PART 2 of 2
Timothy N. Baldwin, JD.
January 24, 2014
X. The lesser evil principle both creates and limits the right of revolution
The right of revolution rests in human nature: that when men enter into society, they do it for their benefit, and when their state in society creates a greater evil than being in a state of nature, the right of revolution becomes ripe. Burlamaqui showed how the lesser evil principle forms the basis of revolting against government. He says, “less inconveniency [or “evil”] would arise from [the right of revolution], than from allowing all to the sovereign, so as to let a whole nation perish.” (Ibid., Part II, Chapter 7, Section XXXVIII.) In other words, revolution becomes necessary when submitting to government creates greater evils than resisting government, knowing that revolution puts man in a deplorable condition, and if he loses the conflict, subjects him to even greater evils by the conqueror.
Likewise, the lesser evil principle limits revolutions. As the American Declaration states, we “suffer evils while evils are sufferable,” or as Burlamaqui put it,
if the sovereign should push things to the last extremity, so that his tyranny becomes insupportable, and it appears evident that he has formed a design to destroy the liberty of his subjects, then they have a right to rise against him, and even to deprive him of the supreme power. (Ibid., Part II, Chapter 6, Section XXI.)
In addition to the lesser evil principle setting the parameters of the right of revolution, it also limits the right when exercising it would create greater evils in society.
In other words, even when tyranny is “insupportable” (meaning, evils are being forced on the people), the people should endure these evils “when matters are so situated, that resistance would infallibly produce very great troubles in the state, or tend to the ruin of many innocent people.” (Ibid.,Sectin XXV). Clearly stated, where resistance would create greater evils for society than the tyranny creates, people must suffer those real evils.
Given that America has not seen a revolution since 1776, Americans have confirmed the lesser evil principle. Americans have determined as a society that whatever evils may result from a disliked president, legislatoror judge, those evils are not nearly as great as the evils that result from revolution.
Other acts of submission prove the lesser evil principle as well. For example, many of the lesser-evil rejecters pay taxes, comply with laws, and give submission to what they call an evil or even tyrannous government. They do so plainly because they refuse to suffer the greater evil of personal inconvenience rather than resista government they call evil. So, for those who decry using the lesser evil principle with, say, voting, they prove their hypocrisy by financially supporting the very evil they say they “cannot support” through voting. Much more could be said on this score, but this sufficiently illustrates the point.
XI. Right reason requires man to consider all aspects of good and evil and choose the lesser evil
After explaining the kinds of goods and evils, Burlamaqui explains that man must make proper comparisons of good and evil to make the right decision, just as the parameters of revolution show. He states,
[G]oods and evils not being all of the same species, there are consequently some differences amongst them, and that compared together, we find there are some goods more excellent than others, and evils more or less incommodious. It happens likewise, that a good compared with an evil, may be either equal or greater, or lesser; from whence several differences or gradations arise. (Ibid.)
Burlamaqui then explains that after making this examination of the good-evil mixtures, man must consider the consequencesof the decision in question. He said,
[I]t is not sufficient to be attentive to the present good and evil, we must likewise examine their natural consequences; to the end, that comparing the present with the future, balancing one with the other, we must know beforehand what may be the natural result.
It is therefore contrary to reason, to pursue a good that must be certainly attended with a more considerable evil. But on the contrary, nothing is more reasonable than to resolve to bear with an evil, from whence a greater good must certainly arise. The truth and importance of these maxims are self-obvious. (Ibid., Section IV.)
Just as Thomas Jefferson wrote about “these truths [of natural law] being self-evident,” Burlamaqui observed that choosing the lesser evil was likewise a self-evident truth of natural law—because man’s happiness is plainly improved when he avoids the greater evils of a necessary decision.
XII. Man must choose the lesser evil even when there is only a possibility that the greater evil will happen
Burlamaqui also explains that a person need not have substantial evidence to apply this lesser evil principle. Rather, where the prevented greater evil is possible or probable, he acts morally when using the lesser evil principle to prevent those anticipated greater evils. Burlamaqui explained this way,
It is not necessary to have an [e]ntire certainty in regard to considerable goods and evils: Mere possibility, and much more so, probability, are sufficient to induce a reasonable person to deprive himself of some trifling good, and even to suffer some slight evil, with a design of acquiring a far greater good, and avoiding a more troublesome evil. (Ibid., Section IV.)
It would be erroneous to say, “since I do not know with an absolute certainty that this decision will result in a greater evil, I will choose it instead of the lesser evil.” Rather, right reasoning proves the opposite: “since it is possible or probable that my decision will result in a greater evil, I will choose the other, the lesser evil.”
Naturally, the more probable that greater evils will result, the greater the duty is to choose the lesser evil. This is especially true given that "the good of the whole is the real good.”
XIII. The lesser evil principle is essential to man’s happiness and conforms to his nature
After explaining the natural law principles concerning man’s duty to choose the lesser evil, Burlamaqui concludes that this principle is “essential…to our happiness.” (Ibid.), and rejecting the lesser evil principle makes “bad use of [man’s] reason.” (Ibid., Part I, Chapter I, Section VII.) This should be obvious because the opposite rule would allow man to choose greater evils in every regard of life. This principle would be absurd and a contradiction to man’s nature. In short, it is immoral to choose the greater evil.
On the heels of explaining what conscience (see above) is, Burlamaqui states a universal moral duty of man to prevent the greater evil. He said,
If we find ourselves in such circumstances as necessarily oblige us to determine to act, we must then…distinguish the safest and most probable side, and whose consequences are least dangerous. Such is generally the opposite side to passion; it being the safest way, not to listen too much to our inclinations. (Ibid., Part II, Chapter 9, Part VIII, Seventh Rule.)
Plainly stated, “our inclinations” is not the test of true Reason. Reason is based on demonstrative reasoning, meaning, result-oriented science. Where our actions produce greater or worse evils than other evils we seek to avoid, our action is not based on reason but on inclination or passion. This is a conscience in error because it causes more harm to man and prevents the greater happiness of society.
XIV. Choosing lesser evil does not mean only “benign” evils, but all evils
When one argues (in an attempt to get around this natural law principle) that the lesser evil principle only applies to benign (i.e. harmless) decisions, such as where to eat lunch, or where to buy clothes, or which road to take home, he is absolutely wrong. Natural law creates the lesser evil principle relative to all decisions, including ones that contain true or perceived evils.
For example, in addition to the evils I noted in Lesser-Evil Principle Shaped the Constitution the Founders included in the Constitution what hardly anyone would consider to be a mere preference or harmless evil; that is, enslaving an entire race of people. Slavery was considered an actual moral and religious evil by many Founders and statesman of 1787. Yet, the Constitution sanctioned it. Of course, the opponents to slavery knew that for the Constitution to be ratified, it had to sanction slavery. But to them, that was the lesser evil. The greater evil was disunion.
As in most, if not all, political decisions, there are always evils that result, even with the most ideal candidates. For example, Ron Paul is perhaps the most-loved candidate by strict conservatives, anarchists, libertarians, and self-described “constitutionalists,” in recent memory. Yet, if he were elected, evils would result from his policies.
For example, Ron Paul believes the federal government should have no say in defining marriage. He believes that the issue is a State issue, opposes anti-sodomy laws, and opposes any federal law or constitutional amendment that would define marriage as between heterosexuals.
In fact, Paul doesn’t want any government involvement in marriage. Naturally, this hands-off approach would permit “evils” as well, such as inter-familial marriage and potentially pedophilia. This would cause an increase in birth defects and other similar evils. It would allow other evils such as permitting men to leave their wives with very little recourse for women to enforce parental responsibilities, such as child support, visitation, alimony, and other essential functions resulting from a divorce. It would create insurance coverage nightmares and other social and financial evils.
Of course, Paul’s approach here is the same position taken by U.S. Presidents from George Washington to Andrew Jackson on the issue of enslaving black people. For most of them, to oppose slavery or its expansion in the West was political suicide, so they conveniently opted to defer to the States.
Many of Ron Paul’s supporters vehemently oppose homosexual marriage and find it to be EVIL! But with Ron Paul, the States would be unfettered to define marriage as between homosexuals. Would evils exist under Ron Paul’s administration? According to many of his supporters’ views, yes! Are those evils lesser or greater than the evils that would be prevented under Paul’s administration?Ron Paul supporters would absolutely claim that the homosexual evil, as just one example, would be less than the evils Ron Paul would prevent.
There are MANY examples that could be given to prove that essentially every political decision contains a gradation of good and evil and that, knowingly or not, people always choose what they deem is the lesser of evils.
There is no question where the Founders got the lesser evil principle and why they used it. It is a product of right reason, and Enlightenment philosophy—the school of thought they knew intimately and used universally—confirms it as such.
Don’t be confused or misguided: the lesser evil principle is not, “having no morals or conscience;” it is not, “the ends justify the means.” The lesser evil principle derives from human nature itself—from the law that requires man to preserve, protect, and improve himself and to prevent greater evils when forced to make a decision between one evil and one greater evil.
Thomas Jefferson said the same:
It is the case of giving a part to save the whole, a limb to save a life. It is the melancholy law of human societies to be compelled sometimes to choose a great evil in order to ward off a greater.
George Washington said the same:
I can foresee no evil greater than disunion.
Plato said the same:
To prefer evil to good is not in human nature; and when a man is compelled to choose one of two evils, no one will choose the greater when he might have the less.
General Robert E. Lee said the same:
I think [slavery is] a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, [and] while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former [white man].
Orestes Brownson said the same:
Congress…ought to receive the petitions [to abolish slavery] as the less of two evils.
Abraham Lincoln said the same:
"If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong…[T]o this day, I have done no official act in mere deference to my abstract judgment and feeling on slavery. I did understand however, that my oath to preserve the constitution to the best of my ability, imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensabale means, that government -- that nation -- of which that constitution was the organic law. Was it possible to lose the nation, and yet preserve the constitution? By general law life and limb must be protected; yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb. I felt that measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful, by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the constitution, through the preservation of the nation.
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One may think that he does not use the principle, but he is wrong. But even if one insists that he does not accept or use the principle, he must admit then that (1) the Constitution itself is a product of this principle and is thus evil; (2) he has no intention of returning to the principles of the founding fathers and other statesmen; and (3) he rejects the rules produced by human nature, i.e. natural law. Such a person may be sincere in his belief, but he is not an attribute to the political happiness of society.
1. I use Enlightenment philosopher, Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui because he, perhaps, explained the lesser evil principle as well as any other philosopher, in light of the Whole Duty of Man.
© 2014 Timothy N. Baldwin, JD - All Rights Reserved
Timothy Baldwin, born in 1979, is an attorney licensed to practice law in Montana (and formerly Florida) and handles a variety of cases, including constitutional, criminal, and civil. Baldwin graduated from the University of West Florida in 2001 with a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree in English and Political Science. In 2004, Baldwin graduated from Cumberland School of Law at Samford University in Birmingham, AL with a Juris Doctorate (JD) degree. From there, Baldwin became an Assistant State Attorney in Florida. For 2 1/2 years, Baldwin prosecuted criminal actions and tried nearly 60 jury trials. In 2006, Baldwin started his private law practice and has maintained it since.
Baldwin is a published author, public speaker and student of political philosophy. Baldwin is the author of Freedom For A Change, Romans 13-The True Meaning of Submission, and To Keep or Not To Keep: Why Christians Should Not Give Up Their Guns–all of which are available for purchase through libertydefenseleague.com. Baldwin has also authored hundreds of political articles relative to liberty in the United States of America. Baldwin has been the guest of scores of radio shows and public events and continues to exposit principles which the people in America will need to determine its direction for the future.
Web site: libertydefenseleague.com