Regarding contemporary political philosophy

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Murtada Jalil Radi

Associate Fellow at the Political Studies Dept


Why don’t the thoughts of political philosophers gradually perish or fade away, much like numerous ideas that have been overshadowed by time, replaced by others, and are no longer studied in Western universities except as intellectual indulgence, such as the gender theory of Freud or the theory of Smith?

Perhaps the answer lies in the profound interconnection between political philosophy and doctrine. When we mention political philosophers like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King Jr., the belief system of liberation swiftly comes to mind. Thus, political philosophy retains fundamental significance for any doctrine, and conversely, the latter is inseparable from the former, akin to the relationship between the head and the body.

Based on the insights provided, the contours of political philosophy have indeed become apparent. However, the quest for a comprehensive and universally applicable definition of political philosophy necessitates the establishment of a foundational definition for politics itself. Consequently, various definitions of political philosophy have emerged. Some view it as the exclusive employment of rational methodology in analyzing the most critical political phenomenon, embodied by the state. Others consider it the study of fundamental questions concerning the state, government, politics, and power. Moreover, there is a definition that describes it as the examination of the underlying theories behind politics. The Britannica Encyclopedia defines political philosophy as a branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the concepts and arguments inherent in political opinions, characterized by a high level of abstraction.

Upon closer examination of the timeline spanning from the days of Socrates to the present, one can observe a vast array of answers to the fundamental questions posed by political philosophy. Despite the diversity of perspectives and ideologies that manifest in the realm of political thought, they can still be classified under two primary categories: the dynamic and the justificatory. During the Second World War, a strong and shared sentiment emerged among Western allies that they were fighting for the freedom of the individual, which found practical expression in the defense of liberal democratic institutions. This sentiment inspired Karl Popper to write his monumental work, “The Open Society and Its Enemies” in 1945, serving as a comprehensive response to the “cries of closure.” For nearly two decades after the war, there was a near-consensus in Western democracies about the death and demise of ideology, as if the intellectual debate on foundations had ceased and become obsolete. The slogan “the death of political philosophy” echoed through the halls of academia in England. However, in the mid-1960s, reactions began to emerge from both the right and the left. Conservatives started to perceive an excess of individual freedom, exemplified by the proliferation of sexual pornography, drug use, failure to reduce crime rates, especially violent crimes, and the existence of an entire generation of youth allowed to live in an atmosphere devoid of traditional restraints or even punishment. Simultaneously, liberal democratic systems came under attack from the far-left, known as the permissive generation, for various reasons. These systems were accused of neglecting wealth redistribution and lacking seriousness in eliminating poverty. Moreover, the societies governed by these systems were characterized by class, race, and gender divisions, with the worst of all being their involvement in the brutal Vietnam War. The very leader of the West, advocating freedom of expression, speech, and the right to self-defense, crushed and tore apart these concepts with the ferocity of tanks in Vietnam, and the image of the Napalm Girl continues to mar the face of history.

Following this paradox that unfolded on the stage during the Vietnam War, political philosophy emerged with novel ideas to rectify the errors and amend the course of liberal democracy. Among those ideas, John Rawls presented his theory on justice in 1971, and his books “A Theory of Justice” and “Justice as Fairness” in 1985 serve as the fundamental themes of Rawlsian philosophy. Rawls himself stood at the forefront of distributive justice philosophers, a philosophical approach that has been heavily criticized for attempting to reconcile the economic advantages of capitalism and socialism while simultaneously overcoming their flaws. This is achieved by establishing an original position in which individuals collectively agree to create a moral persona for a pluralistic society capable of determining the common good without favoring any particular class, race, or religion. The veil of ignorance serves as a safeguard, wherein individuals remain unaware of their social positions and economic allocations. It is worth noting that Rawls’ concept of justice consists of two principles: firstly, the principle of equal basic liberties, which includes freedom of belief (religion), freedom of speech, and freedom of suffrage. Secondly, the difference principle, which accepts inequalities in economic and social goods, provided that they enhance the well-being of the least advantaged individuals. Amartya Kumar Sen, a renowned Indian philosopher of this economic perspective, is particularly interested in the capability approach, which he adopted as a theoretical framework for achieving welfare.

Martha Nussbaum, influenced by Sen’s capability approach, describes it as a two-fold framework. The first aspect centers around the comparative quality of life, while the other emphasizes the theorization of justice. Both aspects adhere to five principles: treating each individual as an end in themselves, focusing on choice and freedom rather than achievements, valuing pluralism, addressing deep-rooted social injustices, and assigning urgent responsibilities to the government. Turning to Rawls and his distributive justice, it is necessary to discuss the philosopher who initially stood in stark contrast to him: Robert Nozick. The contrast between the two came to the forefront in 1975 when Nozick’s book “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” received the National Book Award in Philosophy and Religion. One notable difference between them lies in their respective treatment of the legitimate redistribution of wealth by the government. Nozick replaces Rawls’ difference principle with his theory of entitlement, which justifies individual holdings of economic and social goods only if they result from voluntary transactions or acquisitions. The essence of this fundamental divide revolves around addressing the circumstances in which the least advantaged individuals gain access to economic and social goods. Nozick’s opposition to compulsory taxation stems from his libertarian leanings. Additionally, he advocates for a minimal state, often referred to as the “night watchman,” whose role is limited to contractual enforcement, protection of individual rights, freedoms, and property, without interfering in income redistribution or imposing coercive taxes. He goes further to argue that the state should not intervene to protect individuals from harming themselves or pursuing their own interests, as it falls outside the purview of the state. Having explored the disagreements between Rawls and Nozick, we can now see the points of similarity between them in several respects. They both agree on the first principle of justice, and the second aspect manifests in Nozick’s recognition that the theory of entitlement is insufficient to refute the need for a redistributive state. Thus, he concurs with the difference principle. Ultimately, both philosophers have faced criticism for their reliance on Kantian approaches to produce abstract theories without sufficient consideration for the practical realities of societies.

According to their beliefs, the success of a society depends on the adherence of its laws and procedures to the abstract model, disregarding the moral consequences that these laws may generate.

For these philosophers, inspired by Kant, “let justice prevail, even if the world perishes.”

The saga of political philosophy does not end with distributive justice alone; rather, attention has been focused on the dialectic of religion and the state. This is because religion has begun to resurface in secular societies, not as a monopolizer of power, but as part of pluralism and diversity. Marcel Gauchet suggests that religious authority has gradually lost its strength, having once had the power to grant life, death, and forgiveness through inquisitorial courts and certificates of absolution. Its influence declined to the extent that the French, in 1790, legislated the “Clergy Law” to suppress religious individuals. However, religion has returned as a cultural element for a segment of society that does not seek absolute authority but rather participates in its formulation and secures its share through justice and fairness. This is the essence of rationality and its aged philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, who aligns with Rawls on a fundamental matter: when individuals enter into a social contract, they seek the common good from a personal perspective, in contrast to the claim that individuals enter into the social contract to attract private interests. This is one aspect of the ideas of the second-generation thinker of the Frankfurt School. It is also beneficial to transition to another concise idea, namely, that post-secularism will be realized in a secular society, where a prominent characteristic is the presence of religion, not as a belief held privately by individuals, but as a means for active engagement based on this doctrine. The reason for this is simple: people still have spiritual and religious beliefs and denominations that continue to socially proliferate and cannot be obliterated. Therefore, Habermas suggests the elimination of superstitions and extremism, as well as the criticism of religion on one hand, and the moderation of secularism and its reduction in dealing with all things metaphysical on the other. This would enable the discussions among individuals from different orientations in the social arena to become rational dialogues within the scientific corridors, far from the mindset of “if you are not with me, then you are against me.” This is because, without rationality, religion can become radicalized, leading to examples such as jihadist movements and extremist expressions within Buddhism, Hinduism, Zionism, and even Christianity, exemplified by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The same applies to secularism if it is left unchecked, as demonstrated by the Hitlerian and Stalinist examples.

This is evident in the Hitlerian and Stalinist examples. And this is not the end in the trajectory of political philosophy. After resolving each dilemma, there is always a question: What lies ahead after “post-secularism”? What about the oppressed Black minority in the most secular societies? What if the public sphere is consumed by the Leviathan of Hobbes? There are many, many predicaments.

Thus, we understand that political philosophers persist alongside human societies. They endure with their existential inquiries about politics, power, freedom, and justice. They are a group of predecessors and a few present-day thinkers who have thrived in the arena of grandeur. It is truly astonishing to witness how Arnold Toynbee, in his work “Challenge and Response” in the 1950s, seems to speak about all eras of human history. Simply put, the love of wisdom endures; it does not perish.