Political Philosophy (for beginners)

Monday, June 4, 2012

Political Philosophy
(for beginners

By Paul Newall (2005)

In this article we'll discuss Political Philosophy, from what we mean by the term and what it's good for, through some historical ideas and perspectives, to the common divisions employed today. We'll also consider some of the philosophical issues behind politics, including the approaches used or assumed before we even get to arguing which party is dragging us to hell in a hand cart quickest.

What is Political Philosophy?

There are many questions studied by political philosophy that come up so often that we hardly notice that philosophy is involved at all when considering them. What should be the relationship between individuals and society? What are the limits of freedom? Is freedom of speech a good idea, or freedom of action between consenting adults? When may government act against the will of a citizen, and when should a citizen act against his or her government? What is the purpose of government? What characterises a good government? And so on. Not everyone is interested in these things, of course, but they'll be answered in one way or another—affecting us all. Everyone has a political philosophy, we could say, whether it is thought out in detail or not.

Political Philosophy is the study of these and other matters, more generally the first—the relationship between individuals and society. Sometimes the subject is nicely encapsulated in the question "how are we to live?" That is: given that few people live entirely alone, we may ask how best to govern our interactions. What responsibilities do we have to each other? Can we do as we please? Is society more important than the individuals that make it up? Political philosophy doesn't exist in a vacuum, though; the answers we might give will depend in turn on our ethical ideas, as well as what kind of world we think we live in and what we may consider the purpose of our time here, if any.

Historical considerations

There have been so many political theorists and theories over the years that we cannot hope to cover them all here. Instead we'll look at a few representative and important notions that vexed wiseacres of the past.

When kings enjoyed absolute (or near-absolute) rule and used their positions of authority to dress like girls and sleep with their sisters, a major concern was how to check or limit the power of sovereigns. It could be a good thing to have someone above or beyond the law to ensure that everyone else was held accountable for their actions, but quis custiodet ipsos custiodes? That is, who guards the guardians themselves? It was realised that power could corrupt those who wield it and hence that there should be a means of ensuring it did not, or at least minimising the possibility of abuse.

A way to address this (and other abuses) was to advocate the rule of law, not of men. In that case, it would not merely be left to the whim of a king or magistrate to do as they pleased; instead, they would be accountable to laws—a well-known contribution being the Magna Carta. One benefit of codifying expected conduct was that it would show clearly when violations had occurred and hence the contempt of the ruler for the ruled. Some thinkers suggested that any form of government could only exist with the consent of the governed, so even kings realised that they would have to regulate their behaviour according to law or potentially lose their heads.

It is interesting to inquire how societies developed in the first place. One model proposed that men exist in a state of nature until they decide to join together based on the greater productivity of the division of labour; that is, more can be accomplished together than by individuals acting alone. In order to secure such an arrangement, it would be necessary to develop some form of agreement whereby people respect each other's person and (perhaps) property to improve their lot through co-operation—a kind of social contract. Another possibility mooted is that the political apparatus—rather than the society itself—is the result of the conquest of one group by another.

A contrast could also be made between the desire to formulate a civil law or constitution—defining and demarcating the nature and scope of government and the rights to be enjoyed by people living under it—and the practice of amending laws and societal arrangements on a case-by-case basis, as some countries did according to common law. More generally, an important question was (and still is): can we achieve the benefits of setting down rules to describe what will and will not be acceptable in relations between people while at the same time taking into account the ever-changing content of and influences on those relations?

A final issue to look at here is the understanding of what makes a society or political circumstance good or bad. Is strong state control important to safeguard the people, or is that government best which governs least? What middle ground may be found?

Types of Freedom

What do we mean by freedom? In a famous lecture of 1958, Isaiah Berlin proposed that freedom could be understood in two senses: positive and negative. By negative freedom, he meant freedom from intervention; while positive freedom is the freedom to do something. In the first case we are unfree insofar as other people can prevent us from doing what we otherwise might want to, while in the latter we are unfree insofar as the opportunity exists to do something but we lack the capacity to achieve it.

The best way to understand and criticise these conceptions is by examples. Negative freedom, then, would be leaving consenting adults to do as they please in the privacy of their own homes; that is, they would be free from any intervention from government (or anyone else, for that matter) since their activities are no-one else's business. They would be unfree in this sense if, say, a law had been passed making homosexuality illegal even in these circumstances. Notice that we would be unfree in this context even if we are not homosexual, or prefer to watch the rugby on a particular day; the machinations of government have restricted our freedom, whether we choose to exercise it or not.

Another example would be an unscrupulous landowner blocking access to a public right-of-way. This would be another restriction of our negative freedom because we could otherwise take a stroll and muse on whether philosophy makes the sunset any prettier, whether or not (again) we actually decide to go or prefer to stay in and watch the rugby repeat.

Berlin explained negative freedom as follows:

The extent of a man's negative liberty is, as it were, a function of what doors, and how many are open to him; upon what prospects they open; and how open they are.

Thus we see that if certain of these doors are closed to us—perhaps because of our sex, religious opinions, colour, and so on—then our negative freedom is the less. A door is not closed to us if there is no way we could actually go through it: for instance, if door 1 is marked "fly to the North Pole with the sole aid of a red cape", our freedom is not restricted by its barring because we do not appear to be able to fly. Note that this negative sense of freedom is what people often mean when they use the word.

Moving on to positive freedom, Berlin described it in these terms:

The 'positive' sense of the word '[freedom]' derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master. I wish my life and decisions to depend on myself, not on external forces of whatever kind. [...] I wish, above all, to be conscious of myself as a thinking, willing, active being, bearing responsibility for his choices and able to explain them by reference to his own ideas and purposes.

It could be, then, that we want to master philosophy but there is just too much rugby to watch; that would mean that our inability to discipline ourselves and stick to the task at hand that we want to complete means we are not our own master. Any similar circumstances where we feel let down by being unable to attend to a goal because other desires that we cannot control get in the way (sometimes people refer to a distinction between their "higher" and "lower" selves in this regard) would represent a restriction of our positive freedom.

A lack of freedom in the positive sense is thus associated with a disparity between what we truly want and what we actually end up with, thanks to a failure to become our own master. Berlin went on to discuss the history of these two concepts of freedom and noted that in the past the positive sense has led to forms of oppression and tyranny more often than the negative, calling this the misuse of positive freedom. The argument runs as follows:

First it is noticed that there is a difference between the higher and lower selves that may make sense to those afflicted. Presently, though, groups with some form of political power may decide that they know what represents higher and lower better than particular individuals and take it upon themselves to insist upon definitions and impose them on those who disagree. It does no good to complain that in fact we want something other than what we are told we want because this is the result of our lower selves opposing what is actually good for us, and so on—a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even if we fight with every fibre of our being against the imposition of the better or more reasonable idea, this still only represents our lower selves struggling; the truth is that forcing us to think otherwise is going to help us in the long run and hence intervention is not only justified, but in our best interest; in the long run, we will learn to appreciate what has been done for our benefit.

Berlin's survey of the history of ideas suggested to him that positive freedom had been abused more than negative, but there are criticisms that can still be made of the latter. For example, it could be that medical care is available to everyone irrespective of any distinctions and hence people are free to use it; however, if such care is prohibitively expensive, this freedom is beneficial to only a few. The others are not their own masters because even though the door to healthcare is open, they cannot go through it; the door is wide open and no one is blocking their path, but their financial situation prevents them. It may even be that these circumstances are no-one's fault, but the beggar still cannot go through even though he may have chosen to be a beggar and hence his negative freedom in this context is worthless.

Is there any way of reconciling the two or preventing the abuse of either? Berlin did not think so and considered the bringing together of the myriad goals people have to be an impossible task.


There are several ways we can approach political philosophy and they have an effect both on how we perceive problems and how we propose to solve them. A metaphysical decision is taken as to what to study, as well as an epistemological choice as to how to go about it. There are also ethical ideas that contribute, whether explicitly or as implicit assumptions.

Holism and Individualism

In the first case, then, we can distinguish between individualists and holists: a methodological individualist is concerned with the individuals that make up a society or group, while a methodological holist (also called collectivist) considers the whole greater than the sum of its various parts. Suppose, for example, we take a statement like "it would be good for society to do x"; to a methodological individualist, this would make no sense at all unless it was understood as "it would benefit the members of society if x was done".

What is the best way to approach political problems? The answer is not clear and it appears difficult to reduce either of these methodologies to the other. On the one hand, any ideas we have or decisions we take are going to effect individuals—not a collective noun like Danes (although some of the individuals may have the particular merit of being Danish); on the other, we might want to use such terms to describe trends or actions—especially since a general theory of how individuals behave would no longer be general, as well as being a tall order in any case.

The point at issue is whether a society (or any other grouping) is made up of its parts (the individuals) or greater than their sum. We can try to find explanations that refer to what individuals did, or groups did; perhaps more helpfully, though, we could use both approaches to see what they suggest.

Rationalism in political philosophy

Another (epistemological) question to consider is the extent to which reason is (or should be) involved in political philosophy. Should we search, for example, for an account of how we should behave that everyone would have to submit to, or do the sometimes irrational desires that people have get in the way? To what extent do people employ reason in their political (and other) thinking in any case? Are they instead more inclined to listen to their passions, their social groupings, cultural or religious ideas, and so on?

The difficulty for a reasoned political philosophy is thus to take note of all those apparently unreasonable things we do. Some thinkers have worried that too much theorising about how to construct a rational utopia could lead to forcing people into a framework that doesn't allow for the subtle or overt differences between them and hence to a form of tyranny. Others have pointed to the diverse ways of living that have developed throughout history all over the world and wondered if it is fair or meaningful to judge them from the point of view of only one of them—for example, the so-called Western way.

From Berlin's analysis, we could be concerned that if we suppose there to be only one correct manner of living—whatever it is—we might also be more inclined to support the idea of enforcing it on others, ostensibly for their own good. John Stuart Mill recognised this possibility and suggested that what he called "experiments in living" should be supported. In his work On Liberty, which we have already touched upon elsewhere in this series, Mill said:

As it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so it is that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when anyone thinks fit to try them.

He justifies his position in the following way:

That mankind are not infallible; that their truths, for the most part, are only half-truths; that unity of opinion, unless resulting from the fullest and freest comparison of opposite opinions, is not desirable, and diversity not an evil, but a good, until mankind are much more capable than at present of recognizing all sides of the truth, are principles applicable to men's modes of action not less than to their opinions.

Here he is noting that one form of life (a rationalist utopia, perhaps) is only superior to others insofar as anyone was and is free to try another way and show by example whether it betters the former or not. This is quite a subtle point: consider, for example, the statement "it is better to live in England today than in Australia"—however we choose to define "better" (it could be by reference to drop goals). If we remove the second part—leaving "it is better to live in England"—then it no longer makes any sense: better than what? When we add the reference to Australia, it only supports the statement if we have some kind of information to go on; perhaps we lived there for a time, or know someone who has. Without performing the experiment of living there, though, we have no idea if it is better or not—a kind of certainty through ignorance. Even appealing to measures of some kind is based on the same thing.

According to Mill, then, it is only by testing a way of life against others that we can appreciate whether one is preferable to another for whatever purposes we might have. If, on the other hand, we believe that it is possible to find criteria by which to judge which experiment in living is superior that no-one can reasonably argue with, then we may after all be able to discuss utopia and bringing it to our world. These criteria, of course, are what have been argued over for many centuries.


In much political discourse the question is the same one that we began with: what is (or should be) the relationship between individuals and society? However, recent work in ethics (along with older perspectives) has suggested that we should not leave our environment out of our considerations: what about the relationship between individuals and their world, or societies and the world that supports them? Perhaps we have obligations to our fellow humans, but do we have similar responsibilities to our environment?

Generally speaking, then, environmentalism invites us to take account of more than just human concerns when deciding on a political philosophy. We need to search for that arrangement of our affairs that is most beneficial to humans and those others areas that some thinkers consider to have rights or intrinsic value. The problem lies, of course, in just how to achieve that: is there a political system that can be adapted, and an economic one? Can the world remain largely as it is? Some environmentalists, for instance, have suggested that we need to return to a more basic form of existence—sometimes called "primitive", although it need not mean running around naked and clubbing each other. Critics say nothing of the kind is possible; adjusting to such a lifestyle would result in the deaths of very many people that can only be supported by our modern methods that are supposed to cause environmental issues in the first place.

Behind much of environmentalism lies the ethical work that treats of what rights animals and other non-human life have; this will be discussed in a later article.

The Harm Principle

Again in On Liberty, Mill suggested his famous Harm Principle in the following terms:

[T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.

Using Berlin's terminology, this is a negative conception of how free we should be. The principle states that we may do as we please as long as we do not harm anyone else. By way of example, then, we may get a tattoo if we choose to because it harms no-one else. If the strain of reading still more Holblingian prose gets too much, we could also take flight from a tall building. Although in both cases we do ourselves a (differing somewhat) measure of physical harm, no-one has the right to stop us; by the same token, the immorality or otherwise of our actions is no reason to step in either.

Although at first glance the principle may seem plausible and is similar to what many people have in mind when they think of how we should interact with each other, it is not difficult to draw out some criticisms. The main problem is what we mean by harm: where do we end and others start when we are considering the harm done by an action? Depending on what tattoo we get, for instance, we could cause a great deal of offence to some people and it is not at all obvious that this shouldn't count as harm. Alternatively, we would probably cause a lot of harm to our family and much strain on the members of the emergency services who have to pick what's left of us off the pavement after our swan dive, assuming that gravity applied on this occasion.

The general point is that it is not so easy to split the world up into discrete individuals who exist separate from one another; instead, every action, however small or apparently insignificant, has an effect of one kind or another. How are we to determine whether something harms someone else in any case, excepting by his or her own testimony? If someone says "all this philosophy is making my head hurt", who are we to say otherwise? Similarly, how do we decide which claims of harm are genuine and thus require action to prevent?

In spite of these difficulties, can we salvage anything from the harm principle? We can if we are not so concerned with concepts like harm standing up to close scrutiny and prefer instead to employ them on the basis of intersubjective agreement (that is, an agreement between those using the term as to what it means on different occasions, rather than a fixed definition), then we can say that an action causes harm by considering cases on their individual merits. When we propose to do something and someone else reports that it will (or later does) result in harming them, we can talk it over, investigate a little and decide if in this instance any harm has been caused, even if in the final analysis there may be some people who vehemently insist that it has and others that it hasn't. Thus a more charitable interpretation of the principle leads to something that can be used in everyday life, which is probably what Mill intended.

Political Philosophies

There are a wide variety of political philosophies, of which we can only consider a few here. Although many of them may be familiar, we can apply the concepts discussed above to them and perhaps see them in a new or different light. Below, then, we'll look at some of the philosophical aspects only. The standard division runs as follows:


A great many political ideas may come under the broad banner of socialism, but generally speaking there is an economic decision that the ownership and planning the use of the means of production should be held centrally and publicly in some way, rather than privately. Often this is based on a critique of capitalism, but the idea is that the former method is more ethical or beneficial to people living under such arrangements. It is important to remember that not all socialists have a red hue and live under the beds of decent, right-thinking people.

There are degrees to which socialism is preferred to some form of market economy. Given the failure of some attempts to control economies centrally, some have instead opted to allow a market to operate while maintaining control of certain areas that may be seen as fundamental, such as health services, travel networks and so on.

The principle philosophical difficulty for socialism is how to distribute resources fairly. If we hope to give to people according to their needs, what do we mean by a need? How do we distinguish between true and false claims of need from people? Moreover, if we don't continue to impose controls on the distribution of these resources, wouldn't they eventually become unequally distributed?

In the face of such problems, it is often useful to ask what we're aiming at with a political philosophy: if the answer for socialism is a more just or fair world then even if these concepts prove impossible to attain, we may still choose to at least try.


A distinction is often made between modern and classical liberals, owing to the change in meaning that occurred during the nineteenth century. Before that time, liberalism was concerned with—as the word suggests—liberty; that is, providing for toleration of ideas and ways of life, as well as granting as much freedom as possible. This was a negative understanding of freedom, but more recently some liberals began to pay more attention to the notion of positive freedom and sought to provide for fairness and justice. By way of analogy, we could say that early liberals wanted to ensure a level playing field while their heirs wanted to see that everyone had the chance to get a game. Some classical liberals suggest that these latter are not liberals at all, since their plans call for intervention on the part of government.

Despite their differences, the liberal hope in general is to provide that form of government that best allows people to work towards their goals and adopt the form of life that they choose. What do we mean by "best" here, though? How do we provide the most level playing field when it seems that a purely negative conception of freedom is problematic, as we saw earlier? If we want everyone to get a game, it seems that some people will need more help than others. How much help should they be given before we are being unfair to others who could perhaps use the time and resources to excel or to address some other issue?


If it ain't broke, don't give it to Hugo—or so runs the ancient wisdom and any handbook to a modern appliance. Conservatives note that many of our political (and other) ideas have developed over time; those that didn't work or were no longer of any help tended to fall out of use on their own accord. As a result, they are generally reluctant to accept change for the sake of it and want to know why a new notion is going to be of benefit to us.

There are now—like all of these overview positions—very many variants of conservatism that disagree amongst themselves but similar criticisms made be found. It is not obvious that political institutions survive because they work or have proved their mettle over time; on the contrary, they may have been imposed on people in the first place or too few alternatives considered. How long should we give a new idea to establish itself before the conservative finds it worth defending? Conversely, how long should we wait if the idea is too important to delay?


Although often used in a pejorative sense, anarchism means a political system without a hierarchy—not a lawless free-for-all of Durdenesque proportions. That does not imply a complete lack of social structures, though; instead, people may voluntarily choose to live according to certain rules or ideas and may similarly choose to do otherwise at a later date.

Anarchists have the difficulty of determining which structures are natural and which are imposed, a fact which need not be readily apparent. There is also the question of security: how does the anarchist society protect itself against those states that do not share its ideas and would conquer or otherwise oppose it?

There are lots of forms of anarchism, of course—some more radical than others. The easiest way to learn the content and differences is to try the experiment of telling several of them that their ideas are ridiculous and then discovering rapidly that they are not.

Economic issues

Many of the issues in political philosophy now turn or are dependent in many ways upon economic analyses—the best way to provide and allocate resources being an example. Nevertheless, these may themselves have been influenced by political and philosophical ideas, so there is interdependence at play between them. To ignore either is problematic: we need to know the best way to achieve our aims, but we also have to decided what to aim for in the first place and what forms of solution we are inclined to accept.

In summary, political philosophy is central to everyone and effects our lives whether we like it or not, and whether we play a part or take an interest in political ideas or not. Asking questions of how we should interact with each other and our environment occurs in all cultures and at all times, and is probably far too important to leave to the politicians.


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I teach them all the good I can, and recommend them to others from whom I think they will get some moral benefit. And the treasures that the wise men of old have left us in their writings I open and explore with my friends. If we come on any good thing, we extract it, and we set much store on being useful to one another. - Socrates, Memorabilia
What we maintain is that in none of the problems of life can men afford to lose sight of the storehouse bequeathed to them by the ancients. In the complexus of everything which differentiates man from the brute creation, the voice of antiquity must be heard...

-H. Browne, quoted in "Classics and Citizenship" The Classical Quarterly, 1920