In this post, I’m going to explain what my general political philosophy is, so that you guys (readers) can better understand what filters I’m applying when I articulate my opinions. So, here’s what I believe in terms of political philosophy:
I. Rule Utilitarianism
In broad terms, I ascribe to rule utilitarianism. Let me start by explaining what “utilitarianism” is, and then explain what the specific kind of utilitarianism I ascribe to implies.
Utilitarianism is a moral philosophy — that means it tries to explain what actions people, in general, should do, and what we shouldn’t do. In application to the government, what it does is evaluate, very broadly, the purpose of the government. In essence, utilitarianism states that the best action is one that maximizes “utility.” It defines utility as:
… the sum of all pleasure that results from an action, minus the suffering of anyone involved in the action.
It all began with a philosophy in Ancient Greece called hedonism, which held that all action has the objective of achieving happiness or pleasure. Aristotle articulated this as eudaimonia, which means “human flourishing” or welfare. In his works, Aristotle claimed that eudaimonia is the highest good. Much later, the Christian philosopher Saint Augustine wrote in his Summa Theologica:
All men agree in desiring the last end, which is happiness.
In essence, hedonism argues that all of us act in order to maximize our own positive mental states (i.e. we perform actions to fulfill our “desires,” and a positive mental state is the mental state when a desire is fulfilled) and minimize the negative mental states of ours (such as suffering).
This was first translated into a political philosophy by certain Confucian thinkers in China, and by Italian political philosopher Nicollo Machiavelli. In essence, they argued that the purpose of the state was to work for the people, and fulfill the objectives of the people. They created a political philosophy where the ends justify the means: the ultimate end being the *aggregate* good of the people (i.e. the aggregate desire of the people). As such, every action taken by the state had to weigh costs and benefits, and make decisions based on the net positive mental states produced as a result.
Utilitarianism was first developed as a moral philosophy by Jeremy Bentham, who defined morality as that which maximized utility. Bentham explained, defining the fundamental axiom of utilitarianism,
It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.
One radically different idea that Bentham brought out was the idea that pleasure and pain were the only considerations for moral action, and, as a direct result of that, all individuals that could feel or perceive any interest subjectively were considered actors to whom morality applied: not in terms that all those individuals have moral obligations, but rather, that all of them have moral rights. In other words, many animals and humans were, as per his philosophy, morally equal. But, at the same time, Bentham acknowledged that animals did not act based on their choice or considerations, and therefore, claimed that they were free from moral obligation. But, at the same time, humans had a moral obligation toward them.
The idea of utilitarianism was further expanded upon, and spread, by the works of influential 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill. Mill noted that the “maximization of utility” was not based solely on the number of people who faced a positive or negative mental state. It was also based on the magnitude of that mental state. If a single individual was being tortured, the pain would outweigh, for example, the pain felt if ten people underwent needle pricks.
Now, to better understand utilitarianism, let us consider a situation known to philosophers as “the trolley problem.” The situation is articulated by Wikipedia as follows:
“There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the most ethical choice?”
According to utilitarianism, the right choice is to pull the lever, because the interests of five people outweigh the interests of one person. Of course, we don’t have a lot of information (e.g. the sadness faced by a family, etc.), but assuming each person would generate an equal amount of suffering with their death, that would be the right thing to do.
Now, utilitarianism is divided into two forms: act utilitarianism, and rule utilitarianism.
Act utilitarianism looks to maximize pleasure and minimize pain in the short term, at a much smaller level. Under act utilitarianism, all moral rules are negotiable. By contrast, rule utilitarianism tries to establish certain clear moral rules that — in the long term — will act as a net benefit to humanity. Let me give you an example to illustrate the difference.
Say there are four people suffering from kidney failure, liver failure, respiratory failure, and cardiac failure respectively. The question: Would it be justified to kill one person in order to harvest their organs and save the lives of the four people? Under act utilitarianism, the answer is “yes.” However, rule utilitarianism takes a more nuanced approach. Rule utilitarianism holds that the answer is “no,” and the reason for that is that by allowing, morally, random individuals to die for more people to survive, you are creating a substantial sense of fear in society, since *anyone* could be picked. In addition, you are causing social instability by directly going against the aggregate *desires* of society, since — if any of us is asked that question — none of us is going to want to kill that one random individual. As such, rule utilitarianism establishes a moral *rule* to not kill random people to save others in society because it would lead to massive social unrest/instability. But, under rule utilitarianism, every rule has exceptions.
If you want to understand utilitarianism better, watch Crash Course Philosophy #36: Utilitarianism.
Why do I support utilitarianism in terms of the role of government?
The answer is simple. The purpose of government is to act according to what the people want, because the people *are* the government. The government was instituted in the first place to be a body that acted according to the wishes of the people. And utilitarianism weighs the aggregate interests of the people against each other by balancing the fundamental interests (i.e. rights) of every individual.
This leads me to two implications of utilitarianism, which become the second and third portions of my political beliefs.
II. Harm Principle
The first implication is that, under utilitarianism, the government should have its limits. Unless a clear limit is placed on the government, the state basically gets the moral power to do whatever it wants. At the small level, it could infringe on bodily autonomy by banning abortion… or it could go all the way to committing genocide. John Stuart Mill thought he had a way to prevent that. He articulated a limit on the government known as the “harm principle,” which, he explained:
“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
In other words, it states that the government should *only* prevent “harm” to people who don’t consent to that harm. If someone wants “harm” to happen to them, then that’s their prerogative. For example, if someone makes a choice to have cosmetic surgery, or eat unhealthy food, then that’s their choice entirely and we can’t stop them from doing it. Harm, here, is defined as inducing a substantial negative mental state (e.g. suffering) weighed against the harms of preventing that mental state from occurring (e.g. excessive government control). For example, hate speech, in some contexts, would still be permitted. This is fundamentally utilitarian in nature because utilitarianism is about allowing the people to do what they desire, consistent with what other people desire, and the harm principle does exactly that. But there are also a few conditions that make the “choice” in question legitimate. For one, the person making the choice must understand the consequences of the choice (i.e. it must be an informed choice). In addition, the person making the choice must be mentally able to truly understand those consequences. That’s why we set age limits on choices such as consumption of alcohol, as well as why we try to get information regarding, for example, the effects of unhealthy food to the public.
A logical extension of this principle is simple: the best utilitarian end is liberty. Liberty is defined as the freedom to perform an action, or the absence of restraint. If people desire something, they act to achieve that desire. Thus, they should be free to achieve those desires insofar as they do not restrict the desires of other individuals. Therefore, by extension, the role of the government is to preserve the liberty of individuals, consistent with liberty of other individuals. But this liberty is not truly enjoyable unless the government has secured society from internal threats (e.g. poverty, lack of healthcare) and external threats (i.e. international relations). I think people should be guaranteed certain basic and fundamental rights (e.g. the right to life, the right to food security) so that they can enjoy said liberty. However, it is ultimately their choice as to whether they wish to *exercise* those rights (e.g. I would want to provide universal health insurance but would allow them to decline treatment if mentally able to make that decision).
Thus, the balancing of rights comes into play, and the role of the government turns to one, more specifically, of “justice,” i.e. giving each their due. A balancing of rights decides what policy decisions are to be taken.
The second implication of utilitarianism is the need to ensure social instability. This is because, in a society or civilization, we are always at the risk of failing, due to multiple threats, both internal and external. And securing ourselves from these threats is of utmost importance regarding the purpose of government.
To prevent social unrest, therefore, democracy is the best means of government, and we must seek to employ as much public participation in the political process as possible. There are two reasons. First, without democracy, we fail to adequately reflect the values of society as a whole; lacking which, there is the risk of social and political instability. The long-term social stability of a nation, and to sustain a political system without backlash, is very important. Second, only a democracy allows the government to act based on what individuals desire. The democratic process is about individuals voting on referendums or elections based on their own self interest, and the *aggregate* of this self-interest is translated into the overall good of society. Third, democracy allows for the decentralization of political power.
The third point is the one that needs expansion. To maintain adequate liberty, the core principle under the maximization of said liberty has to be the decentralization and equal distribution of political power, as well as of property. The reason for this is that if power is concentrated among a few individuals, then there will inevitably be restraint on freedom exercised by those individuals. Monopolies of corporations, for example, restrain the freedom of individuals to buy products from separate dealers. Furthermore, to reflect the values of the people, only decentralized zones can sufficiently ensure said social stability. This is because the values of people and interests of them will differ based on region, and political power needs to be placed separately in the hands of separate communities. Finally, decentralization of power gives people control over economic planning that affects themselves, allowing, directly, for the maximization of liberty.
What is my political ideology?
My political ideology is framed based on the above three considerations. Ultimately, I believe in the absence of restraint, the decentralization of political power, and the preservation of social stability as a whole. As such, I identify with the ideology known as social liberalism, which believes in maximizing liberty of individuals consistent with liberty of other individuals, given the fulfillment of certain basic and fundamental rights by the government (e.g. healthcare, education, employment, and food security). I also believe in recognizing certain basic rights of nonhuman animals, including a right against needless suffering (see my post on animal rights for more expansion). That’s my ideology insofar as the practical needs of society are concerned.
However, the logical endpoint of the three above observations is a different, albeit unachievable, outcome known as anarcho-syndicalism or libertarian socialism. It is a society based on the principle of liberty, divided into various decentralized localities, where all individuals work and where there is no true monetary system. The workers control the planning of the economy and provide to all other workers healthcare, education, and employment. Private property either does not exist (i.e. socialism), or is distributed evenly (i.e. distributism). Unfortunately, this society is unattainable, so we need to work with what we have, the best means of ensuring which is social liberalism. I deviate from conventional social liberals today in many ways, but, broadly, I believe in maximizing social and economic liberty and justice. An unjust law is no law at all.