To what Extent Does Government Know What is Best for its Subjects? (Stimulus: Antigone)

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Candidate name: Geon Sik Kang

Candidate number: 075        


To what extent does government know what is best for its subjects?

Links with syllabus: Text, Ethics

Word Count: 1994

Philosophical Stimulus 

“And is Thebes about to tell me how to rule? … The city is the king’s – that’s the law!”

- Antigone by Sophocles

Liberty and individuality are concepts that have grasped the passions of human societies for multiple millennia. Since the advent of organized politics, government has been society’s self-imposing tool of regulations that curb the pernicious freedoms that may be destructive to society and its individuals. The concurrent veracity of both these statements creates a paradox that is one of political philosophy’s most debated issues: at the expense of collective security, to what extent should individual liberty be tolerated? By implication, to what extent does government know what is best for its subjects? These two questions are inextricably linked: when a government takes the onus of knowing what is best for its subjects, the value of individualism is depreciated, for it is suggested that government has the right to override individuality for the sake of greater good.

In the play Antigone by Sophocles, Creon, king of Thebes, has issued a law that forbids the burial of the killed Theban traitor Polynices. Though it is alleged that this decree is resented amongst Thebans, Creon overrides public sentiment, believing his actions to be in the best interests of the security of the polis; that essentially, he knows what is best for Thebes. A similar strand of philosophy exists in the Social Contract arguments of Thomas Hobbes: the relinquishment of liberty to authority is a natural element of organized society; that the toleration of liberty would lead to the diminishment of social order and security. To this perspective, John Stuart Mill ardently presents a different point of view in On Liberty. Mill argues that governments are often wrong in their assertions. Furthermore, Mill criticizes control (both governmental and social) over individualism for he argues that they stunt the progression of human development, and in any case, may not be suitable for the minutiaes of different individuals. Mill’s points seem profoundly correct; a bureaucracy can never truly know what is in the best interests of a subject for it neither knows the individual nor is the individual itself. Though paternalistic intentions may be genuine, the extension of governmental powers often creates restrictions to freedoms that are both fundamentally wrong and detrimental to the development of man as a dignified being.

Hobbes introduced the idea that in the absence of strict paternalism, human society would be reduced to a ‘war of all against all.’ Paternalism is understood to mean a governmental attitude that makes authoritarian decisions on behalf of a government’s subjects. Hobbes presents unrestrained liberty as pernicious – something that elevates mutual harm between self-interested individuals. Thus Hobbes asserts that in any given society, government knows what is best for society’s wellbeing; individuals should embrace government paternalism (which necessarily requires the diminishment of individual freedom) for societal safety.

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Hobbes suggests that in their natural state, individuals would resolve to an anarchic war of survival and self-interest. As such, Hobbes argues for a near-boundless figure of authority to curb the dangers of liberty. It seems that Hobbes’ philosophy is comparable to the limitless power of Sophocles’ Creon, who crushes individual liberties such as the freedom to mourn for Polynices, in order to ensure the safety of the polis. To Creon, the survival of the polis overrides all other factors. Liberty is pernicious in the sense that it undermines the ultimate authority of government. The freedom to speak against the ...

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