Three Types of Political Theories:


From where do governments derive their just right to govern?


Classical Political Theory


What typifies Classical Political Theory is that the purpose of government was to create a noble citizenry.  In the political theories of Plato and Aristotle, but even in the thinking of the Roman Empire, you find that the mission of government was cultivating and civilizing the citizens.  Since the mission of government is to form the character of the governed, the government has broad authority to regulate the lives of the governed.  Authority must be commensurate with responsibility, so if the government has the responsibility to see that people turn out ok, governments must therefore have the authority to tell people what to do.  This is a very paternalistic model of government.  Note further that evaluation of government (a good government/ a bad government) turns on the effectiveness that the government demonstrates in realizing its ends (functional account of good).


Now, it would be an overstatement to say this was universally accepted in in Classical times.  One can see the Sophocles play “Antigone” as examining/questioning the relationship between the individual and the State.


Medieval Political Theory


Typical of Medieval Political Theory is the notion that the Universe is a Divine Monarchy with God as the ultimate source of authority.  While we all must be obedient to God, there is a “chain of command” so to speak.  Throughout the middle ages there was a debate about who, precisely, was “second in command.”  The Roman Catholic Church maintained that it was the bishop of Rome, the Pope (although there were some disputes about this within the church).  So, for instance, it was Pope Leo III who crowned Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, in the year 800.  This was a very public way of demonstrating that the Pope is the one bestowing the title, and the Pope is in the position to bestow this title because his authority comes directly from God.  (And what the Pope giveth, the Pope can taketh away.)  As the papacy's power grew during the Middle Ages, Popes and emperors came into conflict.  In one such conflict  Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV was excommunicated by Pope Gregory VII.  As a show of penance, the story goes, Henry stood in the snow outside the gates of the castle where the Pope was staying for three days begging the pope to rescind the excommunication. 


Now this was not just because Henry wanted to once again resume his membership within the Church.  Loyalty was assured in the Universal Chain of Command by oaths of allegiance.  But these oaths need not be honored to one who was not part of the Church.  Once excommunicated, no one who had sworn an oath to Henry needed to honor that (including oaths to pay taxes, crops, use of land, military support, etc.)  Excommunicated, Henry was politically weaken and vulnerable to challenge.


Later in the Middle Ages arose the idea of the Divine Right of Kings.  This theory claims that kings receive their authority directly from God.  The thinking here was that if God did want the King to be the King, He (God) could/would remove him.  The fact that the King is King itself is evidence that it is God’s will.  Therefore kings were answerable only to God and it was therefore sinful for their subjects to resist them. Further, this put the king on equal footing with the pope.  James VI / I (1566 – 1625) upheld the doctrine in his speeches and writings. This theory was supported by his son Charles I and his chief adviser, William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Laud argued that the king had been appointed by God and people who disagreed with him were bad Christians.


Modern Political Theory:


By the time the Enlightenment was underway, supernatural explanations of political power and systems seem unreasonable and no longer tenable.  What was sought instead were rational, scientific explanations of the rise of government and their just right to govern.  In a way they turned the medieval pyramid of power upside down.  Rather than claiming authority came from the top down, modern political theory suggests that authority comes from the bottom up, that governments derive their just right to govern from the consent of the governed.  We will look in some detail at the theories of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.  As you will see, the political theories presented by these two philosophers were extremely influential in the founding of the Unites States.


Three terms both of these theories use:


Natural Law:  Laws which hold whether a government exists or not.


Social Contract: An agreement among people to share certain interests and to make certain compromises for good of them all.  The result of this contract may be the formation and legitimizing of a governing political body.


State of Nature:  The real or imagined situation where you have a community of people, but there is no government.


Thomas Hobbes:


Hobbes wrote the classic Leviathan where he considers the question of government and its justification.  One way to figure out why we have a government is to try to imagine what life would be like without one.  Hence he proceeds to consider the “State of Nature.”


What life would be like in the State of Nature, where humans are “governed” by nothing other than Natural Law?  Note, we would have prefect liberty to whatever we wanted whenever we wanted without fear of government interference.  This may sound like a good thing, even desirable.  But Hobbes doesn’t think so.  On the contrary, he claims that our ruthless competition with one another to satisfy individual desires and establish our own security will quickly lead to what Hobbes calls "the war of each against all," a "state of nature" in which life is "nasty, brutish, and short."


Why is this so?  Well in the State of Nature humans will only be subject to Natural Law.  Predicting their behavior in the State of Nature then requires a working from a concepts of “Human Nature,” that is, the natural laws that govern human behavior and motivations. We cannot imagine how the “natural” human will act (or collective of humans acts) unless we have an understanding of human nature.  Hobbes provides this.  He was both a Ethical Egoist, and a Psychological Egoist.  The first is a moral view about what makes right actions right.  The second is a psychological theory about what motivates human actions.  According to Hobbes then, human beings are primarily self-interested and desire-driven.  We are compelled by our nature to do what we believe to be in our own best interest.  This is the one thing you can count on whether in or out of the State of Nature. 





But why should life be so contentious in the State of Nature?  Why can’t we all “just get along?”   Well the biggest threat to my security is the liberty of my fellow humans  (you).  Conversely, I am the biggest threat to your security.  My security can only be had if I neutralize you as a threat, that is, I can harm you, but you cannot harm me.  But if I ever achieved that, that would destroy your security.  So you work constantly to see that that doesn’t happen and you can always harm me (which effectively undermines my security).  According to Hobbes, people are not naturally capable of virtue and wisdom. Concepts of “Virtue,” Wisdom” or “Justice” are not “natural” and do not arise until one leaves the State of Nature.  They cannot arise when life is a “war of all against all” and a daily struggle for self-preservation.  We are “at war” with each other in very much the same way that the US and the old USSR were in an arms race during the Cold War.  Each was a threat to the other’s security.  Each sought to have “first strike” capability without fear of retaliation.  Had either side achieved this, however, the security of the other would evaporate.  Neither side did and the “war” went on for decades.


The Prisoners’ Dilemma:


Imagine the following scenario:


You and I commit some crime together.  The police do not have enough evidence to put either of us away for a very long time.  They really need to get at least one of us to confess.  So they devise a plan.  They keep us separated.  One officer comes to me with a deal.  She tells me that if I confess and you do not, I will get off scot free.  However, if I don’t confess and you do, I get 20 years.  If we BOTH confess, we will each get ten years.  (They don’t tell me this, but I know that if we both simply keep our mouths shut, we’ll each only get 6 months.)  Further, they tell me that they will be making the same deal with you.  I don’t know what you are going to do; I can’t talk to you, so I just have to guess.  Assuming I am rational and self-interested (as Hobbes supposes) what will I/ should I do?


Here a table of my options:



Things I cannot control

You confess.

You do not confess.

Things I can control

I confess.

I get 10 years

I get off with not time served

I do not confess.

I get 20 years

I get a 6 month sentence.


Well I’m gonna confess.  I have a shot at the best and I avoid the worst.  But of course, if you get the same deal, and you are just as rational and self-interested as I, you’ll do the same thing and the result is that we will both be going away for 10 years.


Now suppose the cops make a mistake.  Accidentally they allow us to sit together.  I quickly explain the deal I was offer and you tell me that you got the same deal.  “Well you know what we should do,” I say to you, “we should both keep our mouths shut.  I’ll promise you that I won’t confess if you promise not to confess as well.”  You agree and promise not to confess.


What should I do now?




(and of course, so should you.)


This scenario is called The Prisoners' Dilemma.


The Prisoners' Dilemma: The hypothetical case used to illustrate Hobbes point that strictly pursuing one's own self-interest in an intelligent fashion results not in the best or even the second best possible situation.


It’s a dilemma because neither one of us is doing something stupid or irrational.  On the contrary, we are both acting rationally and pursuing our own best interests in an intelligent fashion.  Nevertheless I am not getting my best option or even my second best option, and neither are you.  People in the State of Nature are in the very same position, according to Hobbes.  They can’t escape the State of Nature simply by promising each other not to attack at the next opportunity.  The moment one of them lets his or her guard down the others would be compelled, by the law of human nature, to at advantage of the opportunity to attack.


Now, imagine our Prisoners’ Dilemma again, only this time we not only promise not to confess, but we contract a “promise-enforcer” and we tell this enforcer that he should kill either one of us if we defect from our agreement.  Both of us would have very good reason NOT to confess (the threat of death) and both of us would have the reasonable expectation that the other will also not confess.  Since it is in my best interest now to keep quiet I will, and so will you and we will have not the best option (0 time), but at least will get the second best (6 mons.)


Put another way, the best scenario for me would be for me to do whatever I want and get away with it and you cannot do anything about it.  But I can’t really have that so I am willing to compromise and reign in my behavior (no stealing, murdering, cheating, etc.) provided that everyone else to the same.[1]  And we hire an enforcer to make sure we all keep the social contract.  That’s the Sovereign.


This is how sovereign governments come to be and are justified, according to Hobbes.  We contract with one another to create a Sovereign enforcer who will enforce the “Social Contract.”  It will punish any who defect from the contract and fails to conform his or her behavior or threatens the security of fellow contractors.  Such a contract does not exist in paper. However, we are bound by it even if we never signed or saw such an agreement.  Living in society implies the acceptance of such contracts, its rules and obedience of its laws. Ignorance is not an excuse. Further, it is in my own best interest to support the Sovereign and the Social Contract since this is all the stands between me and the chaos of the State of Nature.  Anything I do to threaten or destabilize either is ultimately not in my own best interest.


The Social Contract, according to Hobbes, is an agreement of equal selfish and self-seeking persons not to commit mutual murder.




By 'liberty' Hobbes means the absence of restraints or impediments on one's powers to act.  So in the State of Nature, where there is no government, the individual has “perfect liberty.”  Now initially that may seem like a good thing, even desirable, but Hobbes argues that in fact is not.


Hobbes points out that in the “State of Nature” where there is no government nor governmental censorship we have perfect liberty, but it is useless.  “Free Speech” only takes on value within a civil society.  Therefore if censorship is required to safeguard that free speech, it is justified.  From Hobbes’s perspective, we have nothing to complain about if the sovereign chooses to limit free speech, even to limit it severely.  We had all the free speech we could stand in the State of Nature, but it did us no good.  We give up our liberty and invest it in the Sovereign and the return on this investment is a civil society more secure and predicable than the State of Nature.  It is in our own best interest then (and thus required by natural law) that we support the stability of the civil society and accept the restrictions on individual liberty imposed by the Sovereign,  when, in its view, these restrictions are required to maintain order.


Revolution and defying the Sovereign would only be in our own best interest (and thus permitted/ justified by Natural Law) if life under the sovereign is worse that life in the State of Nature.  But life it the State of Nature, according to Hobbes, was SO terrible, that one can hardly imagine a scenario where life under the Sovereign is worse.  The only one that Hobbes can imagine is where the sovereign has commanded you to certain death.  (At least in the State of Nature you have a fighting chance.)


With regard to "justice" Thomas Hobbes believed that when and where there is no government there is no such thing as justice.  What we call justice is a creation of government.


For Hobbes, the proper role of government to provide security to the citizen and prevent them from committing mutual murder.


John Locke


John Locke also employs the notions of Natural Law, State of Nature and Social Contract, but his account is strikingly different from Hobbes.  For one thing, he disagrees with Hobbes’s Psychological Egoism.  He believe that in addition to self-interest, we are also motivated beneficence and the Common Good.  We are therefore naturally disposed to cooperate and collaborate with our fellow humans.  Further, we have a natural appreciation of our own rights and by extension, the rights of others.  So life in the State of Nature is not that bad.  This paints a picture of a civil orderly collective.  Why bother with forming a government then?  Well, while we have natural appreciation of rights and justice, we inevitably enter into disputes where our personal bias prevents us from seeing clearly what the just resolution would be.  We want the just resolution, but find it difficult to see what that it.  We need a neutral third party to resolve such disputes.  So the Social Contract then is the agreement that the governed negotiates with the Sovereign.  We invest our liberty in the Sovereign in return that Sovereign ensures justice and rights protection.


This is the role of government then: to secure the justice and protect the rights which we had a natural appreciation of in the State of Nature, but which we could only imperfectly achieve on our own.  By no means to we give up our liberty or rights upon entering into a Civil Society; indeed is for our rights protection that we create the government in the first place.  For Locke governments arise and are justified by the natural impulse of humans to live and work together for their mutual benefit and social development seeking to protect their own and one another rights and justice.


This is the dominant thinking behind the Declaration of Independence.  Consider the opening lines:


When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness


Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.


But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.--Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.


The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.


In other word, we were telling King George III, in the words of The Apprentice, “You’re fired!”  (But we will explain why we’re firing you.)  The rest of the Declaration reads like a legal indictment.  Rather than protect our rights and ensure justice, King George trampled our rights, according to The Declaration, thereby providing us with the justification to “dissolve the political bands” which tied us to him and set up another government (presumably one that will do a better job).


"We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution is designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other.


…Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt.[2]




Under Classical Political Theory, censorship is not only justified, it might well be the duty of the government to censor materials that impede the development character.  Plato, for instance, advocates censoring portions of the Iliad for the potentially harmful effects he thought those passages might have.  He also was suspicious of highly emotional art because he feared it stirred up emotions which was psychologically destabilizing for the individual and therefore harmful to society in general.[3]


Under Medieval Political Theory, censorship is allowed.  We are duty bound to follow orders from our superiors and there are really no claims you can make on those above you in the chain of command: they answer to their superiors, not to you.  It is also worth noting that all things are evaluated according to their tendency to lead us to God and to perform our God-given duties.  Art  and other verbal and visual imagery should be so evaluated by those charged by God to see that people follow His will.


Under Modern Political Theory, censorship is certainly permitted from a Hobbesian perspective.  You have given up your rights and now only entitled to what the Sovereign grants you.  Locke on the other hand would defend you rights to freedom of expression, etc.  That does not mean that no censorship could ever be justified.  However, it puts the burden of proof on those who wish to limit your liberty by censoring.  Such proofs generally take the form of consequentialist arguments.  But as with all consequentialist arguments, one would need to demonstrate the clear causal connection between the material to be censored and the harmful effects that the material is supposed to produce.


In the case of pornography, for instance, there does not seem to be a strong direct connection between pornography and harmful societal consequences.  Keep in mind that the porn industry is a multibillion dollar industry and growing.  It is probably more prevalent today than at any other time in human history.  But we do not see sex crimes or violence towards women, etc. worse now than at any other time in human history.  While it is true that may sex offenders often tell us that they were first interested in pornography and then needed greater and greater stimulations until this finally manifested in criminal acts, this is anecdotal and not does not constitute real scientific study.  It may only serve to show that sick people have bad reactions to porn, but they may well have bad reactions to Disney Movies too for that matter.  As a multibillion dollar industry, there must be a LOT of  people patronizing porn, the vast majority of whom are not assaulting women or harming children it would seem.


[1] Interesting that Plato anticipates this line of argument in his Republic and argues against it.  The character Glaucon suggests that morality is only a social construction, a compromise because we can’t have what we really want (i.e. to do whatever we want whenever we want and get away with it.) But if ever we could avoid sanction there is nothing we would deem “immoral.”  He tells the story of the Myth of Gyges who discovers a magic ring that has the power to make him invisible.  While invisible he can do whatever he likes and avoid detection.  Even the gods don’t know what he’s doing when he is invisible.  (Remember the Greeks did not think their gods were omniscient or could read minds; they could only see what you were doing, assuming you were visible while doing it.  This is in sharp contrast to the God depicted in the Paul’s letter to the Hebrews “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Hebrews 4”13)


Glaucon posits:


Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men. Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever anyone thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust. For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another's, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another's faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice. — Plato's Republic, 360b-d (Jowett trans.)

[2] Samuel Adams: Essay in the Public Advertiser, 1749

[3] It is worth noting that this is very similar to current arguments in favor of censoring pornography.  Now, Aristotle disputed Plato on this position with respect to emotional art.  Aristotle agreed that emotional art did indeed “stir up” our emotions, but it then allows us to discharge these emotions in a harmless and psychologically healthy way.  It is therefore good for society. This is his doctrine of Catharsis.   Notice this too parallel arguments which seek to defend pornography, claiming that, while porn appeals to our sexual interests, it allows us to discharge our sexual impulses in a harmless way.  This is it good for the individual and for society.  Similar arguments can be fashioned about violence in the media, sports and video games.