We are all political philosophers

Political philosophy is an attempt to get a deeper understanding about political and moral principles and the relationship between them.  For instance, is ‘freedom’ a single idea or are there different freedoms that can clash? If they do clash on what principled basis can clashes be resolved? Do some freedoms trump others?

People seem to think so. While some object that taxation limits their freedom they also think making homosexuality illegal or banning certain religions would limit freedom much more severely.

Political philosophy is taught as part of the ‘theory of value’ the other main element of which is moral philosophy or ethics. A simple way to grasp the difference is that moral philosophy is about the principles that should guide our conduct towards other individuals – is it, for instance, ever OK to lie?

Political philosophy is about the principles of public institutions. There are two main aspects. What should be the principles that should shape and regulate public institutions? Should our laws protect free speech? Should our tax system re-distribute from rich to poor?

The second element is about the principles that politicians and public officials should adhere to in their individual conduct. You might think you should never lie to a friend or to your spouse. But you may think that sometimes politicians should lie to other world-leaders or even to the electorate. Sometimes this is called the problem of ‘dirty hands’; it is often associated with Machiavelli.

You might be very un-Machiavellian and believe that no-one should ever lie. But, if so, you are offering the same answer to two different questions. Private and public moralities are different.

Who does political philosophy?

Political philosophy is not the sole domain of professional political philosophers. We all do it. Children are especially good. When they claim that the toy tiger is theirs they are making quite a complex claim that they have certain entitlements over Tiger, one of which is the permission to exclude others from touching, using etc. Tiger.

In a democracy it is also part of a citizen’s duty to engage with political ideas, and so political philosophy. One topical example is immigration. Before we can decide to limit non-EU immigration we must think about some philosophical questions.

  1. What are our own duties to people from poor African countries or towards refugees?
  2. If we don’t want to discharge our duties (whatever they are) by allowing potential migrants into the UK, are other things permissible?
  3. Is financial aid an adequate replacement? (If so, how much?)

Engaging with philosophical ideas is also common in people’s professional lives. Take ‘big data’. While this sounds dry and technical, the most difficult issues it creates are moral: what permits private companies and governments to use citizens’ personal data? Must citizens consent? Can they ever be said to fully understand what they are consenting to? Can we replace actual consent with some idea of ‘hypothetical’ consent? To what use of their data would citizens agree if they were fully-informed and fully rational?

For several centuries political philosophers in the social contract tradition have wondered whether we can justify the state and the obligations it creates along similar lines. Philosophers’ arguments are relevant to the big data debate.

Is political philosophy mere opinion?

John thinks that capitalism makes people free while Ruby thinks capitalism im-miserizes workers. Is one right and the other wrong? One response is that right and wrong are inapt here: John and Ruby just have different opinions.

In the background is some dis-analogy with science. It would be odd to say ‘in my opinion, gravity doesn’t exist’. There are, what can be called, mind-independent facts about gravity. Your opinion is irrelevant. More importantly, in order to be ‘successful’ you need to respect these mind-independent facts. The world has a way of sifting-out people who refuse to accept gravity.

In contrast, you can treat people abysmally and not suffer at all. Indeed, you may get everything you ever wanted. And while gravity will operate in an unpeopled universe, it makes no sense to say that capitalism can be good or bad in a similar situation.

While these are important differences, they do not imply that disagreements about political ideas are the same as disagreements about pronunciations of ‘tomato’. And we should be glad of this. If political ideas were merely opinions, then, when someone said that homosexuality is an abomination, they would be open to no more criticism than if they had expressed a liking for lager.

We can test claims about political ideas

Is Ruby correct that capitalism im-miserizes workers? To answer this question first we must bring some precision to ‘im-miserization’: we can say that someone is im-miserized if they cannot satisfy their basic needs or if they are made appallingly subservient to other people. Then we can (i) see whether certain features of capitalism will always, or generally, lead to im-miserization; or (ii) look at actual capitalist societies and see whether workers can satisfy their basic needs.

The correct conclusion (I suspect) is that workers can be im-miserized in both capitalist and non-capitalist societies, and that changes to capitalism over the years (principally the addition of a welfare state) have significantly reduced workers’ misery. But whatever conclusions we ultimately draw, we can intelligently discuss, debate and test political ideas. And, perhaps like Ruby, we may find that our views are incorrect.

In short, we are all political philosophers. Our only choice is to engage with political ideas well or badly, better or worse. If, in the face of criticism of our deeply-held values, we retreat to the seemingly-safe realm of ‘opinion’ we must also accept that opening this particular door may invite in all sorts of unwelcome guests.

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