Politics, Power, and Purpose: An Introduction to Political Science

4 Chapter 6: Political Theory

In one sense, political theory is a subfield of the discipline of political science, existing alongside other branches of political inquiry such as comparative politics, international relations, and American politics. But in another sense, political theory seems quite unique from the other subfields in that it can be regarded as the oldest and most fundamental form of political inquiry. It is a philosophical inquiry into political meaning that lays bare the most fundamental questions of the human experience.

What does it mean for an individual to be free? Is reason necessary to freedom? What form of equality should society strive for? How does one wield power for the sake of justice?

Political theory, then, does not just stand beside other branches, but can be considered foundational to the discipline of political science—the fountainhead of all other forms of political inquiry. Indeed, what appears to lie beneath the practice of inquiry in the other subfields of political science are fundamental questions and insights that strike to the heart of what we call political theory.

In yet another sense, political theory in an undergraduate education entails reading the great historical works of political philosophy and reflecting on the questions and insights to be found in them. Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Mill, Marx, Nietzsche, Arendt, and Rawls—these canonical thinkers are the pillars of Western political philosophy and some exposure to their insights is essential for every political science major. This makes political theory unique among the broader meta-discipline of the social sciences—it would be rare indeed for psychology classes to assign readings from Freud or economics classes to assign readings from Adam Smith or Karl Marx. Why does political theory reach back to often dusty works of history centuries removed from our own time? The answer is that many of the questions in these historical works are still very much with us. The political issues of the present constantly call us back to fundamental questions. Recall the question that began this book—what is justice? This timeless question emerges in our political life everyday, forcing us to ask, reflect, and refine our conception of what is just and how it can be achieved.

Here is a suggestion: it is the question asked, not the answer, that makes political theory relevant to our world today, even if that question was asked centuries ago. Answers provide insight, but so do questions, and we often overlook the intellectual value of the question itself in our day-to-day world. Questions launch us into the unknown and unchartered waters of inquiry. As for answers, the philosophical and normative nature of political theory means that even the best answers are contested and open to critique and doubt. There exists profound disagreement among the great thinkers over even the most fundamental questions. This is not to say that the answers great thinkers settle on have no value, but rather that the questions can often be more helpful to our own process of inquiry. Questions provide starting points for your intellectual journey of inquiring into meaning. The rest of this chapter will be dedicated to an overview of the questions and insights from key thinkers in Western political theory, from the Ancient Greeks to John Rawls. But before we do, some thoughts on the nature of normative inquiry are in order.

Normative Inquiry as the Basis of Political Theory

In philosophy, norms are statements that seek the practical effect of acting, believing, or feeling a certain way. Norm statements are prescriptions of what the world ought to be, not descriptions of what the world is. Orders, commands, permissions, and prohibitions are are examples of norm sentences—they are not descriptively true or false since they are not designed to describe what is but rather what ought to be. Imperative sentences, such as a command, are quite obviously normative in nature, but declarative sentences can also be normative, depending on what the sentence intends to assert. Take, for example, the question “what is justice?” This appears to be a question that seeks an objective, empirical definition of justice, but as a question of philosophical inquiry (and perhaps the oldest question in political theory) asking what is justice requires normative orientation and reflection. It is perhaps more accurate for the purposes of political theory to ask “what should justice be?” rather than “what is justice?” Reflect on the relationship between freedom, equality, and justice. Can justice include both freedom and equality, or is there a necessary conflict between freedom and equality?

Political theory is normative inquiry at its foundation, and is thus the least “scientific” of the political science subfields, more akin to philosophy in the arts.

Science requires empirical and objective observations of the world that can be rigorously tested. Normative thinking has little use in scientific inquiry, but when we seek to understand political concepts such as freedom, power, and justice, it should be fairly obvious that we cannot make objective and empirical observations of such concepts that can be tested again and again. These concepts are human ideas on how to govern society, they are not naturally occurring phenomena. Political theory should thus do more than simply describe occurrences of political phenomena. The political theorist should rather develop a field of inquiry in which prescriptions of political values, concepts, and beliefs emerge from philosophical thought. Empiricism—the idea that knowledge is derived mainly from sensory experience of humans—is often used in political theory as a method for normative conclusions. John Locke, the political theorist who was one of the principal articulators of classical liberalism, was also a leading theorist of empiricism. Locke argued that humans are born with a mind that was a tabula rasa (a blank slate), and that all knowledge comes from the mind experiencing the world. From this he posited that humans develop simple and complex ideas that are derived from both the senses and reflection.

Locke developed a number of experiential reflections out of human existence to make important normative claims about freedom, equality, reason, and rights. For Locke, humans may not have innate knowledge prior to being born, but humans are innately endowed with reason and toleration. From this it follows that humans are born free and equal. These natural characteristics are the basis of natural rights individuals hold. Humans are, by virtue of being born, endowed with rights, reason, and liberty that governments cannot arbitrarily undermine or destroy. Indeed, governments should be constrained by these natural rights and the basis of individual reason and liberty is a justification for a majoritarian, democratic form of government. From this brief discussion of Locke we see that empirical thought (knowledge gained from sensory and reflective experience of the world) can be the basis of normative political insight. For more on Locke, refer to classical liberalism in Chapter 2, and the contract thinkers in this chapter below.

The Ancients in the West: Plato and Aristotle

Let’s begin with an observation many, if not most of us, would agree with: the best society is a just, fair, and happy society. Simple enough on the surface of things, but this begs a series of questions into the nature of these characteristics. What is justice? This is the central question in Plato’s foundational work of political philosophy, The Republic, a series of dialogs in which Socrates, the mentor of Plato, leads an extended discussion on the vision of the Just City. For Plato (speaking through Socrates), justice is internal as well as external—each individual has a path of justice within their soul. That path is using reason to cultivate courage in the spirit and moderation in the appetites of our soul. This is the same path for the city-state, according to Plato, and so one conception of justice exists for every individual and state. Justice is an ideal, universal, and unchanging concept. Book One of the Republic also includes a number of other conceptions of justice and it is worth considering two of them here. First, Cephalus, a wealthy money maker, argues that justice is telling the truth and honoring contracts. Thousands of years after Plato, Thomas Hobbes returns to this conception of justice in Leviathan (see Hobbes in the contract thinkers below).

A second conception of justice in Plato’s Republic is held by Thrasymachus, who we may describe as a cynical realist. Justice for Thrasymachus is simply what the powerful say is just. In this conception, justice is raw power, pure and simple. In fact, when pressed by Socrates on whether rulers ever error, and whether such errors are just, Thasymachus goes further: injustice is more profitable than justice and there’s no shame in that—indeed, injustice is a virtue and justice is mere noble naiveté. Today, we often describe this conception of power as Machiavellian, but, as we shall see below in the section on Machiavelli, there are strong reasons to doubt that Machiavelli is simply the return of Thasymachus from Ancient Greece. There seems three broad conceptions of justice here: honesty (offered by Cephalus), power (offered by Thasymachus), and wisdom emerging from reason’s cultivation of moderation and courage (offered by Socrates). Is justice principally about honesty and keeping promises? Or is it a brute reality that justice is solely determined by the powerful? Is reason necessary to justice?

In one sense, freedom is an undervalued concept in Platonic political theory. Indeed, in discussing forms of government, Socrates characterizes democracy as a political system that maximizes individual liberties, growing stronger over time. In late stage democracy, the fulfillment of every appetite and desire leads to total licentiousness and social chaos. Amidst this social and political fragmentation, a tyrant emerges who promises the people stability and order. Tyrannies, in other words, emerge out of the runaway freedoms of fully developed democracies. This conception of freedom can be regarded as negative liberty—the liberty to do what you will without any external constraints on your actions. We can interpret a more just conception of freedom in Plato, however, and that is positive freedom—the mastery of one’s only will by allowing reason to guide our life. There may indeed be no better example of positive liberty in the self than Plato’s tripartite conception of internal justice: reason is the master of appetites and spirit. The cultivation of good qualities (in appetites: temperance and moderation; in spirit: courage and care) manifests wisdom. Wisdom is power, and wisdom should reign over the Just City in the form of the Philosopher King.

Plato’s conception of justice, in which Reason cultivates moderation in the Appetites and courage in the Spirit. This is wisdom and justice, and can be mapped onto the soul of an individual and onto a political community.

As mentioned, Platonic justice is universal, unchanging, and idealistic. The idealism of Plato is so strong, in fact, it cuts directly to the nature of reality itself, as is revealed in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. In this allegory, humans are confined to chairs in a cave, with their heads unable to move away from a wall on which shadows are cast (these shadows are cast by puppet masters hidden behind the chained humans, using a fire to illuminate various shadowed shapes and movements on the wall). The philosopher is a human once chained but is able to wriggle free from the chair, escape out to the light outside the cave. The natural light of the sun is so bright to this philosopher—who had spent their entire life in the darkness of the cave—that it takes a moment for their eyes to adjust. Once they see the natural world of trees and clouds and rivers, they are forever changed. Returning to the cave to tell others of a world beyond the single wall of a cave, the other chained humans mock the philosopher as a crank and crazy person. Further, they ridicule the philosopher for being unable to sharply perceive the shadows and shadow movements, since their eyes have adjusted to natural light.

Visualization of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

This is an allegory of human reality—the physical, natural world is in fact the shadows on the cave wall; the realm of ideas is in fact the world outside the cave (this is perhaps the greatest irony in philosophy: the “natural” world in the allegory is a stand-in for the realm of human consciousness, ideas, and forms; the artificially-constructed shadows are a stand-in for our perceptions of the natural and physical world). Plato’s point is that reality is not to be found in the physical universe that we perceive with our senses—experiences are the physical world are mere shadows on a cave wall. Reality is instead to be found in the ideal form of things. The idea of a chair (or more accurate its ideal form) is more real than any physical manifestation of a chair. This is why Philosopher-Kings must rule the Just City, for they are best able to perceive the ideal forms that constitutes “real” reality. That which is real is unseen in the physical world, argues Socrates, the real is an ideational phenomenon.

Visualization of Aristotle’s conception of telos.

And what of happiness? How should we conceive of happiness as a political virtue? The more one considers this question the more elusive it becomes, for it is often observed that what constitutes happiness changes over time such that its complete fulfillment often appears like the mirage of an oasis in the desert. For Aristotle, the question of happiness is a crucial one, for it lies at the heart of a purpose-driven life. An essential Aristotelian insight is that the definition of a thing and its purpose are one and the same. If you were to ask Aristotle “what is an oak tree?” he would likely respond with: “the best one.” The fulfillment of purpose, in other words, is for Aristotle the very measure of what is. For Plato, he would likely respond to the question “what is an oak tree?” by answering that its is the ideal one. Reflect on the difference between the best and the ideal oak tree. We might at first regard these conceptions of best and ideal as one and the same, but for Aristotle, the best manifestation of something occurs in the experiences of life lived—it is the fulfillment of a telos or purpose that takes elements of the material world, applies a form or blueprint to it, and engages in the realm of efficiency through action to achieve this final purpose in the lived experience. The difference between Plato and Aristotle here is subtle but important: the Platonic conception of reality has no origin in the lived experience—it is the universal and unchanging dictates of the realm of forms. For Aristotle, the purpose of the lived experience is a crucial marker of reality itself.

For Aristotle, human purpose is grounded in our social relations with others. Observing relations between individuals is necessary to understand what human beings are and thus what constitutes their purpose. The activity that governs these social relations is politics—thus, living a political life, for Aristotle, is the highest virtue in the human experience, something we strive for an cherish. Indeed, the political life is an end in itself, not just an instrument or means for betterment. Contrary to Plato, Aristotle believed that truth could be attained in the lived experience of human beings, not exclusively in some abstract realm of forms.The distinction between scientific intelligence and practical intelligence rests along these lines—where Plato asserts that justice is an unchanging abstract ideal, which requires a universal, unvarying, and precise account, Aristotle seeks to understand actions in the realm of experience that are good. For Aristotle, understanding human society requires us to look at patterns and trends and adjust our conceptions of justice and truth to the context of lived experience. Thus, there is more than one virtuous form of government (or constitution—a foundation of government) depending on who rules: a kingship is a virtuous rule of one, an aristocracy a virtuous rule of the few, and a polity the virtuous middle-class rule of the many.

Much of the subsequent development of Western philosophy owes a tremendous debt to the insights of Plato and Aristotle, who broadly define two main trajectories of political thought—that politics ought to be understood in the ideational realm, on the one hand, and that politics ought to be understand in the realm of lived experience orientated toward the common good. Both thinkers are dedicated to virtue and the common good, but where Plato seeks an unvarying account of justice that exists in the idealism of universal forms, Aristotle asserts that justice and virtue can be determined from human experience that is good.

Machiavelli and the Dawn of Modernity

Portrait of Machiavelli by Santi di Tito.

Niccolo Machiavelli lived on the cusp of a transforming world—the Renaissance was the birth of humanism, the idea that human matters and human experience should take precedent over divine or supernatural matters. In focusing on what politics is, not what it should be, Machiavelli brings a human and realistic focus into political thought. In The Prince, Machiavelli writes on how leaders of a monarchy should get and keep power. His realism is predicated on the idea that one can rule well by abiding practical and real world conditions. “[M]y hope is to write a book that will be useful,” observed Machiavelli, “and so I thought it sensible to go straight to a discussion of how things are in real life and not waste time with a discussion of an imaginary world. For many authors have constructed imaginary republics and principalities that have never existed in practice and never could; for the gap between how people actually behave and how they ought to behave is so great that anyone who ignores everyday reality in order to live up to an ideal will soon discover he has been taught how to destroy himself, not how to preserve himself.” To rule well, Machiavelli asserts that a ruler must pay attention to appearances—it is often better to appear to be pious, honest, and gracious, than actually hold these qualities. The reason for this is that Machiavelli sees human nature as fickle: humans are not trustworthy; a ruler may shower gifts and riches upon a people, but the moment the gifts stop and the largesse dries up, people tend to look around and ask, “what have you done for me lately?”

We may call this the Machiavellian politics of entropy—political support tends to erode or decay over time. Conversely, political opposition, the enemies to your rule, tend to grow stronger over time. A ruler with virtu requires attention to this balancing act, mitigating against the erosion of power by ruling with boldness, strength, and sagaciousness (keen and determined judgement), and tempering political opposition by anticipating their machinations and countering with actions that may be ruthless, if necessary to maintaining your rule. For Machiavelli, being loved is all well and good, but it is better to be feared than loved, given a choice between the two. We may anticipate future moves on the political chessboard (indeed, Machiavelli often characterizes politics as a contest, battlefield, or chess board in which opponents are bested and the goal is to win), but we can never fully predict the future. Fortuna, the wheel of future events, is unpredictable, capricious, and often overwhelming. Virtu—virtue in Italian—is the strength, boldness, and sagaciousness to master the contingency of unknown future events as best we can, even if we cannot master them wholly. Let’s return to Plato’s discussion of justice. Recall Thasymachus, who maintained that justice is only what the powerful determine is just. Does this conception of justice as brute power align with Machiavelli’s insights? To critically engage this question, it is necessary to consider Machiavelli’s other major work, The Discourses on Livy.

Where The Prince considers how power is wielded in a monarchy, the Discourses examines power in a republican form of government. In this respect, the people are important elements of rule, not mere subjects of an absolutist monarch. Here, Machiavelli argues that civic virtue is necessary for a healthy society and adherence to the rule of law. We should be sensitive to selfishness and how it may destroy a community, and foster the bonds necessary for the cultivation of the common good. Throughout his writings, Machiavelli emphasizes the importance of the rule of law (you might call him the “law and order” candidate among the Western philosophic canon). In these respects, Machiavelli does not seem to articulate a brute realism of power of the strongest over the weakest, but more accurately a politics in which rulers ought to pursue realist means toward virtuous ends. For the sake of stability, civic virtue, and the common good, it may be necessary to do ruthless things—to prevaricate, engage in conspiracy, or direct strategically chosen acts of violence—but these ruthless actions should never be ends in themselves.

In his attempts to write down what politics is in day-to-day reality, rather than imaginary worlds and ideas about politics, Machiavelli is often regarded as the first political scientist. In this respect, because of its commitment to normative inquiry, Machiavelli stands somewhat removed from political theory. His richest contribution may be in providing insights into the practical day-to-day strategic use of political power. Machiavelli’s theory of power in relation to the American presidency, for example, opens a number of important lines of inquiry. The presidency of the most powerful nation on earth must deal with the fate of contingency on a daily, indeed hourly, basis. Where Congress can sit back in committees investigating or moving through the sometimes glacial process of passing legislation, the president must be able to respond immediately to the unfolding of the present out of an unforeseen future. A common theme in the worst presidencies in American history is a man overwhelmed by the duties of the job, swept up by the enormity of it all. In anticipating contingent events, the erosion of political support, and the gathering strength of your opposition, a president can successfully wield executive power despite inevitable failures along the way.

The Contract Thinkers

Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are often referred to as the contract thinkers because all three are focused on what kind of social contract should exist between a state and the citizens of that state. Additionally, in seeking to determine this relationship, these contract thinkers develop fundamental principles of human experience, the human drives and qualities that existed before organized society. This world before social bonds and institutions, before norms traditions, and political bodies, is called a state of nature. It may be best to think of a state of nature as an intellectual exercise that seeks to reconstruct the motivations and passions of individual human beings prior to any organized social experience (including language). Are humans driven by primal impulses toward self-interest? Or is there a degree of altruism innate to the sentient animal we call human? Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau have very different answers to these questions.

Hobbes argues that every individual has a “natural right to everything and every body” prior to the development of society, a kind of absolute freedom that is chaotically dangerous, leading to a “nasty, brutish, and short” existence. This experience is also one of a deep equality that exists between individuals. In asserting substantive equality among individuals, Hobbes overturned centuries of Western philosophic assumptions that individuals are clearly unequal since some are faster, stronger, smarter, etc. For Hobbes, though physical inequalities may be more apparent to us, even the physically weakest may kill the strongest among us, “either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others, that are in the same danger with himself.” Hobbes observes that even less equality exists in “the faculties of the mind,” and each of us are generally governed by a vain conceit that we are, on the whole, just as smart and capable as anyone else, if only given the opportunity. Hobbes points out that this vain conceit is itself a prime example of our deep substantive equality.

The famous frontispiece of Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-wealth, ecclesiasticall and civill by Thomas Hobbes, 1651.

Hobbes’ view of human beings is atomistic—we are all isolated atoms moving through space and time on certain trajectories, somewhat chaotically bouncing into one another. Such an atomistic view may reflect Hobbes’ fascination with astronomy and physics. He followed closely the discoveries Galileo was making from his new invention, the telescope. Hobbes believed that humans could only discern reality through empirical observations made by the senses and was a kind of radical materialist—no god above, no hell below, no spiritualism of any kind; just the physical universe with humans a part of it, bouncing around atomistically like everything else. The human experience in the Hobbesian state of nature has no rational order to it, and certainly no stability of peace.  It is because of this that individuals choose to constrain their absolute liberty through contracts. Justice, then, for Hobbes is the adherence to contracts or “covenants” made by men (recall Cephalus from Plato’s Republic here). Individuals will collectively agree to lay down their absolute right to everything and every one in order to leave this state of nature. The community, however, requires more than this collective agreement to dispense with absolute liberty—they require a common power over all that can enforce this and other agreements. Hobbes thus asserts that an absolute authority, a leviathan, is required to enforce contracts and keep the community from sliding back into a state of nature.

Locke’s Second Treatise of Government has been considered elsewhere in this book (Chapter One and above), so for the purposes of this section, we will focus on Locke’s state of nature. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that Locke has two states of nature, for the state of nature he envisions early on in the Treatise changes in important ways by the time we get to paragraph 123 (all of the paragraphs of the Treatise are numbered for ease of reference). In Locke’s first state of nature, humans are endowed with perfect freedom and perfect equality. Locke doesn’t exactly provide detailed descriptions of what perfect freedom and equality mean, but the basis of this freedom and equality may be the fact that, for Locke, humans are born with reason, toleration, and propertied rights over the self (each of us owns our body and mind, and can externalize this property right into the commonly held nature to derive a right to private property). Reason and toleration keep the Lockean state of nature from descending into a Hobbesian nightmare of all against all—each individual recognizes that to rob and pillage others places them in a precarious position, opening up a state of war, and so reason keeps relations between people relatively secure.

Paragraph 123 paints a very different picture of Locke’s state of nature. As Locke puts the question, “[i]f man in the state of nature be so free … why will he part with his freedom?” If we are all perfectly free and equal, endowed with reason and toleration, why should we leave such a state of nature? The obvious answer, concludes Locke, is that the enjoyment of freedom “is very uncertain, and constantly exposed to the invasion of others: for all being kings such as he, every man his equal, and the greater part no strict observers of equity and justice, the enjoyment of the property he has in this state is very unsafe, very insecure.” This second state of nature looks much more like the Hobbesian state of nature, uncertain and insecure, always exposed to the whim, will, and power of others. Locke concludes that the chief end of leaving such a state of nature is the preservation of property, which requires settled law, a “known and indifferent” judge (an impartial umpire in the adjudication of law), and the power to execute and enforce law. Why this change form the first to second state of nature? Locke does not explain the difference although many Lockean theorists have attempted to do so. One possible answer is that Locke is more of a lawyer in a courtroom—lining up facts to fit his ultimate end, which is to defend the rights of capitalism and the newly emerging

—and less of a philosopher in the cave asking fundamental questions and pursuing answers to wherever they may lead. This answer, which was predominantly developed by the political theorist C. B. Macpherson, asserts that Locke’s second state of nature emerges after Locke introduces market activity and money, suggesting that Locke was mainly interested in defending a capitalist system in which a few dominate over the many.

Portrait of Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, 1753.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is the last of our contract thinkers, and envisions a state of nature very different from Hobbes and Locke. For Rousseau, human experience before the development of society is characterized by self-preservation (both Hobbes and Locke assert this as well) but also a deep empathy for all creatures (including non-human animals) and a repulsion toward any form of suffering creatures may experience. Rousseau’s state of nature is one in which primitive people are not motivated by fear or an urge for power, as in Hobbes, nor are they rational, subject to rules determined by reason, as in Locke. Rather, Rousseau’s primitives (for Rousseau simple, primitive life is virtuous, and he referred to virtue itself as the “sublime science of simple souls.”) live in the present and possess no rational plan for the future. Without social bonds or dependencies, they allow their natural instincts to dictate their needs. This state of nature is one in which humans are not driven by reason in the mind (Rousseau was a trenchant critic of the Enlightenment and its celebration of human reason) but by simple self-preservation and an abhorrence toward cruelty, pain, death, and suffering. In this state, individuals pursue their basic needs “with as little harm as possible to others.”

A modern person could hardly live this way, argues Rousseau, which is probably why so many are skeptical that this primitive state is an accurate reflection of the human experience prior to the development of society. When a modern individual satiates some desire, nothing is truly satisfied—they desire more and more, an unending stream of urges with no end in sight. On the contrary, when a primitive satisfies an urge, “all desire [for it] is snuffed out.” For Rousseau, modern life is a curse, a tragic and unsatisfying experience in which self-interest, money, and power keep us in chains. Virtue, courage, military glory, religious devotion, and love for community all wither in Enlightenment modernity with its love of reason and science. How did this happen? Where did political inequality—an inequality in power, honor, privilege, and wealth—emerge from? Rousseau traces the development of societies out of a state of nature. When humans realize they can better provide for basic needs by working together, transient and fleeting relationships are replaced with more permanent ones. Technology is introduced. Language develops. Families form and private property emerges. But these early stirrings of modern society are not the sources of moral and political inequality, for Rousseau. Political inequality emerges later, with the development of agriculture and metallurgy, what Rousseau refers to as the “two arts.” These fields—intensive agriculture and metal working—rapidly develop specialization in society that begins to fracture the community, consolidate wealth and power in the hands of the few, and set us on a path in which money and property become the chief ends in life while virtue withers.

From these states of nature, Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau all develop prescriptions for a just political community that can combat the problems and reflect the good they envision. For Hobbes, an absolute political authority is necessary to bind society together through contracts. The value of security is far more important than absolute liberty, and since a society held together by a Leviathan leaves individuals safer, they are in fact more substantively free to pursue whatever is not prohibited by the absolute political authority that is a common power over civil society. For Locke, rational, free, and equal individuals require a government that reflects their preferences (majoritarian) but is also constrained by natural law of self-preservation, right to property, industry, productivity, and cultivation. This constrained majority government has three branches—legislative, executive, and federative—but rather than a separation of co-equal branches, these units of government are rather nested into another, with the federative (essentially foreign policy and war making) nested in the executive (enforce and implement law), which itself is nested in the legislative, which is the supreme power of the government. For Rousseau, the return to the simplicity of a more virtuous life requires a simple, direct democracy in which ordinary citizens, not experts, make decisions based on their love of community and the common good. Smaller, closely knit communities are better than large ones. Freedom is not found in individual pursuits but in alienating all rights to the community. For Rousseau, there does not exist much of a tension between freedom and equality—both are possible within the community. Citizens are roughly equal in material wealth and absolutely equal in political power. Representation is a danger, according to Rousseau, since it necessarily creates political inequality. Instead citizens rule directly, and guided by the common good, make decisions that form an unassailable General Will.

It is not just their ideas that make these contract thinkers important in understanding key concepts such as freedom, equality, and justice, it is also the historical moment in which they arrive. From 1588 (the birth of Hobbes) to 1778 (the death of Rousseau) the Western world went through massive transformations in society, politics, economics, and culture. Liberalism—a commitment to individual rights, liberty, and equality—was born. So too was capitalism. The Age of Enlightenment led to revolutions in the sciences and arts. Each of these thinkers articulate certain elements of these important transformations.

Marx v. Mill

A comparative analysis of Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill can clarify the distinctive line that exists between socialism and liberalism (for more on these ideologies, see Chapter Two). Marx and Mill have similar starting points: both assert that real freedom can only emerge when we achieve the fullest development of our capacities as individuals and as a society. In short, both Marx and Mill are focused on social betterment. How should society develop, improve, better itself? What sort of progress should we identify as our chief political aim in society?

Portrait of John Stuart Mill by George Frederic Watts

For Mill, a wide degree of individual liberty and expression is essentially for social betterment—individuals should be free to do, say, and think anything so long as they are not harming anyone else. This “harm principle” draws a fairly sharp line where the rights of an individual end and the right of the community to limit that individual’s liberty begins. Obviously, the principle of total freedom so long as you do not harm another affords individuals a broad right of expression and action and narrows a community’s right to determine or control individual liberty. Mill’s harm principle is a means to an end, and that end is social betterment—when we live in a free society that maximizes individual liberty, good speech and good actions will rise with social approval, truth will emerge, progress will happen; and on the flip side, bad speech and actions will fall in social condemnation, falsities will be exposed to scrutiny, and the traditions and norms that are stultifying and holding society back will be subject to critique and reform.

Marx also seeks social betterment but regards a wide degree of individual liberty as the basis of a fragmented community in which self-interest brings about “the separation of man from man.” Social betterment is obviously desired by the community, but the material conditions of our world often thwart these aims, in particular an economic system in trade and industry are controlled by private persons who accumulate wealth at the expense of commonly held resources. This Marxist critique is directed not only at capitalism but also the rights-based liberalism that fuels and justifies the capitalist economic system. For Marx, a rights-based liberalism blinds people from the exploitation and alienation capitalism produces. We may think society is becoming progressively freer with the expansion of individual rights, argues Marx, but this expansion tends to obscure us from the fragmentation self-interest inflicts on communities. Capitalism is a problem for Marx, but the deeper problem is an ideology of liberalism that suggests privately owned industry and markets are part and parcel of individual liberty. “It is the right of separation” that lies at the heart of an alienated and exploited society, argues Marx, the right of the “circumscribed individual, withdrawn into himself.” To correct this problem, Marx argues that individuals should abandon their call for the rights of private persons and affirm the rights of citizens in a political community. Democracy can and should be the tool through which the community asserts its rights over the self-interests of individuals. “Only democracy,” writes Marx, “is the true unity of the general and particular.”

Although Mill also supports democracy, he does so with important reservations. The danger of democracy lies in a majority restricting the rights of minorities—a so-called tyranny of the majority. Mill suggests that a rights-based conception to society is more just than valuing democracy as an end in itself. Reflect on some similarities between Locke and Mill, on the one hand, and Rousseau and Marx on the other. Both Locke and Mill affirm majority-based or democratic systems, but place higher value on the rights of individuals (for Locke, a majority government is “constrained” by natural rights, whereas for Mill democratic action should be limited by the harm principle). Both Rousseau and Marx value freedom from the community as opposed to individual freedom, and suggest that democracy should be valued as an end in itself. Recall from Chapter 5 of this textbook our hypothetical situation in which your life is exactly the same but you do not live in a democracy. For those who don’t see any particular problem in this (“if my life were exactly the same, the absence of democracy is not particularly concerning”), it indicates that they value democracy as a means toward a particular end, such as freedom. For those who do see a problem with this, even though their life may be exactly the same, it indicates that they see democracy as an end in itself—something that we should value not just for its consequences. Rousseau and Marx generally align with the idea that democracy is a valued end in itself. Locke and Mill are generally aligned with the idea that democracy serves a useful purpose for a valued end, which is liberty. Reflect on the relationship between liberalism and democracy: how conflicting are these values? Is there such a thing as an illiberal democracy? If so, what does it look like? Can a liberal society be undemocratic? If so, what does this look like?

Rawls and the Original Position

John Rawls’ 1971 publication of “A Theory of Justice” is a useful bookend to this chapter for it returns us to the age-old question of “what is justice?” By taking us to a psychological state of nature, Rawls suggests he has an answer to what justice is, an answer that we will universally arrive at and unanimously affirm. Before delving into the details, it is worth noting at the outset that this theory can be regarded as highly idealistic—it suggests a single conception of justice that, through the force of its idea, garners universal consensus. Rawls’ theory of justice is also very abstract—it operates almost exclusively through a series of intellectual and psychological exercises seemingly far removed from the practical, day-to-day reality of human experience. In these respects, Rawlsian theory may be regarded as a return to Platonic philosophy with the addition of a state of nature.

Rawls invites you into the Original Position: you are in some kind of deliberative space with others, but prior to society or the political community that orders our social relations. In this space, you have the capacity to reason and hold a set of preferences; you are aware of basic economic and political theories and other general facts regarding human life; and you are cognizant and capable of a sense of justice. Crucially, however, you know nothing about your individual identity—stripped from your consciousness are all the details of your race or ethnicity, sex or gender, whether you are rich or poor or middle class, and even such things as your work ethic, your conception of the “good,” and any personal preference or natural attribute such as strength, intelligence, charisma, etc. You are, in the words of Rawls, “behind a veil of ignorance” with regards to your particular identity. This may be initially difficult to imagine—who are you aside from your personal characteristics? It may be helpful to think about your position behind such a veil of ignorance as a reasoning orb capable of rational thought and floating in space-time prior to the society you will eventually join.

Your task in the Original Position is to deliberate with others on what kind of society should be constructed for all of you to live in. How should goods and resources be distributed? What sort of rights and freedoms should individuals enjoy? Rawls argues that from the Original Position we will all arrive at and affirm two basic principles: the fair equality of opportunity principle and the difference principle. The first principle is this: “Each citizen is guaranteed a fully adequate scheme of basic liberties, which is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all others.” The second principle is that social and economic inequalities must satisfy two conditions: 1) that such inequalities are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged; and 2) that inequalities must be attached to positions and offices open to all. The first principle affirms a basic set of liberties enjoyed by all (though the details on what those liberties are should be open to deliberation). The second principle acknowledges that inequality is a logical outcome of freedom, but asserts that such inequalities should benefit the least among us, the left behind and looked over, the most disadvantaged in society, while keeping all positions and offices open to everyone.

Why would you agree to inequalities provided that they benefit the least advantaged in society?

The short answer is that because you are stripped of your particular identity and place in society, you would essentially hedge your bet in favor the least advantaged to soften the blow if you find yourself among them. If you leave the Original Position and find yourself among the richest, most privileged, and most powerful, all is well and good. But if you find yourself at the bottom of society, that is a major problem. With the possibility of being among the least advantaged, we would all rationally choose a political and economic system with a strong safety net at the bottom. The difference principle emerges from a simple fact about the human experience: it is safe to say that individuals have no choice over where and in what context they are born into the world. Our entrance into human existence appears, at least, to be quite random—you may be born to a single mother, homeless and destitute, on the streets of Karachi, Pakistan, or you may be born into British royalty with all its wealth and prestige. It is also clear, however, that your chances of being born in a disadvantaged position in society is far greater than being born at the top—roughly half the population of the world today experiences some form of food, water, shelter, or economic insecurity. The economic and social status you are born into is a bit like rolling the dice, but the odds are long indeed that your roll puts you at the top of the system.

Let’s review four basic income distribution schemes as a way of thinking about Rawls’ theory of justice:

Distribution SchemeBottom 25% Avg. IncomeNext 25% Avg. IncomeNext 25% Avg. IncomeTop 25% Avg. Income
Scheme A$40K/year$40K/year$40K/year$40K/year
Scheme B$15K/year$50K/year$150K/year$750K/year
Scheme C$45K/year$50K/year$70K/year$80K/year
Scheme D$35K/year$55K/year$85K/year$100K/year

In this table, the average income of each quartile bracket represents a yearly income for an individual. In reality, of course, there is significant complexity to income and wealth and how we measure them, but this simplified chart helps us strip away some complexity and reveal some indication of our basic first order principles regarding the distribution of goods and resources. Assume that for the society this table represents, a yearly income of $35,000 is right at the line of basic subsistence. You can survive and cover the absolute necessities making $35,000 a year, but just barely, and with no room for non-essential purchases or savings to cover unexpected events (such as illness or a water heater breaking down). Further, let’s assume that at $50,000/year, one can live relatively comfortably, provide for necessities, save for unexpected contingencies, and occasionally purchase non-essential comforts.

Exercise 6.1

Place yourself back into the Original Position—you know nothing of your particular identity or status in society. Which one of the schemes do you choose? Which one would Rawls argue that we would all choose? Reflect on your choice and Rawls’ main argument—is it reasonable to assume that we would all arrive at a scheme in which inequalities benefit the least advantaged? Why or why not?



This chapter gives us a basic overview of the sub-discipline of political theory by situating it within normative inquiry. This makes political theory unique among the sub-disciplines which have a greater emphasis on “scientific” social and political inquiry. We also covered some prominent insights and questions from a few of the preeminent thinkers in political philosophy—Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, Mill, and Rawls. This overview is not meant to exhaustive, of course. Indeed, confining the list to these thinkers says as much about what is left out as what is included. The voices of women or non-white political theorists are absent here. So too is an discussion of non-Western political theory. Bringing these marginalized voices into political theory courses is essential to a comprehensive education in the discipline. In choosing your future courses, use the syllabus as an indicator of how well a course is inclusive of a number of differing perspectives. Does a political theory course cover various perspectives in feminist political philosophy? Does a theory course include Confucian, Islamic, or other non-Western philosophies? How attentive are the course offerings to the intersections of race, racial justice, and political theory? The inclusion of such voices helps students develop a balanced and comprehensive education in political theory.

In the next chapter, we will provide an overview of international relations, a sub-discipline that shares a theory-heavy focus but with an emphasis the intersections and conflicts in politics, law, and economics on a global level.

Media Attributions

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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