Politics and Ethics

There are philosophers, Epicurus comes to mind, that would preach against the involvement of politics. Epicureans in general wished to live a solitary life, free from the stress of the city. They view happiness as an end unto itself, the meaning of life, and reached through ataraxia. It’s an interesting notion that happiness comes through inner peace, although not an uncommon one. What’s even more interesting is the fact that people like Thomas Jefferson and Christopher Hitchens considered themselves Epicureans.

This complicates the issue. For now we will have to take for granted that pleasure is the highest good, that being the most base solution we can work with. Jefferson and Hitchens were involved in politics just about everywhere they went, which, as it turns out, is pretty bad for someone’s inner peace. In fact a survey found that politics is the factor that induces the most daily stress in our lives. In their own words it was “hearing about what the government or politicians are doing” that causes that anxiety. Of course someone could make the argument that less stress would be created if the government functioned as it should, but that is ridiculous since there is no single consensus on what the government is for, and even if there were, there is no single consensus on how to go about achieving that purpose.

epicurus bust
Born in 341 B.C. in Samos, Epicurus is famous for his ethical system of hedonism and his solitary living. His four part cure for unhappiness is “Don’t fear god, don’t worry about death, what is good is easy to get, and what is terrible is easy to endure.”

But to bring in the utilitarian perspective, involvement in politics can bring about the most happiness with the sacrifice of some personal pleasure. For instance, reading the news every morning can put me into a short depression, but it makes me a better informed voter. Or better yet, protesting may end badly for me when it is over, but it helps more people in the long run. This sort of argument is made by some to justify their actions. In a sense, this debate can almost come down to happiness for “The self vs. The many”.  John Stuart Mill, the leading advocate for utilitarianism, was a politician for a period of his life.

With all this in mind, is it better to withdraw from politics altogether, or engage in politics to create a better society?  First of all it depends on what kind of society is going to be created out of this. I’m not going to attempt to draw any sort of political philosophy out of Epicureanism, since I believe arguments can be made for both liberal and conservative living from his writing. John Stuart Mill remained a classical liberal throughout most of his life, but seemed to move towards socialism in his later years.

John Mill
John Stuart Mill was a famous British philosopher and advocate for the ethical system of utilitarianism. This system is aimed at creating the most happiness for the greatest amount of people.

If it were possible I would love to live an Epicurean type commune modeled after The Garden, but today’s modern living makes this more complicated. This shows a clear want to withdraw from life and politics, but an acceptance of what we are given with. To give a practical example I will take reading the news. I would almost certainly be happier if I had no idea what was going on in the world and I had nobody around me that pressured me to do so. After reading about constant atrocities and the despair around the earth, a certain weight is put on the individual. The person in most cases can’t act to remedy the unhappiness, which may cause more distress for that person. The answer can’t always be to go out and help, so does that mean that ignorance is bliss? My proposal is that it is entirely up to the individual. I will admit to a certain extant that ignorance is bliss (even though in the long run it may cause more harm) but once the individual has been exposed to that weight of the world there is no way to be unexposed.

In a way my solution might be seen as almost entirely Epicurean. If you wish to do so, choose to involve yourself in politics if it will cause you more distress to know you aren’t helping society in any way.  This is a serious issue for many people. If that is not your priority, and it will bring you no distress to do so, then detach yourself from society. Whatever the issue is, it will eventually reach it’s equilibrium point and resolve itself. The only difference is the amount of anxiety caused by your involvement in it or not.

This proposed solution leaves a number of problems. The first being if a person has absolutely no political inclination at all. It’s not unreasonable for a person to what to have no action in politics, as goes the old saying “Just because you don’t take interest in politics doesn’t mean politics doesn’t take interest in you!” Which really can be said for most subjects. If a person trusts others to take political action, which is the purpose of a republic, then there is no problem with this.

Another problem is a more egoistic one. We’ve already determined whom should participate in politics based off the amount of stress it induces, but once that person begins to participate, he may be taken with more stress than originally planned. The principle states the goal is to create the most amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people. This presupposes that the person knows what is best for the greatest amount of people, even better than the people know what is best for them. This is contrary to what people believe a democracy is. How many leaders in history believe they could have done better if it were not for the will of the people? This was certainly the view of Hobbes, and a much controversial one. I don’t intent to propose any new take on this. But what this means in terms of ethics is that choosing to remain politically active may produce a more long term anxiety than small daily doses of it. If a person comes to a political conclusion out of the norm they think is best for humanity, it may follow them throughout their life. Such as claiming to be a communist or anarchist in today’s time.

It’s also taken for granted that the person would have other interests and hobbies outside of politics. While completely dedicating one’self to a political cause might create good in the long run, it does nothing to help the individual reach inner peace. As with all things, there is a balance to be reached.

Some are more susceptible to others to lead a political life, and some are more able to handle it. Surely Epicurus shied away from politics for a reason, and one has to admire him for it. However, that isn’t always the best answer considering how connected people are this days, and how much society relies on the election of officials every so often.

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34 thoughts on “Politics and Ethics

  1. Perhaps the most basic fact about politics is that everything is political, and even the choice to be apolitical is a political choice. Withdrawal from politics is a conscious act of letting go of our responsibility as political beings. Politics is not about inner peace and is certainly not just an ‘interest’ like art or embroidery.

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  2. It is virtually impossible, in a modern world, to live beyond the reach of society. Society by its very nature is political. Escape is not really an option. The ostrich doesn’t escape by burying its head in the sand. The option involves the degree to which we choose to become involved. There are driving forces. Compassion. Empathy. Justice. But they involve who we are, rather than the power or influence others have over us. They come from inside us … and have significant impact on how the stress of living affects us. To do for someone else, even, or particularly, at personal sacrifice engenders powerful feelings that, I believe, overcome any sense of stress. The real question, I fear, is how do we know we are right when we choose a course of action. We cannot. We can only be guided by that deep sense of compassion, of empathy, for others. If we act for them, rather than ourselves, our egos, the chance of increasing stress diminishes dramatically.

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  3. Plato certainly had a unique, albeit rather arrogant, idea of who was (is) best suited for authority; thus, accepting his line of thought, only the few intellectually capable would bother themselves with politics, while everyone else would either engage in common labor or, for an elite minority, the defense of the republic. But I would dare say Epicurus himself would be most unhappy with that Platonic arrangement! LOL Excellent article!

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  4. An excellent and thoughtful post!

    The greatest of Epicurean anomalies is Gaius Cassius Longinus, a Roman senator and one of the chief conspirators against Julius Caesar– of course, he died far from the Garden, and it was no peaceful death! It’s not surprising though that Stoicism was better received by the Romans, with its emphasis on duty, and being a ‘citizen of the world’ (which, incidentally could also easily be reinterpreted in an imperialistic context). Epicureans have always (often unfairly) gotten a bad, first by the Greeks, then the Romans, and then the Christians — conflating it with mere hedonism, frowning on its general withdrawal from the political sphere, and of course being scandalised by its purely materialist views.

    Your post also reminds me of many of the first Daoists of ancient China who were primarily aristocrats and bureaucrats who retired from their political offices and lived away from all centres of power. This is, oddly enough, consistent with the political ideals of the Dao De Jing– which I think is less a political treatise with policies to be enacted but rather a radical criticism (and ultimately a renunciation) of power.

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  5. Very interesting post. Especially for a novice philosopher like myself. Because I have a bias opinion of law, it may not be my place to say. But to me politics corrupts the very will to serve the people. I imagine the best of the best all had good intentions.

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  6. Utilitarianism has been hijacked by economic neo-Liberals in the UK and USA to define their harsh economic policies; it has now, the the economic context – and possibly in criminal justice policy-making – become another form of Positivism, not strictly in the HLA Hart sense, though related, but arguably closer to Spenser.

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    • This is why I thought it notable to include that John Stuart Mill became a socialist by the end of his life, to dispel that utilitarianism simply serves the neo-liberal agenda. While utilitarianism has served to justify many of the awful policies and atrocities done by governments, I believe these were all superficial, and bastardized versions of the philosophy. However, I will admit that it is a philosophy that greatly depends on a person’s point of view. Nonetheless I think it leads to a clear solution in terms of economics.

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  7. If everyone participated in politics, it would not be politics, but people being together. If no one participated in politics, it would not be politics, but silence.

    Neither of these being likely, I suppose this is what we end up with.

    Great essay here. Never-mind my (un)verifiable babble. Just daydreaming of solutions people will not accept. I’ll be reading around, wish I could spend more time…thanks

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  8. Enjoyed your post! I’ve always liked Thomas Jefferson, I love to hear the Thomas Jefferson Show on the radio. There are a few things we disagree on but trying to stay out of the center things for the most of the time we agree on.

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  9. A well written post but not one with which I totally agree. You say:

    “… there is no single consensus on what the government is for, and even if there were, there is no single consensus on how to go about achieving that purpose.”

    “If it were possible I would love to live an Epicurean type commune modeled after The Garden, but today’s modern living makes this more complicated.”

    “…If [civic engagement] is not your priority, and it will bring you no distress to do so, then detach yourself from society. Whatever the issue is, it will eventually reach it’s equilibrium point and resolve itself.”

    Human beings are genetically social animals. It is in our nature. We do not have the ability to survive in the world as individuals separate and apart from each other. Because our personal survival requires us to live together, in families, clans, communities, etc., we must have rules to facilitate cooperation. These rules develop naturally. These rule may be implied. They may be learned social behavior that are never explicitly stated or they may be as formal as a written constitution and chapter laws. Regardless, we must have rules to facilitate social living.

    And rules, while they are taught by example or more formally by upbringing or training, must also be reinforced for the survival and expedience of the family, clan, tribe, etc. Governance is any system of rules and rule enforcement. It doesn’t matter of the scope is between friends, within a family or in a company. Governance is a natural outgrowth of our being social animals.

    Politics is the means by which human beings influence the rules and rule enforcement the “group,” any group or any size or scale. It is just as valid to label influence jockeying within the family as politics as it is to label presidential election campaign activities as politics. Everything about governance and politics is natural to human nature and endlessly scalible to size.

    Government is any formalized system of governance. It applies to mostly larger, less fluid human institutions, such as churches, businesses, corporations, civic associations, communities of any size and nations of any type. It may or may not apply to a small commune, depending entirely on its size, but every commune still develops governance with rules and rule enforcement. Shunning, excommunication, shorting rations, revoking privileges or public shaming are all forms of rule enforcement common in groups that have informal governance.
    The history of the humans is a history of ever growing (some say evolving) social complexity and inter-dependence. The overall survival benefits to individuals of coordinated social actions and collective rewards outweighs the short-term gains of independent self-interests.

    Additionally, separating oneself from the society at large is almost impossible and not nearly as desirable as it may seem. By the time Epicurus was born, his “Garden” was no more able to live separate from society than is a finger from the body. Who in his garden, for example, mined the ore and smelted it, and worked it to manufacture their garden tools? Who harvested timber in distant forests? Who among them grew cotton and manufactured cloth for clothing. Who protected them from marauders and organized criminal elements from outside their garden commune?

    Society at large is the social context in which we live our individual lives, whether we are active or passive in our civic engagement. We are mostly not equipped to live separate and apart from it. Only the most primitive of people living in remote places on earth can call themselves free from society at large, and even there they must live in clusters for their own survival.

    So I don’t agree with your premise that there is no single consensus on what the government is for. Government formation is as organic and natural as any other human need we express is larger scale. Its purpose is to assure mutual benefits to members and to do collectively for us, as individuals, that which we cannot do alone. Where consensus breaks down is on what forms it takes, who is included or excluded from group membership and how social power is stored, applied, distributed and transferred within the reference group. Politics is the currency of social power. it is the linguistic and physical behaviors of members attempting to influence governance at each scale of human activity. It is a shared responsibility, but not a responsibility for which everyone needs to take an equal share.

    Brian

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  10. Not only did I think new thoughts reading your work, but I really enjoyed the comments made by others. I have a friend that gets so steamed up over politics that sometimes I think every nerve ending must be firing at a phenomenal rate. Talk about stress. This friend used to write to people online until a stroke took them down. Now the person is rehabilitating in an institution, but they also lived on fast food and abhorred exercise.
    I never took philosophy in college, but over the years I’ve read and heard a lot. Thanks for furthering my education.
    Thanks for liking my blog.

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  11. Hey, writeforthemasses. Excellent article in the main. 🙂 However, if it were my article – which you may rightly argue “IT IS NOT!” – I would say, “the most base solution WITH WHICH we can work”, not “the most base solution WHICH we can work WITH”. Some may even argue for a bridging of the two approaches and say, “the basest solution WITH WHICH we can work WITH” – but personally I find this solution absolutely fucking hilarious. Pardon for using the most base word in the English language. 🙂

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  12. “The principle states the goal is to create the most amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people. This presupposes that the person knows what is best for the greatest amount of people, even better than the people know what is best for them. This is contrary to what people believe a democracy is. How many leaders in history believe they could have done better if it were not for the will of the people? ”

    The idea that a political body could figure out what would make most, or even many people happy is a fallacy. For example, how could someone in Washington know what a teenager in Madison, Wisconsin want or need for lunch? Even if he had the ability to know what would make each person happy, it is impossible to customize for everyone. When you don’t customize, many people will be unhappy, or not as happy as they could have been. This also ignores the repeatedly shown fact that concentration of power brings corruption and self-serving. I’m sure those leaders in history would have made sure they lived the high life even if many of their people were starving to death.

    What is better is for government to just get out of the way and let people gather for themselves what they want and need. Instead of dictating a school lunch, let the local cafeterias figure out what the kids want and serve it. Instead of creating a universal healthcare plan, let people go to the doctor and get what they want, how they want it. All of the money for these things comes from the work of the people who are consuming the services. It isn’t like the government can magically provide all sorts of services without people producing the needed wealth to fund them. What sense does it make to gather those resources, take a bit for overhead, and then have a few people dole them out?

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  13. You seem to be debating the issues without personally debating the angels and devils going on within that seem to be having this discussion as to whether or not — you the writer — wants to get involved or back away to become more ascetic to all things politic. That is to say you start by bringing up the points that seems to be valid to *you* the writer, but then dance away almost immediately by putting the discussion into third person… In fact because of this style of approaching politics and your personal debate on the issue of ethics, I found myself having to re-read the article several time to ensure I’m getting the intent you’re trying to convey and still find myself modestly unsure I’m reading your intention correctly.

    As the son of a politician I can agree that it’s often egotistical of the individual to want to dive head-first into the deep end of the world of politics. But often I have witnessed and observed this is simply a veneer… A shell often used to protect the person from the maelstrom of public opinion that is often whimsical and especially capricious. One fact that I’ve come to learn from those politicians that some have the capacity to dealing with those energies — which I often call from my metaphysical learnings — harmony through conflict. Others? Not so much of which you describe throughout this entry. The point is — like any career — in politics there is a crucible to either temper the person to make them stronger (and more committed) or convince them of choosing a different calling.

    So my question to you is — have you figured this out for yourself? Or are you still in that crucible?

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    • I can assure you that I have left the crucible, as you describe it. After long periods, however, it is always uncertain that I could enter it again.

      As for my style, I realize the confusion in switching perspectives rapidly. This is merely to act as a shift between the personal and the general, in other words to show when an example is more personal or more vague. Past this it has little meaning other than displaying the flexibility of the idea.

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      • Thank you for the clarification. Perhaps in the future you’ll have more success (or experience) in incorporating “Divine Apathy” to maintain the peace of mind you’re seeking when dealing with both politics and being in the know.

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  14. My difficulty with an ‘ignorance is bliss’ perspective is that the choice to detach oneself from domestic politics leaves the way open for political parties with anti-social policies to gain power. The detached voter does not know that voting for such a party or abstaining from voting altogether may inflict misery on vulnerable sections of society, and the detached voter may even be so detached as not to know that he/she has contrived, in absentia, to bring the misery into being.
    I’m only an armchair philosopher, but I think I’m a utilitarian. My favourite philosopher is Peter Singer because he makes no bones about the responsibilities we have towards our fellow human beings (e.g. In The Life You Can Save.)

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  15. Nice essay … seems to me, a benefitting citizen has a duty to participate and that duty is an obligation for which happiness is irrelevant. Then, the degree of that participation is p to the citizen, from minimal (say, knowledgeable voting) to total. I guess I’d make a lousy epicurean …

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  16. What is the purpose of government (politics)? The purpose of government is to protect the rights of the individuals. However, because of the nature of government and the politicians and bureaucrats forming such, all too often government becomes a power fantasy for some and a hell for others. People should be involved in politics, which after all is just the interaction between people, if for no other reason than to protect their rights.

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