A Philosophical Defence of Monarchy

St Edward's Crown

Philosophy at Cambridge, the newsletter of Cambridge University’s Faculty of Philosophy, has just published an article of mine entitled ‘A Philosophical Defence of Monarchy’, which was a reply to Professor Huw Price‘s inaugural lecture as Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy, ‘Erroneously supposed to do no harm’. Professor Price picked up on Russell’s remark that ‘The law of causality, like much that passes muster among philosophers, is a relic of a bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously supposed to do no harm’. Professor Price then went on to state how he thinks that the monarchy can be said to cause harm, notably by restricting the autonomy of an heir to the throne. This is something we accept because most of us have never thought about it.

I was surprised that Professor Price picked a political and constitutional theme for his inaugural lecture, but remembering the pronounced republican bias amongst my contemporaries when I was an undergraduate reading Philosophy at Cambridge, I decided that it would be an interesting challenge to attempt a philosophical defence of the institution of monarchy, rebutting the arguments made by Huw Price in his lecture. Professor Price has been kind enough to reply to my article within the pages of Philosophy at Cambridge. He denies that he is, as I suggested, either a ‘radical libertarian’ or a republican, and suggests that if we do have a monarchy, ‘future incumbents can be chosen from a field of consenting adults’. This is essentially the system of tanistry that operated in Gaelic lands in the Middle Ages. He goes on to question my suggestion that a monarchy secures constitutional stability, and points to Switzerland as a case of a constitutionally stable republic.

Tanistry is one form of monarchical succession; another is election, as practised by the Kingdom of Poland and the Holy Roman Empire. However, the reason why primogeniture took hold in England, France and many other European countries was the perception that it guaranteed constitutional stability and the continuity of institutions, and prevented (in theory) protracted and bloody disputes over succession. Admittedly, primogeniture was not especially successful in securing the latter, and the reasons why I am supportive of monarchy are as much negative as positive. I am deeply wary of republics and written constitutions based on abstract notions, and I fear that as we enter an increasingly complex world where old certainties and old ideas are challenged, it would be better to have a human person as the focus of national identity than a mercurial idea. The US Constitution’s protection of ‘the right to bear arms’ is a vivid demonstration that something that seemed a good idea in the eighteenth century seems a lot less so in the twenty-first.

I remain unsure, however, whether Huw Price has really addressed my argument. In particular, he does not reply to my point that, through their education and separation from the rest of society, potential monarchs become a sort of ‘natural kind’ that has to be treated differently; nor does he reply to my comparison between training up a monarch and training up a child for service in a family company, or indeed restricting a parent’s freedom to select private education and healthcare for their child. I accept his point that being an heir to the throne restricts a child’s freedom, but I continue to believe that this is a price worth paying for the common good.


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