Political Philosophy and the Future



Isaiah Berlin asked, why philosophy? He answered, “The goal of philosophy is…to assist men to understand themselves and thus operate in the open, and not wildly, in the dark.” 1 As U.S. society becomes increasingly diverse and faces increasingly complicated problems of foreign policy, economics and climate change, a discussion of modern political theory is useful. This academic field now deals with how to handle substantive political disagreements, rather than determining how to live in harmony with a fundamental human nature, however defined.


An example of this is an essay, What Is Political Philosophy? by Brown professor Charles Larmore, who presents a recursive argument that we restate. People who agree to do things a certain way constitute a society. This is articulated by the idea of justice that defines the shape of social life as a whole. But people also disagree. 2 There then arise problems of conflict and power that politics is meant to solve. Politics, therefore differs from the individual ethic of morality because politics is not fact free. It is directly embedded in the history of a people and the real problems they have encountered as a society along the way, so they may live together. U.S. law, a product of both precedent and present politics, is an example of this.


Almost all Americans agree that they have individual rights that preserve their freedoms and that, in the Enlightenment tradition, they deserve a hearing by others who will respect them. Where Americans disagree is on the scope of their freedoms. According to Yuval Levin, the conservative author of The Great Debate (2014), “(Thomas) Paine expressly disagrees with (Edmund) Burke 's notion that charities can take care of the poor....Poverty, it seems, is taken by Paine to be one of those coercive realities that constrain people's freedom, from which the state ought to protect people, so as to allow their will and choice free rein." 3 The results of Paine's assumption have been government programs that ameliorate and modify the volatile markets.


In The Great Debate, Levin thoroughly discusses the ideological differences between these two men; which, amazingly enough, are the same as the differences between the Democrats and Republicans in the 21st century. We then ask how these differences matter.


Thomas Paine was born in 1737 in Thetford, England. His father was a pacifist Quaker and his mother an Anglican As a result, “He had a lifelong ingrained sense that the laws of justice are clear and simple…” 4 He was introduced to Benjamin Franklin, who impressed with Paine’s intelligence and drive, advised him to seek a new start in America. After working for a Philadelphia publisher, he became the magazine’s editor and, with the 1775 publication of his pamphlet, Common Sense became the voice of the American Revolution. He argued:


1)    England was beset with the dual tyrannies of monarchy and aristocracy, that made no sense. More naturally, a system of frequent elections ensured the fidelity of legislators to the public interest.

2)    America was comprised of peoples from all of Europe; but by its dependence upon Great Britain, it was unnecessarily involved in European quarrels. 


3)    Furthermore, Britain misruled the colonies for her own benefit and did not consider their best interests. A historical note: After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the British began to create the modern state and continued to reform its system of public finance and taxation, in order to better wage war on the continent. 5 A majority of the colonies had before elected their own governors. London then began to appoint its American governors from the British ruling class; then parliament imposed direct taxation by the Stamp Act. 6 Needless to say, the colonists did not feel represented.


On the issue of independence, a majority of the American colonists were “on the fence.” The Wikipedia states, Common Sense tipped the balance. 7 After its publication, they rose in outright revolution.


A crucial assumption of Paine’s political thought was his assumption that moral ethics existed separate from the social context, as a scientific law differs from engineering. For him, there were two main political principles:


“Thomas Paine’s model of nature…offered both means and ends for political action by holding up a particular understanding of nature – taken to be a set of rational rules that began from individualism and equality - as the standard of legitimacy that could give shape to change over time.” 8 From these two principles, the rational rules by which all societies should be governed could be derived as from scientific law.


Paine’s Enlightenment thought greatly influenced the Revolution; but he was kept away from the Constitutional Convention of 1787 because he denounced the bicameral approach to government, supported universal suffrage and an end to slavery. 9 The resulting U.S. Constitution of 1787 was a set of compromises, that history would later revise in a better form.


What about Edmund Burke? He was born in Dublin, Ireland likely in 1729. His father was a prominent Protestant and his mother a Catholic. Born into a society with religious divisions, he saw the positive side where, “The experience of seeing differences in dogma made moot in practice by the bonds of family affection and neighborly respect was formative for him. It seemed to leave him with a lasting sense that life was more complicated in practice than in theory – and that this was a good thing….He retained a sense of how accommodations built up slowly from reserves of trust, warm sentiment, and moderation could enable people to live together even in the face of social tension, political oppression, and economic plight.” 10 Writing to prevent the contagion of the British Isles from the French Revolution, his political philosophy can best be summed up by a quote from Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), “A state without the means of some change, is without the means of its own preservation.” 11 Politics to Burke always dealt with the particular and,  “He is concerned that an overreliance on theory may unleash extremism and immoderation by unmooring politics from the polity.” 12


Although Burke’s prescription for moderate social adaption was well-founded in most cases, it suffers from the defect that, by rejecting reason and by relying excessively upon the past, it does not respond well to large and abrupt changes. Some challenges are immediate and pressing, and society must act decisively (and correctly). An incremental philosophy cannot deal well with abrupt changes: such as an Hitler (note the lack of an isolationist response), a large market crash (note the lack of decisive government action in the early 1930s and Congress’ grudging response to 2008), or impending climate change. 


After our discussion about the philosophies which animate the political left and the right, where does this leave us? Are Paine and Burke relevant in the 21st century? We could ask, what would they say about the problems that confront the U.S.? Paine would say, start with the goal. Edmund Burke would say, rely on (local) politics to come up with the solution. In the 21st century both views matter when circumstances such as advancing technology, sustained turmoil abroad, changing economic patterns 13 and climate begin to matter a lot. These, short-term market transactions address only partially or not at all. Put even more simply, in a consensual democratic society, Paine specifies the goals; and Burke specifies the means.


The following are useful frames of mind for problem solving, which requires social trust rather than simply an aimless maneuvering for power. In “5 Minds for the Future, (2008) ” Howard Gardner, Harvard professor of Cognition and Education writes:


“…I concern myself here with the kinds of minds that people will need if they – if we - are to thrive in the world during the eras to come…

The disciplined mind has mastered at least one way of thinking – a distinctive mode of cognition that characterizes a specific scholarly discipline, craft, or profession…

The synthesizing mind takes information from disparate sources, understands and evaluates that information objectively, and puts it together in ways that make sense to the synthesizer and also to other persons.

Building on discipline and synthesis, the creating mind breaks new ground. It puts forth new ideas poses unfamiliar questions, conjures up fresh ways of thinking, arrives at unexpected answers…the creating mind seeks to remain at least one step ahead of even the most sophisticated computers and robots.

the respectful mind notes and welcomes differences between human individuals and between human groups, tries to understand these “others,” and seeks to work effectively with them. In a word where we are all interlinked, intolerance or disrespect is no longer a viable option.

the ethical mind ponders the nature of one’s work and the needs and desires of the society in which one lives.” 14