Politics and the Good Life

If you’re like me, you find social media anywhere from annoying to mind-numbingly stupid.  A large part of this is because people are continuously posting their political opinions.  In most cases, any sort of response to a political opinion leads to a fight, but not always.  Sometimes people try to have civil, rational discourse.  But often it still feels like people talk right by one another.  Why is that?

Actually, this happens at the professional level too, when intellectuals and career politicians debate one another.  The reason is that political ideologies ultimately rest on a philosophical idea of what a good life is.  But when people are talking politics they rarely (read ‘never’) stop to ask what sort of life is best for a human being.

Here is an example I seem to come across a lot:  Someone will post a video or an article arguing that social inequalities, like racism and sexism,  and the problem of violence will never come to an end until we fix the more fundamental economic situation.  There is a certain common-sense logic to this argument that says, if people are held at an economic disadvantage, then they will break the laws because they have not been given an equal opportunity.  Thus, the solution is to fix the income equality and, and consequently, so it is claimed, the problems of  crime and violence will fall.  But we ought to ask what sort of philosophical assumptions are at work here.  It is assumed in this argument that fundamentally what people need are the minimum economic goods: work, income, and access to healthcare and the wider social safety-net.  But is this true?  Karl Marx argued that it was, but, for example, people like Aristotle and John Locke argued that it was not.  Why would we not rather assume, like Aristotle or Plato, that what fundamentally determines how people behave and get along with one another is virtue and not economics?

This beings me to the larger problem in our society (America, specifically).  We only have three models of the good life presented to us, and one of them is rather skewed.  The three models of a good life presented to us are 1) economic equality (Marxists and progressive liberals tend to stand behind this model), 2) personal freedom (libertarians and old-school liberals tend to stand behind this model), and 3) moral and cultural values (Christians and the “moral majority” tend to stand behind this model).

Until the enlightenment, option (3) was the de facto model.  But in modern times, this model has been so skewed and narrowed, that if you aren’t a Southern Baptist, it feels like you are signing up for a whole lot more that you meant to when you vote Republican.  It would be interesting to see how the great philosophers of the past would vote today (that is, if you put aside the fact that most of them abhorred democracy).  I think that in the case of people like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and probably many of the Stoics, the answer would be a hesitant vote for the Republican Christian candidate.  They wouldn’t be happy about this choice, but fundamentally what is at stake is a general conception of a good human life, and the Christian/conservative idea that culture and morals is more important that economic gains and economic equality would be seen as decisive.

The next time you hear some bit of propaganda from a Trump supporter or a Bernie Sanders supporter, ask yourself, what vision of the human being are they putting forward?  In most cases, I think this single difference accounts for the political hostility that our culture is infatuated with.

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