How philosophy influences politics

© Dave DuBay. Ponce Inlet, Florida.

Big philosophical ideas, rather than being flying islands, have a way of percolating down to pop culture, albeit in a mushy, oversimplified way. Postmodernism is abstruse, but deconstructing narratives instead of verifying the facts (because maybe there are no facts, just opinions) has had a big impact on our society. No doubt Michel Foucault would cringe at hearing that this is what pop culture has made of postmodernism. But he couldn’t deny postmodernism’s impact on society.

Much has been said about the differing agendas of progressives and conservatives. We all know their disagreements on the issues, but underlying this are different philosophies which most of us presuppose without much examination.

For example, as far back as ancient Greece we find the belief that society reflects the natural order. We’re not equal, and some people have power over others because that’s how nature or God wants it to be.

Later philosophers claimed that equality is the individual’s state in nature. That society corrupts us, preventing us from becoming our true selves, traces its origins to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Combine this with the belief that we are born as blank slates, and we have the notion that human nature is a social construct. But like Foucault, Rousseau might have a few bones to pick with this.

But many people (myself included) think that human nature has a biological foundation, is flawed, and as a result people create flawed societies. Society can influence human behavior, but it can’t transcend human nature. Trying to engineer an ideal society could result in dystopia. Reform, then, should focus on what the system gets right so we can improve on our flaws.

It’s the system, man

Your philosophy, which may not be represented above, creates a more important question: How should we approach political change?

Opposing change altogether—standing athwart history yelling “stop!” like William F. Buckley—is unrealistic because change happens no matter what. In practice, conservatism idealizes the past (“Make America great again”). At worst, the problem with trying to maintain the status quo while change goes on without you is that it can perpetuate injustice, while at best it diminishes your influence.

On the other hand, we hear some on the far left talk about revolution. Overthrowing the system and starting anew sometimes means violent revolution. Other times it means deconstructing cultural narratives to the point where a culture loses faith in itself and collapses, necessitating a fundamental change in the system. The problem is that revolutions often cause instability and result in authoritarianism.

Back to philosophy

One problem I have with political philosophy is that arguments about nature are abstract and contradictory. Aristotle thought that people by nature are unequal while enlightenment philosophers claimed that we’re equal by nature. Something more down to earth is needed.

I start by observing how people actually behave. No one wants to suffer. No one is safe, however, if we want to prevent suffering for some people but not others. A new regime could simply reverse the roles. So universal human rights and equality under the law is the best system for minimizing suffering. The same is true for representative democracy and free enterprise.

The classical liberal approach is evolution rather than revolution. Human nature may be flawed, but there’s good as well as bad. Rather than retreating to the past or seeking to revolutionize the system, the most sensible avenue is to advocate fulfillment within our constitutional framework of the American ideal that everyone has equal human rights.

This isn’t necessarily true for all political systems, however. Irredeemable regimes such as Nazi Germany or the USSR had no positive core to capitalize on. Even within our system, American slavery could only have been abolished immediately and absolutely with the resulting passage of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteen amendments due to the inadequacies of the constitution as it was originally written. But these extreme cases are not the norm despite constant attempts to catastrophize every political issue.

Published by Dave DuBay

Dave is a Florida man. He blogs at He's also at

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