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Political theory. The development of modern ideologies. Types of normative questions asked by political theories. What purpose should government serve? Equality? Justice? Security? How should governments be organized? To advance their power? To limit their power?

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Political theory

Political theory

The development of

modern ideologies

Types of normative questions asked by political theories
Types of normative questionsasked by political theories

  • What purpose should government serve? Equality? Justice? Security?

  • How should governments be organized? To advance their power? To limit their power?

  • Should they help citizens lead ethical lives? Can a state be ethical if its citizenry is not?

Plato s allegory of the cave
Plato’s allegory of the cave

  • . People in the cave believe they are free, but they don’t see the reality of their intellectual slavery. All they do is watch shadows cast by a hidden fire in the cave, thinking that the shadows are reality. They are passive and accepting. They never turn around, never ask questions. They remain completely unaware of how blind & shackled they are.

Plato s allegory of the cave1
Plato’s allegory of the cave

  • Who does Plato mean when he writes about the single enlightened person who stands up and dares to go outside to seek the truth?

The allegory of the cave continued
The allegory of the cave, continued

  • Socrates, Plato’s teacher.

    His eyes adjust to the light and see how wonderful the world is beyond the cave. But instead of staying, he decides to return to the others in the cave, to free them as well.

The allegory of the cave continued1
The allegory of the cave, continued

  • What happens when he returns to tell others in the cave about the truth?

The allegory of the cave continued2
The allegory of the cave, continued

  • The prisoners in the cave think he’s mad and dangerous; if he persists in talking nonsense, he’ll be killed.

  • Socrates was sentenced to death about 400 B.C. for “corrupting youth” with his teachings.

The allegory of the cave continued3
The allegory of the cave, continued

  • In other words, new ideas are dangerous, even when they are the truth. We like our comfortable illusions.

  • The text mentions how political thinkers on the left and the right have been ridiculed for their ideas, even in open political societies like the U.S. and Britain.


  • Many political theories deal with attempts to create a perfect society, a utopia.


  • The notion of an ideal political society was often used by political writers to criticize the status quo.

  • Dates from ancient Greeks, especially Plato writing The Republic.

  • Also evident in 17th century English writing and in some contemporary science fiction.


  • A nightmare distortion of a utopia.

  • It happens when leaders “impose” perfection on imperfect human beings.

  • To create a perfect society, those leaders must exercise totalitarian control over all aspects of human life.

Plato s the republic
Plato’s The Republic

Plato’s ideas of a utopian society:

  • Three natural groups:

    • Workers, farmers, shopkeepers & artisans who provide material wealth for the community.

    • Military units- called auxiliaries - who defend it.

    • Guardians – who govern it, with Philosopher-king at the top

Plato s the republic1
Plato’s The Republic

Plato’s ideas of a utopian society: Each person performs the tasks for which he or she is best suited. Injustice occurs when people act contrary to their nature. Ambition & competition unnatural.

The republic continued
The Republic, continued

To maintain the utopia, Plato said these elements were necessary:

  • Hierarchy of the best, rule by meritocracy.

  • Dangerous and untrue ideas censored.

  • The "Noble Lie."

    What is the Noble Lie?

The noble lie
The Noble Lie

  • People will be convinced that their prior lives were just a dream, not reality.

  • Further, they must be convinced that they occupy their positions in society due to the type of metal in their souls.

  • Why noble? Because it ensures popular acceptance (legitimacy) of the new republic ruled by the Philosopher King.

The republic continued1
The Republic, continued

Is this a utopia or dystopia? Why?

The republic continued2
The Republic, continued

It depends.

Ordinary people in the bottom class can amass wealth and have families and private lives.

Those in the top two classes, there is almost totalitarianism. They would not be permitted a family life or private property. Otherwise, they would put self-interest above the good of the whole.

B f skinner walden two 1948
B.F. Skinner, Walden Two (1948)

  • Utopian society possible but only through behavioral engineering. Human beings are sometimes selfish, greedy and mean. Human nature must be changed, engineered so that people are noncompetitive, happy and harmonious. Positive rewards can change both outward behavior and inner motives. People can be “conditioned” live together in peace and harmony.

B f skinner walden two 19481
B.F. Skinner, Walden Two (1948)

  • This means people will not be free, but they aren’t free anyway. Freedom is an illusion. Every choice we make is the result of societal conditioning.

What purpose does government serve
What purpose does government serve?

  • Plato says justice and truth.

  • John Locke says protection of our natural rights.

  • Thomas Hobbes says security, to keep us from killing each other.

Thomas hobbes leviathan
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

English political theorist from 1588 to 1679.

  • Humans are equal and capable of rational thought, but:

  • Human nature is aggressive and greedy, and human life is “brutish and short”. The state of nature is ruthless and frightening. No advancement in science, arts, commerce, etc., is possible because existence itself so fragile.

Hobbes continued
Hobbes, continued

  • Government formed for the sole purpose of providing security. Need a strong authoritarian government to control humans’ violent passions.

  • Hobbesian world: might makes right and the weak are victimized. Pessimistic view of human nature.

Should government promote equality
Should government promote equality?

  • Political theorists divided on this.

  • Review ideas of Aristotle, Jefferson, Tecumseh, Chico Mendes, Friedrich Nietzsche and Kurt Vonnegut.

Equality of rights
Equality of rights

  • Thomas Jefferson’s view of equality: a natural human right which government is supposed to secure.

  • A government which fails to do this forfeits its authority; the people then have a right of revolution.

  • Evident in Declaration of Independence, a classical liberal document (John Locke)

Equality of property rights
Equality of property rights

  • Tecumseh (early 19th century) emphasized the property rights of Native American communities, the right to regain lands taken by white settlers. The Native American leaders who had negotiated the treaties had no authority to give away tribal lands, because the land was held in common.

Equality of participation
Equality of participation

  • Chico Mendes of Brazil (mid-20th century) advocated equality of participation for indigenous people in making decisions about the rainforests. Mendes demanded that the people in the rainforest have a voice in the decision making process. Neither cattle ranchers nor environmentalists could speak for them, because those groups had their own interests. Unlike Aristotle, he saw equality of process as the only way to ensure equality of results.

Idea of equality false dangerous
Idea of equality false & dangerous

  • Friedrich Nietzsche (late 19th century), a German philosopher, believed egalitarianism harmful as well as false, derived from a slave mentality advanced by the weak to drag down the “best” people. Christianity a “slave morality,” because it taught humility and forgiveness. In contrast is the master morality which extols strength.

  • Nietzsche blamed for fostering elitism; his ideas influenced the development of Nazi thought.

Equality produces mediocrity
Equality produces mediocrity

  • Kurt Vonnegut, an American author who favors democracy but warns of the dangers of complete equality in a futuristic short story. To ensure absolute equality, those with exceptional mental or physical abilities were hampered with “equalizing gear.” The resulting society was drab and mediocre.

Power maximized or restrained
Power: maximized or restrained?

  • Should the government be free of constraints? Yes, in order to act decisively against threats, according to Niccolo Machiavelli

  • Should government power be checked? Yes, to guard against tyranny, according to James Madison and the framers of the U.S. Constitution

Machiavelli s the prince
Machiavelli’s The Prince

  • Machiavelli argued for a strong central ruler who was amoral but would appear to be moral; who would use moral and religious appeals to win support from the citizenry. Relying on the people’s love was too insecure, yet fostering their hate was dangerous. Better to have people fear the ruler, because they can then be controlled.

Should government promote ethical or moral citizenry
Should government promote ethical or moral citizenry?

  • In fact, they inevitably do. What are laws against homicide and theft but statutory expressions of our collective morality.

  • The question gets complex in more contested areas of morality.

  • John Stuart Mill suspicious of societal & governmental limits on individual behavior.

  • Fundamentalists hostile to Mill’s tolerance of individual behavior.

Views of the taliban
Views of the Taliban

  • Governing authority in Afghanistan until U.S. military action in 2001. Still elements evident in parts of the country.

  • Taliban views:

    • Religious dress for men & especially women

    • Sex segregation (women banned from professions & schools)

    • Opposed to modernity & western culture

    • Intolerant of all opposing viewpoints

Political ideologies seek to answer these questions
Political ideologies seek to answer these questions

  • A political ideology is a set of organized and related ideas on how a political system serves the public good. It’s a simplified and sometimes distorted version of a political theory.

  • Our ideology reflects our underlying values and beliefs about government, the community, & the individual. It drives our policy preferences.