Human Exceptionalism

Ralph Waldo Emerson on the Purpose of Government

I am reading this month’s Atlantic and an essay Emerson wrote in April 1862 is excerpted. I was struck that Emerson’s perspective, written to applaud Lincoln’s move toward emancipation, remains relevant and germane to the controversies of our own time.

“The end of all political struggle,” he wrote, “is to establish morality as the basis of all legislation. It is not free institutions, it is not a republic, it is not a democracy, that is the end–no, but only the means. Morality is the object of government.”

Now I am a firm believer that, for better or for worse, the means usually become the ends. Hence, I do not believe you can achieve beneficent and moral ends through immoral or unethical means. In contrast, proper means do not guarantee proper ends–but it least they offer the potential. Thus, it seems to me that if the means involve participation in the function of free institutions, our ends have at least a chance of being moral.

Which, of course raises an obvious question: What does “morality” mean any more? Still, we should be optimistic. In Emerson’s day people were willing to kill and die by the hundreds of thousands to protect their power to use human beings as non person slaves. So, maybe we should count our blessings.