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9.3: Introduction to Political Philosophy

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    Political Philosophy

    Social philosophy relates to the question of "who gets what?" once the first question is answered there will be another question: "who says so?" consideration of this question is part of political philosophy. Among other questions under that heading are:

    • What is the best form of government?
    • Why should individuals obey the law?
    • Is taxation legitimate?
    • What is the relation between the government and individuals?
    • How should the distribution of goods and services be arranged?
    • How is the conflict of individual interest with the groups’ interest to be resolved?

    The state is the agency that enforces the answers to questions of distribution of goods and services. The state has and is the power to enforce the decisions on how life shall be arranged through regulations and enforcement of penalties for violations of those regulations.

    1. The state makes laws and commands and enforces the commands
    2. The state asserts
      1. use of force and the
      2. right to use force

    The state is a group of people who claim the right to enforce obedience to their commands within a territory and succeed in getting most of the people in the territory to accept it. There are three things that must be legitimized wherever there is to be a state.

    Legitimacy is needed:

    1. For the existence of the state itself
    2. For the particular type of government
    3. For the present office holders
    • So, first there needs to be a theory that provides for the reasons that there needs to be a government at all.
      • Several of those theories will be offered below.
    • Next, there needs to be a legitimization for the particular type of government, be it democracy, republic, monarchy, etc.…
    • Finally, whatever the type of government, the current holders of its various offices must be legitimized.
      • For example, if the government is a monarchy then the current head of government (king, queen, baron, pharaoh…) must provide evidence that the office holder is the proper heir to the throne or position of power due to birth.

    Thus evidence of lineage is important. If the government is a democracy then the current holders of offices must demonstrate that they secured the sufficient number of votes in the election to merit holding office.

    Theories of Government

    Natural law- Divine Right

    This theory is quite old and quite direct and simple: God wants people to be ruled over as God rules over all creation. As humans rule over other animals, they too need to be ruled. That government deserves to exercise power that has the power given to it by the divine being. For example, the king deserves to rule for God wanted him to be the king. When the king dies, his heir is to be ruler. If the kingdom is overthrown and some other person takes power then after some time it may be believed that such a person must deserve to rule because God must have given approval or else God would not have permitted that person to overthrow the previous ruler. Some rulers may go much further and declare themselves to be representatives of the deity or even to be a deity and thus deserve to be obeyed and honored. If a ruler is overthrown it may be viewed as God’s will.

    Power-Might Makes Right

    This too is a theory that is quite old and very simple and direct. It is also still popular in a postmodern world. It is that a government deserves to hold and exercise power if it has the power to enforce its rule over others.

    How Power Corrupts

    Read Aesop's Fable below for illustration.

    Aesop's Fables The Wild Ass and the Lion Translated by Townsend 1887

    A Wild Ass and a Lion entered into an alliance so that they might capture the beasts of the forest with greater ease. The Lion agreed to assist the Wild Ass with his strength, while the Wild Ass gave the Lion the benefit of his greater speed. When they had taken as many beasts as their necessities required, the Lion undertook to distribute the prey, and for this purpose divided it into three shares. "I will take the first share," he said, "because I am King: and the second share, as a partner with you in the chase: and the third share (believe me) will be a source of great evil to you, unless you willingly resign it to me, and set off as fast as you can."

    Might makes right.


    This is a theory associated with many people throughout history. In this view there is little or no justification for a state to impose its wishes upon individuals. There should be no infringement on human autonomy. The highest obligation is to be autonomous and so anarchy is the correct political theory. Individuals have no moral obligation to obey the state.

    The Philosophical Nature of Anarchy

    Social Contract Theory

    A government holds power by the consent of the governed alone. There is no other basis. When that consent no longer exists there is no longer a justification for that government to continue. People maintain the right to withdraw their consent.

    Social Contract Theory
    Thomas Hobbes

    Hobbes held that humans are by nature equal and that from that equality there proceeds fear. From fear there proceeds war and war presents many problems. To avoid the state of war people surrender some liberty (rights). This surrender or transferring is the contract. There is the possibility that should the contract be breached the government created by the contract is then void and another can be created. Hobbes held that the government created by the contract would have absolute power. For Hobbes humans are so prone to do harm to one another that it is only a choice between anarchy and absolutism. The monster or leviathan is created or consented to in order to avoid anarchy and mutual self-destruction. See link to biography and works below.

    Crash Course Philosophy: Thomas Hobbes and Contractarian Theory
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau

    Swiss political philosopher who held that the citizens of the state form a collective body ruled only by the general will that arises from each and applies to all, resulting in a perfect freedom and equality. See link to biography and works below video.

    Political Theory of Jean-Jacques Rousseau
    Meghan Ramsay (QCC, 2003)

    Rational beings consent to be governed in order to secure a more ordered and richer form of life than otherwise possible. Although both Hobbes and Rousseau theorize that we should use a social contract model for government, there are some key differences as to why we should use this model and who should be in charge. The first difference is that with Hobbes, people are seen to be inherently at odds with one another. Hobbes asserts that matters are only black and white: there is either anarchy or absolutism. Since people only tend to look out for their own interests and behave in an egoist manner, they must either keep their freedom and deal with the consequence of every man doing for himself or they must surrender power and be led by one ruler who looks out for the best interest of the commonwealth. I would venture to say that even this ruler is egoistical as what is good for him is what is good for the Commonwealth. He remains in power only if the people surrendering power to him are happy. For Hobbes, people must give up their freedoms in order to protect themselves and serve their best interest. For instance, if humans chose anarchy, there would be no laws regarding murder. Everyone would be a potential victim.

    So, in order for the egoists to ensure that their safety from murder is at least somewhat ensured, they surrender power to the commonwealth. Rousseau, on the other hand, advocates that people voluntarily give up their freedoms for the good of the whole. Where Hobbes can be seen as an egoist, Rousseau can be seen as a utilitarian. Rousseau believes that the general will of the majority. According to Rousseau, this surrender of each to the good of the whole must take place in a way that also secures the unity of all in a desire for what will most benefit the whole.? Rousseau is attempting to maximize utility. He theorizes that everyone should think of the whole of society and do what is best for society at large, regardless of the consequences or results for the individual. It is this general will that Rousseau believes is the best thing for citizens of the state to abide by.

    Unlike Hobbes, for whom government exists to control all members of the society, for Rousseau, the government's responsibility is to pass and enforce legislation that fits into the general will of the population. Additionally, in his text Leviathan, Hobbes advocates for a linear monarchy. For Hobbes, the decisions made by the sovereign are completely arbitrary, so long as the people follow the decision the reasoning behind it does not matter. He argues that a monarchy by heredity works best for governing purposes as there is no threat of competition from within society. For Rousseau, monarchy is not an acceptable form of government as the good of all can be easily sacrificed by a monarch with self-interest. Instead of a monarchy that is constant and stable, Rousseau advocates a government that is best suited to the needs of the citizens.

    For Rousseau, the leaders are temporary. The citizens entering into the contract are free to constantly review the leaders and replace them when it seems fit for the good of the whole. Rousseau advocates that leadership positions in which talents and skills are needed should be elected by the majority.

    Utilitarianism-Principle of Utility

    A government has power and deserves to hold and exercise its power as long as it provides for maximum utility. The state’s purpose is to provide for the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. As long as it does so it deserves to continue. If it does not do so the government ought to be changed for one that does provide for utility.

    Crash Course Philosophy: Utilitarianism


    Utilitarianism Resources


    John Locke

    Rational beings agree to surrender a small portion of their freedom but not the right to life, property, representation and other goods. Individuals are not to become slaves to the state. John Locke was the British philosopher who outlined the central tenets of empiricism in philosophy and in political theory argued that civil authorities rule only with the consent of those who are governed.

    Locke chose to avoid controversy by publishing his political writings anonymously. With the two treatises of civil government (1690) Locke established himself as a political theorist of the highest order. The first treatise is a detailed refutation of the (now-forgotten) monarchist theories of Robert Filmer, but the second treatise of government offers a systematic account of the foundations of political obligation. On Locke's view, all rights begin in the individual property interest created by an investment of labor. The social structure or commonwealth, then, depends for its formation and maintenance on the express consent of those who are governed by its political powers. Majority rule thus becomes the cornerstone of all political order, and dissatisfied citizen’s reserve a lasting right to revolution. Similarly, Locke's letter concerning toleration (1689) argued for a broad (though not limitless) acceptance of alternative religious convictions.

    John Locke and Liberalism: Private Property
    Radical Libertarian: John Hospers

    John Hospers, Ph. D., was an early leader in the libertarian movement. He was the libertarian party's first presidential candidate in 1972, and at the time headed the University of Southern California's philosophy department. His book Libertarianism was one of three books defining early libertarian philosophy, the other two being Rothbard's Libertarian Manifesto and Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia. He is professor emeritus in philosophy at the University of Southern California and author of such important philosophical texts as: meaning and truth in the arts, human conduct, and an introduction to philosophical analysis. His numerous philosophical essays are well known for their clear and careful style. In 1972, John Hospers served as the first libertarian party candidate for president. He has served from then until now as a reference point and inspiration for scholars interested in basic questions of liberty. "The only legitimate function of the state is to protect individuals from internal and external threats to their security and property. The least government possible is the best government possible."

    OmoniaVinieris (QCC, 2002) on The Libertarian Theory of Government

    Libertarianism is the most diplomatic and open-minded political philosophy in the world. The application of the concept of non-coercion is crucial to the libertarian theory of government. Libertarians are passionate opponents of physical coercion because as they are promoters of freedom. They see aggressive and coercive force as a threat to libertarian principles of freedom. The initiation of forceful action is considered to be immoral, especially where government is concerned. The use of force, if permissible by a regime, is deemed to be an infringement upon an individual’s right to life, liberty, property, self-governance or belief. Therefore, the libertarian notion of non-coercion adamantly sets restrictions on governmental authority in order to ensure that certain unalienable rights which uphold autonomous principles are not violated.

    Although libertarians oppose the initial use of force, the act of exercising force first, there are two types of force that are urged with the aim of upholding one’s personal and property rights. Defensive force is acted upon when one’s rights are threatened. It is then that an individual uses force to defend himself and his safety. The government, in turn, should also execute the power to protect individuals by means of defensive force. When one’s own survival is imperiled, then the choice to forcibly defend one’s self is a valid and anticipated option. Retaliatory force is a form of retribution against those who initiated force upon an individual. The judicial systems of most states are sanctioned to penalize those who initiated the force. Whereas coercion and aggression are condemned by libertarians, force that safeguards the survival and justice of individuals is welcomed into non-coercive policy.

    Libertarians embrace the idea of minimal governmental intervention. They regard a government that governs least to be one that governs best. Libertarians constantly strive to debilitate the role of government in society. Governments should solely absorb themselves with the moral foundation of preserving and safeguarding individuals’ rights and with the interdiction of forceful action. Yet, the truth of the matter is that governmental administrators permit the initiation of force in order to attain political and authoritative recognition from the people. Government is occasionally understood to be an institution of forceful control and that is why libertarians attempt to suppress its authority. Libertarians argue that the government does not possess some special type of supernatural entitlement that justifies the violation of its citizens’ rights. In a free society, the government purely functions to defend and retaliate against those who instigate and use force. As we can see, libertarians agree with force that is executed for defensive and retaliatory purposes against those who initiate the force. By no means, however, should the government be the initiator of force.

    On the whole, libertarians assert that mutual consent and agreement are peaceful and diplomatic means in which people should opt to deal with each other. The following aspects of freedom roughly encapsulate libertarian doctrine:

    • Freedom is life: On the condition that people do not violate the rights of other individuals, they rightfully may live their lives as they wish. Personal and property rights encompass the notion of living happily and freely.
    • Freedom is responsibility: People have the freedom of choice which means they are solely accountable for the consequences of their actions.
    • Freedom is justice" Force is an acceptable choice if it appropriately serves to defend and retaliate against those who initiate force and infringe upon your rights to live.


    Property belongs to the state that distributes it for human welfare. The state takes from each, as they are able and gives to each, as there is need. The function of providing justice is that which legitimizes political authority (power). Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Communist Manifesto.

    Omonia Vinieris (QCC, 2002) on Marxist Theory of Government

    Karl Marx’s theory of government is best expressed in his book the Communist Manifesto. In this book, Marx explains the goals of communism, an evolutionary form of its socialist origin. The law and the state arise out of the development of classes at odds with each other throughout the course of history. Ultimately, socialism will triumph as class conflict comes to an end. In its demise comes along the elimination of private property. At this point there will be no need for law or the state as history will remain in a seamless state of stillness.

    Class conflict initially arises from the emergence of property. As each class strives to acquire property, in the ends one eventually overpowers and exploits the other in its struggle. Thus, Marx explains that class struggles are inherently anchored in the manipulation of one class by another. Historical progression throughout the ages is the immediate outcome of class struggle. At this point in time, we are in the capitalist stage of history. Capitalism is an economic system in which individuals or corporations privately own the means of production. This concept of private property is what distinguishes this capitalist phase of history from past eras. However, these relationships between the classes will cease to be congruent as the developing means of production give rise to an imbalance. At this point, a revolution transpires and a new dominant class materializes.

    Marx explains that capitalism is the most decisive stage of historical progression because it is in its imminent future that socialism will triumph and all classes will expire from existence. In socialist theory private property is subject to collective control of the state. Class struggle is the driving force behind the sequence of a capitalist shift to socialism. As soon as the conflict between the classes comes to an end, history itself will come to a standstill and perfect bliss will pervade the earth in its socialist state. The classes in discord in the present capitalist stage of history are of two sorts: the property owners who do not work (bourgeoisie), and the property-less workers (proletariat). The proletariat will eventually revolt as the relationship between the two classes fails because capitalism proves to be erratic and unsteady. In due course this revolution will beget the take-over of socialism. Private property will then be demolished by the proletariat. Thus it is acquisition of property that renders the divergent nature of the classes. Socialism would implicate Utopian means of production. The law and the state will serve no purpose in a socialist state because order and equality will prevail.

    Philosophically speaking, Marxism falls into the branch of empiricism called dialectal Materialism. This philosophy’s focal point is on the senses which recognize peripheral actuality exclusive of emotional intervention. Hegel, Marx’s collaborator, helped to define the dialectic aspect of Materialist Philosophy in that ideas are always in motion or in a constant state of change. Change is the continual clash between ideas as we see in struggling classes of history. The emergence of a first thesis conflicts with the emergence of an antithesis. From these opposing ideas springs a resolution called a synthesis. This process repeats itself until one day a final synthesis subdues the two conflicting ideas (socialism).

    The Political Theory of Karl Marx

    Justice Theory

    According to this approach a government deserves to hold and exercise power as long as it provides for justice. If it does not do so then it should be altered or overturned for a government that does provide for justice. No justice, no peace. What does justice mean?

    Plato’s theory of justice involved the idea of the harmony of all parts. When all parts of society are working as they are supposed to do, when they are fulfilling their purpose then there shall be justice in the state.

    Crash Course Philosophy: What is Justice?
    Plato's Theory of Justice

    Plato asserts that functional specialization demands from every social class to specialize itself in the station of life allotted to it. Justice, therefore to Plato is like a manuscript that exists in two copies, and one of these is larger than the other. It exists both in the individual and the society. But it exists on a larger scale and in more visible form in the society. Individually "justice is a 'human virtue' that makes a man self-consistent and good: socially, justice is a social consciousness that makes a society internally harmonious and good."

    Justice is thus a sort of specialization. It is simply the will to fulfill the duties of one's station and not to meddle with the duties of another station, and its habitation is, therefore, in the mind of every citizen who does his duties in his appointed place. It is the original principle, laid down at the foundation of the state, "that one man should practice one thing only and that the thing to which his nature was best adopted." True justice to Plato, therefore, consists in the principle of non-interference. Plato as a perfect has considered the state whole in which each individual which is its element, functions not for itself but for the health of the whole. Every element fulfills its appropriate function. Justice in the platonic state would, therefore, be like that harmony of relationship where the planets are held together in the orderly movement. Plato was convinced that a society that is so organized is fit for survival. Where men are out of their natural places, there the co-ordination of parts is destroyed, the society disintegrates and dissolves. Justice, therefore, is the citizen sense of duties.

    Plato's Theory of Justice
    John Rawls' Theory of Justice

    The function of the state is to provide justice as fairness, an arrangement of institutions whereby maximal liberty consistent with equal opportunity and a principle to benefit the worst off is the central principle. (the maxi min principle)

    Some criticize Rawls' notion of justice for requiring that the least well-off be cared for and made better and that the view of the least well off is a relative notion or judgment of their situation and not an absolute judgment.


    • Let's say that there are 10 people.
    • Their income ranges from $1,000,000 to $50,000 per year.
    • The average income is $150,000.

    Why should we care about the least well off ($50,000) in the group relative to the others and even least well off compared to the average if that person is making $50,000/year in a society where $50,000 provides for a very comfortable life?

    Relative to the average the $50,000 person is negative or down $100,000 from the average. But still the $50k might be pretty good in an absolute sense that it provides well for all the basics of life.

    Now you can substitute for the annual income:

    • Physical abilities
    • Type of residence
    • Ability to think, do math, speak foreign languages, make music, paint , etc...

    Why would justice always require taking care to improve the position of the least well off-relative to the others? Take the Political Compass Test and then review the analysis of your answers.


    So there are a variety of theories on government. There are a variety of political philosophies. Each offers it view on how it is that government is to hold and exercise power over individuals. Each operates within a more general view of how it is that society ought to be regulated. One of the ways in which governments must act is to resolve the conflicts that arise in every society between the interests that individuals have in their own welfare and happiness and the interest that the group as a whole has in its welfare. This will be the subject of the next section.

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