Although the answers they give vary , political philosophers address three basic questions, the answers to which are important for all of us:
- First: What ought to be?
- Second: What ought to be done?
- Third: What is the nature of man?
The first and second questions both speak of "ought," but are actually quite separate.
What ought to be? refers to states of affairs, arrangements, institutions, organizations.
Which is the better way to arrange a legislature, unicameral or bicameral? Should there be an eminent domain clause in the Constitution? Is poverty bad? Should the U.S. be in the United Nations?
What ought to be done? refers to present or future actions. Should we try to send people to the moon again? Should we (the jury) convict the defendant? For whom should I vote? Which of various actions will best get us to a goal?
The distinction between these two "ought" questions is easy to understand. Imagine that you have been shipwrecked on a small, isolated island where you can barely survive.
Nearby is another island. Studying it with binoculars, you conclude that it would be a much better place to live. Therefore you ought to be on the other island.
But what ought to be done?
Consider these possible facts:
- First, you cannot swim.
- Second, there is nothing on your present island with which to construct a boat.
- Third, the waters between the islands are teeming with sharks.
Under these circumstances, it is quite reasonable to say both:
- What ought to be? I ought to be on the other island.
- What ought to be done? I ought to stay right where I am.
You would rather live on your inferior island than drown or be eaten trying to reach the better one. The two questions appear very similar, but deciding what ought to be does not, by itself, tell us what ought to be done.
The third basic question, "What is the nature of man?", is also important for everyone.
It is especially important for political philosophers because human beings are the elements making up the political systems they study.
Just as its individual atoms determine the physical properties of an ice cube, so the nature of individual humans determines that of societies, governments, and politics.
The nature of man limits which ideas about what ought to be we should take seriously. There is no sense figuring out what ought to be done in order to achieve a desired state of affairs (what ought to be) if that goal is incompatible with human nature. Such a utopia might sound nice, but we could never get to it.
Two wildly different ideas about human nature are currently predominant:
The traditional American concept emphasized the individual's freedom to choose among different actions and his or her responsibility for these choices.
I believe this is also the concept of human nature implicit in the major monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Challenging this idea is a view now fashionable among behaviorist psychologists and artificial intelligence (AI) researchers, among others.
They assume that freedom to choose is an illusion and that everything we think, feel, or do is the inevitable result of our heredity and our environment.
We are totally material beings, like billiard balls, responding to forces acting upon us and, like billiard balls, not free to determine our own orbits.
It seems to me that serious political analysis requires us to assume that human beings are free actors, not billiard balls.
While we live within physical and social circumstances that make some actions impossible, these circumstances do not cause the actions that we do take.
Speculations about a society of billiard ball people might be a nice game. But they will not help us understand the actual problems and opportunities confronting a human race made up of free actors.
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981. His most recent book is "The Case of the Racist Choir Conductor: Struggling With America's Original Sin." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and other states. Read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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