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Foundations Study Guide: Political Philosophy

Foundations Study Guide: Political Philosophy

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May 3, 2010

Fred Miller is professor of philosophy and executive director of the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University.

Political Philosophy or politics, is the branch of philosophy that investigates the principles of a proper social system. In general, it studies the nature of human communities, in order to evaluate their aims and modes of cooperation. In particular, it is concerned with government or the state, i.e., the institution that possesses the exclusive power to enforce rules of conduct in a particular geographical area.

The central issues of political philosophy may be divided into the following five areas:

-What is the relationship between the individual and society?

-Can the existence of government or the state be justified?

-What abstract principles should guide the operation of government, regarding its aims and the limits of its authority?

-What sort of constitution, political institutions, and legal system should a given government have?

-What practical public policies should apply to specific areas such as police, defense and international relations, economics, public finance, and welfare?

Objectivism holds that politics must be based on three other more fundamental philosophical disciplines: metaphysics (the study of existence and man's relation to reality), epistemology (the study of knowledge), and ethics (the study of the code of values to guide man's choices and actions). Objectivist politics differs from other theories past and present.

There is as yet no comprehensive exposition of Objectivist political philosophy, although its main features can be gleaned from the writings of Ayn Rand , such as Atlas Shrugged , The Virtue of Selfishness and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Leonard Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, ch. 10-11 and Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen's Philosophical Thought of Ayn Rand, Part III offer overviews of her work, but a great deal of work remains to be done.

To understand the issues of political philosophy and to appreciate the significance of the Objectivist position, one must have some knowledge of the history of political theory. This study guide will accordingly give a brief survey of influential thinkers and treatises of the past. Further, it will suggest readings that address the main problems enumerated above, including those presenting the Objectivist alternative.


Political philosophy, like philosophy generally, originated in ancient Greece. In fact, the word ‘political' derived from the Greek polis, or city-state. The Sophists in the 5th century B.C. challenged the legitimacy of the polis with its laws and institutions, and Socrates (c. 470-399), Plato (c. 427-c. 347), and Aristotle (384-322) responded with philosophical arguments. The political theories of Plato and Aristotle were inextricably connected with their philosophical systems, Plato appealing to his doctrine of Forms and Aristotle to a theory of biological naturalism.

The Stoics and St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) in later antiquity, as well as the scholastics — most notably Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) — in the middle ages, sought to justify political authority by basing it on belief in God and divinely instituted natural laws.

With the rise of modern science and the secular state, following the decline of medieval social and religious institutions, the traditional arguments for political authority were called into question. In the Renaissance, Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) eschewed religion and classical philosophy, drawing instead on historical examples to offer practical advice to rulers. The modern era from the 17th to the 19th centuries witnessed a series of attempts to provide a defensible moral account of the state and its purposes.

In England, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632- 1704) sought the basis for the state in a "social contract" among individuals who possessed "natural rights" in a prior "state of nature." Hobbes argued that men must enter into a social contract and surrender their natural liberties to an absolute sovereign, whereas Locke concluded that the political state must have limited powers and the citizens retain the right to revolution. Both Hobbes and Locke were criticized by skeptical conservatives like David Hume (1711-76) and Edmund Burke (1729-97) who saw tradition as the only basis for government and law. Later British thinkers like Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-73) invoked the utilitarian principle of "the greatest happiness for the greatest number," and advocated political reforms that tended to be increasingly democratic, egalitarian, and welfarist.

Meanwhile, in continental Europe there was a steady drift towards altruism and statism in the theories of Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78), Immanuel Kant (1724- 1804), G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831), and Karl Marx (1818-83). Hegel and Marx both viewed political phenomena as the inevitable result of historical processes, and regarded collectives as of greater reality and value than their individual members.

Resisting the generally collectivist trend, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) defended capitalism against socialism by appeal to an evolutionary theory of history. In addition, various anarchists criticized the state as an inherently oppressive institution and advocated its abolition. These included libertarians such as William Godwin (1756-1836) and Lysander Spooner (1808-87), and leftists like Pierre Joseph Proudhon (1809-65), Mikhail Bakunin (1814-76), and Pëtr Kropotkin (1842-1921).

Throughout most of the 20th century, political philosophy was neglected because of the rise of logical positivism and linguistic analysis, which were skeptical about the capacity of reason to apprehend objective moral truths of any sort. However, in the early 1970s a revival of political theorizing was inaugurated by two philosophers employing techniques of analytical philosophy to defend opposing political theories: John Rawls a neo-Kantian form of welfare liberalism, and Robert Nozick a neo-Lockean version of libertarianism.

The literature of political philosophy is vast. The following are some of the most influential works:

  • Plato, Crito, Republic, Statesman and Laws
  • Aristotle, Politics
  • Augustine, The City of God
  • Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I-II, Questions 90-97
  • Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince
  • Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
  • John Locke, Two Treatises of Government
  • John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Utilitarianism
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau, First and Second Discourses and The Social Contract
  • G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of Right
  • Karl Marx (with Friedrich Engels), The Communist Manifesto
  • Herbert Spencer, The Man versus the State
  • Lysander Spooner, No Treason
  • John Rawls, A Theory of Justice
  • Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia

Many earlier works are published by Cambridge University Press in a series called "Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought." A comprehensive one-volume history is G. H. Sabine, A History of Political Theory.


The fundamental issue in political philosophy concerns the relationship of the individual to society. Objectivism holds that the individual is prior to society, because the mind belongs to the individual as such, and acts of thought must be performed by individuals. Although men learn from their predecessors and are interdependent in various ways, they still have to exercise their rational capacities as individuals. This position, known as individualism, is opposed to collectivism, which treats society as if it were a super-organism existing over and above its individual members, and which takes the collective in some form (e.g., tribe, race, or state) to be the primary unit of reality and standard of value. For Objectivism, in contrast, the moral principles of politics are an extension of the ethical code of rational self-interest. Because there are no conflicts of rational interests among individuals, the proper society is one in which individuals cooperate for mutual advantage, exchanging value for value.

Ayn Rand explores the issue of individualism vs. collectivism in her novel The Fountainhead, and in "What is Capitalism?" (in Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal). Collectivist political theories from Plato to Hegel and Marx are criticized in Karl Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies. Although Popper defends an individualistic viewpoint, his positive political theory differs in fundamental respects from Objectivism.


Objectivist political theory argues that a government is morally necessary and justified. As Ayn Rand argues in "The Nature of Government," in The Virtue of Selfishness :

If physical force is to be barred from social relationships, men need an institution charged with the task of protecting their rights under an objective code of rules. This is the task of a government — of a proper government — its basic task, its only justification and the reason why men do need a government.

Objectivism is thus opposed to anarchism, which objects to the establishment of any government whatsoever. Objectivism argues that the rights of individuals cannot be protected so long as the use of physical force is left at the discretion of individuals. A society of individuals can peacefully coexist only if they establish a government that can serve as an arbiter of honest disagreements among them.

The Objectivist argument is in the tradition of John Locke's Second Treatise of Government. Anarchists object that even if a minimal state is established in order to protect individual rights, it will unavoidably violate their rights because it asserts a monopoly on the legitimate use of force and thus violates their right to self-defense. Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia tries to meet this objection along Lockean lines.


The foregoing justification of government provides the basis for Objectivism's account of the proper function of government: the protection of individual rights. According to Objectivism, the fundamental right is the right to life, and this implies the right to engage in life-sustaining activity, including the acquisition, production, and possession of property and the voluntary exchange of values with other individuals. The sole obligation of an individual to others is to respect their rights—that is, not to initiate the use of physical force against them. Therefore, the only purpose of government is to protect individuals from the initiation of physical force by using retaliator force under objectively defined laws; and the government itself must respect the rights of individuals.

In restricting governmental activity to the protection of individual rights from coercive action, the Objectivist politics resembles classical liberal or libertarian theories. However, Ayn Rand rejected "libertarianism" on the grounds that it lacked adequate theoretical foundations and tended toward anarchism. The issue is complicated because some of the many political theorists who are called "libertarian," have considerable affinity with Objectivism (see, for example, Tibor Machan's Libertarian Reader and Jeffrey Paul's Reading Nozick). At any rate, the recent libertarian literature, if read critically, includes valuable discussions of issues relevant to Objectivist politics. Ayn Rand laid the foundations for an Objectivist theory of rights, but her discussions of rights are brief, leaving many important matters to be clarified or explained. Informative discussions of rights are also offered by David Kelley, Tibor Machan, Eric Mack, Douglas Den Uyl, and Douglas Rasmussen; see the Bibliography for specific works.


According to Objectivism, the proper constitution is not a democracy (in the classical sense of unlimited majority rule) but a republic, that is limited by its constitution to the protection of individual rights. Majority rule is restricted to matters such as the election of officials. Objectivism also requires that government proceed according to "objective" laws which are known clearly to the citizens and enforced consistently. However, there is as yet no systematic Objectivist treatise on the philosophy of law. An anthology representing diverse viewpoints on various issues is Joel Feinberg and Hyman Gross, Philosophy of Law. A valuable source for the intellectual foundations of the United States Constitution is the collection of original documents from 1787-88 in The Debate on the Constitution (Library of America, 1993).


Ayn Rand observed that when men attempt to rush into politics without an adequate philosophical base, the results are policies that are superficial, inconsistent, and self- defeating. According to Objectivism, the foundation for public policy must be a clear theory of individual rights and a precise application of this theory to practical issues. An important claim of Objectivism in this domain is that the moral and the practical do not conflict. For example, it holds that laissez-faire capitalism, a system in which all property is privately owned, is the only just economic system (because it alone recognizes the rights of individuals including property rights). Also, Objectivism maintains that this system is the most efficient system and that it promotes the "common good" (understood as the sum of the good of all the individuals involved). Objectivism's arguments that socialism is immoral are complemented by the arguments of the economists Ludwig von Mises (in Socialism) and F. A. Hayek (in Individualism and Economic Order) that central planning cannot succeed. Ayn Rand's works cited in the bibliography contain Objectivist treatments of a wide range of public issues. In addition, the aforementioned "libertarian" literature includes discussions of how public issues such as law and order, defense, education, and welfare can be addressed without resorting to the initiation of coercive force. See, for example, Tibor Machan's The Libertarian Reader, Tibor Machan and Douglas Rasmussen, Liberty for the Twenty-First Century and David Schmidtz's The Limits of Government.


Douglas J. Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen. The Philosophical Thought of Ayn Rand. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.

Joel Feinberg and Hyman Gross, eds. Philosophy of Law. 5th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1995.

F. A. Hayek. Individualism and Economic Order. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1948.

David Kelley. "Life, Liberty, and Property," Social Philosophy & Policy, Vol. I, No. 2, Spring 1984.

Tibor Machan. Individuals and their Rights. LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1989.

Tibor Machan, ed. The Libertarian Reader. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1982.

Tibor Machan and Douglas B. Rasmussen, eds. Liberty for the Twenty-First Century. Lanham, Maryland: Rowan and Littlefield, 1995.

Eric Mack. "Egoism and Rights." The Personalist, Vol. 54, No. 1, Winter 1973.

Eric Mack. "Moral Individualism: Agent-Relativity and Deontic Restraints," Social Philosophy & Policy, Vol. 7, No. 1, Autumn 1989.

Ludwig von Mises. Socialism. Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1981.

Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books. 1974.

Jeffrey Paul. Reading Nozick. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1981.

Leonard Peikoff. Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Dutton, 1991.

Karl Popper. The Open Society and Its Enemies. 4th ed. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962.

Ayn Rand. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House, 1957.

Ayn Rand. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. New York: New American Library, 1966.

Ayn Rand. The Fountainhead. New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., 1943.

Ayn Rand. The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution. New York: Penguin, 1975.

Ayn Rand. The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: New American Library, 1964.

Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl. Liberty and Nature. LaSalle, Il.: Open Court, 1991.

George H. Sabine. A History of Political Theory. 4th ed., rev. by Thomas L. Thorson. Fort Worth: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1973.

David Schmidtz. The Limits of Government. Boulder: Westview Press, 1991.

Fred Miller
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Fred Miller
Political Philosophy