Monday, April 6, 2015

Some Notes on Political Philosophy

Political philosophy, as a reaction to social pathologies, enunciates how human thought seeks to address one of the most important questions known to man since the ancient times: What is the meaning of justice? Indeed, poverty is one of the biggest scandals of modernity. In the words of Enrique Dussel, "philosophy must ponder what is not philosophical - reality itself."[1]

In an affluent world that is propelled by advances in science and technology, nothing is more worrying than the terror of material deprivation experienced by many. The socialism we find in Marx is a philosophy not just of protest or criticism but a philosophy of a counter-culture that seeks to transform structures and bury dominant ideologies. Liberal democracy may or may not provide the answer. And this is because there is no fool-proof technocratic prescription to the problem of social justice. For instance, in addressing massive inequalities, policy makers consider development as founded in the sciences, technology, and innovation. Still, something remains fundamental with regard to our political life. People must have real options if human life is to be meaningful.[2] 

Two Schools of Thought

Theoretically, two schools of thought compete in contemporary political philosophy:

1) Modern Liberalism

Libertarians think that the power of the state should be reduced into a mere night watchman. Robert Nozick says in Anarchy, State and Utopia that liberty is the basis of political morality. His minimalist view of the state is one that is restricted to the protection of the right of the individual to life, property and liberty. 

Nozick supports what he calls the free exchange of goods. The duty of the state, for him, includes the enforcement of contracts in order to protect this economic norm. But he opposes taxing the rich in order to give to the poor. Doing so, according to him, is some kind of state coercion which violates the right of the individual to what he owns. 

The libertarian political framework, while a hard sell, is actually a reaction to the distributive theory of justice proposed by John Rawls. Rawls's notion of modern liberalism seeks to reconcile freedom and equality. It is a mixture of socialism and liberalism.

On one hand, the sacrifice freedom for the sake of equality would defeat the very ability of each individual to pursue the fruits of his talents. On the other hand, the libertarian over-emphasis on freedom without a sense of social obligation to others on matters like education may undermine the welfare of those who do not deserve their disadvantaged position. 

Justice as fairness thus advocates a dual commitment. It argues for a theory of justice that protects the basic liberty of each and at the same time, it also seeks to redistribute the primary social goods in society by means of the difference principle in order to allow the poor to improve their lives. The state is tasked to insure that the worst off in society will not be cheated of their equal or fair share.

2) Communitarianism 

As a critique to modern liberalism, communitarians like Charles Taylor argue that justice is grounded in the idea of the common good and cannot be purely defined by an atomic self. The dignity of any person is to be found in a sense of identity that his community gives. Basically, this position suggests that there is a social context to the meaning of justice. 

Communitarianism criticizes the liberal point of view. For them, liberalism limits the idea of justice to a person’s rational agency or his sense of autonomy. For communitarians, our sense of belonging to a community and its values takes precedence and priority over individual rationality.

According to communitarians, the self being situated in a particular culture, possesses an identity formed by tradition, belief, and culture. This sense of belongingness to a community helps define the political understandings and truth commitments of a people. People, in this sense, cannot be forced to embrace liberal principles in their pursuit of the common good.  

Michael Sandel says that people cannot be divorced from their situated existence in communities where they develop certain ways of doing things. This way of life becomes the very basis of the things people choose to do. The "unencumbered self" according to Sandel is a mere illusion. The self always carries with it a sense of identity and is burdened by it when a person makes a decision.

Some Themes in Political Theory

Political theory is about understanding the basic role of the state in the life of the individual. Persons as social beings need to cooperate with each other. Naturally, this results to social conflict as people take positions of power. Some aspects of our nature as political animals point to gaps and difficulties that need to be addressed. So at this juncture, we shall mention some themes in contemporary political philosophy.

a) Basic Welfare 

Most governments can be characterized as utilitarian. Utility as a political principle refers to basic welfare or well-being. The good in this sense consists in increasing pleasure or utility and avoiding pain on the part of people. As a matter of principle, the good refers to the greatest happiness for the greatest number. What this means is that the good of the majority should be the basis for what is to be considered as right. The basic guide herein is that what is construed as politically right is that action which benefits the people, above all else.

Life boat ethics best defines the meaning of such. If there are 27 people on a boat that is good only for 25, then two persons will have to be sacrificed to save the majority. If a government were to allocate resources, it has to consider the good of the many, even if it means a sector of society might be affected. This means prioritizing the benefits that can be generated from the economy more than the spiritual or cultural values of people. For instance, businesses are ultimately favored more than cultural artifacts that should be preserved or the concern for the environment.

b) The Social Contract

Rawls’s modern liberalism is founded in the dual commitment to freedom and equality. Rawls is asking what sort of political arrangement will allow people to pursue their life plans without sacrificing their basic liberties and at the same time, allow the worst off to have opportunities for self-improvement. Liberal equality then does not mean “the removal of all inequalities, but only those that do not benefit the worst off.”[5]

The Rawlsian theory of justice is grounded in the social contract argument. The original position is imagined or hypothetical. The role of the social contract is the establishment of the state as a political community where people can pursue things, develop relations and fulfill their obligations toward each other. For Rawls, justice is realized in the basic structure. The basic structure is concerned with the division of advantages or benefits in society and the obligations arising from the same.

The original position as a device is to be entered into between rational [thinking according to one’s best interests] and equal persons. It is founded in the idea of impartiality where people choose the principles of justice on equal or fair terms. Impartiality deems that the rules or procedures are not to anyone’s favor or advantage. This is insured under a veil of ignorance where one does not know his status or position in an initial position of equality. As such, justice comes as a result of a fair procedure.

For Rawls, as a reaction to utilitarianism, individuals possess inviolable rights that cannot be sacrificed for the benefit of the many. Rawls writes in A Theory of Justice that “justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others,” and for this very reason, “it does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many.”[6] This position is rooted in the Kantian ideal of the individual as an end in itself.

c) World Poverty

Thomas Pogge traces the root cause of world poverty to unjust global economic structures which have a debilitating effect, thereby seriously aggravating massive global inequality. In this sense, he argues that the global poor possess the rights in terms of access to the resources available in the first world. 

Pogge questions how rich countries have acquired their holdings. He mentions, as an example, the notion of unjust historical acquisition and the exploitation of the natural resources in the third world. Pogge's theory of human rights advocates for a scheme of some form of historical compensation.  

What Pogge is saying is that the global rich have no absolute rights to their wealth. It was not originally theirs in the first place. The global rich, including multinational corporations, use oppressive policies which take advantage of the weak internal structures in poor societies. Pogge argues that rich countries have the negative duty not to harm the poor. He says that duties of assistance are not enough and that affluent countries have failed to deliver on their promises. 

In order to realize global justice, Pogge advocates for a global difference principle, extending the Rawlsian principle of distributive justice to the global poor. For Pogge, a certain level of global redistribution of resources is required by means of a global resource dividend [his version of the Marshall Plan] which should be implemented on a global scale.

d) "Equality of What?"

Development, Amartya Sen argues, “can be seen as the process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy.”[7] Human well-being is about the freedom or capability of people, or what they are able to do and become.[8] Sen puts to question the limited concept of equality in terms of income. In asking about “equality of what?” he argues that it is not the equality of income but equality in terms of capabilities that should be used to assess human well-being.  

Sen is critical of utilitarianism which only sees poverty in a narrow sense as income deprivation. For Sen, income is not enough as an informational basis in evaluating the standard of living of people since income does not reflect the other aspects of deprivation a person suffers from. Sen writes that there are heterogeneities that affect the people’s well-being – personal, environmental, variations in the social climate, relational perspective, and distribution within the family.[9] For example, people may suffer from political persecution or cultural violence which may stifle their overall well-being achievement.

For Sen, equality in terms of income only measures the lack the material deprivation of people but it cannot tell the extent of people’s deprivation. There are other aspects of human existence which matter to human development, for instance, ending restrictions in terms of the political or the cultural. For example, women are unable to achieve a full human life due to the prejudice against them. If person A and person B are given an equal amount of money, say 1,000 pesos, their welfare cannot be considered as equal since A may choose to spend it on leisure whereas if B is a pregnant woman, she is expected and therefore constrained to spend it for the baby’s future needs, thus denying herself to enjoy some things she might desire. Thus, person A and person B’s level of well-being achievement is not commensurate.

Sen writes in Development as Freedom that freedom is not merely instrumental. Freedom is both the end and means to human development.[10] Income is only instrumental in terms of value, so it cannot give a full picture of people’s lives. Freedom, or the capacity to make options that “one has reason to value,” is intrinsic to the person.[11] Sen has responded to the debate between egalitarians and non-egalitarians by asserting equality in another space, and that is equality in the sphere of human capability. Sen believes that a more responsive approach to human development or the lack thereof must be evaluated on the basis of how structurally dominant regimes and dictatorships can stifle the basic freedom of people to do the things they find meaningful in human life.

e) Elitism and Modern Equality

Hannah Arendt showcases the Greek polis as the agora of free and equal citizens. But the Greek polis is elitist because political participation is a matter of leisure. Commentators say that Arendt disdains labor and so she shows a lack of concern for the welfare of the many. For her, mass society is the root of totalitarian regimes. Arendt advocates for an elitist utopia where she shows great faith in the political capacities of people as what was reflected in the Greek polis.

Modern equality for Arendt can be traced to the “rise of the socials” at the expense of the “political.” For her, the social displaces the political; e.g. mass society is bad because it has destroyed human individuality. For instance, commentators argue that the French revolution was not meant to promote freedom but rather, it was meant to address poverty [a politics of need]. According to Matt Hahn, Arendt thinks that the emphasis on poverty eliminates the primacy of freedom for politics. Thus, for Arendt, the issue of poverty destroys the beauty of politics.

For Arendt, modern equality is “antithetical to freedom and is the equivalent of conformism to a despotic regime.”[12] She does not believe in modern equality because equality per se leads to conformism. This conformism for Arendt leads people to give up great individual pursuits of doing “great and unique deeds.” Hahn argues that for Arendt, freedom is not private matter but rather, a function of the public.[13] Arendt writes in The Promise of Politics that “without equal status, there is no freedom.”[14] We become free through public intercourse and not through our “intercourse with ourselves,” and as such, it is “the character of human existence in the world.”[15]

f) Minority Rights

Will Kymlicka advocates for self-representation in the issue of minority rights. This is simply some form of a compromise with respect to real claims to self-determination. Minority groups are disadvantaged not only because they are a minority. They are disadvantaged because power players, as found in the social, economic, and political hierarchy, deny minority groups access to broader social, political and economic rights. Structural reform in the basic structure of any society requires leveling the playing field by giving minority groups greater autonomy so that the distribution of social primary goods becomes more equitable.

Because of the oppressive political conditions that marginalized people are charged into, state-centric rights to representation fail to consider the widespread structural exclusion which has resulted to social and political violence. Given decades-long neglect, the right thing to do is to give to the minority the power to make decisions for themselves so that they will be able to fully develop their society. This includes the recognition of a people’s distinct way of life, which must be protected by the state. In order to realize this, Kymlicka proposes what he calls a "societal culture" where people participate in "shared institutions"or a "shared language". While it can be argued that internal problems result from restrictions within minority groups, liberals argue that a people's freedom of conscience should entitle them to leave.  

g) The Priority View

Is inequality essentially bad? On one hand, telic egalitarians think that equality is good and inequality is evil. Telic egalitarians say that morality proceeds from consequences. The basis of judging what is morally acceptable is equality of outcomes [utilitarian]. Derek Parfit says that “if we are telic egalitarians, we would say that while it is good that people are on average better off, it is bad if some people are worse off than others.”[16] On the other hand, deontic egalitarians say that inequality is not in itself bad if some people are worse off than others.[17] The deontic view suggests that people should not be treated differently. It is therefore unjust if some people are well-provided whereas others are denied of their fair share. Parfit says that in this view, “fairness may require that, if certain goods are given to some, they should be given to all.”[18]

Parfit rejects both notions on the basis of his priority view. He describes the priority view: “benefiting people matters more the worse off these people are.”[19] On this view, benefits to a person because he is worse off matters more.[20] It is important to benefit some person more than another because of his condition. For Parfit, “the greater urgency of benefiting the worse off does not depend on his relation to another person, but only on his lower absolute level.”[21] Parfit cites the leveling down objection. You cannot make situations better by taking one eye from others in order to give it to those who are blind. What is important is that you do something that will prevent the worse off to be in an undeserved worse position. In this sense, what is more pressing or more urgent is to help the worst off. Parfit describes the leveling down objection:

“If inequality is bad, its disappearance must be in one way a change for the better, however this change occurs. Suppose that, in some natural disaster, those who are better off lose all their extra resources, and become badly off as everyone else. Since this change would remove the inequality, it must be in one way welcome, on the telic view. Though this disaster would be worse for some people, and better for no one, it must be, in one way, a change for the better. Similarly, it would not be in one way an improvement if we destroyed the eyes of the sighted to benefit the blind, but only to make the sighted blinded. These implications can be more plausibly regarded as monstrous, or absurd.”[22]

If society is defined by homogeneity, or meaning to say, if there were no differences in talents, then people would look the same and will no longer strive for creativity. If all talents are equal, there is a natural restriction on people in so far as they would become unimaginative. Social and natural contingencies affect the outcomes of the lives of people. People do come up with different income levels because of these contingencies. But without these basic differences in people, society will not flourish. If people are forced to have equal income levels, then no one would aspire for something entrepreneurial. In this regard, society’s wealth would not grow. Equality cannot be an end in itself in this regard. The point is that we actually do not desire inequalities because they manifest injustice.

Total equality is an ideal that is both dangerous and not worth aspiring for. Citizens cannot make themselves dumb and those who are talented cannot kill their capacities. It makes no sense for the beautiful to untidy herself in order for somebody else to appear pretty. It is not good to achieve total equality at the cost of freedom or the suffering of those who the gifted. You cannot mutilate or incapacitate the strength of the intelligent in order to appeal to the mentality of the masses. The trait of individual freedom should instead be optimized in order to promote achievement rather than handicap.

h) Difference and Equal Opportunity

Equal opportunity cannot be assured in the basic structure in so far as there are positional differences in the social hierarchy. Meaning to say, an employer is always in a position of power over the employee, so the opportunity to access financing is only available to the rich. As they say, to be have more wealth, you must have wealth. Public positions are also not equally available to people even though they are qualified for office. The reason is that the children of political clans are unfairly at a position of advantage. This means that a starting point that is neutral is not really the case in the real world. Rules, which are often decided by those who influence the lawmaking process, are deceptively the policies of those who want to dominate the masses.

Merit, or that which allows us to enjoy something on the basis of desert, is not always fair because there are those whose attributes disadvantage them, or what Iris Marion Young deems as the “lack of fit” between those attributes and the social structures. Intelligence or economic endowments by reason of the natural lottery are not things that people morally deserve. If they have these, it is because these should be used to advance not their own interest but that of the common good, which means that one’s intelligence should be for the greater good of others and not of oneself.

i) Human Dignity

Basic respect is something that we should accord to every human being. Every human being deserves to be respected as a person endowed with dignity. The uniqueness of each suggests that each person is irreplaceable. What is the meaning of this? No person should be subordinated to the interests of those who are in positions of power. No man should be pushed like a piece of rag. A human being cannot be used as a mere expendable for man is intrinsically valuable on the basis of his freedom. The power to be means that each and every person deserves to live a truly and fully human life.

While goods and resources are only material, these too must be enjoyed by people because these are crucial to the realization of the ends of human development. As Aristotle exclaimed, without resources, one cannot really pursue the good. Human worth, thus, as a supervenient characteristic is one that proceeds from the human point of view which tells us that the human being is a center of a life. Each person matters in the arena of justice. In Women and Human Development, Martha Nussbaum writes:

 “It arises naturally from the recognition that each person has just one life to live, not more than one; that the food on A’s plate does not magically nourish the stomach of B; that the pleasure felt in C’s body does not make the pain experienced by D less painful.”[23]


In summary, Dr. Rosario Espina asks, “Is justice sought for its intrinsic value or because it improves the condition of those who do not have enough?”[24] This question is crucial insofar as it directs us to the basic end or purpose of just social arrangements. She suspects that the problem is not unjust distribution but the poverty caused by unjust distribution.[25] Following Rawls, she dismisses the purely instrumental value of social justice, suggesting that unequal distribution may not really be objectionable if no one is so poor to be deprived of what constitutes as more than enough in terms of basic or primary social goods.[26] 

[1] Enrique Dussel, Philosophy of Liberation (New York: Orbis, 1985), 3.
[2] These reflections are inspired by the Political Philosophy class taught by Dr. Rosario Espina during the second semester of 2015.
[3] Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), ix
[4] Ibid.
[5] Will Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 55
[6] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971), 3.
[7] Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2000), 3.
[8] Ibid., 75
[9] Ibid., 88-90
[10] Ibid., 36-40
[11] Ibid., 74
[12] Matt Hahn, “Equality as a pre-requisite for judgment: defending Hannah Arendt on egalitarianism,” (Manchester: PSA Conference, 1994), 3
[13] Ibid.
[14] Hannah Arendt, The Promise of Politics (New York: Random House, 2005), 117
[15] Matt Hahn, “Equality as a pre-requisite for judgment,” 4-6
[16] Derek Parfit, “Equality and Priority,” in Ratio (December 1997), 206
[17] Ibid., 207
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid., 213
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid.,214
[22] Ibid., 210
[23] Martha Nussbaum, Women and Human Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 56.
[24] Rosario Manzares-Espina, “Justice, Equality and Human Worth,” in PHAVISMINDA Journal, Volume 7, May 2008, 62
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid.