The Minimal State and Morality


Posted: July 24, 2016

By Suzanne Normile

In addressing global environmental issues, multilateral agreements have traditionally been used to yield effective international policies. The United Nations, an international organization consisting of 190 member-states, is often the governing body through which these agreements are made. This system has proven successful in a few notable cases. The Montreal Protocol, for example, was able to eliminate the use of most chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s) on a global scale, something that had been a major cause of ozone-depletion. Aspiring to efforts such as these, the U.N is often perceived as expressing the position or interests of an international community. However, more recent developments have now brought into question the effectiveness of these global multilateral agreements, often spearheaded by the U.N, to produce decisions based on a common good. This is primarily the result of current political and economic mechanisms and the lack of morality that they presuppose.

Past agreements, including Montreal, were signed in an era characterized by faith in public management through a sovereign state (Gareau & Dupuis, 2009, p. 2305). Through this, multilateral agreements were able to utilize public knowledge and direct industry regulation to yield effective treaties. Today, these agreements take place in a different era—one in which neoliberal political policy and economic mechanisms dominate. In consequence, decision-making is ruled by private interests, market solutions, and a distrust in state intervention. While this method arguably supports economic efficiency, it also prevents multilateral agreements from producing the results they once did to address international policies. Under these ideologies, governance deviates from notions of loyalty, solidarity, and public engagement by stripping away the moral dimension necessary for such circumstances. Without this, there can be no claim to a common good, let alone the international community.

Libertarian theory rests upon the notion that only a minimal state—one that enforces contracts, protects private property from theft, and keeps the peace—will produce just results (Sandel, 2009, p. 60). Any state that does more than this is therefore thought to be unjustified. Neoliberal public philosophy came to full expression in the 1960s and 70s, claiming that governments should be neutral on moral and religious questions so that each individual can be free to choose their own perception of the good life. This line of reasoning is also used to support the free-market. Libertarians claim that letting people engage in voluntary exchanges respects their freedom of choice, while laws that interfere with this violate individual liberty (Sandel, 2009, p. 75). Aspiring to neutral governance and supporting the market therefore adheres to a specific definition of human freedom.

For libertarians, each person has a fundamental right to liberty—the right to do whatever they want with the things they own, provided they respect other peoples’ rights to do the same (Sandel, 2009, p. 60). Therefore, a government imposing a certain sense of morality and virtue fails to respect citizens as free and independent selves. Libertarians argue that only a neutral state that enforces civil liberties and private property rights can prevent this. Thus freedom and neutral governance go hand in hand. It is precisely because people are free that they need a framework of rights neutral among ends (Sandel, 2009, 216). Libertarian notions therefore strongly respect individual rights. However, this definition of freedom is flawed when adopted by governing bodies. The idea that individuals (or individual nation-states) belong to themselves rejects all notions of what it means to belong to a community. For in a community, individuals belong to more than just themselves. They belong to a unified body and have certain responsibilities to this body through a set common interests. Michael Sandel supports this notion in his book, Justice: what’s the right thing to do?

Sandels explains this deviation from community by introducing a term he refers to as “moral individualism.” This notion is bound in liberal reasoning—claiming that an individual is only responsible for him or herself, not for the actions of others, or events beyond one’s control (Sandel, 2009, p. 213). As Sandel explains, this term does not encompass a selfish doctrine, but is yet another claim to freedom. For the moral individualist, to be free is to be subject only to the obligations one voluntarily incurs (Sandel, 2009, p. 213). This sense of individual morality appeals to many. However, when such a notion is applied to roles of governance, it leaves little room for collective responsibility.

Moral individualism assumes that people are free and independent selves, able to choose their own morals and obligations to meet their own ends. This means that anything an individual owes to another is subjected by an act of consent or by an agreement that has been made, not an obligation arising from a collective identity (Sandel, 2009, p.213). Many in contemporary politics have adapted to this sense of morality and responsibility. However, freedom of choice in this case may not always lead to the most just society. Sandel argues that this is because it is difficult to define rights and duties without taking up substantive moral questions, and even when possible, this may not be the most desirable (Sandel, 2009, p. 220). The weakness of liberal notions, he claims, is that they prevent individuals from making sense of political obligations.

When people are viewed as free and independent selves, bound only to moral obligations in which they have chosen, they are relieved from collective responsibilities. These collective responsibilities, stemmed from loyalty and solidarity, arise from a sense of community and help shape identity. Without them, individuals cannot make sense of moral and political obligations (Sandel, 2009, p. 220). This becomes important in issues of global governance because solidarity and loyalty give rise to accountability, legitimacy, and mutual respect. Without the capacity for pride or shame in the actions one commits to others, something that comes from feeling morally obligated to one’s community, there can be no capacity for responsibility. Without collective responsibility, it is then difficult to give reason to criticize individual actions or that of governments (Sandel, 2009, p. 234). For these reasons, it can thus be argued that just governance, representing a collective group of people (such as that of the international community), requires a sense of belonging.

Liberal political policy and market-based reasoning were adopted in an attempt to prevent moral and religious controversies from coercing the force of law. They also protect individual rights by supporting the idea that individuals are bound only to moral obligations that they ascribe to themselves. However, if the principles that define global governance should be neutral among ends and individuals only have moral responsibility to themselves, then national interests will always take precedence. For in this mindset, individual rights (or those of individual nations) have priority over the common good. By stripping away the moral dimension necessary for solidarity, loyalty, and collective responsibility, multilateral agreements fail to yield decisions representative of an international community. When analyzed under these conditions, it becomes clear that a minimal state will always produce minimal results.


Sandel, J.M. (2009). Justice: what’s the right thing to do?

Gareau B.J., & Dupuis M.E. (2002). From Public to Private Global Governance: lessons from the Montreal Protocol’s stalled methyl bromide phase-out. Environment and Planning, 41, 2305-2323

Ogata, Sadaka. (2002). Guilty Parties. Foreign Policy. No. 132, p. 39-40