What Do We Mean When We Say Something Is Political? — Recommended Readings

Berlin, Isaiah. Liberty. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Cahoone, Lawrence. The Modern Political Tradition: Hobbes to Habermas. Chantilly, VA: The Great Courses, 2014.

Fukuyama, Francis. State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004.

Keltner, Dacher. The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence. New York: Penguin Books, 2016.

Leys, Wayne A. R. Ethics for Policy Decisions: The Art of Asking Deliberative Questions. New York: Prentice-Hall, 1952.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Revised ed. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2003.

Smith, Steven B. Political Philosophy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

Woodward, Orrin. Resolved: 13 Resolutions for Life. Flint, MI: Obstacles Press, 2011.

We participate in political systems, when we vote, and when we talk about our favorite politicians and about our least favorite.  We say that decisions that we don’t like were made politically.  What do we mean by this term “political”?

The word comes from the Greek polis, which means city, state, people.  Interesting that people, city, and state come from the same word.  Aristotle used the word as the title of his book Politics, where he describes the decision making process for the principles, standards, rules, and actions of a people.  Political then just means “who decides.”  Who decides how to allocate resources and how to enforce those decisions.  Who has the power to make those decisions, who gives them that power, and what backs up that power?  Big questions.  Ranging from philosophical to practical, theoretical to empirical, valuing freedom, equality, or solidarity, these eight authors provide different avenues into these questions.

Evolution of Political Frameworks

What we mean by a political process varies greatly over spacetime.  Over space, every culture has a different perspective on who decides and enforces, and how they should do it, with practically every individual everywhere holding different views on the particulars of how it is applied within their specific culture.  Over time, every culture’s political process has evolved, dramatically, often experimenting with political systems based on royalty, church, military, individuals, small groups, large groups.  None are exactly the same, over time and space.  Interestingly, most of us seem to assume that our system is the right one, now and for everyone, extending our current system infinitely over time and space, though our own grandparents might have disagreed vociferously, as they lived in a different space and time.

Political scientist Steven B. Smith and philosopher Lawrence Cahoone map out large swaths of time in the development of western political systems, ranging from the Greeks with Sophocoles around 441BC, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, to the Christian bible in the early 100sAD, the Italian Machiavelli in the early 16th century AD, the English Hobbes and Locke in the mid to late 17th century AD, and the Genevan Rousseau, the German Kant, and the French Montesquieu and Tocqueville in the late 18th and early 19th century AD, coming to today with modern political philosophers.  A broad sweep, showing the dramatic changes in western political philosophy over the past 25 centuries.  Professor Smith frames the evolution of political philosophy, “The proper subject of political philosophy is political action.  All action aims at either preservation or change…[A]ll action presupposes some judgment of better and worse…The oldest, the most fundamental, of all questions of political life is ‘What is the best regime?…Every regime shapes a distinctive human character with distinctive human traits and qualities'” (p5-6).  Political systems change, according to the context of their own here (space) and now (time) because there is always a “tension between the best regime and any actual regime…[the] zone of indeterminacy between the Is and the Ought, between the actual and the ideal” (p9).  People have always ended up giving the decision and enforcement power to someone, because cooperation and agreement are required to establish predictable order, and people seem generally incapable of doing it themselves, reliably (p11).  Hobbes, in the mid-1600s, brings in to the design of political systems the question of what the human being is like in a state of nature.  Were it not for this state of nature, humanity would not need to be governed, to have decisions made and enforced for them.  This logic runs through to the middle of the 20th century.  Professor Cahoone shows how each new political philosopher borrowed and built on earlier philosophers, carrying some elements forward, disregarding others, and adding some new ones.

Modern Frames

Philosopher Isaiah Berlin brought focus to the language we use and how it confuses our understanding of what we are supporting.  Two different people can both say they support freedom, and mean contrasting things.  “Almost every moralist in human history has praised freedom.  Like happiness and goodness, like nature and reality, it is a term whose meaning is so porous that there is little interpenetration that it seems able to resist” (p168). In this set of lectures, he distinguishes between negative liberty and positive liberty, where the negative is the freedom from and the positive is the freedom to.  Freedom from the interference of others in an individual’s decisions.  Freedom to pursue one’s own potential.  Freedom from what limits what we can do, the freedoms we must lay down, to not interfere in another’s freedom.  “I am normally said to be free to the degree to which no man or body of men interferes with my activity” (p169). Freedom to describes what we are allowed to do.  “I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s, acts of will” (p178). Very different decision making and enforcement processes emerge, based on which definition of liberty one uses.

Philosopher John Rawls framed a different path by exploring a different inquiry.  He explored “‘justice as fairness.’  The central ideas and aims of this conception I see as those of a philosophical conception for a constitutional democracy…a reasonably systematic alternative to utilitarianism, which in one form or another has long dominated the Anglo-Saxon tradition of political thought…I do not believe that utilitarianism can provide a satisfactory account of the basic rights and liberties of citizens as free and equal persons, a requirement of absolutely first importance for an account of democratic institutions” (pp xi-xii).  Professor Rawls sets up that “the primary subject of justice is the basic structure of society, or more exactly, the way in which the major social institutions distribute fundamental rights and duties and determine the division of advantages from social cooperation” (p6).

Building Political Systems

Political scientist Francis Fukuyama maps the terrain of “the state,” what it means, what dimensions are missing in weak states, and how state weakness influences the international system  The role of the state is contested, with some wanting to give more power to the state and others wanting to reduce the power of the state.  “The essence of stateness is..enforcement: the ultimate ability to send someone with a uniform and a gun to force people to comply with the state’s laws” (p6).  Professor Fukuyama’s assessment of states distinguishes “between the scope of state activities, which refers to the different functions and goals taken on by governments, and the strength of state power, or the ability of states to plan and execute policies and to enforce laws cleanly and transparently…We can array the scope of state activities along a continuum..from necessary and important to merely desirable to optional, and in certain cases counterproductive or even destructive…Strength..includes..the ability to formulate and carry out policies and enact laws, to administrate efficiently and with a minimum of bureaucracy; to control graft, corruption, and bribery; to maintain a high level of transparency and accountability in government institutions; and, more important, to enforce laws” (pp7-9).

Philosopher Wayne A.R. Leys explored the ethics of policy making.  Within the framework developed above that politics is the arena of decision making and enforcement, Professor Leys finds that, “The study of standards of decision making is the part of philosophy that has been called ethics” (p4).  He maps the development of ethical frameworks with their practical tools, from the Greeks to modern times, for good judgment, utilitarian, morals, state of nature, precedents, consistency, and policies as means or ends.

Psychologist Dacher Keltner explores what power is, what it does, where it comes from, how it is given, how it is abused, and how to develop it.  “Power [is] the capacity to make a difference in the world, in particular by stirring others in our social networks…Power is the medium through which we relate to one another” (pp3-4).  With power comes the power paradox, “we rise in power and make a difference in the world due to what is best about human nature, but we fall from power due to what is worst.  We gain a capacity to make a difference in the world by enhancing the lives of others, but the very experience of having power and privilege leads us to behave, in our worst moments, like impulsive, out-of-control sociopaths.  How we handle the power paradox guides our personal and work lives and determines, ultimately, how happy we and the power we care about will be” (pp1-2).  “The experience of power destroys the skills that gained us power in the first place” (p100).  “Power makes us blind to our own moral missteps but outrages at the same missteps taken by others (0131). “People resort to coercive force when their power is actually slipping” (p21).  Professor Keltner’s fivefold path to power is: (1) be aware of your feelings of power; (2) practice humility; (3) stay focused on others, and give; (4) practice respect; and (5) change the psychological context of powerlessness.

Author Orrin Woodward takes us to the workshop, looking across the ages for wise tools for developing a healthy process for deciding and enforcing in our daily lives.  These tools group around the development of one’s character,  wisdom, and humility.  The human being “is a wonderful creature..[it] is mind..heart..and..will.  Those are the three main constituents of [the human being]…Transforming one’s life, then, requires the whole person to be involved..mind..heart..and..will must be engaged in the process.  True change isn’t just a mental (mind) assent, isn’t just a emotional (heart) experience, and is more than just regimented (will) learning…It’s only with a mind that understands, a heart that generates passion, and a disciplined will to follow through that change inside a person is generated” (pp22-23).

“We the people” are the polis, the people.  We are the decision making and enforcement process.  In all of its forms, in all of its contexts, over all of space and time, it is a human endeavor.  That makes it an agreement, whether we unconsciously accept it or consciously choose it.  Our participation in political systems is our choice.

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How Natural Is Our Relationship with Nature? — Recommended Reading

Hartmann, Thom. The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight: The Fate of the World and What We Can Do Before It’s Too Late. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004. [Read an excerpt.]

Cahoone, Lawrence. The Orders of Nature. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2013.  [Read 1st chapter.]

Thomas, Chris D. Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction. New York: Public Affairs, 2017. [Read an excerpt.]

Latour, Bruno. Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regine. Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2018.  [More about the author.]

Raworth, Kate. Doughnut Economics: 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017. [Read an excerpt.]

Suzuki, David, Amanda McConnell, and Adrienne Mason. The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2007. [Read an excerpt.]

How do you relate to nature?  Do you love it or are you indifferent to it?  As humans, are we separate from nature, part of it, or is it part of us?  While seemingly simple questions, they have troubled philosophers and practitioners for millennia.  And, the perspective you take directly affects how you engage with nature.  The six recommended books in this post all explore this relationship and the deep implications for our resilience as humanity of that relationship.

We depend on nature.  In The Sacred Balance, David Suzuki reminds us that, “It is nature that cleanses water, creates air, decomposes sewage, absorbs garbage, generates electricity, and produces food, but in cities, these ‘ecosystem services’ are assumed to be performed by the workings of the economy” (p12).  Through our reductive approach to science today, we have reduced the whole of nature into pieces, “and as the world around us is examined in pieces, the rhythms, patterns, and cycles within which those pieces are integrated are lost” (p13).  “Looked at as biological beings, despite our veneer of civilization, we are no more removed from nature than any other creature, even in the midst of a large city.  Our animal nature dictates our essential needs: clean air, clean water, clean soil, clean energy” (p18).  David Suzuki then frames and explores our current understanding of the atmosphere (air), hydrosphere (oceans), lithosphere (mineral), where they all mix (soil), the biosphere (fire), and what makes us human in our relationships (kin, love).  We need to be aware of the interweaving of these spheres we depend on: “With consciousness, we are able to perceive that there is a relationship between our environment and ourselves” (p267).  “Each of us has the ability to act powerfully for change; together we can regain that ancient and sustaining harmony, in which human needs and the needs of all our companions on the planet are held in balance with the sacred, self-renewing processes of Earth” (p330).

In The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, author Thom Hartman reminds us of our intimate relationship with nature.  “Sunlight radiating heat, visible light, and ultraviolet light is the source of almost all life on Earth…Every life form on the surface of this planet is here because a plant was able to gather sunlight and store it, and something else was able to eat that plant and take that sunlight energy in to power its body” (p7)  In the final analysis, “survival and prosperity both hinge on how much sunlight energy is under your control” (p35).  Thom Hartman then explores our relationship with current and stored sunlight.

Nature is dynamic and resilient, whether humans are in the mix or not.  In Inheritors of the Earth, biologist Chris Thomas explores the ecological and evolutionary dynamics and resilience of the biological realm of earth.  “Ecological and evolutionary changes are both of great importance.  Ecological success will determine the species that will live among us in the short term, and evolutionary success will alter the future direction of life on Earth” (p29).  While species come and go, the number of species is growing (p62), and human environments are influencing which ones spread and grow, with species finding new niches where they survive, often different from where they originally evolved (pp79,118). Nature is resilient, with new species adapting to ecological and evolutionary changes.

We are nature.  In The Orders of Nature, philosopher Lawrence Cahoone provides the context and a current state of understanding for five orders of nature that constitute the reality we humans perceive: the physical; material; biological; mental; and cultural.  We exist as an integration of all five orders, partially in relationship with the minerals, plants, and animals that share some of these orders.  Students of each order have a different way of making sense of what is real, rarely understanding the logic of another.  This leads to difficulties in defining what is real, across orders, which influences the ways in which we interact with the order of our reality.

We better take care of the nature that we are.  In Down to Earth, philosopher Bruno Latour suggests that to deal with the level of ecological challenges facing humanity, it is time to shift our underlying understanding.  “Saying, ‘We are earthbound, we are terrestrials amid terrestrials,’ does not lead to the same politics as saying, ‘We are humans in nature.’ The two are not made of the same cloth–or rather of the same mud” (p86).  “The Terrestrial reorganizes politics.  Each of the beings that participate in the composition of a dwelling place has its own way of identifying what is local and what is global, and of defining its entanglements with the others.  CO2 is not spatialized in the same way as urban transport systems; aquifers are not local in the same sense as bird flu” (p93).  In this reorientation towards the terrestrial, our home of which we are an integral part and which is an integral part of us, Bruno Latour suggests a shift in political focus from the dichotomy of either local-based or global-based to earth-based, which is both local and global.

In Doughnut Economics, economist Kate Raworth frames an “ecologically safe and socially just space for humanity…point(ing) towards a future that can provide for every person’s needs while safeguarding the living world on which we all depend” (p39).  To develop this balance between the social foundation and the ecological ceiling, we need to move from an economics of “endless growth to thriving in balance” (p45).  Kate Raworth works through the basic tools of endless-growth economics, replacing them with tools of thriving-in-balance economics: from GDP to social and ecological limits; from self-contained markets to embedded economies; from rational economic man to social adaptable humans; from mechanical equilibrium to dynamic complexity; from “growth will even it up” to distributive by design; and from growth addicted to growth agnostic.

Returning to the starting questions, how do you relate to nature?  Do you love it or are you indifferent to it?  As humans, are we separate from nature, part of it, or is it part of us?  These six authors provide updated, easy-to-approach explorations of these questions.  They each show that the perspective you take from these explorations directly affects how you engage with nature, and your life depends on it.  It is your choice.  I recommend the journey.