New to Political Philosophy? Here are some quick ideas to get you started, or to serve as the basis for a group discussion....
Can there be a good dictator?
Since the rise of modern democracy in the 17th century, it has been assumed that government of, by and for the people is the political system of choice. Dictators, by definition, impose their will, thereby depriving their people of freedom and stifling the normal process of political debate, which is the springboard for change and development. So has dictatorship anything positive to contribute to the political sphere?
Is it conceivable that a dictator could be selfless and concerned only with the wellbeing of his or her people, ordering those things that are for the common good, whether people request them or not? If so, there would be none of the political wrangling found in a multi-party democracy, none of the lack of decisiveness that marks out a government anxious to please those upon whose votes they depend to continue in office. An utterly benign, altruistic dictator would organise society in a way that those with more narrow views or a limited power-base could not.
But – and it is a big ‘but’ – the price to be paid is that those living under such a dictatorship would not have any say in how they are governed. Everything might be perfectly ordered, but people would have no sense of responsibility, no commitment to the process of government. They would, in effect, live in a comfortable prison – like pet gerbils running round in the perfectly constructed cage.
In starting to consider political philosophy, we need to ask a fundamental question. ‘Which values are more important, comfort and efficiency, or freedom and participation?’
Can you do well on your own?
Aristotle argued that happiness is promoted by taking part in shared activities with common goals. As we become part of a group – whether a special interest one, or the broader political community – we think of ourselves in terms of that wider group. We have a sense of what ‘we’ are doing, as opposed to what ‘I’ am doing. This sharing, he believed, would also lead to friendship, even if initially it developed from necessity or self-interest.
Hence he saw personal fulfilment and happiness as bound up with a willingness to share in the broader ‘political’ sphere, and that in such a sphere we would not only enjoy the exercise of our own abilities, but take pleasure in the abilities of others. This lies behind his famous remark that a human being is, by nature, a political animal.
If Aristotle is right, then a vocation to be only a consumer, or achieving personal success whatever the impact on others, is likely to be self-defeating, since it cuts the individual off from his or her essential nature. Participation in political life, far from being an optional burden for those seeking their own welfare, becomes the essential tool for generating happiness and fulfilment. You might try to be good, but – for Aristotle – you could not achieve the good life all on your own.
Is a democratic decision always right?
It is amazing how important electoral endorsement is to politicians. They generally want to claim that they have a mandate for what they do and that they are acting on behalf of the people. That is, until the voice of the people appears to go against their own wishes. Then election results may be dismissed as being merely a reaction to particular circumstances, or a gesture of defiance.
But such arguments could be used for any and every election. People vote in response to things offered or warned against by the various political parties. They react; they may be angry; they may not take a long-term view. But that is the nature of the democratic process. Great thinkers of the enlightenment, such as Kant, were happy to encourage democracy, but never considered it appropriate to offer equal votes to a professional person and a manual labourer, for some are more able to come to a balanced decision than others.
So what status does a democratic decision have? If we take the view that a democratic decision is – by definition – always right, we accept that matters of right and wrong are not absolute, but decided in terms of a balance of wishes at the time. This is the political equivalent of utilitarianism – judging actions right or wrong according to the greatest benefits offered to the greatest number of people.
Which should take priority, the will of the people or human reason? If people are unreasonable in their vote, should that vote still count? If not, what is the point in democracy? If so, are we always at the mercy of mob-rule?
Is gender irrelevant?
How do you preserve individuality and distinctiveness while at the same time promoting equality? That is the question that nags at a whole range of issues. Take gender. It is widely agreed that men and women should be treated equally. Hence laws that allow marital rape, or social pressures that discourage girls from becoming educated, are (from a democratic and egalitarian point of view) seen as fundamentally wrong – since they are clearly the product of a society in which men take the dominant role.
On the other hand, women and men are different – both in terms of their physical abilities, and their emotional capacities, preferences and so on. How do you celebrate and encourage that distinctiveness? Some traditional Muslim societies argue that the restrictions placed on women are their for their protection and to allow them to live a full, but different social life. It may be wrong to force that view on those unwilling to accept it, but what of those who wish to accept such gender-distinctiveness?
If gender is irrelevant, there is absolutely no reason why one gender should dominate another – except, of course, when it comes to physical attributes. We sometimes hear of female athletes who are asked to undergo a gender test, simply because her strength and stamina are at a level more likely to be found in a man. In these cases, gender differences in sport aim to promote fairness rather than discrimination.
And it is only a few years ago that Venice had its first female gondolier! And that’s exactly the sort of situation in which gender seems quite irrelevant – if a person can do the job, there is nothing but established custom to limit it to one gender rather than another.
What price freedom?
Everyone wants to be free to say and do what they like, but most would accept that there needs to be some restraint if society is to survive. The 19th century philosopher J S Mill argued, for example, that one should be free to do whatever did not harm another person, and whatever was purely personal should be allowed. But a price has to be paid for such freedom, because, in practice, it is very easy to harm others. Over the last few years, Britain has seen an increase in legislation which attempts to prevent one person’s freedom from harming others. There is legislation against ‘glorifying terrorism’ and ‘inciting religious hatred’ – both curbing the freedom to speak, on the grounds that other people may act as a result of what you say. A government may see it as part of its duty to protect society by imposing restriction on those suspected of involvement in terrorism, even if there is not sufficient evidence to charge them. Equally, at a lower level of threat, it can be argued that people should be restrained from doing things that, although not in themselves illegal, cause nuisance to others.
All such situations illustrate the simple point that, when it comes to our freedom, it’s not a matter of what I, as an isolated individual, choose to do, but the social price that has to be paid for it. We are all embedded in society; freedom is more a feature of society than of individuals. And we need to keep in mind that freedom is positive as well as negative; not just seeking to be free from constraint, but also to be free to do the things we want – to improve ourselves or our families, to participate in society, to have enough money to live on. But every freedom has a price – whether individual or social. Should we be free to exploit others?
Is a nation the right size?
Although nation-states come in all shapes and sizes, it is generally assumed that within their borders they should be sovereign. But we need to remember that nation-states are of fairly recent origin, and that history shows us a great variety in the size of political entities, from the great Empires of Greece or Rome, to local princedoms, federations of states, colonies established by trading companies, and local tribal areas.
Ideally, if it is to maintain its independence, a political entity should be self-sufficient and capable of defending itself. Hence the tendency for small groups to band together for mutual security. However, in the 21st century, it is far from clear whether nations are the right size for economic and political health.
On the one hand the global financial markets give individual nations little scope for economic independence, and on the other – whether threatened by nuclear weapons or ideologically motivated terrorists – defence is most effective where nations band together and negotiate. That suggests that international organisations are a more appropriate size for effective action.
But, even if news is instantly transmitted anywhere on the globe, and it is therefore possible to think of oneself as genuinely ‘cosmopolitan’, there is still a strong pull to have local identity, with the feeling that local politicians will be better in touch with people’s needs than those operating at national level.
So one might conclude that, for the most part, nations are both too small and too large to be effective. How to deal with that problem is another matter.
Should you ever intervene on behalf of the people against its government?
There are plenty of examples of governments that oppress their people, maintaining power only by force and a deliberate distortion of, or denial of the democratic process; Burma has been an example of this. Other governments are corrupt and ineffective, causing poverty and hardship among their people; Zimbabwe has been a classic example.
It is therefore tempting to argue that the world community should always step in and take charge, forcibly removing such governments in the name of common humanity, and compassion for those who suffer under their rule.
The problem is that any action against a sovereign state is regarded as an act of war. The very idea of independent nation states is that, within their borders, they alone have responsibility for law and order, the economy and so on. Intervention on humanitarian grounds is relatively rare, and, in practice, very selective. The secondary justification for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (after the failure to find weapons of mass destruction) was to liberate the people from the rule of Saddam Hussein. His regime might indeed have been oppressive, but was it any worse than others which are still in place? And are people’s lives necessarily made better by foreign intervention? It is seldom easy to get a balanced answer to that question.
With the benefit of hindsight, there are also moments when the world stood back and allowed regimes to empower themselves disastrously – as with Nazi Germany in the 1930s. In general, nation-states remain sovereign, and the international community is relatively reluctant to intervene. The question is… does that reflect justice, or self-interest on the part of the world community?