I am always amazed, confused and irritated whenever my friends have opinions on politics. I have my own opinions, of course. Mine, however, are shrouded behind a veil of pronounced ignorance and only professed because of arrogance. And that arrogance, to me, is the key to any political theory, for whenever I try to debate with my friends about any topic, from abortion to gun control to tax reform to US foreign policy, if the debate is allowed to continue for the prolonged periods of time they normally occupy, we will inevitably end up in the realms of philosophy, or sociology, or evolutionary biology, or psychology, and so on. Essentially, any debate about politics, even on a micro level, in order to be examined comprehensively involves an amount of implicit assumptions encompassing all of the fields listed above and more that, if examined fully and risen to the surface, would themselves occupy an entire philosophical encyclopedia. Therein lies the source of my frustration. For to know anything at all is to know everything, and if I may be entitled to such a truth claim it would be that there is nobody who knows everything.
This is not a relativistic claim. I am here not denying the existence of an objective truth which is applicable to local scenarios in the real world. I am, however, skeptical of our ability to access, comprehend, and correctly disseminate that truth, precisely because the truth of anything is interdependent on a series of other truths that can stretch out like an ocean of incomprehension. To follow this metaphor, if one wishes to examine the location of any boat traversing any sea then they cannot look exclusively at the boat but also the sea. Thus, whenever I approach any political or, more broadly, intellectual discussion at all I feel as if I am alone on a boat with no compass in a sea which stretches beyond my comprehension in all directions with no landmarks, and I possess no idea how I got in the sea or the boat in the first place.
If that is how I feel, then, why do I ever deign to talk about such ideas? Therein lies the necessity of ideology, as I hope will soon become clear. I say this, because, despite being lost at sea, I have some vague semblance of where I am supposed to go. When I dwell on the subject for too long I become paralyzed by the vast nature of the question lying before me, but I nonetheless have an instinct guiding me.
My thesis is thus; this vague instinct, in the context of politics, takes the form of a variety of implicit assumptions which provide the conceptual framework through which I view any given political issue.
This, to me, is what anyone who dares to consider themselves competent enough to wade into and offer their opinion on any political subject must first consider. My assumption here, which is of course unjustly unexplored much like all of the other dialectical considerations I intend to explore in this paper, is that guiding all intellectual discourse is something not at all intellectual. This guiding force can be called ideology.
Are humans rational? This is one of those lingering questions which, before anyone even attempts to explore any remotely political topic, must explore themselves and come to some (sufficiently) satisfactory answer. For, before we even consider the question itself, ponder for a moment how consequential the answer to this question will be on any comprehensive political theory? How far can ‘human reason’ take us in understanding any political question, insofar as we are even reasonable? Let us imagine the implications.
The difference between a political apparatus which presumes people as reasonable and one which does not is so large as to make any apparatus on either side of the question be necessarily incompatible with one on the other. This is evidenced by the significance of the famous ‘state of nature’ arguments which find their home primarily in liberalism. The difference between a world designed upon the assumption that people in the state of nature are Hobbesian versus Lockean is demonstrably significant. If you were tasked with babysitting for an evening, the difference between assuming people are reasonable versus not is the difference between babysitting infants versus teenagers. The difference has a remarkable influence upon the way you approach the task.
What does reason have to do with well being? Is a reasonable behaviour one which mitigates harm? Does reason concern itself with human flourishing? There again is another significant divorce; if reason is that which enables human flourishing (even the concept of human flourishing requires significant examination) then that is distinct from a conceptualization of reason which says that reason necessarily concerns itself with human reasoning. The difference between reason enabling versus necessarily causing is another difference which contains within it different prescriptions for reasonable human behaviour, for if reason is merely a tool it can obviously be used in a variety of ways, some of which may might enable the opposite of human flourishing, as opposed to imagining reason not as a tool but as a force which necessarily guides humans in a specific direction.
Thus, human reason is a question which itself begins to crumble when one even examines it. A question which seems simple but important becomes a buffet of questions which are equally as important. What is reason? Is it an escape from the passions? Are the passions therefore unreasonable,,such as the passion for food or sex? Or is reason the ability to parse and delegate the passions? Is that delegation conducted by an actor consciously or is it done automatically by the processes in the brain? Under what conditions are humans reasonable? What situations are and are not conducive to reason? Why those conditions and not others? How many of those situations are beyond human control? Are there degrees of reasonableness, that differ among people, or cultures? Why would someone be innately more reasonable than another, if there even are innate capacities for reason? Were our ancestors in Roman Republic reasonable? Does reason exist in the animal kingdom or is it exclusive to humans? If exclusive to humans, why would nature produce something capable of escaping nature? And more fundamentally, is reason even a product of nature or of something else? Did we always have reason, or did we learn it? Can it be taught, much like a skill? Does training reason result in the suppression of the passions? If so, is that tenable? Is satisfying reason as gratifying as satisfying the passions? How many times a day do we exercise reason? What is reason, other than information processing? Is it just weighing the pros and cons of some premise? How is reason related to creativity? Can unreasonable people be creative? Are there unreasonable people? What do we do about them? Thus, the question of reason is a genesis of what seems like an unreasonable amount of sub-questions.
Does one have to ponder all of these questions? It seems to me that would take an immense amount of time to weigh all of the options to all of the questions, and arrange your answers (if this is possible) in a manner that is coherent or at least not overly contradictory. Moreover, if one embarks on such an endeavour, ought they be expected to read all that the great thinkers of the past have offered to the discussion? Or ought they be left to meditate on such topics themselves, un aided by the intellectual giants who came before them. And what does all of this have to do with politics?
The point I am feebly attempting to make is, roughly, this. Any political theory, be about war or politics or anything in between, will contain in it an implicit answer to the question ‘are humans reasonable’ which itself contains the barrage of questions I just laid out. Any theory which ignores this question is standing upon nothing. But no theory ignores this question because they all, consciously or unconsciously, explicitly or implicitly, endorse something which resembles an answer to the question, for any theory which strives to offer a coherent and consistent interpretative apparatus necessarily depends upon a similar coherence and consistency with regards to this aspect of humans which is determinate of the totality of their behaviour.
More frighteningly, the answer to the question ‘are humans reasonable’ might not entertain an either/or answer. It might be vague, inconsistent, and change over the course of a minute or a Millenia. (and, as shown, the answer depends upon how one defines reason and its relationship to humans, which is itself a contestable subject) At least if the answer is yes, then, if you are going to develop a theory which rests upon that answer, then you are thereby justified in eliminating all of the theories which answer the question in the negative. That is refreshing and reassuring. In that scenario, the sea becomes smaller and a vague landmass appears in the distance. But if the answer to the question of human reason is vague, the possibilities upon which to build a political theory remain, frustratingly, akin to a sea which stretches in all directions with no land marks in sight.
And this is but one example of a question which determines a political theory. If it’s a question that is at present and will remain unanswered, does that mean that we are unable to develop a comprehensive political theory?
And by now surely it is time to turn to the concept of political theory itself. By that we can mean a broad structure of interpretation which provides some convincing causal explanation of the state of things.
Lets examine the concept of political theory in an example. Why did the Soviet Union fail? Firstly, did it fail? What does it mean to fail, and in comparison to who? Did the Soviets fail compare to Nicaragua, or to the Russian Empire which preceded the Soviets? If we assume that saying the system failed is justifiable, why then did it fail? A political theory would provide some mildly comprehensive and broad explanation of that phenomenon. It failed because of x,y,z. In this you begin to notice that many assumptions begin to creep up if you ponder it. Some claim the Soviets failed because it misjudged humans nature as being to cooperative and not as competitive?
So a political theory is, to me, dependent upon a number of assumptions about a number of things which we can divide into a number of categories. Here are but a few of these fundamental assumptions.
Are humans self interested? Do we strive for power, or benevolence? What is the balance between short and long term thinking? Is there a human nature, and if so, how determinate is it of human behaviour (how did it develop, why in this particular manner, are we even capable of answering such questions sufficiently)? How does nature interact with nurture; is one more determinate than the other? Is war eternal or are we capable of ending it? What is the source of inequality, and what forces perpetuate it and what forces fight against it? What is human flourishing and how is it achieved? Are humans greedy or cooperative or both and how can we, if we can, construct a society which pulls on one and not the other? Why are humans obsessed with death, pain, and torture? Are people self interested or self destructive? Is war a eternal phenomena or capable of going extinct amongst us?
Thus, a political theory vaguely provides an answer to the question ‘why are things the way they are’. That is a question which is, if one considers all of these contestable variables, unanswerable, and therefore the insufficiency of political theories is inevitable. And just to be clear, by insufficient I mean ‘objective’, in the sense that the truth exists outside of humanity.
Moreover, these questions are frustratingly interdependent. The answer to any one of them contains within it all of the others. Attempting to answer the capacity of human reason is a road with many forks; is it learned or innate or both, is it concerned with human flourishing, are some people more reasonable than others? Thus, the assumptions which serve as the foundation for any political theory are akin to a large family that has spread itself over the globe and rarely talk to each other; to assemble each individual member together requires assurances that x or y is coming to the reunion, and to miss any member is to miss them all. Are humans more cooperative or selfish; whichever one they are must consider their ability to reason between one or another.
This analogy is itself productive because, much like a large and distant family, the answers to these questions may not present themselves coherently, ultimately dooming the existence of a political theory which is capable of uniting the assumptions coherently. Assuming that we are able to ‘objectively’ discern the truth about any of these human characteristics which have been pondered and debated and left unanswered for millennia, who is to say that the truths revealed by such questions are conducive to the manner in which we try to develop them? In our endless will to truth we desire a framework of coherent truths which can reveal to us the machinations of the world. That is what a political theory is. But the truths which inform these theories may not play along with our game.
There are even more problems. For any question such as these it is not sufficient to just know the answer, but we must know why. Take reason; if I rubbed a lamp and out came a magical genie I might ask it “are humans reasonable”? Let’s assume the genie said that humans are reasonable. But why humans are reasonable is itself a question with important affects upon the prescriptions of a political theory. A political theory which assumes that humans are reasonable because God the almighty bestowed upon this gift will include a variety of other conclusions not present in a theory which assumes that reason is the result of evolution. Consider the difference between the various forms of humanism (a philosophical theory which emphasizes human reason) throughout history to acquire a vaguely more nuanced view on the relevance of why human reason exists upon any world view.
Is it true that one framework can be more true than another? Absolutely. What I am not assuming here is that there are no universal truths. The existence of universal truths means that one theory can be closer to those truths than another, hence making it more true. But I am, perhaps in a manner bordering on paranoia, excessively skeptical of our ability to access those truths. As presented, accessing the truth means overcoming the problems of why this truth and not that truth, wading through all of the variables contained within a single question, and hoping that truth A is compatible with truth B. Moreover, many of these questions are already subject to vehemently defended truth claims. Regarding human reason, psychology has been studying and discovering and rediscovering the truth for decades, and there is very little in terms of a consensus upon the subject. Not that long ago, John Haidt and the social intuitionists overthrew the entire field and the concept of human reason. I am not a psychologist, and I am not familiar with the literature. When it comes to human reason, then, I am not the authority making the conclusion but I am appealing to the conclusions of other authorities who are berated and criticized within their own fields of expertise. When I read the psychological literature on human reason and side with one authority on another, assuming that I have read sufficiently on the topic to approach what resembles a sufficient body of knowledge to come to an informed decision, I am fundamentally making an assumption. The same follows for all of the other questions which necessitate a political theory.
An ideology is defined as a “system of ideas and ideals, especially one that forms the basis of economic of political theory and policy”. What I have been arguing, essentially, is that we are all therefore ideological. Ideology is not something exclusive to political radicals or pundits. Ideology refers to the fact that, at the base of any political theory, lie a series of assumptions which may or may not be explored, coherent, or correct. But they are there nonetheless. Is it possible to develop a political theory without a sufficient answer to any of these questions? By definition that is impossible, as a political theory is a structure which exists to explain past behaviour and make predictions about future behaviour. Therefore, it necessarily contains implicit within it a series of other more fundamental questions which do the exact same thing. Moreover, people don’t see events in isolation. They see them as causally connected, and that connection, however broad or meagre, constitutes a political theory. And that theory, however broad or meagre, is inhabited by ideology.
As you may have noticed, this exploration is itself subject to a fundamental and determinate assumption, namely, that these fundamental truths are determinate (and also unanswerable). Much like Descartes, doesn’t it seem like I am assuming that there are some truths which lie near the ‘foundation’ because they influence and are determinate of a handful of other truths? What if that premise itself is wrong? At least with this assumption I lie with good company, as to deny the existence of universal truths is to call the entire validity of science into question, with its desire for universal truths from which conclusions can be drawn. Are we not just doing to the same thing with politics? Creating or discovering some deep, universal truths which collectively encompass everything? Therefore, is the method of developing political theory not identical to that of philosophy and even science? If so, then why is political theory and philosophy so unconvincing? Why am I asking so many questions? If one question does not arise even more then I am not sure it is a question.
So where does this leave us? Does it not seem like I am suggesting that every political theory be discarded? If every theory is dependent upon a series of currently unanswerable and contestable and inarticulable questions where does that leave the validity of political theories? All I am hoping to do is exonerate any theory of a desire to be objective. Claims of objectivity are what need to be left behind. Though many theorists and pundits who regurgitate the theories of theorists profess open mindedness they invariably present their theories as fact. It is this form of presentation which we must rebel against.