Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book III

Chapter VI


§3. However, to discuss this exhaustively would carry us too far beyond the range of Ethics proper: but we may perhaps conclude that it is impossible to elicit from Common Sense any clear and certain intuitions as to the principles on which an ideal constitution should be constructed. And there is an equal want of agreement as to the intrinsic lawfulness of introducing such a constitution in violation of the traditional and established order in any community. For some think that a nation has a natural right to a government approximately conformed to the ideal, and that this right may be maintained by force in the last resort. Others, however, hold that, though the ideal polity may rightly be put forward and commended, and every means used to promote its realisation which the established government in any country permits,---still, rebellion can never be justifiable for this purpose alone. While others,---perhaps the majority,---would decide the question on grounds of expediency, balancing the advantages of improvement against the evils of disorder.

But further, as we saw, it is not so easy to say what the established government is. For sometimes an authority declared by law to be illegitimate issues ordinances and controls the administration of justice. The question then arises, how far obedience is due to such an authority. All are agreed that usurpation ought to be resisted; but as to the right behaviour towards an established government which has sprung from a successful usurpation, there is a great difference of opinion. Some think that it should be regarded as legitimate, as soon as it is firmly established: others that it ought to be obeyed at once, but under protest, with the purpose of renewing the conflict on a favourable opportunity: others think that this latter is the right attitude at first, but that a usurping government, when firmly established, loses its illegitimacy gradually, and that it becomes, after a while, as criminal to rebel against it as it was originally to establish it. And this last seems, on the whole, the view of Common Sense; but the point at which the metamorphosis is thought to take place can hardly be determined otherwise than by considerations of expediency.

But again, it is only in the case of an absolute government, where customary obedience is unconditionally due to one or more persons, that the fundamental difficulties of ascertaining the legitimacy of authority are of the simple kind just discussed. In a constitutionally governed state numerous other moral disagreements arise. For, in such a state, while it is of course held that the sovereign is morally bound to conform to the constitution,[1] it is still disputed whether the subjects' obligation to obedience is properly conceived as conditional upon this conformity: and whether they have the moral right (1) to refuse obedience to an unconstitutional command; and (2) even to inflict on the sovereign the penalty of rebellion for violating the constitution. Again, in determining what the constitutional obligations really are we find much perplexity and disagreement, not merely as to the exact ascertainment of the relevant historical facts but as to the principles on which these facts ought to be treated. For the various limitations of sovereign authority comprised in the constitution have often been originally concessions extorted by fear from a sovereign previously absolute; and it is doubted bow far such concessions are morally binding on the sovereign from whom they were wrested, and still more how far they are binding on succeeding sovereigns. Or, vice versâ, a people may have allowed liberties once exercised to fall into disuse; and it is doubted whether it retains the right of reclaiming them. And, generally, when a constitutional rule has to be elicited from a comparison of precedents, it is open to dispute whether a particular act of either party should be regarded as a constitutive precedent or as an illegitimate encroachment. And hence we find that, in. constitutional countries, men's view of what their constitution traditionally is has often been greatly influenced by their view of what it ideally ought to be: in fact, the two questions have rarely been kept quite distinct.

[ME, Laws and Promises, §2]
[ME, Laws and Promises, §4]