fact, do not spring from a root of love; on the contrary, when a behavior springs from love, then it bears the imprint of its root, always. And it is here that it becomes possible to discover the confluence of freedom and fundamental human value: “dilige et quod vis fac”, according to the conviction of Saint Augustine.

    On the one hand, justice is not at odds with love and still less is it an alternative to it, since "he who loves others with charity is first and foremost just towards them”. Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel way to charity: justice is "inseparable from charity", intrinsic to it". On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that charity is also intrinsic to justice, in the sense that the full response to man's "need to be", on the basis of the anthropology of indigence described above, takes place in the relationship of gratuitousness and gift, that is, in love. Of course, this does not mean that it is possible to crush love over the notion of justice, or vice versa, since there is a structural excess of love over justice, so that, even in a perfect justice regime, there will always remain room for the exercise of creative works dictated by love.

    This is where the need for dialogue comes in, as a necessary tool for understanding, in the most real and objective way possible, the urgency and the need to intervene in order to promote the common good. Dialogue here is understood not only in an instrumental way to the democratic life of the state, but, more radically, as a constitutive part of it. In fact, at its root, dialogue is a way of being of the person, in the sense that this is not for himself, and therefore is constitutionally open to the other. In this condition of openness, dialogue is the normal attitude that creates a network of relationships within which the offering and the welcoming of help to the "need to be" of the other can pass. Therefore, it is not only the person who makes the dialogue, but also, and more radically, it is the dialogue that makes the person. To refuse dialogue, in fact, is to interrupt the network of relations in which the person is constituted and which in turn tends to constitute. In a word, renouncing dialogue is progressively dehumanizing oneself. If the continuity between the person and his social dimension is true, then dialogue is also vital for political life, that is, at an institutional level. Lived according to its authentic nature, it makes democracy effective, facilitating its task of discovering and responding to the needs and thus promoting the real rights of citizens.

    Dialogue, therefore, cannot be seen fundamentally as a mere instrument of composition of conflicting personal or group interests. In democracies, dialogue often has as its objective the search for agreement, which takes place through the renunciation of certain points of view linked to personal or group interests. This may be useful, but it is not enough: the primary objective of dialogue is to achieve the truth, here declined in discernment about the jus suum, which citizens demand is recognized by law. Of course, the task is not so easy, since the interpretation of historical rights is often extremely divergent; but this does not authorize to trade the truth with the agreement of the majority, even if in the democratic regime it is unthinkable to reach the first without the latter.

 A possible theological interpretation.

    It may be sufficient, as an example of a theological re-reading of what has been said previously, to reflect on the "Discourse on the Mount" (Mt. 5) and precisely on the proposal of Jesus who intends to place himself in antithesis to Jewish law. The latter, like many others of the Near East, was practically structured on the matrix, even more ancient, of the Code of Hammurabi (XVIII century B.C.). The law of retailation (eye for eye, tooth for tooth), contrary to what one might think at first glance, has no negative value in the historical context in which it was formulated. It served at least as a primitive and rudimentary attempt to stem the spread of a vengeance that could have been profoundly unjust if it had exceeded the scale of the offence. For this reason, in some way, the request represented by the law of the retailation could be that of a fair justice, that is, one that balances the proportion between offense and reparation.

    Jesus confronts the ancient law not so much with the destructive and negative attitude of those who eliminate it, but with the positive attitude that recognizes the role played by it until then. He proposes a novelty that in fact makes that ancient law now outdated and useless. Therefore, the antithetical expression of Jesus "But I tell you" is not to be understood as if the faithful until then had followed a false law, but rather that from then on the law they have followed has become useless; it remains there, as a historical testimony of a past now surpassed by the new law that Jesus proposes. "Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I came not to abolish, but to fulfil" (Mt. 5:17).

    The overcoming, or fulfillment, operated by Jesus takes place in a hyperbolic sense. In fact, the demands contained in the discourse on the mount, and in the Beatitudes in particular, show a horizon that cannot be reached once and for all. Unlike the law of the retailation that demanded precise limits not to be exceeded in order not to fall into injustice, the demands of the new law do not set any limits, but force the faithful to ask themselves if they really used mercy to the full towards the enemy, if they loved up to the end. Even if this had been the case up to now, he cannot feel satisfied with it, nor can he be reassured that he has fulfilled the law. In fact, he will have to examine whether the limit of love reached today cannot be moved forward, if the change of circumstances allows it or even demands it. Theology is a permanent invitation to the law, asking it whether the historicization of legal norms within political, social and economic circumstances could not be improved on the basis of the changes that have taken place in society in the meantime. Without prejudice to the distinction between the relative levels, one could say that the heart of the law is the right and the heart of the right is love.

    The theological dimension, however, does not throw an original light only on the law, but also on the notion of state, which at least must be mentioned before concluding the reflection. The notion of state is understood as the necessary historical interpretation of the social and political nature of the person. Therefore, a reality that is contingent in its being geographically, politically and legally determined, but that goes beyond these boundaries as it becomes part of the structure and constitution of the human being as such. The theological vision confirms and reinterprets this reality in a religious key, attributing its truth to God's creative will and showing how the final destiny is precisely that of a humanity reunited in Christ, considered as the alpha and omega of history and humanity.

    Already in the Old Testament, in fact, the promised land progressively loses the geographical contours of Canaan and looks like an eschatological reality: the heavens and the new land of Is. 65,17. Consequently, the perception of Christian citizenship also becomes new, in that Christians, while recognizing themselves bound to a particular nation, nevertheless feel that their definitive homeland is paradise. This is what Paul himself teaches with the notion of πολίτευμα, to which the author of the letter to Diogneto (2nd century AD) refers when he writes that for Christians "every foreign land is their homeland, and every homeland is for them a foreign land [πᾶσα ξένη πατρίς ἐστιν αυτῶν, καὶ πᾶσα πατρὶς ξένη]". As you can see, this has much to say about a new and necessary conception of state and citizenship.


    The vision of the ethical foundation of the authority of the state and of the participation of citizens in public life has been brought back to an ontological dimension, even if it is evolutionary, dynamically oriented towards a final goal that jurisprudence and democratic structures are called upon to interpret. Authority and participation must evolve in the dimension of charity; in this way it will be possible, perhaps, to have a different conception of state, understood more and more as the experience of a communion that tends to go beyond the confines of territories and ethnic groups. The attempt I have tried to present is a way of overcoming a twofold reductionism. On the one hand, in fact, an attempt has been made to remove the ethical foundation of the authority of the state and the participation of citizens from positivist fluctuations and from the recurring temptation to impose an often arbitrary will on the part of those who hold political power. On the other hand, an attempt has been made to remove them from the abstract nature of an hypostatized human nature, which in theory would give immutable guarantees for socially structured living, but which in fact does not exist except in the contingency of historical interpretation.

    The pivot around which the reflection was articulated was the conception of an anthropology of indigence and of an ethic of response, which found a justice understood as a tendential instance, that is always sought even if not always reached, or reached but never in such a way as to exhaust its dynamism towards a further fulfilment. The perspective is not that of passive resignation that pushes to raise walls of defense, or, even worse, of relativism that opens to all sorts of disorder and confusion, but that of "relationalism", based on the person who always lives as a relationship and of whom the state becomes a concrete expression on the level of history and geography, rather than territory and biological descent.

Translated from Iralian by Philippe Ledouble


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