Political Philosophy

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Political philosophy is a very tough thing to fully nail down. It’s easy to take a look at a particular political issue and take a stance, but when you zoom out and look at the more abstract concepts lurking behind the scenes of everyday politics it becomes much murkier. However, in thinking about these issues over the course of this semester, I have been able to hammer out a few general statements that I think I will be able to defend throughout the course of this paper. The government must derive its power from the consent of the governed, and the government must be held accountable by its citizens. Government should provide its citizens with equal opportunities in the marketplace and vast freedoms in private spaces. However, in doing so, governments should be minimally coercive. While these statements are all lofty goals, they are worthy of striving towards as an end goal because they represent the political good life where people are truly equal.

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The first major perennial issue to look at is one that I think is the most foundational to political philosophy: human nature. How one regards the natural inclination of human beings is the cornerstone on which the rest of political philosophy can be built. After all, to devise a system of government or lack thereof, you must have an understanding of who you are trying to govern. I think that humans are inherently motivated by self-interest. However, this does not mean that I subscribe to the Hobbesian assumptions about what this self-interest drives humans to do. While Hobbes’ model of human nature paints a picture of the pleasure-seeking man who is naturally put into a state of war with his neighbors, I believe that more often than not, this pleasure-seeking instinct drives people to avoid conflict, and often drives them to form communities that can be mutually beneficial (PTR 131). You see this every day simply in groups of friends existing without being constantly struggling for power over one another. While Hobbes would likely argue that this is because there are institutions in place to keep conflict from happening, I would argue that there really are not institutions governing interpersonal relationships on a casual scale and that looking at how small groups of people treat each other is the best snapshot of what human nature is.

An ideology that would likely push back a little bit on my assumptions on human nature is the classical liberal thinkers. While I do draw on the Hobbesian idea of maximum utility, another key part of the liberal conception of humans is that they are inherently rational (FIPP 135). I do not think that humans are rational. To exemplify this, I point to the 1968 Yale vs. Harvard football game. Both teams came into the game undefeated, but with less than four minutes left in the game, Harvard trailed by 16 points. Any casual observer of football would say that this game was just about over, and I’m sure that many watchers at home had long turned off their TVs. However, this game had a few more twists and turns than most expected, and when it ended the Harvard students were storming the field in celebration. To any classical liberal philosopher who had turned his or her TV off with Yale in a commanding lead, they would be shocked and have to assume that Harvard had stormed back and somehow won the game. They would be wrong. The game ended in a 29-29 deadlock (Mandell). If classical liberals are right and humans are inherently rational, why didn’t Harvard fans and Yale fans shake hands as they left the stadium? Each got the same result, so they should be just as happy. This example proves that humans are more emotional thinkers than economically rational thinkers, and building an ideology around the supposed rationality of people is building on a weak foundation.

Another major perennial issue that must be sorted out if I want to come up with a coherent public philosophy is sociology. This issue is arguably more important to political thought than human nature. While human nature looks at how individuals would act if they were placed outside of society, sociology must tackle the very practical question of how should humans act within a society. The “salad” conception of society is the only conception worth pursuing because it is the only one that presupposes equality among people. There may be differences from person to person, there may be differences in strengths and weaknesses, but ultimately there is equality in the knowledge that every person is only one part of the salad.

When thinking about this issue, I was tempted to simply state that in an ideal society there would be no power imbalances between different groups of people. However, I ultimately balked at this idea because I do not believe that such a society could ever be attained. Instead, I believe that Paul Schumaker’s idea of complex equality is a fair one to strive for because it is not only more feasible, but also considerably more fair (PTR 161). Schumaker’s argument is that complex equality permits reasonable, legitimate inequalities to exist within its bounds. This strikes me as having a certain fairness to it that the Communist idea of a classless society lacks. In a classless society, some people are naturally getting rewarded for work they didn’t do, while others are propping those people up.

While I have established that an ideal society is at least fairly equal, the bigger issue of society is how society should be ordered. John Locke’s classical liberal view of society saw a social contract that was implicitly agreed upon by all members of a society where people give up some rights in order to receive the protection of a government (FIPP 156). This argument has several flaws with it, but it is hard to argue that the general idea holds some merit. Sure, the social contract is more or less involuntary despite Locke’s attempt to paint it as a voluntary agreement. However, the core idea is that governments derive their strength from the will of the people they govern. The main problem that I see with the social contract is that it doesn’t suppose that the government has the authority to pursue the best interests of the people. Locke’s conception of the social contract mainly serves as a way to handle interpersonal conflict and justify the existence of society. This leaves much to be desired. If you only conceive of society as an engine for maintaining society then you commit to the status quo. I believe that society should not only have the option of bettering itself but that it should have a mandate. In this way, I lean more towards the Rawlsian social contract that suggests society should pursue welfare rights in order to foster equal opportunity among those who reside within society.

Establishing stances on broad, philosophical issues such as human nature and sociology are important because they provide a basis for us to judge how other issues should be handled. For example, take the issue of citizenship. My view on immigration and the larger issue of citizenship within a community can be guided by my view of human nature. Because of the fact that I see humans as self-serving, non-rational, but ultimately mostly benevolent, I have no choice but to commit to the slightly radical idea of open borders. If humans are not constantly on the brink of tearing each other to pieces, only restrained by the institutions that society has invented to constrain those instincts, then why shouldn’t people be allowed to be a citizen of whatever community they feel furthers their quest for their own good life. Furthermore, if people aren’t inherently rational thinkers, why should current members of a community get to make decisions on who gets to enter their community? My high school journalism teacher once told me that everyone has the right to swing their fists until they hit someone else’s’ face, and closing borders and having selective admissions for citizenship are a clear example of people getting hit in the face.

A philosopher that heavily influenced my thinking on this issue was Joseph Carens. In arguing his case for open borders, Carens makes an argument that I find far too compelling to ignore. He argues that closed borders and restrictions on immigration amount to something like a feudal birthright privilege, where there are vastly different rewards distributed not by merit, but by the accident of birth (PTR 217). He also deploys a very convincing argument using the Rawlsian principle of the “veil of ignorance,” which states that if one is to design a fair society they must not know what type of person they would be in this new society (PTR 218). Using this principle, it is evident that the fairest possible society is one where people are not constrained by the borders they are born within.

An author who wrote compellingly about citizenship but would definitely disagree with me is the communitarian philosopher Michael Walzer. Walzer argues against open admissions on the basis that he feels communities are incredibly important to life, as he is a communitarian, and preserving the culture of those communities is key to preserving the communities themselves (PTR 213). In rebutting this, I again draw on Carens. He makes the point that the sort of selective admissions Walzer calls for draw arbitrary boundaries between countries while still allowing internal migrations that may disrupt the culture of a community just as much, if not more than immigration would (PTR 220).

Now that I have established who should have citizenship in my ideal society, it is time to figure out who should be leading these citizens. I believe that a democratic government is non-negotiable. Even given my belief that humans are not totally rational beings, they still have a better conception of how to govern themselves than anyone else would have. Even if we put aside the moral rightness of a group of people being allowed to govern themselves, democracy is the most practical way to ensure stability (Mundt). However, democracy only works if the elections are fair and legitimate. Russia is not benefitting from the fruits of democracy when Vladimir Putin is continually winning in landslides. In order to ensure that the general public benefits from living in a democracy we must have fair elections where voting is easy and impactful.

Robert Dahl saw that citizens were divided into two groups: those who participate in politics extensively and those who do not (FIPP 297). This is undoubtedly true, and there is likely nothing that can be done about that without overstepping the bounds of acceptable government coercion. If we accept that no matter what we do not everyone will be interested in actively participating in politics then we effectively abandon the idea that we can ever have a perfect democracy. This is probably an obvious fact to any casual observer of any sort of democracy. However, even if we abandon the idea that a perfect democracy is achievable, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth pursuing. In order to pursue a more perfect democracy, I believe that we must make democracy more participatory and more direct. In order to do this, I believe we must re-examine Alexis de Tocqueville’s over-hyped fears about the tyranny of the majority.

In his writing, de Tocqueville raises the concern that in the American system of democracy, deliberation stops on an issue once the majority reaches a consensus. He contrasts this to the monarchies in Europe at the time as being more able to foster political dissent because the monarch cannot “conquer all opposition” (PTR 270). His fears about American democracy having a tyrannical majority were certainly overblown, especially in 1835 where non-white, non-male voices were not heard in the political process. And even today, the more powerful body in the legislature is the one that is less tied to the popular vote and the executive is elected by an electoral college. While a tyranny of the majority is definitely something to be cautious of, being overly cautious of it can lead to minority rule which is also a bad outcome. James Madison emphasized the importance of minority rights in a democracy by arguing that if minority rights were not ensured then there would be no reason for the minority to comply with election results (FIPP 291). This is a valid concern and one that should be considered. However, there is a difference between respecting the rights of the minority and giving them outsized political power.

As a solution to this problem, I propose a system where there are little to no barriers to letting people vote in elections, and election results should be more closely tied to the popular will of the people. I reject the Burkean idea of trustees in favor of a type of ruler who is more open to being influenced by the people they are representing. That being said, citizens should elect representatives who have a higher level of instrumental knowledge. While all people are equal in their ability to make moral judgments, some people possess a greater ability for manipulating the levers of government in order to achieve desired outcomes. In that way, I would compare my model of a ruler to someone who is making you a pizza. You have a lot of options of who to let make you the pizza, and you get to tell them what to put on the pizza. But at the end of the day, you let them make the pizza, and it works out better for everyone.

With the idea of rulers firmly established, it’s important to set guidelines for what they have the authority to do. I believe, as do most theorists, that governments have the authority to protect their citizens from threats both exterior and interior. This must be the case, as even if I believe that people are more likely than not to get along in a state of nature, the reality of societies is that they inevitably lead to conflicts. Governments must be sufficiently powerful to protect citizens from outside threats of physical harm, as well as threats to their rights. For example, governments must ensure that all people have the ability to practice whatever religion they please without fear of physical harm, and in order to accomplish this goal, the government must be granted authority to have a monopoly over force within its borders. If the government is democratic, then they have the full authority to do this because their legitimacy is derived from the citizens that they are protecting. I think that governments must obviously have authority to do things other than just ensure the safety and rights of its citizens; governments must also be able to pursue the common good, as dictated to them by the citizens through elections. This includes things like collecting taxes to build roads, educate citizens and provide healthcare. Collecting taxes to pay for things that further the public good falls within the scope of governmental authority because they are things that everyone benefits from, but no one would put up the money to do them privately. Unless we want a society where all roads are toll roads, and all schools are private schools, we’d better give the government the authority to collect taxes and pursue things that the citizens have deemed the common good.

John Stuart Mill raised some great points about the distinction between governmental authority in the public sphere and the private sphere. Mill separates these spheres by saying that the public sphere is everything where the actions of a person may result in the injury of others, while in the private sphere a person’s actions affect no one but themselves (FIPP 317). I agree that this distinction is a useful one, especially since Mill concludes that government authority does not extend into the private sphere. This is undoubtedly the case, as governments should not have the authority to regulate moral codes.

I think the most interesting problem presented to the issue of government authority is the tragedy of the commons, as written by Garrett Hardin (PTR 295). The tragedy of the commons is the fact that when a common good is offered, everyone will take advantage of it until they have ruined it. In the present day, I think it is most useful to look at the tragedy of the commons through the lens of climate change. The environment is a resource that everyone has access to, and generations of unrestrained exploitation have rendered it near ruin. The fact still remains that in a market setting, there is no way to incentivize people to not continue exploiting the environment. Thus, governments must step in and make sure that the common good is pursued through some regulations that coerce people into actions that they would otherwise not be willing to take. The ideology that would likely push back on this the most would be Libertarians who seek to reduce government authority across the board (FIPP 331). However, I believe that their principle of non-intervention is not viable in certain situations like this one where there is no free-market solution to the problem. The problem of climate change is one of negative externalities, where the benefits of polluting are only felt by the polluter and the drawbacks are distributed on everyone. Thus, there is no reason for polluters to stop polluting the environment, and that leads to a situation that ends up hurting everyone in the long run. This situation is precisely why governments must have the authority to step in and ensure the public good in situations where no one else will.

A big issue in pursuing the public good is how the fruits of a society’s successes are distributed. This problem is central to the issue of justice. I believe that there must be social justice provided by a government to its citizens. Capitalism is probably the greatest wealth creation engine ever created, and in fact, there is no evidence of any society experiencing compounded economic growth until the invention of capitalism (Kenton). Because of this, I believe that capitalism is a net positive; however, if social justice is not taken into account the unequal distribution of resources can lock people out of this wealth creating system.

A writer who influenced my position on the issue of justice was John Rawls, who wrote about his two principles of justice for a well-ordered society. Rawls proposed the equal liberty principle and the difference principle, both of which I think are good ideas. The equal liberty principle states simply that everyone has an equal right to basic liberties, and the difference principle states that economic inequalities may be warranted as long as they are benefiting everyone and achieved through fair competition (PTR 322). I think that both of these principles are good ideas for how to construct a conception of justice, as inequalities that are achieved through fair competition can benefit society as a whole. Wouldn’t a system where there is a fair competition result in people being willing to work harder? After all, how hard do people work at carnival games once they realize the ball is bigger than the hoop? People grow dissatisfied with society because they realize that the game is rigged, and there is no justice to be had in the pure capitalist marketplace.

This stance would be contested both by libertarians who think there are too many regulations and communists who think there is not enough. Libertarians would not like the regulative aspect of my conception of justice at all (FIPP 371). However, what I think they miss is the fact that not everyone wins in a free market setting, and often people are forced to opt into deals that do not benefit them because it is the best of a bunch of bad options. This is hardly an ideal system. Communists would dislike my system of justice because it allows for inequality (FIPP 354). However, I would argue that inequality is the only way to ensure that people are willing to work hard without exercising excessive coercion in order to transform the way people think about work.

In discovering my own public philosophy, I discovered how important it is to understand the big issues that are underlying in politics in order to understand the more everyday issues more fully. After nearly a full semester of thinking about these issues often, I have come to a few conclusions. If a society can live up to most of the goals I have laid out, I believe they would be at least very close to establishing the political good life.

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Political Philosophy. (2020, Apr 17). Retrieved June 25, 2022 , from
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