Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Short Refutation of the Principle of Hereditary Succession

A Short Refutation of the Principle of Hereditary Succession

the Union of Lublin(1569) replaced the personal union of the Kingdom of Poland and the Kingdom of Lithuania with an elected King, a common Senate and Parliament. This painting is by Jan Matejko.

Due to the extended history of male primogeniture among world monarchies, it may at first seem meaningless to question whether it is just for a monarchy to choose its subsequent sovereign upon the principles of hereditary succession. With the political and military triumph of American Liberalism after the end of the Second World War, the purpose of existing monarchies has come under dispute and their future remains uncertain. It is my hope that a thoughtful examination of this question will provide some stimulus for a re-evaluation of the function and purpose of monarchies in the 21st century. Although the principle of hereditary succession could foreseeably be critiqued for both its socio-political and economic inefficiencies, in this essay I will focus on its most decisive failing; that of justice. Using the political philosophy of the recently deceased political liberal John Rawls(1921-2002), I will attempt to demonstrate the following:

1.) If a government does not adhere to the principles of justice, then this government does not have justified political authority(JPA)

2.) A government which chooses its subsequent sovereign through the method of hereditary succession does not satisfiably adhere to the principles justice.

3.) A government which is bereft of JPA ought be reformed or replaced in such a manner that the government will then have JPA.

TF: If premise 1,2,& 3 are true, then governments which choose their subsequent sovereign according to the principles of hereditary succession* ought to be reformed or replaced.

* “hereditary monarchies”, as mentioned here, refers only to hypothetical monarchies in which the sovereign, chosen according to the principles of hereditary succession, has political power. This argument may not be applicable to many contemporary constitutional monarchies in which the monarch lacks substantial political power.

Justified Political Authority

Justified Political Authority(JPA) is that authority of the state for which we have a normative obligation to dutifully obey quite apart from the potential of the state to forcibly coerce us. It is important here to distinguish between the de facto political authority and de jure political authority or JPA. De facto political authority is that non-normative, or not morally required, authority which is derived from the maintenance of public order, security, and tranquility(Hart 1961). De facto political authority is the “state's or any agent's ability to get others to act in ways that they desire even when the subject does not want to do what the agent wants him to do”(SEP Christiano 2004). While it is generally recognized that de facto political authority is pre-requisite for de jure political authority, JPA is distinguished by the additional normative moral obligations in which the state's subjects are obliged to obey it apart from the threat of coercion. Although this distinction is generally accepted, Thomas Hobbes(1668) notably argued that all JPA was derived from de facto political authority. Nonetheless, the general philosophical consensus has historically held that there is a clear distinction between the descriptive and non-normative circumstance of de facto authority and the prescriptive and normative circumstance of de jure political authority.

In the history of philosophy, this distinction between de facto and de jure political authority has been elucidated independently by numerous thinkers. During the Warring States period, the Confucian political philosopher Mencius distinguished between a government which was humane(ren), which its subjects had an obligation to obey, and a government which was tyrannical(li), under which conditions its subjects had a right to revolution(4A:2). In the Indian political text the Artashastras, the distinction is made between a King who obeys rajadharma(or “king law”) and one who does not, under which conditions Brahmans are obliged to leave the kingdom. In the Politics, Aristotle distinguishes between monarchy and tyranny(Bk. II ch. 7-14), and in the Republic Plato distinguishes between the rule of the just and the rule of force(see Justice of Thrasymachus Bk. I 343c-344c).

There are a variety of contemporary theories of JPA which I will briefly summarize:

1.) Instrumentalist view of JPA: A subject will be better off if he should follow the laws of the state (Raz 1986).

2.) Consent theory of JPA: the sovereignty of the government is legitimate only if it has the consent of the subjects it commands (Locke 1690) .

3.) Reasonable Concensus view of JPA: The coercive institutions of society should be structured to adhere with the reasonable views of the majority of the subjects (Rawls 1996).

It is important to recognize that all three of these theories of JPA require the notion of justice in jurisdiction, legislation, and (most importantly) regarding the elevation of persons to political power. For example, in the instrumentalist view justice is required insofar as the person following the laws of the state must benefit from following those laws. The instrumentalist view that the government provides justice to its subjects because it is in a person's benefit to live in a just society. This argument is similarly applicable to the consent theory as a person will presumably only consent to be governed by that government which ensures justice. Finally, the reasonable consent theory, which is said to be a “mean between the extreme individualism of consent theory and the lack of respect for people's opinions of the instrumentalist views”, similarly requires that justice benefit the people in such a way that the majority will assent to be governed. Therefore, although there are a variety of theories regarding the establishment of JPA, all of them require the establishment of sufficient standards of Justice. As such, we will now turn to the question of justice itself.

Theory of Justice

American political philosopher John Rawls(1921-2002)

While the de facto political authority, in which security is preserved through armed force against foreign and domestic enemies, is certainly a prerequisite for de jure political authority(JPA), this attribute alone is not sufficient to satisfiably meet to the requirements of justice. We may divide the attributes of justice as follows:

Political Authority:

I de Facto
II de Jure
A. Justice in Crime and Punishment
B. Justice in Opportunity
1. Economic Justice
2. Social Justice
3. Political Justice
a. Representation
b. Separation of Powers
c. Selection of Government Leaders

Although the principle of hereditary succession may fail to satisfiably adhere to the principles of justice in many of these categories, I will focus on the issue which appears to be the most central and decisive: the selection of government leaders(II.B.3.c). As the sovereign stands at the apex of the socio-political hierarchy, commanding the obedience of his people and the immense resources of the state, justice similarly requires that there should exist a means of selecting the sovereign which is similarly fair in respect to the enormity of this task. In John Rawls's 1971 book, “A Theory of Justice”, Rawls introduces a number of arguments for a theory of justice which should be relevant and universally agreeable in the context of our contemporary pluralistic society. For the purposes of this essay I will focus on his argument for the Original Position(OP).

In the presentation of his theory of the Original Position(OP), John Rawls continues a long tradition in Western Political Philosophy, beginning with Plato's Republic, of utilizing hypothetical thought experiments to establish the a priori principles of justice. “The strategy of OP is to construct a method of reasoning that models abstract ideas about justice so as to focus their power together onto the choice of principles.”(SEP, Wenar 2008)

Central to the conception of OP is the idea of a “veil of ignorance”, which inhibits the arbitrary facts of our current lives(social status, race, sex, class etc.) from influencing our decisions of how our ideal political community ought to function. This concept inhibits us from unabashedly biasing our idealization of justice in such a way that we might accrue the most socio-political gain from it. For example, in the absence of the veil of ignorance, it may be plausible for a tall man to will we should adhere to that conception of justice which disenfranchises only very short people.

However, if a person can imagine these principles without consideration of their socio-economic position, they would be compelled to wish that there should exist a society which distributes the maximum benefit to all, rather than the partial benefit of a select group. “No party can press for agreement on principles that will arbitrarily favor the particular citizen they represent, because no party knows the specific attributes of the citizen they represent. The situation of the parties thus embodies reasonable conditions, within which the parties can make a rational agreement. Each party tries to agree to principles that will be best for the citizen they represent (i.e., that will maximize that citizen's share of primary goods). Since the parties are fairly situated, the agreement they reach will be fair to all actual citizens.”(SEP, Wenar 2008)

Rawls clarifies what can be considered under his hypothetical veil of ignorance:
Parties do not know:
• The race, ethnicity, sex, age, income, wealth, natural endowments, comprehensive doctrine, etc. of any of the citizens in society, or to which generation in the history of the society these citizens belong.
• The political system of the society, its class structure, economic system, or level of economic development.

Parties do know:
• That citizens in the society have different comprehensive doctrines and plans of life; that all citizens have interests in more primary goods.
• That the society is under conditions of moderate scarcity: there is enough to go around, but not enough for everyone to get what they want;
• General facts about human social life; facts of common sense; general conclusions of science (including economics and psychology) that are uncontroversial.

With these conditions in mind, Rawls believes that any reasonable person will then conclude that there should exist a community in which primary goods will be distributed such that they will maximize their benefit to all persons, regardless of their respective social circumstances.

As the position of a sovereign confers upon its holder extraordinary social and political benefits, if we adopt the veil of ignorance we would foreseeably conclude that there should be an appropriately equitable method of assigning this office. In consideration of the veil of ignorance, it is required that political offices should be distributed so as to afford all persons, regardless of birth, the opportunity to receive the benefits which these offices confer. Now the necessity of command and control as well as the limitation on the number of offices available means that it will be necessary to select a small number of office-holders from among the general population. Because the veil of ignorance allows for an understanding of virtue and psychology, the OP does not require that the mentally ill or otherwise unfit persons should receive these offices. As the office of sovereign is at the apex of the socio-political hierarchy and government authority, its assignment carries unequalled importance. With all of these considerations in mind, the OP merely requires that those persons who are most able to benefit society through the distribution of primary goods, should receive this singularly important office.

Legitimist objections to John Rawls's OP:

I will herein outline the expected objections of legitimists(those persons who favor hereditary succession) to John Rawls's OP, and thereafter offer a refutation:

Objection 1: All talk of de Jure or justified political authority is mistakenly conceived. It was previously conceded that the "legitimacy" or "illegitimacy" of government X can only be evaluated after government X has achieved a monopoly on the use of force. Moral responsibility with regard to government X is misconceived because government X uses coercive force to secure and maintain power. Therefore force is the single requirement for JPA.

Objection 2: There can be no reasonable consensus on the standards of justice or the distribution of goods, because people invariably disagree about the standards of justice and the distribution of goods. Only the majority can decide how to distribute resources and conceive the principles of justice. How the majority decides to distribute resources and allocate goods is the functioning of government.

Objection 3: The original position(OP) and the veil of ignorance is mistaken because (i) it assumes that rational adults should be treated as equals and (ii) it presumes the possibility of excluding considerations of (a) religion and (b) individual partial interest. (i) It is merely presumed that all rational adults should be treated as equals, without offering an argument for this presumption. (ii.a) To include considerations of psychology and yet exclude considerations of religion is to violate the principles of justice. (ii.b) It is impossible for rational persons to wholly exclude their partial interests of class, sex, and ethnicity.

I answer that: (1) & (2) would disassociate the moral evaluation of JPA and moral responsibility from the distribution of goods and offices. If these objections were conceded, we might then allow for the existence of any regime, regardless of tyranny or injustice, without the possibility of a justifiable reproach. Although it is true that any consideration of whether government X has JPA requires that government X has a monopoly on the use of force, this is an essential and unavoidable characteristic of all sovereign governments. Yet because, a sovereign government might act to secure only the private interest of a few and thereby harm the majority of their subjects, and this requires reproach (1) must be rejected. The decisions of the majority can easily become its very own tyranny at the expense of a disenfranchised minority. disagreement generally arises from logical invalidity rather than mutually conflicting yet valid claims to justice. For these reasons (2) must be rejected.

(3.i) correctly states that the equality of all rational adults is presumed. Because this is a customary and widely held belief it has been presumed, yet the universality of this belief invariably places the social burden of proof lies upon the doubter. (3.ii.a) is mistaken because although religiously beliefs vary widely and are inherently indemonstrable, psychological theories and practice have retained a relative uniformity as well as offering methods of validation. So although psychological theories may not be deductible through pure reason alone, it remains prudent to utilize these theories, rather than religion, in our practical affairs. (3.ii.b) requires a strong argument for the epistemological determinism of interests arising from class, sex, and ethnicity. In the absence this argument, we cannot hold this objection to be decisive. For all of these reasons (3) must be rejected.

Legitimist Arguments for the Utility of Hereditary Succession:

I will herein offer the expected Legitimist arguments for the utility of selecting the subsequent sovereign according to the principles of hereditary succession. After which I will promptly answer them:

Argument 1: Hereditary succession is appealing because it uniquely allows the monarch to (i) hold magnificent ceremonies, (ii) the practice is sacred, (iii) it has origins in antiquity.

Argument 2: Hereditary succession is useful because it will allow for (i) the superior breeding of a future sovereign, (ii) a higher quality of education for the future sovereign, and (iii) serves as a unifying national figure and symbol.

Argument 3: Hereditary succession will make the future sovereign known to all, and thereby depoliticize the office of the sovereign. To depoliticize the office of the sovereign will be of greater benefit to the state, than the possibility of individually selecting the subsequent sovereign.

I answer that: (1.i) is an insufficient objection because the hereditary succession of the sovereign is not a necessary condition for magnificent pageantry and ceremonies, which might be displayed by any government whether monarchy or not. (1.ii) is correct to point to the appearance of the belief in the sacrality of the hereditary succession of the sovereign in some cultures (the Merovingians of France, the Japanese Emperor). Yet although this belief has been held in some few cultures, it is far from universal. We should note that many historic monarchies (the Carolingians, the Holy Roman Emperor, the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth) have rather had elective monarchies without thereby professing disbelief in the sacrality of the monarchy. The truth or falsity of the claim to the sacrality of hereditary succession cannot be readily ascertained, and the peculiarity of this belief lends evidence in favor of the view of it as artificial rather than genuine. (1.iii) is mistaken to assert that hereditary succession had its origins in antiquity. Many forms of government are known to have existed before recorded history, not all of whom are monarchies in which the subsequent sovereign is chosen according to the principal of hereditary succession.

Nonetheless, (1) must be rejected because aesthetic appeal alone cannot serve as the basis for the selection of a form of government. Although aesthetic judgment is surely an important consideration, allowing this consideration to hold priority over concerns of justice and utility leads to the absurd possibility of adopting an unjust and inefficacious government merely for its artistic merit. As the purpose of government is to lead its subjects to the highest goods of virtue, mutual protection and prosperity, aesthetic judgment alone cannot be the means by which we select the best form of government.

(2.i) is correct to note that the institution of hereditary succession will allow for the vast resources of the state to be employed in the selection of partners with which to breed the future heir. Nonetheless their will assuredly arise a myriad of problems which are inherent in the practice of breeding due to its unpredictability and the determinism of male primogeniture. Undesirable hereditary traits might appear prominently in the offspring which had heretofore remained dormant or unnoticed. The multitude of variables involved in breeding a single individual should warrant a large selection pool of candidates, yet the determinism of hereditary succession, which invariably selects the first-born male heir, precludes this possibility. Hence, (2.i) is as problematic as it is efficacious and cannot be a reliable response on the grounds of utility.

(2.ii) is correct to note that the institution of hereditary succession will allow for the vast resources of the state to be employed in educating the future heir. Additionally, the notoriety of the promise of succession to the throne might induce the future sovereign to study more diligently. Nonetheless problems similar to (2.i) arise here as well. If the intelligence, temperament, and studiousness of the sovereign is influenced by hereditary traits, then the variability of hereditary traits noted in (2.i) should warrant a very large selection pool. Yet again, the determinism of hereditary succession precludes this possibility. Because we should expect a diminishing return upon resources exhausted in educating the future sovereign, the benefits of a large selection pool of candidates who are all excellently provided for, would be presumably be of greater benefit than one single candidate possessing variable inherited traits who is super-abundantly provided for.

(2.iii) is correct to note that hereditary succession allows a single family and a single ruler to be the personified focus of national adoration. Although an elected lifetime monarch or a temporary president might also serve this function, the hereditary monarchy appears to do so more viscerally than the previous options. Although this objection is conceded, the benefit thereby accrued appears to be miniscule in comparison to a popular president or elected sovereign who might also, to an admittedly lesser degree, be the object of national adulation.

(3) is correct to note that hereditary succession depoliticizes the selection of the future sovereign. Although this point is conceded, we must see what benefit is thereby accrued. The benefit might be very great if the nation is fraught by internecine warfare. In this instance the succession might not thereby be politicized by the civil strife. However, the opposite might hold if monarchy is the source of civil resentment and antagonism, in which case the hereditary succession of the heir of the previous sovereign, rather than the prospect of electing an neutral candidate, might further inflame these tensions. While (3) may be of some benefit, it might also become a fatal liability.

While the arguments of legitimists are admittedly compelling, they cannot satisfy the requirements of justice. All of these arguments (1,2,&3) mistakenly presume that arguments from either the utility or the aesthetic value of an unjust government can validly object to the inefficacy of a just government. Although it is admitted that the efficacy of a government is a necessary condition for justice (see above Political Authority II.B.1&2), it cannot be a sufficient condition in the absence of the other criteria of justified political authority(JPA), especially political justice. If a regime is beneficent yet unjust, no amount of beneficence can make it so. All three abovementioned arguments might be conceded, and yet the injustice of hereditary succession would remain. Additionally, what useful and aesthetic ends which they achieve might be similarly wrought by other, less problematic, means. It may be beneficial to reflect upon the prosperity of 19th century monarchies which enriched their subjects and yet were the object of scorn and derision for precisely this reason.


This short refutation is aimed principally at the legitimist argument for the necessity of hereditary succession. It does not exclude the possibility of a monarchy, but merely contests the necessary correspondence of the legitimist principle of hereditary succession. Future monarchs might be chosen from among one or many noble dynasties, so long as no single heir is determined exclusively on account of being the hereditary heir of the previous sovereign. Further, this argument nowhere entails either democracy or the political primacy of a parliament. An elected monarch might foreseeably distribute goods to the nation with greater beneficence than a parliament. Monarchy is not invalidated by this line of argument. Only the principle of exclusive hereditary succession has been cast into disrepute. I encourage all monarchists to reflect upon these issues, and consider the wonderful possibility of an elective monarchy.
The coronation of Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna. This painting is by Laurits Tuxen.

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