Thursday, July 17, 2014

6. Social and Political Philosophy

Here's the final piece of my Philosophy in Bullet Points, celebrating my new philosophy textbook (also see my theology bullet points). Unlike the textbook, which tries to present all basic positions fairly, these posts give my personal, philosophical inklings.

1. Epistemology and Metaphysics.
2. Philosophies of God and Science
3. Philosophies of History and Art
4. Logic and Philosophy of Person
5. Ethics

Social Contract
  • Social philosophy is ethical philosophy written large, on the societal level.
  • "Man is a political animal" (Aristotle). We are a herd animal that travels in tribes.
  • People live together on the basis of "social contracts" (Locke, Rousseau). We trade off some of the freedom we might have alone in order to gain potential advantages from living together.
  • (One of the complications of American identity is that our past involves a significant element of frontier isolation and the "Wild West." But that level of freedom is indicative of the primitive, initial stages of a society's existence and is increasingly unsustainable as a society enlarges and develops.)
  • Rousseau's idea of a noble savage is nonsense. Human, animal nature doesn't change no matter what its default context.
  • The ideal society lives between the utilitarian principle of "the greatest good for the greatest number" and certain fundamental human rights (e.g., Bill of Rights), human freedom within the limits of harm.
  • "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" (Spock). Or, perhaps better, the good of the many takes priority over the pleasure or benefit of a few.
  • The United States Constitution is a social contract in which "in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity," we agree to live within certain boundaries while respecting certain fundamental "rights" of others.
  • If we live here, we give "tacit consent" to this contract (Locke).
  • The Christian goal for a society is that it would be as "loving" a context as possible to all of the people within its sphere of influence, legal or illegal, at home or abroad.
  • An Arminian Christian goal for society is that it motivate but allow humans to choose a virtuous life rather than to force one. Nevertheless, it will work to discourage self-destructiveness and work against structures that do harm to others. An Arminian approach to government thus does not try to legislate or force morality except insofar as such legislation prevents harm to others and intensely self-destructive behavior. 
  • A truly Wesleyan goal for society is egalitarian in every respect, promoting a society that equally values and provides equal opportunities for every individual regardless of gender, race, or social status.
  • The most crucial part of a social contract, indeed the primary motivation behind most social contracts, is the safety of those within the contract, both from within and without. I agree not to kill you if you agree not to kill me. I agree to defend you if you agree to defend me.
  • A nation should not go to war unless "1) the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain; 2) all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; 3) there must be serious prospects of success; 4) the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated." (Catholic Catechism).
  • "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" encapsulates the basic principle of justice. From a Christian standpoint, love and mercy trump justice, but the good of the overall structure of justice can be a greater good than individual mercy. 
  • In general, you can only force people to do the right thing within limits, and it takes massive amounts of energy and resources to do so. More efficient is to incentivize and motivate a society to be good. 
  • The use of force to compel the good is often as effective as stomping on an ant hill. In some cases, the amount of force necessary exceeds a certain limit, and the one pursuing justice becomes themselves the evil monster. 
  • A society that ignores its most discontent or disempowered elements is destined for revolution and crime. The feet of a society that only pays attention to rewarding the "meritorious" (the "haves") will disintegrate and undermine the stability of the society as a whole.
  • In order for a society to be truly great, it must have a place for the more human dimensions of existence, not merely the pragmatic. A great society will have a significant space in which the arts and the pursuit of truth for its own sake thrive.
Political philosophy
  • A Christian can be content in God, regardless of political context (Phil. 4:11). "A man can live with any 'how' if he has a 'why'" (Victor Frankl).
  • "That government governs best that governs least" (often attributed to Jefferson). Yes, but as with Einstein's quote ("A good scientific theory should be as simple as possible but no simpler"), "least governance" remains huge the more sophisticated a society becomes. 
  • Anarchy or no government simply allows those who can to do whatever they want. Default human nature wants pleasure and, without the checks of government, those who can will increase themselves at the expense of others. Government is thus necessary for the happiness of the majority.
  • No form of government is perfect, because humans are involved. Without great care in the structuring of government, the majority of people in a society will inevitably suffer as they would under anarchy. 
  • A theocracy sounds good, but humans inevitably mediate revelation from the deity (reducing theocracy to monarchy or oligarchy). A benevolent monarchy with a gifted and informed administration might be ideal but it often has the half life of one king. 
  • A representational democracy, within the limits of certain "inalienable rights," remains the most stable, sustainable, and potentially just form of government, combining in itself the efficiency of an executive, the pressure of the majority (ideally mediated through the most gifted), with the checks and balances of a judiciary.
  • A balance of power is thus ideal (Montesquieu): executive, legislative, judicial.
  • It is human nature for the majority to oppress the minority. Accordingly, the power of the majority must always be kept within the boundaries of the fundamental rights of others. Despite the fact that tolerance of others is a fundamental principle of a democracy, for democracy to succeed, it must ultimately be intolerant of intolerance, when it comes to the fundamental boundaries of democracy.
Economic philosophy
  • The economic structure of a society is a substructure of its social contract.
  • The way a society is economically structured has everything to do with the accumulation of resources and possessions, especially in a large society. It is not simply the case that a person "owns" x amount. The economic structure of a society has everything to do with how resources flow and accumulate, and massive wealth can only be accumulated off the back of a societal structure.
  • An excessive concentration of wealth and resources in the hands of a few is just as dangerous to the health of a democracy as entrusting official power in the hands of a few. Formally, the society may still be called a democracy but, informally, such a society is really an oligarchy if there aren't serious checks against the power of wealth.
  • The economic resources of a successful democracy must potentially (real potential) be available in significant quantities to everyone within that society. 
  • Anarchic communism as an economic system is a complete failure. The default incentive of most human beings is not to work for the good of others but to do what they have to for their own pleasure. While it is a noble, even Christian dream to have a society where everyone does as much as they can with the results flowing to those in need, regardless of their contribution, the twentieth century has demonstrated in the most emphatic of terms that this approach doesn't achieve its goals and actually demoralizes and impoverishes a society. (contra Marx)
  • The most sound basis for human economics is self-interest. (Adam Smith) The fundamental principle of capitalism is sound--people will work to attain a desired amount of pleasure, like a rabbit chasing a carrot. 
  • There is something inherently just and rewarding about working in relation to receiving. Grace--unearned benefit--is virtuous on the part of the giver and exceedingly Christian. However, the value of grace is undermined if a person feels entitled to it ("cheap grace"--Bonhoeffer). A person should have to do something in response to grace, even though it is disproportionate to the grace bestowed. (This is a very Wesleyan and New Testament understanding of grace).
  • The goal of capitalism as an economic structure is the maximal happiness of the members of a society. (Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham) This goal coheres well with Christian values, even if the means plays to fallen human nature.
  • However, capitalism does not function to this end without significant regulation. (J. S. Mill) The default trajectory of unbridled, anarchic capitalism is to concentrate the resources of a society in the hands of a few with a resulting oppression of those who do the work for the few, sometimes ending in bloody revolution. (Marx)
  • In order for capitalism to work as it was initially intended, competition must potentially be possible between any member of a society. This speaks to the necessity of anti-trust laws and other regulations.
  • Self-interest in the pursuit of individual pleasure will always find new ways to work against the true goal of capitalism, which is the empowerment of the many. Whenever new ways to undermine this goal arise, appropriate new structures have to arise to keep the underlying goal in place.
  • So as with government in general, that capitalism functions best that is regulated least, but "least" does not mean none. It may have to be quite extensive for capitalism to achieve its underlying goal of maximal societal happiness in relation to resources.

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