Political Theory To 1789 Roots of Modern Political Thought
I. The Ancient Politics of Virtue: Plato vs. Aristotle • Plato’s Republic (360 BCE) • Question = What is justice? • Answer = two types of justice • Individual justice = rationality ruling over our appetites and emotional attachments (spirit) • Social justice = rational parts (i.e. philosophers) ruling over appetites (workers) and spirit (warriors) • Answer is naturalistic (virtues are discovered “out there,” not created by us) and agent-based (people, not actions, are described as just or unjust)
4. Politics of Plato’s Republic • What is good government? • Just government by rational thinkers over those driven by their appetites, to make the people better through education, protection, and management of daily life • Tools of governance = Military force and the “noble lie” (propaganda) • Ideal polity = autocratic rule by the intellectual elite (philosopher-king) in order to avoid any social conflict
b. How can we keep leaders from doing the wrong thing? • There is no check on leaders in Plato’s world. Implied answer: We must select the right ones and give them the power to effect real change. • In other words, Plato favors rule by a person to the rule of law.
c. What are the duties of a good citizen? • Duties depend on one’s abilities and role in life. One should do what one is best suited to do, and above all one should create value for society. Knowing one’s place and fulfilling one’s function to the rest of society are the paths to both contentment and the good society.
B. Aristotle’s Politics (350 BCE) • Question = What is the best regime? • Answer = Elective aristocracy by well-educated, prosperous slave-owners. • Answer is also naturalistic (everything has a natural purpose, which is its only proper purpose) and agent-centered (be a virtuous person or a virtuous city – the doing will naturally follow)
4. The Politics of Aristotle’s Politics a. What is good government? Government adapted to the people, with polity as the best for free people and/or aristocracy when people are very unequal in many respects. Government should try to develop better citizens and virtuous people, but it should also leave household matters to the household, for the household is different from the city-state.
b. How do we keep leaders from doing the wrong thing? • All men of virtue must be given real participatory power, with the ability to stop tyranny, oligarchy, or mob rule. • Note that tyranny is bad because it has a bad character, not because it infringes on “rights” or does bad things
c. What are the duties of a good citizen? • “Duty” is less important than inclination. One with virtue won’t see his civic duty as a duty at all, but a natural part of life from which he finds fulfillment. • A good citizen will participate in politics (ruling and being ruled in turn) to better the city-state, and should follow the leadership of those with greater wisdom or virtue while exercising leadership over those of lesser wisdom or virtue. • Citizens should give for the common good and serve in the military to defend the common good.
C. Plato vs. Aristotle on the Role of Virtue in Politics • Disagreements: • Is it more important to have good institutions (the rule of law) or a virtuous leader (the “rule of man”)? Plato = people / Aristotle = law • Pure principles vs. compromise: Plato = purity and radical change (neo-conservatism), Aristotle = find the mean and incrementally change (traditionalist conservatism). • Agreement: • Agent-centered, naturalistic morality -- we should think of ourselves as parts of an organic whole and find happiness in being virtuous and living in a well-ordered society • Natural hierarchy: Some people are more virtuous than others; these should hold authority and teach the rest
3. Both reject modern values • Against atomistic individualism: Humans are naturally social, and communities, not individuals, are the proper units of political analysis. No room for concepts like “privacy” unless they promote virtue. • Against egalitarianism: People are not naturally equal in morally relevant ways • Against “unnatural” behavior: Whether personal, sexual, religious, or economic. Everything has a perfect form or purpose, and deviation is wrong in and of itself.
II. The Middle Ages: Adaptation of the Ancients to Christianity • Augustine’s Platonic City of God (426) • Question: What should a Christian society look like? • Answer: Christians should aim at the City of God -- a religious way of life -- rather than a perfect political system (a mere City of Man). Religious purity is more important than political feasibility. • Morality still naturalistic (stems from Creator) and agent-centered (state of the soul, not political actions, defines a good person)
4. Augustinian (Anti-)Politics • What is good government? All non-Christian polities are doomed to die in body and soul. The City of Man produces war. • How do we keep leaders from doing the wrong thing? Teach them to be good Christians. In the end, Christians are not of this world and will find peace in the City of God. • What are the duties of a good citizen? Study what is good in order to come to know God and follow divine law.
B. Thomas Aquinas Rehabilitates Aristotle (1273) • Question = How should reasonable Christians design their polities? • Answer = Natural Law. To be happy, people must form harmonious political communities guided by virtue. Everything has a purpose, so we must identify ours. • Answer is still guided by naturalism (God’s will) and agent-centered morality (love as an emotion).
4. The Politics of Aquinas • What is good government? Government for the common good, with political autonomy for the household and the Church. Leave promotion of personal virtue to the Church (unlike Aristotle) and focus on protecting citizens from each other.
b. How do we keep leaders from doing the wrong thing? • Morality and moral laws bind leaders, who may justly be deposed if they violate it. The Church cannot release people from political bonds by an act of will, but it can tell citizens that the leader is transgressing moral law.
c. What are the duties of a good citizen? • Obey the laws of the state in matters of governance and also obey the laws of the universal (Catholic) Church in matters of personal virtue. Develop personal virtue and reason to the highest degree possible.
C. The Medieval Contribution to Political Thought • Disagreement: Whether Christians are to participate in political and material life (Aquinas) or withdraw from it (Thomas). Echoes divide between evangelical and non-evangelical traditionalists in the last century… • Agreement: God’s law takes precedence over the state or even the good of the community.. • Innovations: • Concept of “natural law” – combining Plato’s idea of universal laws with Aristotle's emphasis on happiness. • Natural law as a constraint on rulers, not just citizens. Foreshadows theories of a “right” to disobey leaders.
III. Renaissance Philosophy: Conflicts Between Reason and Traditional Values • Niccolò Machiavelli (1513): A rebuttal to the politics of virtue • Question = How do great leaders actually behave? • Answer = they ignore moral law and the Church, relying on power and fear to gain security • Answer pits naturalism against agent-centered morality: good people don’t win and can’t defend their homelands.
4. Machiavellian Politics • What is good government? Be stingy but effective in everything necessary: war, diplomacy, and justice. Good government is limited government, refraining from confiscation or lawless violence – it is based on the rule of law rather than the rule of man. • How do we keep leaders from doing the wrong thing? Give them good advice and let them defend the state as they see fit. • What are the duties of a good citizen? No conspiracies or mob rule. Factionalism weakens the state.
B. Thomas More Revisits Utopia (1516) • Question = What would a perfect polity look like? • Answer = Democratic, orderly communism • Answer is naturalistic (but based on reason, not God’s law) and retains focus on agent-centered morality (good people key to good society)
4. The Politics of More’s Utopia • What is good governance? Government by the most highly educated, who will teach the others. Criminals become slaves to aid others, weighed down by chains of gold (!) Work is compulsory, but health care and other essentials are free from the government.
b. How can we keep leaders from doing the wrong thing? • Leadership is democratic, although the people choose the best-educated and smartest people to lead them. Government has little real power over everyday life because citizens are virtuous.
c. What are the duties of a good citizen? • Good citizens share everything with each other, eagerly work for the common good, and try to learn as much as possible.
C. Contributions of Renaissance Political Thought • Renaissance thinkers continued in the naturalistic, agent-centered tradition, but • Reason is not assumed to give the same answers as Christianity. Therefore, • Natural law has two meanings: natural ethical virtues (the normative laws of religion) and natural cause-effect relationships (empirical laws of science)
IV. Enlightenment Political Theory: Rights-Based Conservatism • Thomas Hobbes and Leviathan • Question = When should we obey authority? • Answer = Natural Law. Compare “state of nature” (anarchy: life “nasty, poor, brutish, solitary, and short”) to government (social contract between people to create sovereign powerful enough to protect us from each other) Obey while government has any chance of protecting you
3. Hobbes Breaks With Tradition • Answer rejects ethical naturalism (nothing is right or wrong in a state of nature). Goal is to overcome nature with binding laws (which determine right and wrong), not to emulate it. “Ought” implies “Can.” • Act-centered morality clearly expressed (rights, duties, and consequences) modern framework of autonomous individuals pursuing self-interest (homo economicus) • Legitimizes the use of force against the government for self-interest (survival) rather than religion or the greater good.
4. The Politics of Hobbes’s Leviathan • What is good government? A strong absolute monarchy that preserves peace and grows the commonwealth. The monarch should be aware of Natural Law and educate the people to revere duty to parents and the state – not because these things are good in their own right, but because they are important for stability.
b. How can we keep leaders from doing the wrong thing? • We cannot because they have power and we shouldn’t because we should honor our contract with each other to keep the covenant with the sovereign. By definition, a leader can do no wrong to the people since he/she owes us nothing while we owe them utter obedience, and since he/she is the embodiment of all our interests and desires. (Rule of man, not law)
c. What are the duties of a good citizen? • Obey the sovereign, the civil law, and the law of nature – in that order. Do not presume to debate the wisdom of the sovereign, although you should identify shortcomings of his underlings if he so allows. Defend the sovereign in war as you are defended in peace. • Hobbes does allow for rights! (Only one: right to preserve your own life). Hobbes = birth of atomistic individualism in political philosophy.
d. Statist Realism: A new kind of conservatism • Humans are inherently selfish and violent – the closer to a state of nature they are, the more violent they are (fear of pre-modern societies such as tribes) • Need for social control to protect us from each other and foreign powers • Moral duty to fellow citizens to obey laws and authority follows from self-preservation • State must be able to limit some individual rights to preserve citizens’ right to life • Note the rejection of traditionalist morality: Leaders may need to be Machiavellian to defend their citizens in Hobbes’s world
B. John Locke’s “Classical Liberalism” and Libertarian Thought • Question = When is rebellion justified? • Answer = rebellion is justified when government violates our natural rights. Follows Hobbesian logic: Identify rights held in “state of nature” and compare those to rights held under existing government. Disagrees only on which rights one enjoys in the state of nature. • Ethics are clearly act-based (wrong to violate someone’s rights). Nature is to be improved upon rather than rejected.
4. The Politics of John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government • What is good government? Limited government by majority rule to protect property rights (including rights to our own bodies, which are just another type of property right). Rule of law, not rule of man.
b. How do we keep leaders from doing the wrong thing? • Divide up authority to make it difficult for anyone to ignore the laws and create only as much government as we need for life, liberty, and estate– and no more (i.e. no permanent legislature). • We should ensure that the majority has the ability to express its consent from generation to generation (also: elections) • Overthrow our government when it threatens our natural, God-given rights.
c. What are the duties of a good citizen? • The good citizen respects the rights of others and seeks to further his or her own family’s welfare through labor. • The good citizen must also defend the commonwealth from external enemies and participate in monitoring and checking any abuses of the government. • Sometimes, being a good citizen means resisting the government when it has been usurped or transformed into tyranny.
d. Locke and Libertarianism • Locke himself believed in natural limits to property rights (do not waste or leave land undeveloped, do not own land in common, pay your taxes) • Modern libertarian conservatives reject the naturalist part of Locke in favor of strong property rights -- anything legitimately acquired is legitimately owned, regardless of how it is (not) used. More consistent than Locke… • Key assumption: Society does not provide property rights, but merely guarantees the legitimate private ownership that would exist in nature
C. Rousseau’s Romantic Nationalism • Question = How can we make the chains of government more legitimate? • Answer = Govern by the general will of the people. Cannot return to “state of nature” so we must make state of civil society as good as possible. • Answer rejects naturalism as being value-free (human nature can produce good or bad, depending on environment and culture), but retains notion of agent-based morality.
4. The Politics of Rousseau’s Social Contract • What is good government? Legitimate use of power by the people (popular sovereignty). The state should be supremely powerful but since we are ruling ourselves there is no threat to our liberty. We gave up natural rights, but we have gained civil rights in exchange. Government must be adapted to the nature of the people (i.e. nationalist government).
b. How can we keep leaders from doing the wrong thing? • The key is to have popular assemblies to ensure that the government never usurps the legitimate sovereign authority from the people. • In addition, power should be divided between the sovereign (people), government (executive) and magistrates. • Note that government is not to be limited in power, but rather harnessed to the general will. Rousseau denies individual rights – even a “right to life.” All civil rights are given by society and subject to amendment or revocation for the good of the people.
c. What are the duties of a good citizen? • Participate in politics at the local level, aim at the common good rather than one’s own interests, and listen to the advice of neutral outsiders (the “lawgiver”) on how best to organize society. • Try to make ourselves into better people through deliberation and following the general will (human nature can be reshaped by institutions).
d. Was Rousseau liberal? • Yes: Emphasized popular society and the complete supremacy of people over government. • No: Emphasized community over individuals, national prejudices. • “Neo-conservatives” combined Plato’s idea of the “noble lie” and Machiavellian methods (means) with the Rousseau-like objective (ends) of making people better through good law (democratization in the Middle East). Goal = save freedom from excess individual rights.
D. Burke: A Conservative Rebuttal to the Enlightenment • Writes in opposition to the French Revolution (and its favorite philosopher, Rousseau) • Argues that • Rights and institutions are inherited, not constructed from scratch • Reason therefore cannot identify the “best” institutions without examining history • History has produced traditions, which must therefore be respected • Nature (and God) prevent equality, because inequality is everywhere and therefore inevitable • Often credited as the originator of modern conservatism, but really revives traditional conservatism and virtue-based natural law.
V. Key Problems for modern political philosophy • The problem of act-based ethical standards • Traditionalists accept agent-based moral theories (virtue ethics), but what do these have to tell us about specific policies? • Most modern political theorists – both Conservative (statist realists, libertarians) and Liberal -- accept act-based moral theories. But these theories were poorly-developed during the Enlightenment. How do we know if an act is right or wrong, without resorting to traditional virtues?
3. Moral inconsistency before 1789 • Example: Hobbes on honoring the social contract • Hobbes says breaking it leads to anarchy, which is a practical death sentence (consequences determine morality) • Hobbes also says that breaking a contract is a form of contradiction, and therefore irrational (nature of the act determines morality) • Problem: What should we do if contradiction (lying, breaking a contract, etc) leads to good consequences? Which standard is more important? • Problem is common: Plato/Aristotle say virtue is good in itself, good for you, and good for society. What if one of these statements is false but the others are true? How should one choose?
4. Why do we care? • Most interesting political disputes involve conflicts between values: liberty vs. equality, good ends vs. unpleasant means, good intentions vs. bad consequences, etc. • Examples • Should we torture suspected terrorists to extract information? • Should we threaten to destroy cities full of innocent civilians in order to protect our own innocent civilians? • Should we execute people if doing so fails to deter crime? • Should we respect property rights if property owners want to discriminate against other races? • Is it OK for the US government to lie to its citizens about whether it is testing biological weapons? • If gays want to marry, how to we know how to respond?
B. Paradoxes of liberalism • Basic assumptions of liberalism • Rationalism: The world can be comprehended through the use of reason, as opposed to revelation, intuition, or authority • Teleology: History moves in a progressive fashion – new is usually better than old and natural is not necessarily good. Rejects myths of a “golden age” • Individual Autonomy: People have autonomous wills and are capable of rational choice to fulfill their preferences. Implies that society should be structured on the basis of mutual respect for some fundamental list of rights, to include being treated as rational, autonomous, and equal individuals • Egalitarianism: People have equal worth and more or less equal basic abilities. Implies that any inequality we observe must be the result of policy or choice, not natural hierarchy • Pluralism: Society is best served by having multiple, competing points of view (the marketplace of ideas) and multiple ways of living
2. Opposing tendencies in liberalism • Paradox of liberal democracy: Natural equality of autonomous individuals means we all have equal rights, so a majority cannot justly be ruled by a minority. BUT what if the majority wishes to violate the rights of a minority?
b. Paradox of Pluralism • If having multiple views is necessary and good, then how can liberalism claim to be the best political viewpoint? How should liberals react to non-liberals who don’t share the ideal of pluralism?
c. Paradox of Egalitarianism • Society is characterized by hierarchy and inequality. According to liberal assumptions of egalitarianism, this is neither “natural” nor desirable. But what if inequality is produced by rational human choices? Efforts to limit inequality would limit individual autonomy (rights) and pluralism.
3. Unanswered Questions • Are political rights more deserving of protection than property rights? • Does the greatest danger to liberty come from government power or discrimination by our fellow citizens? • How can democratic self-government be reconciled with the rights of economic, racial, or religious minorities? • Does a community owe duties to individuals? How might social welfare be justified? • Should government work to ensure equal opportunities – and not merely equal rights -- for all citizens?