What is philosophy of politics?
Philosophy, the love of wisdom, is the deepening of our understanding of the world. Politics, the practice of citizenship, is the development of relationships between members of a society. Philosophy of politics, then, is the deepening of our understanding of the development of relationships between members of a society.
A purely theoretical and value-neutral approach to philosophy of politics merely seeks to understand what the different types of political relationships and philosophies are and how or why they come into existence. It makes no judgments as to which relationships and philosophies are better or how people can transform political relationships for the better.
I, on the other hand, seek a very practical and normative understanding of philosophy of politics. Yes, we must start by understanding what the different relationships and philosophies are and how and why they come into being. Our inquiry into these questions, though, should be guided by an overarching goal to discover our greatest potential as political beings and develop strategies to make that potential more manifest in the world.
In other words, our primary goal in the study of philosophy of politics should be the creation of a good society.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that there’s only one type of good society, or that we should come up with some abstract idea of what society should be like and hack away at the rough edges of our society until it fits into the box we’ve created for it. It does, however, mean that we can — and must — use our innate capacity for reason and observation to take a step back, take a look at our society, and do our best to understand why it is how it is today and what we can do to make it better.
Philosophy in general addresses many complex and difficult questions. When attempting to develop a “Theory of Everything” that describes the nature of the entire world, it’s hard for anyone to know where to start, where to finish, and what to do along the way.
Luckily, philosophy of politics is a more narrow discipline.
In theory, we still need to answer all of those messy questions about the nature of being, the acquisition of knowledge, and the ascription of value (moral, ethical, aesthetic, or otherwise). In practice, there is one question that usually if not always serves as the foundation for any exploration of the philosophy of politics.
What is human nature?
Once this question is answered, there are many other questions that a political philosopher must answer. Most if not all of these questions, however, have their roots in this one.
(Of course, if we encounter other self-aware creatures with whom we can debate philosophy of politics, we will need to expand this question. In the meantime, since everyone who can read this article is presumably a human being, the question at hand is the nature of human beings.)
In this article, I’m going to make some bold assertions about human nature. I believe that these assertions are, where possible, born out by empirical evidence and reasonable conclusions that we can draw based on this evidence. If you disagree with one of these premises, that would certainly be a simple way to dispute the soundness of my overall argument. However, for the sake of argument, here are my assumptions:
- Humans are social animals. Yes, we can go for long periods of time without human contact, and some humans seem to prefer doing so. Some of us also exhibit decidedly anti-social behavior. However, a human infant would be hard-pressed to survive without the aid of a parent or parents, and our species seems to have put a great deal of evolutionary effort into developing social traits such as speech, empathy, and an almost universal desire for human companionship. Therefore, humans are in general social animals by nature.
- Humans are individualistic animals. This doesn’t contradict the above statement. It merely reflects the complexity of human nature. As one of the few deeply self-aware animals on Earth, we are uniquely gifted with the capacity to see ourselves as discreet individuals and act in pursuit of our own rational self-interest rather than purely in response to instinctual drives.
- Humans possess an innate potential to reason. Depending on our age, health, education level, and other factors, our capacity for reason may vary. In general, however, we as a species have the innate potential and frequent tendency to attempt to make sense of the world by considering how we can draw valid conclusions from our observations of the world around us.
- Humans are political animals. Aristotle famously said as much, and I tend to agree. I see this as a consequence of the above three points. We are social; we are individuals; we think about the world. Therefore, we think and talk about how we as individuals relate to each other in a social environment.
- Humans possess an innate potential for freewill. We are self-aware and reasoning creatures. These two traits combined empower us to recognize that we are distinct individuals and can act in the manner of our choosing.
- Humans possess an innate potential for social cooperation. This is not to say that we are destined to live in peace and harmony for the rest of our days. It does, however, mean that on some level, we want to cooperate and have the capacity to develop the social, intellectual, and emotional skills required to do so.
- Humans possess an innate potential to choose freely to engage in mutually beneficial forms of social cooperation. We can debate until the ends of time whether there is some inherently flawed, sinful, or otherwise unfortunate aspect of human nature that drives us to desire things that are harmful to other people, or that benefit us at the expense of other people. In the end, however, this questions is largely irrelevant. The more important questions is this: can we as human beings choose freely to engage in forms of mutually beneficial forms of social cooperation? I say yes. If I’m wrong, then we’re all locked in a “zero-sum” game where people seek to better their situation at the expense of those around them. If that’s the case, then I see little point in engaging in philosophy of politics, or seeking to create a better society.
- Humans are adaptive and malleable. All of the above describes the most basic potentials and general tendencies of human nature. They are a fairly predictable and reliable part of our evolutionary heritage. However, we are not ideal forms floating around in some realm of ideal forms. We are also not physical manifestations of ideal forms. We are living organisms — and though we are structured in such a way that most of us tend to share certain innate potentials and behavioral tendencies, there is no cosmic law saying that we will all live up to those potentials, or that those potentials will never change. Individual, social, environmental, genetic, or other forces may result in changes to these potentials and how they manifest in the world. The bad news about this is that potentials and tendencies that we consider desirable can possibly be reduced or eliminated. The good news is that those potentials and tendencies that we consider desirable can also be promoted or maximized. In other words, society in general may one day be better or worse than it is today based on our choices in regards to the evolutionary development of human nature. Do we choose to favor our innate potential for free cooperation, or do we choose to squander it?
- Human nature, and thus the philosophy of politics, can be fully understood through our nature as human animals. Personally, I have strong spiritual beliefs about human nature and the nature of the world that go far beyond what is outlined above. However, I believe that whatever else we may or may not be, we are in this moment human beings, and human beings are a particular species of animal that possesses the traits described above, among others. Regardless of our spiritual beliefs, or lack thereof, the above should serve as an accurate description of several of our crucial innate potentials as human beings. Therefore, it serves as a solid foundation for the philosophy of politics.
Toward a Good Society
As I said earlier, there isn’t just one ideal “Good Society” that all humans should be striving for. There are many good societies, and many bad societies, and all real societies are somewhere in between. The project of philosophy of politics is to understand what the most general traits of a good society are, to discover strands of those traits that already exist in our society, and to encourage the further development of those positive strands for the benefit of both individuals and the society as a whole.
This is no small task. And yet, in our own way, every time we address a political issue, we are working on this task. When we comment or act on an issue of public policy, we are hopefully trying to create a better society. The goal of philosophy of politics is to deepen our understanding of what politics is and how we can engage in it for the mutual benefit of all. This is, of course, an ideal goal that can never be fully realized, especially since there is no one ideal “Good Society” that we are developing toward. However, the process of examining and transforming our political relationships is as close to a utopian society as our complex, organic, dynamic species can achieve.
In my next article, I will explore what I consider to be the qualities of a good society. Once again, there is no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all blueprint for creating a good society. Each society needs to develop its own institutions and structures that are rooted in its history, culture, and other particular and highly variable circumstances. However, I believe that there are a few broad qualities that many, most, or perhaps even all good societies will possess. I don’t believe that any one person, or group of people for that matter, is fully qualified to make such an assessment. However, I believe that applying our capacity for reason to the analysis of our political relationships, and working to improve those relationships, is a part of what it means to be political animals who desire to live in a good society. Therefore, I intend to do what I can in this area and hope for the best.
After I’ve described what I see as some of the broadest and most universal qualities of a good society, I intend to write several articles on particular issues that we in the United States of America are currently facing. The arguments that I make in these articles will be rooted in the foundational principles described in this article and the qualities of a good society described in the next article. My goal with these single issue articles, however, will be very practical. There will, of course, be some theoretical discussion of how a “Good Society” would address these issues. However, my main goal in those articles, and in this entire series, is to promote thoughtful and effective action to transform our society for the better. Given that goal, practical arguments about actions that we can take right now as an individual, as communities, and as a society will take precedence over any consideration of what would or could be an “ideal” way of doing things.
I expect that my single-issue articles will draw the most comments. However, in the meantime, your comments on these Foundations of Philosophy of Politics would be greatly appreciated.