Philosopher-at-large: Can there ever be a rational basis for the hereditary principle?
For centuries, the European Enlightenment was supposed to be the beginning of the end for the continent’s monarchs. Yet while most have indeed gone, well into the 21st century the United Kingdom has welcomed a new king onto the throne.
It is tempting to see this as the power of tradition and sentiment overcoming the power of reason. But it is more accurate to see it as triumph of one conception of reason over another. For the conservative, a monarchy is not irrational because it can be reasonable to preserve what it would never be rational to create.
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone sensible who believes that a new nation should establish a constitutional monarchy. The idea that someone should have political authority or exceptional status by virtue of being born into a certain family is indefensible. Power aside, it is appalling that royal offspring are groomed from birth for a specific role.
There is not a single moral or political principle that deserves to be taken seriously as a possible justification for establishing a monarchy. On this point, Enlightenment arguments seem to have won. It is striking that no new monarchy has been established anywhere in the world for well over a century, with the youngest kingdoms all heirs to states that had monarchs before.
Although you’d be silly to argue that every state should become a monarchy, there are plenty who believe that we should keep the ones we have. These “soft monarchists” often agree with republican objections, but they see other reasons in favour of retention that they weigh more heavily. Abolitionists like me need to take those reasons seriously.
There are plenty of examples of things that we would never think of fashioning today which we nonetheless deeply want to preserve. Many of the world’s great monuments, cathedrals and ceremonial objects, for example. No one could justify using state money to make the garishly bejewelled crown that will sit on King Charles’s head when many of his subjects can’t pay their bills and the health service is at breaking point. But almost everyone wants to see the crown jewels preserved. They are irreplaceable precisely because they would never be made today.
This argument may seem less powerful when applied to institutions that continue to play an important constitutional and social role. The monarchy is not a kind of impotent museum piece. But there are social, psychological and historical facts that count as reasons for keeping it—ones that the passing of Elizabeth II have made clearer. The monarch stands above and apart from partisan politics, providing continuity and unity in a political system that is otherwise characterised by conflict and change. The monarch can also fulfil an emotional function, as a figurehead that people can feel a connection with. And much as ultra-rationalists may dislike it, nations arguably need a strong sense of history and tradition to bind them together.
No one would create a monarchy from scratch to fulfil these functions. More importantly, no one could. It only works because it has been around for so long. Get rid of it, and it wouldn’t be long before restoration would become inconceivable.
The case for keeping the monarchy today therefore rests on the argument that it works. It may be absurd in many ways, and an affront to democratic principles, but it is what history has bequeathed us and—like a magnificent monument erected for a long-discredited cause or a temple built for the glory of a non-existent god—the onus of proof is on those who seek its destruction to say what would work better in its place.
This defence of monarchy clearly moves many people, at least implicitly. Whether you buy it or not, it’s worth taking it seriously because it challenges a widespread assumption about what reason demands of us. Most western political philosophy since Plato has operated on the assumption that you have to work out your fundamental principles first and then apply them. Seeing how terrifying it would have been to put Plato’s own totalitarian republic into practice—as well as how badly many experiments in building a society from “year zero” have gone—we have good reasons for doubting the wisdom of this approach.
Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice heralded the rise of an alternative “non-ideal political theory” approach, which focuses on how we can improve from where we are now, not on what a theoretical utopia would look like. Take this approach seriously, and the idea that it is more important to make incremental, practical changes—to, say, tackle inequality—than abolish somewhat irrational institutions becomes much more persuasive.
You may disagree that this adds up to a good enough case to keep the monarchy, and I for one think the democratic objection is particularly difficult to overcome. But it is a rational case nonetheless, not just a dumb appeal to tradition or feeling. Reason is not only a matter of constructing arguments based on solid principles: it is also a matter of carefully attending to the reasons we have for what we think and do, then examining whether they are good enough.
Hume believed we call good anything that is useful or pleasing. If the monarchy is both, that could be a good reason to stick with it—even if, in theory, it’s ridiculous.
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