Political Philosophy

In 399 BC, when he was over seventy, Socrates was accused before the Athenian assembly of impiety and corrupting the young, and was sentenced to death.  Plato, in his Crito dialogue, presents a dramatic scene from the condemned cell; Socrates’ friends urge him to escape from prison, and avoid the unjust and vindictive sentence of the court. Socrates, however, refuses to escape; choosing instead to accept his punishment and drink the hemlock.

The arguments which Plato has Socrates put forward are many and varied but one that has proved exceptionally influential is the idea that there is a contract or agreement between Socrates and the State, which he would be breaking were he to flee.  The idea here is that Socrates, by residing in Athens for over 70 years, has received a great many benefits from the State and, as such, he has an obligation to abide by their laws. In his imagined conversation with the laws of Athens, Socrates has them state:

For, having brought you into the world, and nurtured and educated you, and given you and every other citizen a share in every good which we had to give, we further proclaim to any Athenian by the liberty which we allow him, that if he does not like us when he has become of age and has seen the ways of the city, and made our acquaintance, he may go where he pleases and take his goods with him.  None of us laws will forbid him or interfere with him.  Anyone who does not like us and the city, and who wants to emigrate to a colony or to any other city, may go where he likes, retaining his property.  But he who has experience of the manner in which we order justice and administer the state, and still remains, has entered into an implied contract that he will do as we command him.

This argument forms the basis of what has come to be known as Social Contract Theory, which we will return to soon.

Plato, obviously in no small part due to Socrates’ treatment, was disillusioned with the state of politics in Athens.  He says in his autobiographical Seventh Letter, “I was forced, in fact, to the belief that the only hope of finding justice for society or for the individual lay in true philosophy, and that mankind will have no respite from trouble until either real philosophers gain political power or politicians become by some miracle true philosophers”.  In the Republic, Plato attempts to show how the ideal state, or utopia, should operate.  He begins by making a tripartite distinction of the soul, dividing it into reason, spirit and appetite. The philosopher, states Plato, is one who is ruled by reason, commanding spirit in order to keep the appetite in check. It is in this way that the philosopher can be said to have a truly harmonious, and thus just, soul.  Plato then analogises the harmonious soul with the harmonious state, employing the same tripartite distinction.  In this perfect polis the Guardians (Philosopher Kings) are to rule, as only they have just souls ruled by reason.  Furthermore, they are to rule with the aid of the Auxiliaries (Military) who play a role analogous to Spirit, keeping the appetite driven Masses in check.  Such a state, argues Plato, will be harmonious and just.

In the seventeenth century, questions of how society should be governed and by whom were still being posed, and fought over.  For example, in England the assertion of a ‘divine right’ of kings to govern led to turmoil and ultimately, civil war.  One of those who fled to France during the war was the English thinker Thomas Hobbes, whose Leviathan (1651) was to become a landmark in political philosophy.  Hobbes premises his theory of government on the need to avoid the horrors of war.  But he begins by describing not any particular historical war, but a ‘state of nature’, prior to the setting up of any government, when men have ‘no common power to keep them all in awe’.  In this ‘natural condition of mankind’, there is an ever-present danger of violent quarrelling, chiefly due to competition for scarce resources.  Hobbes states:

In the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel: first, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory. The first, makes men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation. The first use violence; to make themselves masters of other men’s persons, wives, children, and cattle; the second, to defend them; the third, for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons, or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name.

Hobbes goes on to give a famous and graphic description of a life where people live without any security apart from what their own strength can provide – a life of ‘continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.

Reason plays two important roles in Hobbes’ account. Firstly, it allows for the discovery of certain truths. These truths will include ‘natural laws’, reducible to a single overarching law: ‘do not do to another what you do not want done to you’ (this is conventionally referred to as the ‘golden rule’). However, reason also operates in a more pragmatic manner. I have a ‘natural right’ to promote my own self-interest (this is also discoverable by reason).

The right of nature . . . is the liberty each man has to use his own power, as he will himself, for the preservation of his own nature, that is to say, of his own life; and consequently, of doing anything, which in his own judgement and reasons, he shall conceive to be the aptest means thereunto …. as long as every man holds this right of doing anything he likes, so long are all men in the condition of war. But if other men will not lay down their right, as well as he, then there is no reason for any one to divest himself of his: For that were to expose himself to prey (which no man is bound to) rather than to dispose himself to peace.

Hobbes believes then, that in the state of nature, self-preservation is to be achieved by participating in the war of all against all. Reason enjoins that I ‘look after number one’, in the light of the earlier-mentioned combination of base desires and economic scarcity. Under these conditions – i.e. in the state of nature – to act upon the golden rule is to abrogate self preservation (i.e. it is to relinquish a natural right). So, I ought not, in a state of nature, to act on the golden rule. There is, therefore, aprima facie conflict between the promptings of theoretical reason (which leads to a recognition of the desirability of co-operation) and practical reason (which prompts me to a position of rational egoism, and hence of participation in the war, in accordance with my base desires). This conflict is a conflict between what it is rational for the individual to do in a state of nature (join the war), and  what it is rational for the whole community to do in a state of nature (abide by the golden rule).

As such, there is no rational ground for the individual to do anything other than participate in the war, on the grounds that this is what everyone else is doing. The natural law is not morally binding, precisely because of my natural right to self-preservation, within a context of the war of all against all. Justice is, in fact, served by my pursuing, with alacrity, and by whatever means necessary, my own self-interest. We thus have an impasse: the state of nature will be prolonged indefinitely – despite the fact of this being counter to the rationally-discoverable natural law.

The remedy for this nightmarish state of affairs is a hypothetical contract – a Social Contract – whereby individuals give up their natural freedom to do anything they want, in exchange for personal security.  It is as if each person says ‘I authorise and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men [on condition you do likewise]’.  The contract is a classic quid pro quo: one gives up something (absolute liberty) in exchange for something one wants (safety).  The surrender of each person’s individual authority into the hands of a supreme ruler or enforcement agency (the ‘Leviathan’ of the title) means that there will be a ‘common power’ to keep the peace internally (to enforce to golden rule), and protect against foreign invasion. Hobbes justifies the ruler having sweeping powers in order to provide freedom from ‘continual fear’.  Though many have taken issue with Hobbes’ argument, the general structure of his contract theory as a justification for political authority was to influence subsequent thinking for a long time to come.

Writing a few decades after Hobbes, John Locke (Two Treatises of Government, 1690) adopted much of the framework devised by his predecessor for dealing with questions of political power and authority.  Like Hobbes, Locke begins with an original position prior to the setting up of political society, but he is at pains to stress that the ‘state of nature’ is governed by a kind of natural (divinely ordained) morality, based on rational self-interest.  This ‘law of nature’ ‘teaches all mankind that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions’.  The Lockean state of nature is one where ‘men live together according to reason without a common superior on earth’; and in this state, each person has the fundamental natural right to ‘property in his own person’.  This means that individuals have a right not just to bodily integrity, but also to the fruits of their labour: ‘as much as anyone can make use of to any advantage of life before it spoils, so much he may by his labour fix a property in’.

If this situation of free and equal entitlement is the ‘natural state’ of mankind, why should anyone give it up?  Locke’s answer (evidently influenced by Hobbes), is that our enjoyment of these natural rights is ‘very uncertain and constantly exposed to the invasion of others’.  Like Hobbes, Locke considers the move to civil society to be a direct voluntary act – an act whose principle purpose, according to Locke, is to allow people ‘the enjoyment of their properties in peace and safety’.  But is this story of a deliberate move away from the ‘state of nature’ supposed to be literally true?  Though it does seem plausible to suggest that we all have a strong interest in the existence of a system which will ensure the mutual preservation of our bodily integrity and personal property, did we ever, in actual fact, consent to the setting up of such a system?  In answer to this, Locke introduces the notion of tacit consent:  By living within a state even for a short time, even by ‘barely travelling freely on the highway’, we may be said to have implicitly agreed to the authority of the government.  This ‘original compact’, as Locke calls it, is the basis of our obligation to the state, or, more specifically, our obligation to obey the laws enacted by the majority of the citizens: ‘every man, by consenting with others to make one body politic under one government, puts himself under an obligation to everyone of that society to submit to the determination of the majority’.  There is much food for thought here, both in what Locke says about the nature of property rights, and in his account of our obligation to abide by the decisions of the majority.  Locke’s treatment of these matters takes us unmistakably into the arena of modern political theory.

The contract theory of political obligation – originated by Plato, developed by Hobbes, and elaborated by Locke – was subjected to a blistering attack in the mid-eighteenth century by David Hume (‘Of the Original Contract’, 1748).  Taking up Locke’s suggestion that we ‘tacitly’ consent to the authority of the state, Hume argues that this notion only makes sense against a background of free choice – something that can hardly be attributed to the ‘poor peasant or artisan’ whose life’s circumstances are pretty much fixed.  Plato had suggested that by remaining in Athens, when he could easily have left, Socrates in effect agreed to be bound by its laws.  But those who ‘know no foreign languages’ and live ‘from day to day by [their] small wages’ can scarcely be said to have a free choice to leave: ‘we may as well assert that a man by remaining in a vessel, freely consents to the domination of the master, though he was carried on board while asleep, and must leap into the ocean and perish the moment he leaves her’.

The analogy is a powerful one – ‘being carried on board while asleep’ aptly matching the brute fact of being born into a given society.  And if our entry to a society is involuntary, and we have little choice of leaving, what becomes of the much-vaunted ‘contract’, the essence of which must be a voluntary act?

Despite Hume’s critique of the contract theory, the idea of an original contract continued to command wide support as a way of explaining the moral basis of our relationship to the state.  Not long after the appearance of Hume’s essay, the educational and political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau published his Social Contract (1762), the first chapter of which begins with the famous sentence l’homme est né libre, et partout il est dans le fers (‘Man was born free, and is everywhere in chains’).  The key idea in Rousseau’s version of the contract is that ‘each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will’.  The general will is conceived of by Rousseau as a ‘public person formed by the union of all other persons’ – a kind of abstract embodiment of the sovereign power of the state.  But though it may seem risky to hand over one’s individual rights to the general will, Rousseau insists that ‘each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody, and as there is no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right as he yields others over himself, he gains an equivalent of everything he loses’.

Problems remain, however, about the relationship between the general good and individual interests.  Common enterprises typically require sacrifices which may from an individual standpoint appear ‘gratuitous’ and ‘burdensome’. But we cannot, Rousseau insists, ‘enjoy the rights of citizenship while refusing to fulfil the duties of a subject’; hence, anyone who refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so, which ‘means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free’.  The phrase has an ominous ring to it, particularly when Rousseau goes on to say that the general will is infallible – it is ‘always right and tends to the public advantage’.  While there is a basic fairness in the idea that we should expect to shoulder our share of the burdens in exchange for the benefits of society, one may still have doubts about how society determines what is the fair distribution of such burdens; how, in short, can we be satisfied that a given policy is indeed a reflection of the true, just and infallible ‘general will’?  Rousseau’s answer is that unanimity is needed for the social contract itself – the original setting up of society – but that thereafter ‘the will of the majority always binds the rest’.  What seems to be a serious defect in the theory is the lack of adequate protection against the abuse of power by the majority claiming to act in the name of the ‘general will’.

This problem is addressed by John Stuart Mill in his On Liberty (1859).  In it, he states, ‘The subject of this essay is . . . the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual’.  An increase in authority (legitimate use of power) necessarily entails a decrease in individuals’ liberty within a given state.  Mill, as a liberal, is keen to ensure that the liberty of the individual is only limited when absolutely necessary.

[S]uch phrases as ‘self-government’, and ‘the power of the people over themselves’, do not express the true state of the case. The ‘people’ who exercise the power are not always the same people [as] those over whom it is exercised; and the ‘self-government’ spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power . . .  This view of things . . . has had no difficulty in establishing itself; and in political speculations ‘the tyranny of the majority’ is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard.

Mill believes that the fact of living in a ‘democracy’ does not necessarily mean that one is immune from tyranny.  Just as those subjected to the whims of an individual tyrant may be oppressed so may an individual or minority living in a democratic state.  Mill refers to this as the ‘tyranny of the majority’.

The tyranny of the majority can be expressed in two distinct ways.  Firstly, it can be expressed as operating through the official acts of the public authorities (e.g. the majority may vote for a party which stands on an anti-immigration platform).  However, the minority can also be tyrannised without legal sanction through the expression of societal opinion (e.g. ‘They’re all terrorists’; ‘They’re taking all of our jobs’; etc.).   Note also Mill’s point on majorities – in South Africa during the Apartheid era the ruling ‘majority’ (whites) were massively outnumbered by the oppressed black ‘minority’.

Mill’s solution to the problem of exactly when it is, and is not, right to interfere with individual liberty is delivered by way of his ‘harm principle’.

The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self protection.  That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

Mill distinguishes between ‘other-regarding actions’ and ‘self-regarding actions’.  When other-regarding actions are such that they cause harm to others it is appropriate to impose sanctions, in line with the harm principle.  However, this must be due to the harm they cause and not merely because they are found to be offensive or disgusting (i.e. laws should not be moralistic).  With regard to self-regarding actions, laws should not be paternalistic.

There is a sphere of action in which society . . .  has, if any, only an indirect interest; comprehending all that portion of a person’s life and conduct which affects only himself, or if it also affects others, only with their free, voluntary and undeceived consent and participation . . .  This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty.

Each individual has a right to do as he pleases as long as his actions do not affect others.  It may, however, be worth considering what exactly would count as a purely self-regarding act.  As Mill states: ‘No person is an entirely isolated being; it is impossible for a person to do anything seriously or permanently hurtful to himself, without mischief reaching at least to his near connections, and often far beyond them’.

For Mill, human liberty covers three (or four) distinct areas: Freedom of thought/ freedom of expression; freedom of action, whereby those actions cause no harm to others, and; freedom of association, where such associations are freely formed and not for the purpose of harming others.  He states that:

No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified. The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.

On freedom of expression Mill adds that:

If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind … the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error . . .

Mill does place some limits on free expression of opinion, namely, when ‘the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act’.  As such, any expression which causes harm should be censored/ outlawed.  However, if the majority merely find a certain opinion disagreeable or disgusting this is something they must bear for the sake of the ‘greater good of human freedom.

I’d be most grateful if you would exercise your freedom of expression below by adding any comments, questions, or whatever.


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