Political philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S099-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 15, 2024, from

Political institutions and ideologies

What are the issues that, historically and today, have most exercised political philosophers? To begin with, there is a set of questions about how political institutions should be arranged. Today we would think of this as an enquiry into the best form of state, though we should note that the state itself is a particular kind of political arrangement of relatively recent origin - for most of their history human beings have not been governed by states (see State, the). Since all states claim Authority over their subjects, two fundamental issues are the very meaning of authority, and the criteria by which we can judge forms of political rule legitimate (see Legitimacy; Contractarianism; General will; Power; Tradition and traditionalism). Connected to this is the issue of whether individual subjects have a moral obligation to obey the laws of their state (see Obligation, political), and of the circumstances under which politically-inspired disobedience is justifiable (see Civil disobedience; Revolution). Next there is a series of questions about the form that the state should take: whether authority should be absolute or constitutionally limited (see Absolutism; Constitutionalism); whether its structure should be unitary or federal (see Federalism and confederalism); whether it should be democratically controlled, and if so by what means (see Democracy; Representation, political). Finally here there is the question of whether any general limits can be set to the authority of the state - whether there are areas of individual freedom or privacy that the state must never invade on any pretext (see Law, limits of; Freedom of speech; Coercion; Property; Slavery), and whether there are subjects such as religious doctrine on which the state must adopt a strictly neutral posture (see Neutrality, political; Toleration).

Beyond the question of how the state itself should be constituted lies the question of the general principles that should guide its decisions. What values should inform economic and social policy for instance? Part of the political philosopher’s task is to examine ideas that are often appealed to in political argument but whose meaning remains obscure, so that they can be used by politicians from rival camps to justify radically contrasting policies. Political philosophers try to give a clear and coherent account of notions such as Equality, Freedom and liberty, Justice, Needs and interests, Public interest, Rights and Welfare. And they also try to determine whether these ideas are consistent with, or conflict with, one another - whether, for instance, equality and liberty are competing values, or whether a society might be both free and equal at once.

Further questions arise about the principles that should guide one state in its dealings with other states. May states legitimately pursue what they regard as their national interests, or are they bound to recognize ethical obligations towards one another (see Development ethics)? More widely, should we be seeking a cosmopolitan alternative under which principles of justice would be applied at global level? (see International relations, philosophy of; Justice, international; GLOBALIZATION). When, if ever, are states justified in going to war with each other? (See War and peace, philosophy of.)

Over about the last two centuries, political debate has most often been conducted within the general frameworks supplied by rival ideologies. We can think of an ideology as a set of beliefs about the social and political world which simultaneously makes sense of what is going on, and guides our practical responses to it (see Ideology). Ideologies are often rather loosely structured, so that two people who are both conservatives, say, may reach quite different conclusions about some concrete issue of policy. Nevertheless they seem to be indispensable as simplifying devices for thinking about a political world of ever-increasing complexity.

No political philosopher can break free entirely from the grip of ideology, but political philosophy must involve a more critical scrutiny of the intellectual links that hold ideologies together, and a bringing to light of the unstated assumptions that underpin them. The most influential of these ideologies have been Liberalism, Conservatism, Socialism, nationalism (see Nation and nationalism; Eurasian movement; Pan-Slavism; Zionism; Pan-Africanism) and Marxism (see Marxism, Western; Marxist philosophy, Russian and Soviet; Marxism, Chinese). Other ideologies are of lesser political significance, either because they have drawn fewer adherents or because they have been influential over a shorter period of time: these include Anarchism, Communism, Fascism, Libertarianism, Republicanism, Social democracy and Totalitarianism.

Citing this article:
Miller, David. Political institutions and ideologies. Political philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S099-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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