I have sufficiently recovered from the shock of discovering that Donald J. Trump is following me to Paris so that I can, in the quiet of my comfortable office, make a stab at clarifying what I wrote about morality and state actions. This exercise has helped me to come to a clearer realization that the point of view I was trying to articulate is nothing more than an elaboration or extension of the position I set forth more than half a century ago in my little tract, In Defense of Anarchism. Say what you will, at least I am consistent.
Moral judgments, strictly understood, are appropriately made concerning the actions, intentions [and perhaps the characters] of persons. Corporations are not persons [the United States Supreme Court to the contrary notwithstanding], armies are not persons, churches are not persons, fraternal organizations are not persons, animals are not persons [I exempt dogs from this judgment, of course], the environment is not a person, and most importantly for this discussion nation states are not persons. Strictly speaking, no nation acts, and therefore it makes no sense, again strictly speaking, to judge that a nation’s acts have been moral or immoral, right or wrong, justified or unjustified. People act, often claiming to act in the name of a nation, or by virtue of a position held in the government of a nation. Almost impenetrable and unchallengeable mystifications conspire to make it seem as though nations or corporations or armies or churches are persons or possess personhood, that they, not the persons who occupy positions in them, act and can be judged to have acted rightly or wrongly. But that appearance is always an illusion.
It makes perfectly good sense to make moral judgments about the actions of individuals, even those individuals who claim to have institutional authority by virtue of election, appointment, nomination and confirmation, divine election, or some other procedure supposedly conferring upon them rights not possessed by persons simpliciter, but those claim are always false. Such persons may have what I called long ago de facto legitimate authority, but they never, ever have de jure legitimate authority. That is to say, they may make those claims and succeed in getting them accepted by those against whom or with regard to whom they make the claims. That can be described as conferring on them de facto legitimate authority. But all such claims are always false, a fact which I try to express by the statement that no individual ever has de jure legitimate authority.
When a warplane belonging to the United States drops bombs on a battlefield area, destroying a field hospital, it is common to say that the United States has destroyed a field hospital. People then argue about whether this act by the United States was morally justified or morally unjustified. That is always a mystified and misleading way to speak. The men and women flying the plane dropped the bombs, and they are morally responsible for doing so. The men and women who ordered them to drop the bombs are morally responsible for issuing those orders. The high command who ordered the bombing campaign are morally responsible for ordering that campaign. The civilian individuals “in the chain of command” are morally responsible, as are all the individuals in the national administration who participated in the decision, including even the low level staffers who simply held the chairs for the big brass who sat at the table in the Situation Room. The men and women who voted for the elected officials bear some moral responsibility. And, most difficult of all to comprehend and acknowledge, so too do all the individual men and women who, by accepting the false claims of legitimate authority advanced by those claiming to possess authority by virtue of some process of election or appointment, strengthen those false claims and make it more likely that orders issued from on high will be obeyed all the way down to the men and women in the airplanes who actually press the buttons that cause the bombs to be dropped.
Almost four centuries ago, John Locke argued that the kings and queens of Europe were in a state of nature with one another because there was no social contract of nations analogous to the social contract of individuals about which he was writing. This, and countless other writings over several millennia, have encouraged us to think of nations as super-persons, as it were, as unitary agents capable of making decisions and acting in ways that can be judged morally. That is an illusion. It was false when Locke wrote and it is false today. America does not act, Google does not act, the Navy does not act, the Roman Catholic Church does not act, the NFL does not act, Ben and Jerry’s does not act [although of course Ben does and so does Jerry.]
If all this is true, as in fact it is, what then should each of us as an individual agent do? Ah well, that is the real question, of course, but before we can address it, first we must clear away the illusions and mystifications of the state. Then perhaps, as Portnoy’s analyst suggests in the very last line of the novel, we can begin.