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Into the Cauldron!

by Rick Lewis

“Politics. noun. From the Greek poly meaning ‘many’ and ticks meaning ‘blood-sucking insects’.”
Fake dictionary definition, seen on greetings card.

“Would it not in that case be simpler
for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?”
From Bertolt Brecht’s poem ‘The Solution’.

I could have easily filled this whole page with more or less witty quotes like the above, all saying essentially the same thing: that you cannot trust politicians and you cannot trust the political process. Increasingly, we’ve come to see politicians as masters of the dark arts, as wizards and warlocks conniving in their covens, stirring trouble for their own ends and expecting us to swallow their vile brew. The good news is that the articles in our political philosophy issue have nothing to say about elections or about any of the individuals and parties pleading pathetically for your favour. Apart, that is, from Peter Adamson’s ‘Philosophy Then’ column, in which he considers whether Machiavelli would have approved of Donald Trump.

Instead, our contributors put forward some philosophical arguments about five contentious political topics: free speech, migration, the global warming debate, the limits of liberalism, and the ethics of discrimination.

Our first article asks if the burqa should be banned by liberal states. You might say it doesn’t matter what clothes people wear, but it makes some people hot under the collar and also enables us to examine a question with far wider applications: what are the proper limits of personal freedom and social regulation in a liberal democracy?

Discrimination on all sorts of dubious grounds was once nearly universal; now it is seen as an evil to guard against. We realise that it doesn’t merely disadvantage people materially but can undermine their self-worth and their very sense of who they are. Frederik Kaufman examines what discrimination is and if there are any circumstances in which it is ever justified.

Our article on free speech is by a philosophy professor who was recently at the heart of a nationwide row in Germany over free expression in universities. The debate about free speech and its limits is crucial because without free speech, progress of many kinds is impossible. Free speech is a fundamental right, some have argued, because speech itself is such a basic human activity that restricting it is like restricting access to oxygen. These days most of us are strongly in favour of free speech – for people who think like us!

Global warming is a problem which, unless tackled now, really might be the end of the world. Is it true that, as Wendy Lynne Lee argues, denying human responsibility for global warming is fundamentally linked to a capitalist worldview?

Finally, the debate over migration – made acute by the Syrian refugee crisis – has helped to drive political upheavals in the USA, South Africa and numerous parts of Europe. What is the right way to respond?

Many of these five issues interact with each other and with further factors. Put them all into the seething cauldron of current politics, stir briskly and the result is a heady, pungent witches’ brew. Welcome to the modern world.

You may have noticed that politics can be frustrating. You might feel you’ve had enough of it for the time being. A point often made about philosophy is that philosophical problems often confront us all in our daily lives; they are unavoidable and the only question is whether we tackle them badly or well. You could say exactly the same about politics. Sometimes choices have to be made, and even refusing to make a choice is itself a choice. If you are part of the electorate in a democracy then you are in power all the time and no election can remove you. I’m afraid that means you are always on duty! How lucky that we are able to elect representatives to do some of the worrying for us. Maybe they are useful after all.

Can philosophy help? It seems to me that it can’t usually provide definitive answers to political questions, because political choices are about both facts and values. Facts are checkable and are the same for everyone, though they may be difficult to obtain. Values, though, differ and your personal values will help determine your personal political choices. Still, political philosophy can map out the decision-space and clarify the options.

Philosophy also promotes some good habits which can help when participating in political discussions. In arguing against a position you should not rely on attacking the integrity, competence, personal morality or sanity of the holders of that position; nor should you argue against the weakest, most flawed version of the position that you can find. You should argue against the strongest version you can find. You should even try to help your opponents to formulate an even better version of their argument and then argue against it. This way, if you win the argument anyway, your victory will be all the more glorious. And if you end up being convinced by the argument that you were opposing, well that is good too.

So here are five interesting arguments from political philosophers. We don’t necessarily agree with them all. If for some odd reason you want to know the political opinions of the Philosophy Now editorial team, you’ll just have to buy us a beer.

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