The New Divine Right: a question of social relationships.

Siddharth Mehrotra
7 min readJun 4, 2020

Among the many questions, which may interest the philosopher, or the scholar of social policy, lies that of ‘Whether interpersonal relations (such as friendship, or the relations within a family) are employments at will, to be maintained or annulled as either party sees fit; or may only be annulled or altered, upon just cause?’.

The foundation of our concepts of justice, is the notion of Cause: i.e., of a premise or ground for reward and punishment, proportionate to one or the other of these, and of some material use to the recipient. Absent cause, the effect appears to be baseless, wherefore it weakens our faith in the laws and customs of our society, and violates our intuitions about the very process, by which the effect came to be. An effect without a cause, is, except in very abstract principle, a contradiction in terms; and so, our sense of justice requires every effect to have a cause, and moreover a cause proportionate to itself, to be tolerated.

In favor of the contrary position, it may be said, It is essential to the whole liberty of the individual, to be able to change its relations without notice, and so pursue its own ends without becoming involved in any relations which might interfere with that pursuit. It means, et al., never having to justify oneself to others, who might know less than oneself; and thus, grants the ability to stand upon the rightness of one’s actions, so judged by oneself in the fullness of one’s education, and arrogate to oneself a certain pride in holding fast to one’s principles, irrespective of public opinion. Such a stance, may be accounted necessary to the making for oneself of a respectable place in society, and thus to one’s personal security against the various accidents with which any life is inevitably beset.

At the same time, it must be acknowledged, there is nothing desirable in a freedom to act without motivation, insofar as such a freedom supplies no cause for action, and therefore implies no action to be taken. If interpersonal relations are at will, any subject of those relations is placed in a slavish relation to their object, while the object bears the subject no responsibility. The subject in such a régime is entirely at the mercy of the object; and the subject has no vote in the matter, but must submit without complaint to whatever treatment it receives. Furthermore, the balance of power, in present-day instances of this relation, is wholly arbitrary, in that whoever first assumes the rôle of object in these relations, retains that character for life, respecting to the particular subject, who afterward is entirely dependent on the object’s good-will, if any. When that good-will is lost, or where it is absent ex initio, the subject is doubly helpless, and may be deprived even of the chance to justify itself, or make amends, or establish better relations.

In addition to this, it must strike the observer as bizarre, that social relations should begin and end at will, while all interactions of the participants, from beginning to end, are governed by the standards of just cause. While a friendship lasts, or a kinship is acknowledged, any one among its constituents is expected, in theory, to behave within tacit bounds of decency; to transgress which, invites disapproval, and some degree of punishment. This may take various forms according to the customs of the country, or of the family; but in the main, it is not imposed ex nihilo, but in response to some slight, real or imagined. Should any punishment be imposed without apparent grounds, the subject of that punishment, as a rule, feels itself to be aggrieved in turn, and acts accordingly, insofar as it is allowed.

It may be contended, the at-will position is a valuable guarantor of personal liberty, insofar as it permits the party of the first to rid itself of a troublesome party of the second, or of one wherefor it no longer has any use. But this is not a true defence of the at-will position, in that this argument, too, is governed in some degree by the notion of cause. If so, the utility of the at-will position is called into question, and required to produce arguments in its own vindication.

In the first analysis, the at-will position, in professional relations at least, is a vestige of aristocracy: in which the inferior did not merely work, but lived at the pleasure of its superior, who might destroy it, supra, for any reason or none. Yet this is not the established order of things between the participants in personal relations: there is seldom a declaration, at the outset of a friendship, of one as the senior and the other as the junior partner in future intercourse, unless on the basis of a disparity in age, experience, skill, or similar. Nor do most people expect such a hierarchy in personal relations, though they do expect this, as a rule, in professional life. In the interests, then, ostensibly of democratic practice, we have thus created an antidemocratic state of affairs, with supremacy based not on primogeniture, but on the far less orderly grounds of temporal primacy of action.

It is hardly a legal, but certainly a moral problem, when a random sample of the population has unlimited power over another, to be used at will; when any use of this power, if not preceded by another opposite use, is automatically and irrevocably considered just; when such power may be exercised with impunity, even after its grounds are proven weak; when one against whom this power is exercised, has no means of restitution; and when any single use of this power, is sufficient to entirely ruin the career, prospects, reputation, etc. of those subject to it. In personal relations governed at will, all these attributes are true. It may be alleged, therefore, that the holding of relations at will, though procedurally correct according to most laws and customs, is substantively unconscionable, insofar as it reduces the franchise of the weaker party in any relationship. When modern times have placed every social desideratum on an at-will basis, up to and including livelihood, good-will, place of residence, love, forgiveness, and friendship, and at the same time denies the ability of any and every cause and argument, to bring influence to bear upon the giver, the supplicant in the case (and we are all supplicants) is without means, even to secure the furtherance of its own necessities.

Following Foucault, we may remark, the right of Exit from a troublesome situation, is of little practical use, in the absence of a strong right of Voice; i.e., of a vote, or right of appeal. When voice rights are small, or prevented from taking effect, exit rights become impractical, insofar as their exercise requires the complainant to abandon what advantages it may have of the relationship, even those unspecific to the identity of the other party (i.e.: social connections with third parties, or with a source of livelihood). Exit, thus, becomes a self-incapacitative capability, and its primacy, though widely held to be a source of liberty, becomes the means of depriving the user of all other rights.

In the medaeval and Early Modern periods, and arguably since antiquity, the prevailing theory of authority, was that of Divine Right: whereby, the right to rule was conferred by Fate, or Deity, and likewise taken away, for any cause or none at all. Justice, in such a model, lay in the hands of the chosen authority, to be dispensed as much at that authority’s will, as rulership at the will of Heaven. Present theories of authority, justice, etc., have discarded the notion of Divine Right, as conducive to the growth of autocracy and force, and therefore of ill effect on the morals of society, and a needless obstacle to the progress of science. Yet the idea of justice dispensed, rights granted (or withdrawn), and especially contracts made at-will, irrespective of any grounds, remains with us, to our discredit.

It is difficult not to suppose, the concept of justice dispensed, rights granted (or withdrawn), and especially contracts made at-will, without the necessity to furnish grounds, is a remnant of the theory of Divine Right, and for that reason should be considered as no longer in force, either formally or functionally. For if Divine Right is to be eliminated from our repertoire of admissible theories, its corollaries, which perpetuate it, must likewise be eliminated.

In an historical perspective, the right of one citizen to judge and condemn another is not wholly inconsistent with democracy: as in the career of Solon of Athens, who guaranteed this right to all adult native males of his city, and simultaneously established a set of courts or juries, which served as mediators of the majority of disputes. But the same Solon, now so much admired, began with the abolition of the legal code of his predecessor, Draco, who notoriously imposed capital punishment upon even the least offences. At our present day, the power to ruin reputation, is in some sense worse than capital punishment; and therefore, if we are not indeed to impose a Draconian norm upon ourselves, we must assure this power is exercised with care.

In aristocratic societies, such a power is the inalienable right of the principal in any relationship, personal or professional, and little worth is attached to the rights, intentions, and needs of the subordinate. But in such a society as ours, founded upon the theory, if not indeed upon the practice of representative democracy, it is far from tolerable. So great a power, bestowed for no other reason than of priority in time, is quite hazardous to the principle, if not indeed to the process of representative democracy, and even more so to the theoretical even-handedness of justice. For justice, in any society wherein the will is held to be of equal force, or greater than the principle of just cause, must always take sides with the claim temporally first, irrespective of the merits of that claim; and in so doing, permits itself the likelihood of grave miscarriages. It is with this caution in mind, we must establish our future policy.