This document is part of the Festschrift in Honor of Charles Speel, edited by Thomas J. Sienkewicz and James E. Betts and published by Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois in 1997. The Table of Contents for this volume can be accessed here. If you have any questions, you may contact Tom Sienkewicz at

Creating an Imperfect Government for an Imperfect Humanity

Ruth Speel Van de Water

Throughout history, men and women--both famous and unknown--have contemplated the most fundamental of questions: what is the nature of humanity? Many have thought, as did John Locke, that humans are wholly good, and only choose to do bad when their animal instinct for survival is threatened. Conversely, Thomas Hobbes felt that humans are thoroughly evil and that their natural state is one of war. Both then create governmental structures to suit their own views of humanity. However, although Locke and Hobbes were great political minds, their views of human nature are entirely too simplistic and treat human beings as mere animals who act only for self-preservation and without enlightenment or consciousness.

Human nature is basically good, yet incredibly flawed. Men and women are not harmless animals ignorantly acting on uncontrollable instincts, but have intellect and consciousness, from which they derive capacities for both good and evil. They are innately moral creatures capable of ethical decisions, yet do not always make the right choices. Humanity seeks a purpose and meaning to life, and finds it in the ability to help others, transforming a will to live into a will to give. Yet this goodness is tempered by egotism and a desire for power in an attempt to compensate for one's apparent insignificance in the universal order, implying that evil decisions are instinctive but deliberate. Because humans are naturally equal in rights and responsibilities, an increase in the power of one individual necessarily encroaches upon the power of another. Thus human existence is an eternal conflict between the will to live truly and the will to gain power. An increase in technology, rather than insuring survival and allowing humanity to be good, makes desire and ambition yet more limitless, bringing with its new rights and responsibilities. Because humans are interdependent, individuals cannot act without considering others. Human beings are only somewhat individualistic in their values, ideas, and paradigms because they are shaped by their community. Most are not so independent as to risk societal disapproval and loss of power. This unwillingness to think of oneself as part of a group creates difficulty for resolving problems between the races, sexes, and classes. Community is essential to being fully human by allowing people to help one another. In helping the community one helps oneself, and thus public good and individual good are not contradictory but one and the same. However, individual good must not be confused with individual ego, in which the ultimate goal is power and status regardless of the damage it inflicts upon one's spirit and attempt at fulfillment. Human nature is far from simple, with good and evil in a precarious balance for power, and human consciousness in control.

Because of humanity's capacity for both good and evil, men and women have only a limited ability to govern themselves. A good family background, values, and religion, may encourage but do not insure that an individual will choose to do more good and less evil, which is the best one can hope for from a flawed humanity. Because men and women are able to do horrendously evil acts, they must not be allowed to govern themselves without limit. Conversely, they cannot be denied all chance to govern themselves and thus all chance to do good, which is a willed act. To accommodate humanity's dual nature, government has two roles: the suppression of evil and the enhancement of human life. In suppressing evil, the government must regulate behavior that is harmful to others, but it cannot legislate morality and private behavior. In enhancing human life, it must promote justice and humanity's responsibility to help the less fortunate while guaranteeing a minimal amount of economic security. Government has the right and responsibility to punish those who break the law, but it does so in order to protect the rest of society and enable it to function properly, not as a moral judgment against the offender. Government must be limited to its proper sphere of interest, which is public safety rather than public goodness, the latter being subjective and impossible to agree upon in a pluralistic society. Free debate must be encouraged as well as public participation in the political process, but the government has the responsibility to censor degenerate speech that promotes violence or criminal behavior. Humans cannot be naively trusted to remain harmless and independent when they are constantly bombarded with messages promoting evil activities that harm other people, for they are too easily swayed by society's standards. Government must allow men and women the choice to be good, giving to others and achieving self-fulfillment, as well as the opportunity to pursue power and egotism, but not the choice to be so evil as to harm other individuals and deny them their rights.

Men and women are conscious beings, capable of both good and evil. Therefore government must accommodate these opposing characteristics and treat people as such, with neither naivete or pessimism. Democracy is the only form of government that does this. While humanity's ability to do good makes democracy possible, humanity's tendency to do evil makes democracy necessary. Although one can hardly trust governing by imperfect, biased, ego-driven citizens, one cannot possibly trust one man or woman with these characteristics to be other than self-serving as a monarch. Human beings are not simple creatures, and even with an ideal government in an ideal society, evil will exist as a part of human nature. Each individual man and woman, not government, must work to insure that goodness and love will nonetheless prevail.


Brill, Earl. The Christian Moral Vision. New York: The Seabury Press, 1979.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindiction of Democracy and a Critique of its Traditional Defense. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1944.

Speel Festschrift Table of Contents

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