Tag Archives: political philosophy

The Foundation of All Ills

Bertrand Russell wrote, in chapter two of his Political Ideals (1917):

Even in times of peace, most men live lives of monotonous labor, most women are condemned to a drudgery which almost kills the possibility of happiness before youth is past, most children are allowed to grow up in ignorance of all that would enlarge their thoughts or stimulate their imagination. The few who are more fortunate are rendered illiberal by their unjust privileges, and oppressive through fear of the awakening indignation of the masses. From the highest to the lowest, almost all men are absorbed in the economic struggle: the struggle to acquire what is their due or to retain what is not their due. Material possessions, in fact or in desire, dominate our outlook, usually to the exclusion of all generous and creative impulses. Possessiveness—the passion to have and to hold—is the ultimate source of war, and the foundation of all the ills from which the political world is suffering. Only by diminishing the strength of this passion and its hold upon our daily lives can new institutions bring permanent benefit to mankind.

Institutions which will diminish the sway of greed are possible, but only through a complete reconstruction of our whole economic system. Capitalism and the wage system must be abolished; they are twin monsters which are eating up the life of the world. In place of them we need a system which will hold in cheek men’s predatory impulses, and will diminish the economic injustice that allows some to be rich in idleness while others are poor in spite of unremitting labor; but above all we need a system which will destroy the tyranny of the employer, by making men at the same time secure against destitution and able to find scope for individual initiative in the control of the industry by which they live. A better system can do all these things, and can be established by the democracy whenever it grows weary of enduring evils which there is no reason to endure.

Locke on Authority

Locke was referring to absolute monarchy, with an eye to Hobbes, but he could have been talking about the employment relation:

[A]bsolute monarchy, which by some men is counted the only government in the world, is indeed inconsistent with civil society, and so can be no form of civil-government at all: for the end of civil society, being to avoid, and remedy those inconveniencies of the state of nature, which necessarily follow from every man’s being judge in his own case, by setting up a known authority, to which every one of that society may appeal upon any injury received, or controversy that may arise, and which every one of the society ought to obey; where-ever any persons are, who have not such an authority to appeal to, for the decision of any difference between them, there those persons are still in the state of nature; and so is every absolute prince, in respect of those who are under his dominion (Second Treatise on Civil Government, Chapter VII).

This passage reflects the republicanism of the earlier English Revolution of the 17th century. Hobbes’ insistence that we contract all of our rights to an absolute sovereign to escape the state of nature is a terrible deal. Locke characterizes the main problem of the state of nature as a state in which each man is a “judge in his own case”. That is, each person judges their own treatment of others. A Hobbesian tyranny only recreates that state of nature, with one man being the judge in his own case, as well as that of everyone else. In a similar way, the private tyrannies of the corporation or the patriarchal home reproduce the state of nature. Unless there is an appeal to a judge outside of those private tyrannies, to the labor union or the state, then we only reproduce the state of nature.

The Struggle for Liberty: Religious Liberty in Arizona?

Mr. Smith is a bigot who owns a small store who has religious objections to serving homosexual patrons. Mr. Jones is a homosexual man who wants something from Mr. Smith’s store. Mr. Smith will not serve him because of Jones’ homosexuality. Both men claim that the other man infringes his liberty. Mr. Smith claims that the state violates his free practice of religion if it forces him to serve Jones. Mr. Jones claims that the state violates his freedom of action if it forces him from the store on Smith’s behalf. How are we to decide between these two claims? Today I will show that the liberal theory of freedom does not provide guidance in this real-world case. Yet, we will find that the republican theory does.

The case above is exactly the sort of case that has come up recently with the failed passage of a ‘religious exemption’ bill in Arizona. In this case, religionists wanted an exemption from anti-discrimination laws. They claim this exemption on the grounds of religious liberty. We grant exemptions to Quakers and pacifists from the duty of bearing arms. Likewise, we should grant exemptions to bakers from the duty of baking cakes for gay weddings. The religionists have pursued this strategy before, with everything from racial segregation to birth control. The purpose of such religious exemptions is clear: to protect bigotry. For the sake of an example, let us grant that religious liberty is actually at stake.

Political theory should provide guidance on practical problems. If we have a case of conflicting liberties, then our theory of freedom should be able to decide it. The liberal theory of freedom does not provide such guidance though. The dominant political philosophy of the United States is liberalism. The Founders wrote the liberalism of John Locke into its constitution.  The liberal theory of freedom says that a person is free when they can do what they what want. The only limit to this freedom is when the action of one person interferes with the freedom of another. This principle provides no guidance in the case above. Each man perceives the other as limiting his ability to do what he wants. The liberal theory of freedom provides no clue as to which of their claims to liberty is legitimate.

Let us turn to the republican theory of freedom then. The republican theory of freedom tells us that a person is free when any interference into their choices is not arbitrary. Republicanism recognizes that we interfere in each others’ choices all the time. We remove arbitrariness from such interference by creating rules to regulate it. Those rules in turn must be those one could, in principle, consent to, because they are in one’s interest. These conditions ensure that interference into one’s choices are not according to another’s interests. Does republicanism help us decide between Smith and Jones?

Between the two of them, Jones has the rightful claim under republican theory. He expects to be able to shop at any store that he chooses without having to take into account his sexual preferences. Jones’ violation of Smith’s religious doctrines is not arbitrary. Most law and social convention uphold Jones’ expectation.

Meanwhile, Smith is seeking an exemption from law. Moreover, he seeks an arbitrary exemption from law. The whole purpose of the Arizona law is to turn arbitrary power over to religious business owners. The business owner interferes in the choices of others according to unpredictable, personal criteria. Smith’s claim must be illegitimate according to the republican theory of freedom.

In this case, the liberal theory of freedom could not decide between competing claims of liberty. On the one hand, we had the liberty of ordinary human decency. On the other hand, we had the liberty of obscene, degenerate bigotry. Fortunately, republican theory, having a more robust conception of freedom, could decide between the claims, and I think it did so correctly. Moreover, the real world was kind enough to give us a good example of republicanism in action.

Pondering the Fundamental Problem



The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.” This is the fundamental problem of which the Social Contract provides the solution.

– Rousseau, The Social Contract

Rousseau identified the fundamental problem of political philosophy as finding the organization of the state in which all of its citizens are free.  Rousseau was an eighteenth century social contract theorist.  This means that he imagined how people might have lived in the “state of nature”, without any sort of society.  By using such a thought-experiment, social contract theorists pictured what sort of justification such people would have for forming a state, the general organization of society for using violence to change behavior.  Human beings find the state of nature lacking for some reason or another, and thus sign away some of their natural freedom in a social contract that creates a state for advancing the common good.

Most social contract theorists suppose that people in the state of nature have rights and duties that precede any organized society. Locke and Hobbes both argued that people have ‘natural rights and duties’ that condition the resulting social contract and the state that comes out of it.  Rousseau is unique in believing that while people have rights in the state of nature, they sign them all away in forming the civil state.  In return, they receive equal civil rights and duties, including those involving direct and universal participation in the state.  The state is governed by the general will (public-spiritedness, for the sake of this post) of its citizens, and so all remain as free as they would in the state of nature.

For now, I don’t want to worry about the general will.  It’s enough to say that citizens are free because they are the direct and collective authors of their own laws.  However, this is where the fundamental problem reduces to a difficult dilemma.  If each citizen is to be free in the civil state, then each must be the equal author of each law.  If that’s the case, then no law receiving less than unanimity would be legitimate, or at least most laws would have a lesser degree of legitimacy.  Unanimity is not practical, and Rousseau recognizes this.  The general will is supposed to solve this, but that concept remains philosophically contentious and mysterious.  I’m developing my interpretation of the general will, but I’ll save that treasure for another time.

Instead I will leave it at this: the fundamental problem of political philosophy reduces to this dilemma.  Either we have majority rule or consensus.  If we have majority rule, then the minority obeys the will of the majority.  If we have consensus, then a minority has the power to block the majority, and the majority does not rule itself.  Thus, either the minority does not always rule itself, or the majority does not always rule itself.

If the fundamental problem does reduce to this dilemma, then the problem becomes easier.  Clearly we would rather have the majority rule themselves rather than the minority prevent the civil state from functioning under unanimous rule.

News from the Agora

My birth state of Maryland abolished the death penalty today (May 2).  That marks the 18th state to abolish a barbaric practice of giving the state the power to end the life of its citizens.  Supposedly, the state can’t run a post office, but it is capable of determining who will live and who will die.  Let’s keep the post office and ditch the license to kill.

Liberty, Properly Conceived?

Quentin Skinner, one of the great contemporary philosophers of republicanism, has been interviewed a lot lately, and that’s got me thinking about republican liberty.  Note that when we use the term “republicanism” and “republican”, we are not talking about anything to do with the Republican Party.  In fact, the Republican Party would probably not have a positive view of republican liberty.

Republicanism is a political philosophy with a special emphasis on its conception of freedom and liberty.  Modern liberalism defines freedom and liberty as the absence of restraint to what you want to do.  But this definition is a deviation from the historical republican concept.  The republican concept of liberty is not the absence of restraint, but the absence of domination.  As the other republican philosopher, Philip Pettit writes:

The absence of domination may mean the absence of domination in the presence of other people: the status associated with living among other people, none of whom dominates you….  Non-domination is the status associated with the civil role of the liber: libertas is civitas, in the Roman way of expressing the idea; liberty is civil as distinct from natural freedom, in the idiom of the eighteenth century.  It is a social ideal whose realization presupposes the presence of a number of mutually interactive agents….  Non-domination in the sense that concerns us, then, is the position that someone enjoys when they live in the presence of other people and when, by virtue of social design, none of the others dominates them… no other has the capacity to interfere on an arbitrary basis in their choices.

More to come!

(Philip Pettit, 1997, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, Oxford: Clarendon Press.)

Rousseau and the General Will

The fundamental problem of political philosophy is “by what duty do I obey, and by what right does another command me?”  Most obedience is simply compelled by the threat of sanction, which ultimately reduces to the threat of force.  But that isn’t the question – threats may cause my obedience, but it does not receive my assent.  If we were to accept that the threat of force as the central principle governing society, not only would we not have a nice society, we would not have a society.  If the force of the stronger is the cause of obedience, then each member of society ought only to try to become stronger, until they have the greater force.  Human beings cannot, and mostly do not, live this way.  We live by reason and justification (“communicative reason”), even if we do not always succeed.  And when we engage in the process of reasoning, we are living by the Principle of Autonomy, for we are then regulating our behavior for ends to which we have assented.  Thus, the fundamental problem becomes recast as this: how can we reconcile the autonomy of reason with social power and political authority?  Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau provided us with the initial answer, what he called “the General Will.” read more »