1.4.2 Three normative questions about government

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Unit 1 Contents

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As a way of orientating ourselves before we begin the next unit and start to look at texts in Scripture about ‘just government’, it will be helpful to recognize three distinct questions that can be asked about government – and therefore about what citizens should be seeking to do as they are active in political life.  (You will recall the inherent connections between talking about citizens, politics and government that were outlined earlier, when we looked at the parts of CST that are covered in this module; see 1.2.5.)

These three questions are:

  1. What should government do?  In other words, what is the proper role of government?
  1. Why should people accept government’s claim to authority at all?  Putting this another way, why is there an obligation that we generally obey what government decides?
  1. How should government be constituted?  That is, if government is to act effectively, how should it be organized?  This is the question of the ‘form of government’. For example, should government by a monarch or by democratically elected people?

As you can see, these questions ask: What? Why? How?

We shall be making use of the distinction between these questions as we work through Module B, so exactly what they are each asking will become clearer as we proceed.

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You will see that each of those questions has the word ‘should’ in it.  They ask, in different ways, about what should be the case, even if the current reality in the world doesn’t match up to that.  As such, they are ethical or normative questions.  Here is an illustration.  Most would agree that government should ensure that there is not corruption in the criminal justice system – e.g. that judges are not bribed.  Despite this, in some countries, the government fails massively to ensure this.  The contrast here is between an ethical or normative statement about what government should do, and an empirical statement about what really is the case.  The word ‘empirical’ means to do with evidence of what is actually the case in practice.

Those three questions, then, are normative.  Continuing with the same example, the first of them asks about what government should do.  The answer to this can present a great challenge in practice: government should ensure the judicial system is not corrupt, but if in reality it is highly corrupt, the challenge for government is to address what to do to get rid of the corruption.

I hope the difference between the meanings of normative and empirical is clear. It is very worthwhile being aware of this distinction, because this alerts us to what kind of statement someone is making or what kind of question they are asking.  This is just useful background for the whole of your study.

I have distinguished those three normative questions about government here because they give the structure for the first part of Unit 2.  After two screens introducing the Bible in general, our direct study of biblical texts will be based around these three questions.

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End of 1.4.2

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Module B Outline

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