CHAPTER SEVEN: Political Philosophy

You may know people who harbor a deep distrust of government. You may know people who believe that the government is largely a beneficial institution. Have you ever stopped to ponder why we have a government at all? Most of us have learned about our government, its three branches, its bicameral legislature, and the nature of the presidency. But few of us have sought to question why we need government at all.

Historically, bad governments have caused much harm. One might think of the Nazi regime in mid 20thh century Germany, or the dictatorship of Pol Pot in Cambodia in the late 1970s. These were clearly corrupt governments. But the deeper question is: Is government itself moral? What, if anything, gives the government the right to control us? Does the government have any moral authority over us? What should be our response when a government is clearly acting immorally? Is legal authority the same thing as moral authority?

And what is the best form of government? Is our system of government ideal? Plato, for example, argued for a dictatorship, ruled by an individual who has received many years of schooling in diverse subjects and is thus more likely to make good choices. He believed that the populace was too ignorant of the issues to pick good leaders. Thomas Hobbes would tend to agree, except he wanted an absolute monarchy to control the people, believing people were selfish and having a selfish ruler to keep all the other selfish people in line was just better for society.  John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire disagreed and made different arguments for democracy.

And how ought we to decide who gets the most benefits from a system of government and how the costs and burdens of society should be distributed? Should the wealthy dictate laws? Do lawmakers always have everyone’s interests in mind? How much should we leave government control to everyday citizens? All of these are questions about how to establish a fair or “just” government, a question that has dominated philosophical conversations since the days of Socrates.

Political philosophy or political theory is the philosophical study of government, addressing questions about the nature, scope, and legitimacy of public agents and institutions and the relationships between them. Its topics include politics, liberty, justice, property, rights, law, and the enforcement of laws by authority.  It asks questions about the nature of government, if it is needed, what makes a government legitimate, what rights and freedoms it should protect, what form it should take, what the law is, and what duties citizens owe to a legitimate government (if any), and when it may legitimately be overthrown (if ever}.


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PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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