Home' Policy Magazine : Policy Vol 32 - No 2 Contents 45
POLICY • Vol. 32 No. 2 • Winter 2016
their higher order desires and seek internal balance
in order to act prudently and live well.
The internal struggle between lower and higher
order desires has long been a central theme of moral
philosophy. Augustine’s Confessions documents his
struggle with the temptations of sex, power and
other basic desires, which he comes to realise were
pale imitations of the love that he finds in God.
This awareness of the basic conflict between human
desire and heavenly love also informs Augustine’s
political philosophy. Augustine distinguishes the
transient rewards offered by honour, glory and
power in the earthly kingdom from those afforded
by the kingdom of God: each has its appeal, but
the former pales in comparison to the latter.
tempting for political rulers to focus on the goals
of glory and power, but this is deeply misguided.
Divine law is true law; human law is, at best, a
The practical point of Augustine’s reflections
can be grasped independently of his theological
commitments. Human perceptions of how we
ought to behave are distorted in many ways—
through limited knowledge, cognitive biases,
partiality and the role of desire in motivating
action. These distortions may prevent us from
treating others well, but they may also prevent us
from effectively pursuing a good and flourishing
life. We all know what it is like to be tempted to
do something that we realise, upon reflection, is
not prudent or ethical to do. We all know what
it is like to give into these temptations and regret it
later on. We also know what it is like to be tempted
to assuage our guilt by rationalising our behaviour
and pretending that we did the right thing in the
15 This is all part of being human.
Nobody is perfect, but we like to pretend we
are better than we actually are. This temptation is
particularly strong for people who hold positions
of power and are subject to continual scrutiny.
Politicians live in constant fear of losing their jobs
by appearing to be fallible. It is no surprise, then,
that they are loath to own up to their mistakes. Any
admission of fallibility is seen as a sign of weakness.
The reality, however, is that everyone is fallible.
The task of governing human society, in particular,
is extremely complex and anyone who is arrogant
enough to attempt it is bound to make mistakes all
the time. It may be tempting to deny our mistakes
or blame them on other people. However, it is only
by acknowledging our failings that we can put in
place ways to avoid repeating them in future.
The value of humility
I have argued that moral and political decisions are
affected by at least four distinct kinds of human
fallibility: epistemological, psychological, ethical
and moral. I wish to conclude with a plea for an
important human virtue too rarely exhibited in
public life: namely, humility. We have seen that it
is extremely difficult to organise a large community.
Political leaders, nonetheless, routinely pretend that
this task is within their grasp. They feel it is their
job to run things and fear they will lose their power
unless they talk up their abilities. Voters and the
media no doubt encourage this mindset by setting
unrealistic standards. The kinds of human fallibility
discussed in this article, however, make the whole
thing seem like a giant confidence trick. Politicians
are pretending to be flawless at a job that is very
difficult to do even passably well.
The culture of denialism about the fallibility
of our political leaders fuels complacency about
constitutional principles. If our leaders were
infallible, there would be little reason to value the
separation of powers and the rule of law. James
Madison famously wrote that if we were ruled by
angels, ‘neither external nor internal controls on
government would be necessary’.
16 However, we
do not live in a community of angels, but one of
human agents. The best way to respond to the
basic fact of human fallibility is to make sure that
no single person or group of people wields an
undue share of government power. The power of
every official must be limited and subject to review.
This is best accomplished by dividing government
power among multiple branches and giving each
of them the ability to oversee the others.
James Madison famously wrote that if we
were ruled by angels, ‘neither external
nor internal controls on government
would be necessary’.
Links Archive Policy Vol 32 - No 1 Policy Vol 32 - No 3 Navigation Previous Page Next Page