Political Philosophy and Social Engineering


Political Philosophy and Social Engineering

Welcome to this discussion on the relevance of political philosophy to social reconstruction and development. Before attempting to explain what political philosophy is, it may be appropriate to talk about who political philosophers are.

The scholars referred to as political philosophers are first and foremost, philosophers. It is their examination of political concepts and ideas using philosophical techniques and methods that make them political philosophers.

For example, we read of Thomas Hobbes discussing in his famous book titled Leviathan, how society could move away from lawlessness to a more organized one through a theory he describes as ‘Social Contract’.

We see Robert Nozick in his Anarchy, State and Utopia postulating a theory of social justice he calls ‘The Entitlement Theory of Justice’. We can also see in Julius Nyerere’s socialism, what he describes as ‘Ujamaa’ (brotherhood).

There are a lot of other philosophers like Plato, Aristotle Aquinas and many more whose writings cut across different branches of philosophy including political philosophy. 

One of the central concerns of political philosophers relates to what constitutes a good government and a well-ordered society where humans can actualize their potentials.

It is therefore the responsibility of political philosophy and of political philosophers to present worthy political arguments that would enhance and promote values that are desirable for individuals to realize their full potentials as members of political communities.

In this article, you would be able to define political philosophy, Express the views of some political philosophers on how society can develop, explain the meaning of some political concepts and explain the relevance of some political concepts to the development of society..


Meaning of Political Philosophy

Politics generally is a social activity through which human beings attempt to improve their lives and create a good society for themselves.

According to Arendt, politics is often portrayed as a process of conflict resolution, in which rival views or competing interests are reconciled with one another. The inescapable presence of diversity of people and scarcity of resources ensures that politics is an inevitable feature of the human condition.

Arendt believes that any attempt to clarify the meaning of politics must surely address two major problems.

First is the diverse meanings that the word has when used in everyday language and the second is the automatic assumption that students and teachers of politics must in some way be biased, creating the impression that the subject cannot be approached in an impartial and dispassionate manner.

To make matters worse, politics is usually thought of as a ‘dirty’ word which conjures up images of trouble, disruption and even violence on the one hand, and deceit, manipulation and lies on the other. 

However, politics has been understood by some as concerning how to distribute scarce amount of resources among people in the society in a just manner. It has to do with the way in which people obtain, keep, and exercise power.

Political philosophy, then, is the study of the theories behind politics. These theories may be used to gain power or to justify its existence.

As already noted, one may characterize as political all those practices and institutions that are concerned with governance and conflict resolution but political philosophy is a branch of philosophy that is concerned with the concepts and arguments involved in political opinion.

The main concern of political philosophy is how to deploy or limit public power so as to maintain human survival and enhance the quality of human life.

Other values of political philosophy can be extrapolated especially from the views of political philosophers and from the study of some political concepts. Let us begin with the views of some political philosophers.


1. Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes’ political views are expressed in a number of his works among which is the ‘Leviathan’. Hobbes believes that prior to the emergence of a society, was the state of nature in which there was “no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters” and in which humans lived in “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

In the chaos of the state of nature which could be described as a state of war considering the constant struggle for survival, no man could sufficiently protect himself against his enemy.

Consequently, the people decided to come together to form a society through a covenant or social contract in order to secure their lives and property. For the covenant to be meaningful or significant, it must be secured in the custody of a powerful individual who is capable of punishing offenders, coercing anyone to respond to justice or bringing everyone under subjection.

According to Hobbes, “the greatest of humane powers, is that which is compounded of the powers of most men, united by consent, in one person, natural, or civil, that has the use of all their powers depending on his will; such as is the power of a Common-wealth who is the great Leviathan, or the mortal god to which they owe their peace and defense.

This Leviathan or state is second only to the immortal God.”

The value of political philosophy as seen here is that it could through the initiation of social contract brings harmony to a hitherto chaotic society.


2. John Locke

In his Two Treatises of Government, John Locke proposes a state of nature theory that directly complements his conception of how political development occurs through the formulation of contract. Locke is known to have rebutted Sir Robert Filmer’s political theory that celebrates male dominance in favour of equal opportunity and self-determination.

Instead, Locke would accept Aristotle’s dictum that man seeks to be happy in a state of social harmony as a social animal.

Locke believes the minds of humans came into this world as tabula rasa (clean slate), without troubles or chaos and therefore rejects Hobbes proposition of an absolute ruler as unnecessary, as humans are endued with reason based on natural law for the attainment of peace and survival of all humans.

The state of nature for Locke was not as chaotic as Hobbes painted it. It was a relatively peaceful state of affairs in which people owned properties.

Locke explained that in the state of nature, people were allowed to mix their labour with nature. Anyone therefore that mixes his labour with nature by farming on a piece of land automatically claims ownership of both the land and its produce.

However, some lazy miscreants were found to go about stealing other peoples’ properties and when caught were severely punished by the property owners. This accounts for the crisis in the state of nature. 

It was in a bid to address this challenge that the people decided to form a civil society and institute a government whose responsibility would be to protect the lives and properties of citizens and to punish offenders where there are breaches.

The role of the state here is a minimalist one or like that of a night watchman, and it is to protect the lives and properties of citizens and to punish law breakers.

 Also read: The Value of Philosophy to Other Disciplines

3. John Rawls

In his A Theory of Justice, John Rawls attempts to develop a notion of social justice that deals with conflicts resulting from inequality in the society. His main concern was with the basic structures of society, by which he means the political, social, economic, legal and other institutions of society. 

Rawls insisted that these institutions favoured certain starting places in the distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation.

His aim then was to design principles of justice to which these basic structures of society must conform. This is where he made use of the social contract. His own idea of a state of nature is the original position where people would gather to formulate principles of justice under a veil of ignorance.

The idea of a veil of ignorance is to prevent the contractors from having any information into what privileges or position they would occupy in the society that would emerge.

This way, the contractors would ensure that they are fair when enunciating principles that would apply to all sectors of society.

The two main principles proposed by Rawls are:

(1) That each person should have equal rights to the most extensive basic liberties, compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.

(2) That social and economic inequalities are to be distributed in such a way that they are both to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just saving principle and under the condition of fairness and equal opportunity.

Rawls insisted that with the above principles, the problem of inequality in society which is at the root of the problem of justice would be addressed. What this means is that in Rawls’ kind of society, even the worse-off in the society are able to enjoy the minimum standard of living.


4. Robert Nozick

In his Anarchy, State and Utopia, Nozick argues for what he calls the ‘Entitlement Conception of Justice’ in terms of three principles of just holdings.

First, he says that anyone who justly acquires anything or property that is originally un-owned is rightly entitled to keep and use it.

Second is that anyone who acquires anything by means of a just transfer of property from someone who originally justly owned it, is rightly entitled to keep and use it. It is only through some combination of these two approaches that anyone is rightly entitled to anything.

However, he noted that some people acquire holdings unjustly by theft, fraud or force. This means that there are illegitimate possessions of things.

Therefore, the third is that, justice can require the rectification of unjust past acquisitions. These three principles of just holdings or possession of things which are;

(a) The principle of acquisition of holdings or justice in acquisition

(b) The principle of transfer of holdings or justice in transfer

(c) The principle of rectification of the violations of the first two principles, all constitute the core of Nozick’s libertarian entitlement theory of justice.

The conclusion of it is that people should be entitled to use their own properties as they seem fit, so long as such properties have been justly acquired through either principle (a) or (b) above.


 Also read: 4 Core Values of Philosophy to the Individual

5. Julius Nyerere

Julius Nyerere, a political philosopher and post-independence African leader proposes a form of socialism he called ‘Ujamaa’. Ujamaa is a Swahili term for family hood and brotherhood.

Nyerere’s emphasis on brotherhood or family hood is a situation where people view each other as brothers and sisters or as members of one family. He argues that social institutions and organizations cannot by themselves achieve the purpose of socialism.

These institutions can only do so if they are infused with the spirit of brotherhood and care for one another.

Nyerere believes that Ujamaa is different from other forms of socialism in that the foundation of Ujamaa philosophy was to be found in African culture and traditions. Some of the elements of Ujamaa are:

(i) Love: where an African does not regard his brethren as another enemy.

An African regards all men as his brethren, as members of his extended family because people in African societies cared for one another.

(ii) Classless society: In Africa, classes were only brought as a result of the agrarian and industrial revolution. These events produced conditions that brought about a class system. Since these revolutions did not occur in traditional Africa, therefore no classes existed in Africa.

(iii) Work: Nyerere believes that in traditional Africa everyone was a worker. Everyone contributed his or her fair share of efforts towards the production of societal wealth.

Therefore, there was no place for laxity or laziness.

(iv) Shared resources: Nyerere maintained that wealth was shared in traditional Africa and that no one could hide wealth or amass it for personal selfish reasons.

The riches or the poverty of an individual or family was the wealth or poverty of the whole community at large.

Apart from the ideas of political philosophers discussed above, there are also political concepts and ideas which have been instrumental to societal development and transformation. 

Among such political concepts are the following:

1. Democracy

Democracy is a term that comes from Greek and it is made up of two other words demos meaning people and kratein meaning to govern or to rule. Democracy is denoted basically, as government in which the supreme power is vested in the people.

In the memorable phrase of Abraham Lincoln, democracy is ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people’. This could be interpreted to mean that government comes from the people; it is exercised by the people, and for the purpose of the people’s own interests.

In some forms, democracy can be exercised directly by the people as in ancient Greece, or through their elected agents as in contemporary large societies.

Bentham noted that democracy can be understood as an ideology, a concept or a theory and that it is an ideology in so far as it embodies a set of political ideas that detail the best possible form of social organization.

Democracy is also a mode of decision-making about collectively binding rules and policies over which the people exercise control.

In the wise, the most democratic arrangement is that where all members collectively enjoy effective equal rights to take part in decision-making.

In a truly democratic government, individuals have guaranteed civil and political rights and can freely express their views without fear of being arrested, tortured or discriminated against.

Indeed, one of the prime functions of democracy is to protect basic human rights such as freedom of speech and religion, the right to equal protection under law and the opportunity to organize and participate fully in the political, economic and cultural life of society.

The United Nations recognizes these rights as the foundation of justice and peace in the world.

2. Human Rights

Human Rights are rights that are basic to all human beings, whatever their nationality, place of origin, gender, colour, religion, language, or any other status. Humans are believed to be equally entitled to certain rights without discrimination.

These rights are all interrelated, interdependent and indivisible. They were declared as an aftermath of the horrors of the Second World War. The international community recognized in the Universal Declaration, that the inherent dignity and equal rights of all people need to be protected. It was then that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948 was formally recognized in international law.

The Declaration concerns a set of inalienable human rights, including the basic right to life, to safety from unfair persecution, to the freedom of thought, expression and religion, and to more culturally based rights pertaining to marriage, employment, education and shelter.

In the Nigerian constitution, these rights are summarized as:

i. Right to life

ii. Right to dignity of human person

iii. Right to personal liberty

iv. Right to fair hearing

v. Right to private and family life

vi. Right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion

vii. Right to freedom of expression and the press

viii. Right to peaceful assembly and association

ix. Right to freedom of movement

x. Right to freedom from discrimination

xi. Right to acquire and own immovable property anywhere in Nigeria


3. Justice

Justice is one of the most important moral and political concepts. It forms the basic concern of political philosophers such as Plato, John Locke, John Rawls, Robert Nozick and David Gauthier.

The word ‘justice’ comes from the Latin Jus, meaning right or law.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the ‘just’ person as one who typically ‘does what is morally right’ and is disposed to ‘giving everyone his or her due’.

Cohen is of the view that justice is usually said to exist when a person receives that to which he or she is entitled, namely, exactly those benefits and burdens that are due the individual because of his or her particular characteristics and circumstances. He went on to explain that if someone states that a certain person or act is good, moral, or virtuous, he or she does not necessarily mean that that person or act is just.

As an example, he stated that Mary might believe that Tom’s lending her his coat when she was cold was good or generous, but it was an act of beneficence, not of justice.

Similarly, if someone states that a certain person or act is immoral or wrong, he or she does not necessarily mean that it is unjust.

In the same way, he said, Tom may be deliberately rude to his employees, and he may show callous disregard for the suffering of a poor man whom he could easily help, but although he acts immorally in both instances, he may perhaps ease his conscience by reminding himself that at least he did not act unjustly.

The point made here by Cohen is simply that justice is not the whole of morality; it is only one part of it and is, therefore, one characteristic among many of a good society. It should be noted however that all of these views on justice have been contested by philosophers, thereby making the term ‘justice’ an essentially contested one.

4. Rule of Law

The idea of the rule of law is to the effect that the laws of the land take supremacy over all other considerations in the state. The laws comprise those fundamental principles and procedures that guarantee the freedom of each individual and which allows participation in political life.

The power of the state is directly linked to the rule of law and is for this reason, able to guarantees the right to free flourishing of individual persons.

In a democratic setting as mentioned earlier, equality of persons is very important and this is well expressed in the equality of all the citizens as well as the leaders before the law. The leaders can only perform certain actions when it has been vested with such powers by law or by the Constitution. 

Following from this, the rule of law holds the state accountable for its acts in the interest of the citizens and it also gives the citizens the opportunity to form their opinions on matters.

When there is the rule of law, citizens are completely allowed to take part in political life either directly or indirectly.

In talking about the rule of law in a democracy, it is important to make reference to the separation of powers that exist among the various arms of government, that is, the legislative arm which is vested with making laws, the judicial arm that interprets the law and the executive arm that implements the law.

These laws are often processed into a written document outlining the basic principles by which a country or organization should be governed. This document is called a constitution.

Read on: Definition, Typology, Characteristics, Factors Influencing and Sources Rural Social Change in Nigeria

Conclusion on Political Philosophy and Social Engineering

One of the central concerns of political philosophers relates to what constitutes a good government and a well-ordered society where humans can actualize their potentials.

It is therefore the responsibility of political philosophy and of political philosophers to study the theories behind politics and then come up with worthy political arguments that would enhance and promote values that are desirable for individuals to realize their full potentials as members of political communities.

It is in this process that political philosophy can be said to contribute to social engineering, reconstruction and development.

We have been able to explain the extent to which political philosophy can be said to contribute to social engineering, reconstruction and development in society. This we did by examining the views of some political philosophers on how best society should be run.

We also examined some political concepts and ideas which have been instrumental to societal development and transformation such as democracy, human rights, justice and rule of law.

Democracy is a mode of decision-making about collectively binding rules and policies over which the people exercise control. But for democracy to thrive, humans in a democracy are entitled to certain rights without discrimination.

For this reason, justice becomes important as every infraction on these rights would amount to injustice, and acts of injustice pose an impediment to societal development.

However, all of these efforts at development will remain a will-of-the-wisp if the rule of law which comprises some fundamental principles and procedures that guarantee the freedom of each individual and which allows participation in political life, is not respected.

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