Political philosophy is hard to define. But it is easy enough to do. In fact, we do it quite a lot. We do it when we’re deciding who to vote for (if we have that luxury). We do it when we’re agonising over the latest news headlines. We do it when we’re yelling at the protagonists on Question Time. But what is political philosophy? And why does it matter?
Right off the bat, I should probably point out that there’s no single answer to the question of what political philosophy is. Or rather, not one that you could get everyone to agree on. So this is my answer. It is what political philosophy means to me. And why it matters to me. If you disagree, that’s fine. In fact, that’s philosophy.
Philosophy itself is about asking questions and searching for answers. Whether that’s about knowledge, reason, language or some other aspect of our existence. Sometimes we come to a definitive answer. Usually, though, we don’t. And sometimes we can’t be sure whether we have or not. Or, indeed, whether we even can.
Philosophy covers a fairly broad field. The sum total of all existence, in fact. So it tends to get broken down into smaller sub-fields, like metaphysics (the nature of being), ethics (what makes things right or wrong) and epistemology (the theory of knowledge). And political philosophy.
Political philosophy is the study of how people behave – or, perhaps, should behave – when they come together in a group. It’s about how we determine the rules by which we choose to live. It’s about things like freedom, justice, government, the role of the state and who has the authority to compel us to do, or to refrain from doing, certain things.
It’s also about how we collectively make decisions and allocate resources in society. And so it lies at the very heart of the political process. Indeed, many of the intense political themes of the last century – nationalism, fascism, socialism, capitalism and feminism, among others – stem from theories or doctrines of political philosophy.
Political philosophy affects us at a less abstract level, too. It asks questions about how – and, indeed, whether – we should look after the most vulnerable in society. How we provide basic services, such as schooling and healthcare. Whether we have to do what the government tell us to do, even if it is wrong.
Is it fair that the rich have access to better healthcare, for example, simply because they can afford to pay for it? Is it acceptable for people to inherit wealth that they did not earn and that gives them an advantage over others? If we manage to develop a vaccine against COVID-19, who should get it first? And should they have to pay for it?
Because political philosophy is part of the academic field of philosophy, it is often seen as the domain of academic philosophers. And because it falls somewhere between the ‘pure’ tradition of philosophy and the slightly more messy field of political science (from where I got my introduction to the subject), it is sometimes neglected even by them.
So let us be clear. Political philosophy is not just for philosophers. It is not just for political scientists. And, while we’re at it, it is not just for politicians or public figures. Political philosophy is about how we decide on the rules governing how we live together as a society. It matters. It really matters. And it is for every single one of us.