Human Freedom and the Common Good

Glen T. Martin

February, 2022

Human Dignity

The first and fundamental principle whenever one thinks about society, morality, law, or human life in general is the principle of human dignity.  This is the fundamental principle of all morality and law. It means that there is something inviolable about being human, something that sets us apart from all other things and creatures that we are aware of, something that was traditionally recognized as a spark of divinity or being “made in the image of God.”  The fact that all normal people everywhere are horrified by homicide, for example, shows that we all immediately know this fundamental principle (Martin 2018, Chap. 2).

St. Paul, in Romans 2:14, declares that the moral law is “written on every human heart” in such a way that the revealed biblical law is not necessary for people to act morally. This is because people everywhere, even those who never heard of Christianity, “do by nature what the law requires.”  The Bible declares that there is a universal moral principle known to all persons, written on their hearts by God.

Immanuel Kant in the 18th century is widely credited for putting his finger on the “fundamental principle of all morality” that he called the Categorical Imperative (1964). He states that this imperative is known immediately to all normal persons. It commands: “Always treat every person as an end in themselves, never merely as a means.”  Kant explicitly identifies this principle with our infinite dignity which is “beyond all price,” beyond all utilitarian calculations of cost versus benefit. We should not use people. If we harm them or kill them for our own advantage, we are using them as a means and violating their intrinsic human dignity. If we claim “self-defense” as an excuse for doing them violence, we must justify this claim in front of an impartial governmental forum (cf. Martin 2009, Chap. 11).

Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov in the 19th century agreed with Kant and St. Paul’s declaration in the Christian New Testament. He affirms that: “The moral principle, recognized in its essence by all normal people, though on different grounds and with different degrees of clearness, asserts that human dignity must be respected in every person, and that thereby no one may be made merely a means or an instrument for the advantage of others” (1950, 211).

World-renowned philosopher Jürgen Habermas in the 20th century, famous as a founder of “Discourse Ethics,” similarly links our ability to engage in “dialogue directed toward mutual understanding” with our immeasurable dignity as persons:

Human dignity,” as I would like to show, is in a strict moral and legal sense connected with this relational symmetry. It is not a property like intelligence or blue eyes, that one might “possess” by nature; it rather indicates the kind of “inviolability” which comes to have a significance only in interpersonal relations of mutual respect, in the egalitarian dealings among persons. (2003, 33)

It is the role of government, for Habermas, to promote a framework in which “dealings among persons” can and must be egalitarian. This provides the framework for “mutual respect,” in which we respect the dignity of others and do not interfere with their legitimate freedom, or their property, or their lives. Government, therefore, makes possible dealing with others through dialogue and lawful interpersonal relationships rather than through force or violence.

Human Freedom and the Common Good

All three of these philosophers recognize that our common human dignity is directly linked to the concept of freedom and that at the same time all persons are integrally linked to society and are part of some larger community. Freedom is inseparable from human dignity, and this inviolability of persons is always framed within an embracing social order. Our dignity itself is integral to our being able to obey the moral law by treating every person as an end in themselves and never using them merely as a means. The first article of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights rightly declares that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

Since our fundamental quality is freedom and dignity, this means that a primary function of government is to empower and protect our personal freedom (which is also our immeasurable dignity). But government has a second primary function since it has authority over all persons: it must protect the common good of all.  Fundamental to protecting the common good of all is the difficult task of maximizing personal freedom and dignity in such ways that these are equally available to all citizens. Personal freedom must be restricted and regulated in such ways that allow equal freedom to all others within society (cf. Gewirth 1996).

For all three of these thinkers, legitimate government is that which performs this task reasonably well—maximizing personal freedom for persons within a common good framework of enforceable rules and regulations that allow this same personal freedom to all. So-called “positivists” are simply wrong. Government must be morally legitimated with respect to its ability to protect human dignity. And its functional purpose is also this moral one: to balance personal freedom with the common good. Philosopher of law Lon Fuller (1969) distinguishes the “morality of duty” from the “morality of aspiration.” He says that government must enforce a regime of duty required of all persons (the mandatory common good) in order that all persons also may freely pursue the “morality of aspiration” (their freely chosen goals).  As Solovyov expresses this:

The demand for personal freedom presupposes, for the sake of its own realization, restraint upon freedom insofar as, at the present stage of human development, it is incompatible with the existence of society or with the common good. The interests of individual freedom and general welfare, opposed to each other in abstract thought but equally binding morally, coincide in fact.  Legal justice is born of their union. (1950, 202)

The Moral Failure of All Governments Today

In his famous essay on “Perpetual Peace” (1957, orig. pub. 1795), Kant argues that the above reasons are why all human beings are morally required to live under “republican” government. You cannot have the freedom to be moral without an enforceable common good manifested in a set of rules that empower and protect this freedom by prohibiting others from interfering with it. With a prescience characteristic of genius, Kant saw that the system of militarized sovereign nation-states violated this requirement. 

Each “sovereign” government claimed autonomy over its internal affairs and recognized no enforceable laws above itself with regard to its “external” affairs.  Therefore, each sovereign government, with its vaunted military prowess, was illegitimate, in a condition of perpetual war-making that Kant called “barbarity, rudeness, and a brutish degradation of humanity” (ibid., 16).  Each government was “free” in relation to the rest of humanity irrespective of the fact that there was no government for humanity as a whole to regulate or restrict that freedom with respect to the common good of all.

Without such a global framework, human civilization remained in a condition of what Thomas Hobbes (1651) called “a war of all against all.” The first and foremost moral imperative according to Kant, was to leave this condition and establish a lawful framework for all nations. They must “enter into a constitution similar to a civil constitution” (1957., 16).

The absolute national sovereignty that has characterized nation-states for the more than three centuries claims “freedom” for each individual nation-state and ignores the common good of humanity as a whole, a common good that necessarily requires a governing authority with the enforceable capacity to end all militarism and restrict the freedom of each to conform to the equal freedom of the rest. The very existence of a military in any of these sovereign nations constitutes a denial of the notion that there is a common good of humanity, linked to human dignity, that must be protected. Any of these militarized entities is free to decide for itself (without external lawful penalty or constraint) where and when to deploy its military forces.

It is free to decide for itself whether to kill others with a drone strike or an assassination team, or through economic sanctions to starve the citizens of some other nation to death. The task of their military forces is precisely to violate the dignity of designated “enemies” by taking from them their livelihoods and lives without any lawful protection. Their job is to treat the “enemy” as a mere means and never has an inviolable end in themselves. The so-called “self-defense” argument is a complete sham. There is no such thing as “self-defense” when you are the only judge of when and where such “defense” is necessary or legitimate.

The Earth Constitution as Moral Imperative

We have seen that the fundamental moral principle requires both the moral demand to treat every person as an end in themselves (possessing immeasurable dignity) and the mandatory context for a government that provides a set of enforceable minimal requirements to protect the equal security and freedom of all.  Any military organization is necessarily directed to the arbitrary killing of some designated “enemy” in denial of their dignity.  The standing assumption behind any military is that they have the “right” to arbitrarily destroy any chosen “enemy” irrespective of that enemy’s human dignity and irrespective of the common good of the whole of humanity. As Kant expresses this: “states do not plead their cause before a tribunal; war alone is their way of bringing suit” (1957, 18).

That is why our fundamental moral imperative today is ratification of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth. And that is why the Constitution is necessarily non-military.  All militarization is immoral.  The only moral form of enforcement demands a civilian police force who are required to obey the laws within a constitutional framework protecting the equal freedom and dignity of all, just the opposite of what is required of a military.

The Earth Constitution is brilliantly designed for these purposes. It respects all the nations of the world under Article 14 and empowers them to participate in governing within the House of Nations under Article 5. It respects the universal human rights and dignity of all human beings under Articles 12 and 13 and empowers all persons to participate in governing within the House of Peoples.  It wisely adds a House of Counsellors to represent the common good of the whole. It creates a world civilian police force under Article 10 whose job it is to progressively reduce any use of force in the administration of world laws and create an environment based on genuine “conflict resolution” that includes “a fair hearing under non-violent circumstances.”

Our world system as it now exists is deeply immoral and illegitimate. We are morally and rationally required to create democratic world government as rapidly as possible. The Earth Constitution is the best proposal for doing this and sets out achievable mechanisms for accomplishing this step by step. The only legitimate society is one that respects human freedom and dignity within a framework of enforceable laws premised on the common good of the whole. No sovereign nation-state within today’s world is therefore legitimate. Every nation today prefers “barbarity, rudeness, and a brutish degradation of humanity.”

The time is now, not only because we are in danger of making ourselves extinct through nuclear holocaust and/or climate collapse. The Earth Constitution is founded squarely on human dignity within the framework of an enforceable common good. It not only frees us from our present homicidal trajectory. It also embodies the most fundamental moral imperative of human existence. The time is now because we experience this moral imperative as a timeless and absolute demand governing every “now.” Let us act now to ratify the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.

Works Cited

Constitution for the Federation of Earth.  Found on-line at and Also published in a number of editions by the Institute for Economic Democracy Press and available from vendors like

Fuller, Lon (1969). The Morality of Law: Revised Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Gewirth, Alan (1996). The Community of Rights. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Habermas, Jürgen (2003). The Future of Human Nature. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hobbes, Thomas (1963, orig. pub. 1651). Leviathan. Ed. John Plamenatz. New York: Merridian Books.

Kant, Immanuel (1957, orig. pub. 1795). Perpetual Peace. Ed. Lewis White Beck. New York: Macmillian.

Kant, Immanuel (1964). Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals. Trans. H.J. Paton. New York: Harper & Row.

Martin, Glen T. (2009). Emerging World Law: Volume One. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press.

Martin, Glen T. (2018). Global Democracy and Human Self-Transcendence. London: Cambridge Scholars.

Solovyov Anthology, Ed. S. L. Frank, Trans. Natalie Duddington. Paris: Student Christian Movement Press, 1950, pp. 198-223.

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