Personal intellectual enrichment of academics, corruption of officials in government and large companies, widespread lack of respect for police authority, the killing of a referee in a youth soccer competition. Each day the newspapers are filled with these kind of startling disclosures. Personal morality seems to be in decline. And what is invariably called for as a solution? More regulation, more enforcement, more law. Are these really a solution? Do they tackle the heart of the problem? Will people be more moral and respectful if there is a law that tells people to do so?
I think not. This kind of thinking shows an utter lack of understanding of the deeper motives by which people are driven when they act in society. Man is a religious animal. What he yearns for most deeply is his god. That which constitutes the ultimate for him , influences his decisions. Most people naturally tend to put their self-interest, personal gain and success on the throne and altar of their inner kingdom. What people believe in, what they regard as most sacred, pertains to their personal morality but also, collectively, to what is socially considered as valuable. And consequently, whether people finally consider the authority of law and the state as legitimate and just.
Here arises the need to study this spiritual dimension of law and the state, to be more precise: the spiritual sources of normative order in society. This is the domain of the philosophy of law, of which the part that devotes itself to the study of the religious dimension of morality, law and political authority, surely is one of the most challenging and cutting-edge disciplines. Take for example such a giant in philosophy as the German idealist G.W.F. Hegel, who defined religion as the place where a people defines for itself what it considers as the highest good. And that when we have a wrong idea of God, we will have wrong laws and a wrong state. When people see God, for example, as an inapproachable tyrant, beyond reality, for whom people can only feel fear and anguish, so will these people’s laws and state keep them in servitude and subservience. And when a people’s God is in fact the Mammon, no wonder everything in that state will be put in the service of economic gain, growth and prosperity. In fact, when material values are considered the highest in society, law and the state will only be legitimate when they are able to secure these values.
The last decades have shown, especially in the Netherlands, a rapid secularisation and departure from traditional Christianity. We see already a whole new generation in charge in many influential segments of society, as well as widespread in society as a whole, who didn’t have any religious and moral upbringing at all. The acquisition of a form of personal conscience, for which traditional Christianity provided the values such as modesty, self-control, charity, etc. was utterly neglected. These bitter fruits of secularisation, sowed between the 1960’s and 1980’s, is a harsh harvest indeed for us today. Unless we are willing to face these truths, we will not be able to understand why law and the state cannot secure the pre-political presuppositions from which they derive their validity.