“To live on the soil we cultivate”: Legitimacy and Expediency in Thoreau’s Political Ethics

Questions of ethics and morality help to elucidate important limits to politics and in particular help to provoke discourse on popular governance and legitimacy.  More specifically, stirring political theorists to address questions of ethics and moral theorists to consider questions of politics remains an underutilized strategy of encouraging public and scholarly dialogue. Can scholars and activists (and perhaps politicians, too) develop an ethics specific to politics? Or, how shall we consider political responses to moral problems and moral reactions to political problems?  Political institutions afford access to resources and opportunities, and yet one must question whether the expediency of political institutions corrupts or interferes with moral norms and ethical practices. In what follows, I discuss political ethics in the context of Henry David Thoreau’s criticism of political expediency and his arguments suggesting that individuals use personal integrity to evaluate and regulate contingencies of policy and governance.

But, before I go too much further, let me explicitly suggest how I differentiate among questions of ethics and politics. I tend to consider ethics to refer to the ways that people treat one another. Morality, in my view, typically refers to sets of laws, norms or rules by which we may evaluate behaviors and beliefs (in ourselves and in others) as good, bad, right, wrong, and/or inconsequential.  Generally, I think of politics as how people employ power, force, and authority in the context of social relationships. This typology is hardly precise, but it does at least indicate how I consider these concerns here.

Writing in the mid-1800’s during the early stages of the development of United States (U.S) politics, Henry David Thoreau offer a challenge to policy and governance processes that he perceived as largely unregulated by ethics.  For Thoreau, the people collectively in a democratic society must take responsibility for evaluating the public policies that govern us. More specifically, citizens must decide the terms of their own political governance and do so on the basis of an ethical integrity based in the cultivation of natural human purposes.[1] Because a society’s political institutions function contingently and are impermanent in comparison to the enduring characteristics of human nature, Thoreau contended that meritorious political action will necessarily issue from the primacy of ethics in public official decision-making.

Thoreau argues that we must evaluate the consequences and merits of both our formal political institutions as well as informal political relationships against a criterion of personal integrity. He grounds his perspectives on state and government on his conception of political relations among people, that is, in terms of their ethical social relations. The phrase, “To live on the soil we cultivate” illustrates Thoreau’s understanding of the ethical opportunities and consequences inherent in politics.[2] Notably, that stance implies an ethical justification for resistance should political institutions or choices result in negative consequences or otherwise require individuals to violate their natures.

That is, for Thoreau, politics depends on ethics, but does not reduce to ethics. His paradigm for political ethics rejects abject expediency, the amoral use of political institutions as means to attain a defined end.[3] In arguing from this perspective, Thoreau reveals his principled pragmatism.[4] Perhaps borrowing from Aristotelian thought, he appeals to the use of righteous convictions gleaned from grappling with lived experience while also insisting on the freedom represented by individual conscience (humans choose whether and how to cultivate the quality of their lives, and may do so more or less fruitfully and more or less in accord with nature’s designs).[5]

In the context of politics, this results in an argument for the immanence of individual self-respect, understood as personally ethical choice-making that overcomes and supplants, when necessary, the vices of selfish ambition and immoral compromise.[6]  When he applies this conception to political institutions, Thoreau rejects ideologies that anthropomorphize government documents (e.g. constitutions, charters, codified laws, etc.), and refuses to endorse abject trust of individual public agency representative, rejecting the idea that elected authority is superior to the self-respect of individuals affected by their choices.[7]

Politics of regulatory regimes

Thoreau understood political institutions as contingent and temporary and therefore their merits arose ultimately not only from how people operating them treated one another, but just as deeply, by how those subject to institutions behaved toward each other. For the author of Civil Disobedience, how individuals treat one another outside of public office suggests how they would behave in public service. It followed for Thoreau that one may not judge a given institution’s political worth apart from the characters of those who administer it.[8]  Put differently, one cannot call a state and its institutions ethical if it creates conditions in which people may live comfortably, but nonetheless dishonestly.[9]  Consistent with this argument, he suggests that states do not inherently warrant our allegiance as patriots, except to the extent that they adopt policies that encourage living honestly as nature intends.  Thus, a government by and for honest people may not force conformity to the contingencies of governance merely for the sake of political order, where the ruling concept of order arises from, or inheres in, expediency.[10]

For Thoreau, government authority remains “impure” without the sanction of those governed.[11] That is, state power arises only from the power of individuals and a state establishes justice only when in harmony with the integrity of the individuals it governs.[12] Thoreau constructs his argument on the notion that when one acts as a state agent and merely executes the expedient functions of institutions, one tends toward corrupt judgment since the very activity of administering political conditions tends to alter consciousness. Therefore, in terms of political ethics, “representative government” must characterize the noblest faculties of the mind—those in accord with general laws of propriety, God, humanity, and justice.[13] In evaluating the character of his peers, particularly concerning matters of slavery, taxation, and principled disobedience or rebellion, Thoreau conceives of people as imbued, inherently, with features indomitable by governments.[14]

Living one’s life solely as a citizen, merely as a political subject in accord with institutional rights and formal freedoms, implies a regime characterized by corrupted use of power. “The character of voters is not staked,” he argues (that is, there is nothing truly at stake in the votes cast by people in corrupt regimes).[15] A political system that absolves moral responsibilities, in which people can trade such obligations for expediency, is immoral. Such a regime operates not on the authority and with the regulation of democratic votes, but merely counts those cast as if responses to an opinion poll; they possess no emancipatory powers by which citizens can govern their society’s institutions.[16] Thoreau illustrates this point by asking his readers to consider the following: if slaves voted to end slavery and the majority of those votes cast actually ended their forced servitude, the result should be counted an example of ethical politics. The votes would wield moral and political power and count as legitimate since the institutions would have acceded to the collective will of those who voted for their own emancipation. In contrast, institutions and authorities primarily concerned with expediency will tally votes as suggestive and not as substantively imperative.

Politics of social life

What, then, does Thoreau make of politics as it concerns life with one another, such as shares of power, and responsibilities to one’s community or nation? For Thoreau, narrow economic interest cannot supplant personal integrity. Thus, he argues that we should do what we would do if we lived poor.[17] His latent appeal to asceticism reveals his belief that individuals cannot derive political ethics from property rights, as commonly assumed following Locke. Rather, just social arrangements arise from ethical treatment of one another. Thoreau offers a heuristic for evaluating the moral worth of politics—a diagnostic resource for deciding whether a state is acting in its citizens’ best interests.[18]

For Thoreau political processes cannot supplant conscience and, reminiscent of Rousseau, he argues we are “men [sic] first, subjects afterward…”[19] Mundane politics leaves us as “dyspeptics” (complaining).[20] Conversely, he might agree that ethical politics leaves us as “enpeptics” (celebrating). In Thoreau’s formulation, humans naturally feel violations of their freedoms intolerable. That axiom produced his famous conclusion: “The law will never make men [sic] free; it is men who have got to make the law free. They are the lovers of law and order who observe the law when the government breaks it.”[21]

We may think of Thoreau’s diagnostic hallmark as a form of conscientious objection or, more appropriately, as an ethics of refusal in the interests of dignity and human nature.[22] Refusal serves as an ethical litmus test for the legitimacy of political systems.  First, we can only respect politics established by principled persons, by peers who act on principle.[23] People without the conscience one might find in good neighbors cannot, he contends, carry out social good as politicians.  Second, institutionalized political freedoms (rights and laws) remain secondary to, and derive from human freedom, a fact of nature. In other words, political freedom in the form of laws and rights administered by regimes deserves human deference only in so far as the institutions overseeing them serve moral freedom.[24]  Politics as the legitimate sharing of power among people will rise and fall on these terms.

Implications for contemporary political ethics

            It is challenging to cull a readily accessible conception of political ethics from Thoreau’s various rhetorical projects. Nonetheless, given what I outline above, I consider the following as (some of) Thoreau’s principal theses on political ethics:

  • A just political system derives from just people–if the people are not just, one may not expect just politics.[25]
  • Government should not interfere with what nature has created.[26]
  • Individual self-respect (integrity) justifies civil disobedience, and those who disobey do so justifiably in order to preserve their integrity.[27]
  • Politics designed around people as citizen-subjects cannot induce ethical politics; persons who act ethically must precede ethical governance; people cannot act wholly as citizen-subjects and yet retain integrity as persons.
  • Governmental expediency remains accountable to ethics and, therefore, political justice remains secondary to how people treat one another.[28]
  • People should not suffer a government that demands or compels complicity in mean-spirited treatment of one another.[29]
  • A government independent of interpersonal ethics moves from immoral to unmoral, and once unmoral it cannot meet the needs of those it seeks to govern.[30]
  • Principled minorities represent a political justice superior to majorities who live by legality alone.[31]
  • An unjust political system cannot morally abide the true nature of persons and will, therefore, eventually fail.[32]
  • Political institutions must accept people as nature designs them, and cannot both violate those claims and maintain legitimacy.[33]

If Thoreau’s thinking has merit, contemporary political theorists, activists, and politicians should give little or no credence to arguments that treat governance and policy as mechanisms of mere expediency. His political ethics yield to no such conveniences and permit no such shirking of responsibilities to personal and social integrity.[34] If a person involved in the administration of political institutions must choose between principles and expediency, but cannot discern how to act on principle, Thoreau’s ethical framework requires that individual to resign. Otherwise, the result will involve incompetence at best, and disaster at worst. Theorists who adhere to mere expediency do so by denying their natural conscience and politicians who follow suit do so by pursuing their vanity. That is, and put bluntly, one cannot trust those who salt the earth and expect to cultivate it at the same time.


[1] Citation key: CD for “Civil Disobedience,” PCJB for “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” LWP for “Life Without Principle,” SM for “Slavery in Massachusetts,” and  RR for “Reform and the Reformers.”

[2] Thoreau, Henry David, “Civil Disobedience,” In Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers, edited by H.S. Salt (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1849) 52, 60.

[3] Thoreau, Henry David, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” The Thoreau Reader (1854). http://thoreau.eserver.org/slavery.html. §38.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Thoreau consistently appeals to nature and naturalistic imagery in explicating his points. He contended that we should “strive first to be as simple and well as nature ourselves.”  From: “Reform and the Reformers.”  No. 06 Feb 2013. http://www.thoreau-online.org/reform-and-the-reformers.html.

[6] SM §33.

[7] Note, among other comments, “The city does not think much” [emphasis in original] (SM §24).

[8] CD 35-40.

[9] CD 38.

[10] Ibid. 41.

[11] Ibid. 51.

[12] Ibid. 71-72.

[13] Ibid. 47-48, 71.

[14] Ibid. 72.

[15] Ibid. 28.

[16] Ibid. 28-29.

[17] Ibid. 37.

[18] Ibid. 46-47.

[19] Ibid. 23.

[20] LWP 140-141.

[21] SM.

[22] Thoreau, Henry David, “A Plea for Captain John Brown,” In Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers, edited by H.S. Salt (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1849)  52, 66, 78-79.

[23] Ibid. 67-68.

[24] LWP 136.

[25] CD. 23.

[26] Ibid. 33.

[27] Ibid. 22-23.

[28] Consider the “plank metaphor.” Ibid. 26-27.

[29] Ibid. 30.

[30] Ibid. 30.

[31] Ibid. 34.

[32] Ibid. 32.

[33] Thoreau, Henry David, “Life without Principle,” In Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers, edited by H.S. Salt (London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1863) 123.

[34] For instance, his contention that the courts were not made for “fair weather” (SM §21).

Works Cited

Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience.” In Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers, edited by H.S. Salt. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1849.

—. “Life without Principle.” In Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers, edited by H.S. Salt. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1863.

—. “A Plea for Captain John Brown.” In Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers, edited by H.S. Salt. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co., 1849.

—. “Reform and the Reformers.”  No. 06 Feb 2013. http://www.thoreau-online.org/reform-and-the-reformers.html.

—. “Slavery in Massachusettes.”  The Thoreau Reader (1854). http://thoreau.eserver.org/slavery.html.

christian-matheisChristian Matheis is a doctoral candidate at Virginia Tech conducting research in ethics and political philosophy in the Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical and Cultural Thought (ASPECT), teaching in the Department of Philosophy. He holds a B.S. in Psychology and an M.A. in Applied Ethics with graduate minors in Ethnic Studies and Sociology, both from Oregon State University.

This entry was posted in Christian Matheis, Posts. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply