Why political philosophy, by itself, fails
February 24, 2016 by Paul McKeever
A facebook friend of mine asked how a teacher can impress upon a politics/philosophy student the importance of not treating political philosophy as a stand-alone, self-sufficient thing; the importance of knowing the philosophical underpinnings of one’s political philosophy. I responded as follows:
Teacher: What is your view of politics/economics?
Student: I’m in favour of capitalism.
Teacher: What if I told you that capitalism is evil, because your highest value is your death, your highest virtue is obedience to the will of God, and your highest purpose is to sacrifice yourself for the benefit of others?
Student: Then, I’d have to say that capitalism is good, because my highest value is my life, my highest virtue is rationality, and my highest purpose is the achievement of my own happiness?
Teacher: Ah, but what if I were to tell you that I know I’m right, and you’re wrong, because the Holy Bible tells me so; and because my faith in the word of God tells me so; and because – I mean, just look around you – almost everyone agrees that altruism is good and right and just; and because I just feel it, deep down inside, intuitively.
Student: Then, I’d have to say that human nature – and the ethics proper to it – is readily observable, and that a strictly logical process of thought about the evidence of my senses tells me that human nature requires the rational egoist ethics that I espouse… your dogma, your faith, public consensus, and your feelings and intuitions notwithstanding.
Teacher: Ah, but how do you know you can trust the evidence of your senses? Apart from the evidence of your senses, what evidence do you have that reality really is the way you think it is? In fact, how do you know that everything isn’t just an illusion created by your own mind? How do you know that the natures of existents aren’t just what you whim them to be?
Student: Apart from the evidence of your senses, what evidence do you have that the evidence of your senses is not in accord with reality? What evidence do you have that my mind has the power to determine the natures of existents? Existence exists, whether or not I exist. My consciousness requires my existence: reality comes first, and it is the thing of which I am conscious.
Teacher: Right. Check-mate. And, do you know why?
Teacher: Because the only effective defense against my ethical challenge to your political stance was your ethical defence of your political stance; and because the only effective defence against my epistemological challenge to your ethical stance was your epistemological defence of your ethical stance; and because the only effective defence against my metaphysical challenge to your epistemological stance was your metaphysical defence of your epistemological stance; and, when it came down to which of us had defensible political position, the arbiter was reality and the evidence that only one of us had concerning it. A political philosophy can be defended only with ethics, ethics only with epistemology, and epistemology only with metaphysics. Without ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics, you lack an effective defence of your political philosophy, and leave yourself open to every charlatan who cares to oppose you with irrationality and lies.