A Political Theory Primer, Part I

I know there are a few college students among the Fourteen Readers.  I thought y’all might like to see what you’re missing by being forced to attend Six Year SJW Sleepaway Camp.  For those of us who are playing out the back nine of our lives, it’ll be a fun trip down memory lane — remember when the Humanities cared about the actual behavior of real humans?  Anyway, don’t put this in your term papers, is what I’m saying.  Just write #BlackLivesMatter one hundred times and dare the prof to flunk you.


We’ll start with Confucius, who said that all of mankind’s problems boil down to the incorrect use of names (if some kid gripes to the administration because this is a Western Civ class and we’re wasting time on a Chinaman — and oh lord, do things like this actually happen — we’ll note that William of Ockham basically said the same thing (the famous “Occam’s Razor” started out as a statement about term logic)).  As political theory concerns the organization of human groups, we have to establish the meaning of at least two terms: “Human” and “groups.”  (Your more philosophically-inclined folks would say that we also have to define “organize,” but let’s take that as read).  What are people actually like, and what happens when they group up?

Right away we’ve hit a major snag, because most political philosophy is very old.  After umpteen generations of The Enlightenment, we postmodern persyns of gendertude think “human being” means “an absolutely free agent, acting in a vacuum.”  In other words, we’re really only concerned about the outcome for an individual; if “society” enters into it at all, it’s only in the vaguest, gassiest terms.  Here, I’ll prove it:

Why is murder wrong?

“Stopping citizens from murdering other citizens” seems like a core task of The State, whatever that turns out to be.  But why?  Don’t worry about what the answer is supposed to be — this isn’t a midterm; I’m not grading you.  Just go with what you feel.

Christians have an answer (“it violates the Fifth Commandment”), and so do legal positivists (“it breaks a clear law promulgated by a legitimate legislator”), but since modern people wouldn’t know the Bible if King James slapped them upside the head with it, and even fewer people know what “legal positivism” means, those answers are no good.  I’ve actually asked undergrads about this, and the answers are… interesting, by which I mean horrifying:

Lots of them want to get hypothetical.  They want to know just why Person X murdered Person Y.  This, they think, will let them off the hook for making a moral judgment (moral judgments are of course always and everywhere wrong on campus).  If I say “Because X wanted Y’s new pair of Air Jordans,” for instance, the students come back with “Then it’s wrong because a human life isn’t worth a pair of sneakers.”  If I say, “Because X is a psychopath who thinks Y is Hitler,” then they come back with NGRI — it’s wrong because Y isn’t Hitler.  But neither of those is a satisfactory answer, I point out.  In the case of the sneakers, by saying “they’re not worth a human life,” we’re implying that

  • human life has a value; and
  • we all know exactly what that value is; and
  • there’s some threshold above which “murder” IS worth it.

Which feeds nicely into the second student answer, because killing Hitler is still murder if a private citizen does it.  The hangmen who did for the Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg weren’t guilty of murder, but someone who walked in off the street and put one in Hans Frank’s head would’ve been.  It doesn’t matter if you know what Hitler was going to do, any more than it matters if you know what Hitler did.  If you shoot him on April 9, 1932, it’s murder, just as it is if you shoot him on April 29, 1945.

At this point, usually someone pipes up with a version of “It’s not murder to shoot Hitler no matter what, because he’s, you know, Hitler.”  Which I think is sufficient to prove my point, above, about us postmodern people thinking in a vacuum, but I walk the students through it: Just where do you, Suzy Sorority, get the authority to determine the atrocity threshold?

If you just can’t get over the Hitler thing, consider that Julius Streicher was also executed at Nuremberg.  Streicher was a major-league asshole, no doubt, but even the Allied prosecutors admitted “Streicher was not a member of the military and did not take part in planning the Holocaust, or the invasion of other nations.”  Rather, “prosecutors contended that Streicher’s articles and speeches were so incendiary that he was an accessory to murder, and therefore as culpable as those who actually ordered the mass extermination of Jews.”

Is that a standard you’re comfortable with?  Are you, Suzy Sorority, going to give yourself that kind of power?  And if you are, are you willing to give that kind of power to others?  Because that’s the rub — if you’re willing to grant that you have the power to determine these things, you must, logically, grant the same power to others.  To Glenn Beck, say, or Rachel Maddow.  One could quite easily make a case that Maddow’s articles and speeches are so incendiary that she’s an accessory to the felony assault on Andy Ngo, and of course everyone in The Media howls that Donald Trump’s rhetoric is so incendiary that he’s an accessory to [fill in the blank].

It seems, then, that “murder” has a context.  The problem is, as we’ve seen, is that we’ve entirely divorced ourselves from that context.  There’s actually a simple answer to the question “Why is murder wrong?”  But it involves society, and — irony alert!! — the people who yell loudest about how everything is a “social construction” have no idea what “society” actually means….

That’s part II.

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10 thoughts on “A Political Theory Primer, Part I

  1. Joseph Moore

    That whole ‘polis’ part of political seems to escape people. Or, rather, we have lost the ability to hold more than one thought in our heads a time, and thus whip back and forth between radical individualism and some flavor of ‘the collective is everything, the individual nothing’.

    That’s something that strikes me: the greatest emotional appeal (and, really, what else matters?) of ‘Everything’s a social construct, man’ is that it lets the individual off the hook for all his own failings. I was struck by a passage in Freire, where he said that, if a worker beats his wife, it is not violence on the part of the worker, for he is oppressed; it is merely a manifestation of the violence of the system, of his oppression at the hands of capitalists.

    I trust the beaten wife found great comfort in this, and did not contemplate what oppression or other kept her neighbor’s worker husband from beating his wife, and wishing a bit of that oppression could oppress her own husband into not beating her. That’s the point at which the analysis flips: The individual is nothing when that individual’s experiences contradict the Implacable Historical Forces Causing EVERYTHING. Further, there is only one correct thought for the husband doing the beating: not that he should reform himself, for that would be pointless, but that he, for the sake of all oppressed wife-beaters everywhere, should overthrow the system.

    So, individuals, and whatever feelings and furtive thoughts cross the wind-swept expanses of their consciousness, are sacred to the point of imposing a societal obligation on everyone else to affirm whatever self definitions they chose or discover or make up. All of us are, or soon will be, liable to the violence of the state if we refuse. On the other hand, whenever convenient, the individual is nothing.

    It takes a (slightly) cultivated mind to understand that, just possibly, every individual AND the society that forms them and that they in turn help form BOTH have valid claims, duties and rights. Moderns seem to resolve the inevitable conflicts by automatically switching from one to the other as the situation demands.

    1. Severian Post author

      There it is. Just as those who scream about “everything is a social construction!” don’t understand society, the people who are all in on (a version of) Marxism don’t know what “dialectical” means. Spoiler alert: “Society” is more than “a group of physically adjacent individuals.” It’s an organism; politics is the representation of that organism’s values. Any “political” action must therefore take into account both the individual’s goals, and society’s obligations.

        1. Severian Post author

          We’ve stipulated, though, that we’re leaving the divine out of it. Recall that modern political theory all derives from the English Civil War / Thirty Years’ War, and thus is an attempt to legitimize the State without reference to divine command.

  2. Pingback: Severian Talks Political Theory – Yard Sale of the Mind

  3. neal

    Old problem.
    Modern world kill everything dangerous but not wise enough to retain the maps scratched into the walls.
    Now those words and prophets shut it down and take a nap.
    I do not know why a lot of stuff is described as class or race.
    I think sometimes there might be some really long term War.
    My chair just stares. And tells me to wait for it.

  4. bgalbreath

    “Murder is wrong” is an analytic statement, a tautology, something a priori true, by the meaning of the terms it contains. “Murder” means ‘wrongful killing’. To ask why wrongful killings are wrong is to ask a senseless question, one that contains its own answer. The questions that are not senseless are: which killings will we label ‘wrong’ or ‘murder’?: And why those killings and not these? What we need is an analysis of “wrong”. Bringing in the word “murder” does nothing to provide us with that analysis.

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