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Flashcards in 3/ Political Philosophy Deck (6)
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Common sense idea of freedom = Freedom is doing what you want to do, without being stopped by anyone else

However, we need a limit on freedom.

You should be free to do what you want, provided you do not cause harm to others.

Harm principle - the principle that one should be able to do as one likes, provided one does not cause harm to others.

The notion of freedom underlying the harm principle has been called negative freedom.

Negative freedom = freedom from constraint.

The state leaves you to do as you please, so long as you do not impede others in the exercise of their freedom.

Negative freedom provides only the minimum conditions for the achievement of your goals. It has nothing to do with whether those goals are achievable, sensible or in your best interests.

Negative freedom is the liberal conception of freedom.

Liberalism - a political philosophy which sees the liberty of the individual as the highest political good. There are 2 mains strands:

1/ Libertarianism - a political philosophy which advocates maximising each individual's negative freedom and rejects any interference by the state except for the purpose of protecting this freedom.

2/ Social democracy - a form of liberalism which tempers the commitment to individual liberty with a concern for other ideals such as equality and justice.

The political economy of liberalism is the free market (capitalism), which is a competitive place. Competition means winners and losers.

Libertarians are the strongest proponents of untrammelled negative freedom. They hold we need only a minimal state. The state only has the role of defending the RIGHT to liberty and property.

Liberals emphasise RIGHT over GOOD. They seek to separate the just treatment of citizens from any conception of what might be the best kind of life for them to lead.



Rights are supposed to be basic and inviolable, trumping other claims or considerations.

Rights imply duties: my right to free speech means that the government has the duty not to silence me.

My right has a relative rather than absolute status, since there are circumstances where it might be removed.

The starting point of libertarianism is that of the supreme and self-evident value of individual freedom.

However, perhaps rights are best seen not as self-evident truths independent of politics, but rather as a political way of entrenching fundamental claims of individuals and groups against the expediencies of power.

Expediency = the quality of being convenient and practical despite possibly being improper or immoral; convenience.
"an act of political expediency"

A libertarian society could be a hard place to live in, especially if you are imprudent, ill, poor or just plain unlucky: the state is under no obligation to help you.

Justice in such a state emphasises merit rather than need - a merit understood as a successful effort.

A major criticism of the minimal state is that, for a society supposed to maximise freedom, it is precisely freedom that is poorly distributed.

The minimal state does not deliver equal freedom. It can thus be criticised as a strangely unsocial view of society, as it's understood primarily as the individual's right to be left alone.

There are 2 objections to a free society that promotes a strong individualism:

1/ Unjust distribution of freedom. It's in danger of being a liberalism for the rich and successful.

2/ Fails to meet some important criterion of goodness or justice apart from the maximisation of freedom.

Social democracy - aims to find a social arrangement that promotes a broadly liberal idea of freedom, while providing a better provision for equality of liberty.

It interprets justice as providing individuals with equal freedom.

Taxation can be seen as both a kind of insurance policy for the individual and a way of maintaining social cohesion.

John Rawls is best known for his seminal book 'A Theory of Justice' (1971). It is perhaps the most written about philosophical work in the 20th century.


Rawls is a defender of social democracy.

He asks you to imagine that you are in what he calls the 'ORIGINAL POSITION'.; that is, you are about to be cast into society, but you have no idea who you will be - whether male/female, black/white, rich/poor, clever/stupid.

Rawls claims that the general principles of justice you would opt for if you were in this position are the ones that are most justifiable.

Social democracy seeks to promote quality of opportunity, but assumes inequality of result as far as material rewards are concerned. The state is committed to intervene in order to soften the unequal effects of competition, but not to abolish it altogether.

Real freedom must include freedom to fail.

Inequality of outcome presents a perennial problem for social democrats who want both to intervene in the name of equality of opportunity and leave well alone in the name of freedom.

Positive versus negative freedom

Negative freedom (freedom from constraint) offers us an opportunity concept of freedom.

Positive freedom is the freedom to achieve full self-realisation (fulfilment of one's own potential). This is an exercise concept of freedom.

To shape one's life in the light of an ideal is a particularly sophisticated thing to do, as it involves taking up a standpoint that allows one to criticise and seek to revise the beliefs that inform current desires.

Self-understanding is both social and dynamic. It is social because we are born into more than a physical environment of 'brute facts'. Our humanity is formed by a culture, interactions with others living and dead that shape our sense of what is really important and significant.

Desire is dynamic because we are capable of criticising wants and aversions that seem founded on false assumptions about the world and our place in it; this allows us to develop a new perspective that rejects yesterday's outlook as too limited.


Hegel contemptuously referred to negative freedom as the 'freedom of caprice'.

Inequality, poverty and consumerism can narrow the imagination, thus stunting conceptions of what we can achieve or be.

Critics of the liberal model of freedom often emphasise the social conditions for the exercise of freedom along with the dynamism of human desire. This makes a shift of priority from the right to choose to choosing rightly.

2 ways to interpret positive freedom:

1/ A new start for humanity: the common good

A group of people who reject the competitiveness of liberal society, set up a new kind of community based not on individualism but on a shared vision of the common good.

Of course, they still have to overcome the 'old' self, the slavish self that was trapped by its own compulsions, desires swollen by the lure of consumerism, hatreds inspired but the law of the marketplace. But they are optimistic.

This would not be recognised by liberals as freedom at all. In trying to avoid the excesses of individualism, the supporter of positive freedom seemingly sacrifices diversity and dissent in the pursuit of One Big Truth.

Paternalism - deciding for other people what is in their best interests.

2/ Freedom to flourish

A democratic socialist like Richard Norman would argue that equality need not be the opposite of liberty.

We should interpret equality as equal access to freedom.

Worthwhile lives are led by those who have the power to exercise their freedom. Powerlessness encourages apathy and hopelessness. Ignorance keeps people in the dark about their possibilities and capacities.

The 'free' society of the liberal fails to deliver to most people the equality of well-being or flourishing.

The egalitarian approach therefore favours social changes that would eliminate structures that perpetuate inequality.

Making this second kind of positive freedom a reality would require a massive commitment to social change based on commonly agreed ideals. Its opponents will question its economic viability and its moral authority.

Authority and power

Power is the ability to make things happen. In political and social contexts, it means getting people to do one's will.

Very often, the mere knowledge of what power might do is enough to ensure compliance.

The word 'authority' by contrast, has a more bilateral sense; there is a degree of mutual recognition between ruler and ruled, and some assent on the part of the latter. When we recognise the authority of laws or leaders, we thereby acknowledge their legitimacy.


Why do I let others rule me?

People generally consent to something if they think it is in their self-interest. Without government there would be no laws; and if there were no laws everyone would live under just one law - the law of the jungle. No one wants that, so we have governments.

The basic idea is that the state is the defender of the liberty and property of the citizen in a kind of 'social contract' between rulers and ruled.

Voting can be taken as a kind of promise on the part of the electorate to respect the authority of the state. Both 'sides' are expected to play by the rules, and moral language is invariably used to condemn them if they do not.

Thomas Hobbes (1588 - 1679)

He is often regarded as the first great modern political philosopher.

He wrote at the time of the English Civil War.

His greatest work was Leviathan (1651). In it he imagines what life would be like in a hypothetical 'state of nature' where there are no laws and no central authority. His view is that in these conditions 'life would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short'.

To escape from the state of nature, people agree upon a 'social contract'.

What is valuable about the notion of the social contract?

1/ Its emphasis on promises that ought to be kept underlines the importance of consent in modern political affairs.

Consent of the ruled is nowadays often viewed as a moral demand that must be met if the state is to possess legitimate authority. This is often taken to be a strong argument in favour of democracy.

2/ Social contract theory explains how and why the state has certain obligations to its citizens, such as the promotion of justice.

Social democracy, for instance, writes into the contract an obligation on the part of the state to promote equality of opportunity.

3/ A further justification for the state's authority lies in its ability to promote the common good.


The utilitarian view is that the state should aim to promote the greater happiness of the greater number.

It is important to understand that utilitarianism first defines the good, happiness, and then determines what is right - whatever promotes the good. On this view, the state is not protecting anyone's 'natural rights' or 'God given liberties'.


If we follow people's declared wants, the utilitarian state is in the paradoxical position of possibly lowering real utility because it is intent on giving people what they want, no matter how misguided and no matter how unhappy it may make them in the long run.

Following this path could eventually lead to a diseased ugly culture, dominated by consumerism, pornography or drugs.

However, if the state opts for promoting what the masses 'really' want, we are back with the problem of paternalism.

Who is to decide what people should want?

Social contract theory, which is often the preferred political philosophy of social democrats, takes a middle road. In a sense, it too makes the right dependent on the good. The contract establishes what rights people are to enjoy and what the basic principles of justice are to be.

The rights and laws are justified on the grounds that they would be agreed to by anyone entering into the contract, and this gives them a firmer foundation than they enjoy on, say, the utilitarian point of view.