On The Importance of Philosophical Frameworks in Politics

Humans are social by nature. We live in groups. What, then, ought to be the relationship between the group and the individual or even between individual members? How do individuals co-ordinate group activity? Those questions are essentially the subject matter of all of Political Philosophy. How we answer those questions dictates the kind of society we have. At the risk of an oversimplified definition, public politics in its democratic form is really a discourse about what the answers to those questions should be.

Therein lies the importance of philosophical frameworks. Concepts like Liberty, Justice, Laws, Rights, Duties etc., help us frame our political arguments and without their aid, political discourse reduces to a crude, directionless power game. I don’t mean to say that ethical frameworks have an objective truth to them, but to use an analogy, it’s akin to attempting to solve a problem of the dynamics of right bodies without the aid Newton’s Laws. It just gets messy.That, I submit, is what’s fundamentally wrong with the conduct of politics in India. It isn’t so much the lack of a meaningful political discourse, like many bemoan, that is the problem, as it is the lack of necessary thought frameworks. In other words, I suggest that we cannot have a meaningful dialogue precisely because we lack the necessary frameworks.

It is only a very vulgar historical materialism that denies the power of ideas, and says that ideals are mere material interests in disguise. It may be that, without the pressure of social forces, political ideas are stillborn: what is certain is that these forces, unless they clothe themselves in ideas, remain blind and undirected.–Two Concepts of Liberty, Isaiah Berlin.

Democracies, more than other forms of government, are prone to the quality of dialogue because of their very nature. If I were to make a utilitarian argument, I would suggest, considering the quality of dialogue we conduct, that we might be better off under a benevolent dictator than as a democracy. Perhaps, that’s the charm of dynasty politics then?–we can’t conduct a meaningful dialogue, so we better let someone we trust conduct affairs for us. Maybe. I don’t know. Of course, that’s trivializing the issue and ignoring other, perhaps more powerful, social forces.

Here is Pratap Bhanu Mehta on the issue of the freedom of speech in India:

“Neither Hindutva groups, nor Islamic groups who take offence at any lampooning of Islam, have an interest in delineating the justifiable contours of what counts as offensive speech. What they have rather, is an interest in demonstrating their power.” [source]

That isn’t an isolated case. It is merely symptomatic of the general malice that afflicts affairs in our public sphere. Forget politics that appeals to the masses. How about our higher institutions? I tend to think things, though marginal better, don’t measure up there either. Consider our legal system–those institutions which ought to reflect in the most profound manner on the values of our society. Mehta has this to say further down in that article and elsewhere in reply to a blog post:

While the court makes expansive rhetorical claims on behalf of free speech, it equally makes expansive jurisprudential claims on restricting it.

..it[Maharashtra High Court] does what a court should try and avoid. It directly engages in an interpretive battle with the petitioner over certain ayats of the Quran, trying to produce an “authorised” interpretation. This is disturbing because it frames the issue of religion in a bizarre way. Indian courts keep going to great lengths to show that there can never be anything offensive or bizarre in a religious text (and come up with claims like no religion can even preach violence, all religions are progressive if not the same and so forth)”

And although Courts routinely make a distinction between criticism of religion and offensive criticism, they have blurred the lines in a way that even criticism becomes difficult.” [source]

Perhaps Mehta isn’t damning the entire judicial system, and merely questioning their actions in one area, but in the cases that make it to national news, I rarely felt the courts display a clarity of thought befitting those higher institutions. This too I see as the result of an undernourished philosophical framework. If you don’t have the framework to peg your thoughts on, how else are you going to make a complicated argument?

Yes, we inherited our legal frameworks from our colonial history. But, to quote Ortega, ‘the quality and influence of an idea [is] not so much in the idea as in a man’s relation to it. Has he made the idea his own, or merely inherited it?’, and I don’t think we have ever made those inherited ideas our own.

2 Responses to “On The Importance of Philosophical Frameworks in Politics”

  1. [how] does the telangana issue fit in these frameworks? i only ask it half-seriously.

    • There is qualitative difference between administrative problems and ethical/moral problems. We do have a decent enough discourse about administrative problems. You’ll find newspapers and TV discussing about allocation of development funds, government transparency issues, etc., What you won’t find, however, is a discussion of ethical issues–is the government morally right to pursue such and such a course of action? Say the Women’s reservation bill. What’s the moral imperative to have them? I don’t think I’ve seen one. It is in that context I presented the free speech case in the post. Evidence the court struggling to present a cogent rationale justifying why its decision is morally right.

      I haven’t seen the Telangana issue posed as an ethical issue either, except for the separatists making a rather mild form of the ‘state failed to provide equality of opportunity’ argument. I’m not aware of any counter-arguments to that. As for me, I don’t have a stake in it, and I haven’t seen it posed as an ethical problem, so it’ll remain an administrative problem to me–like, say, expanding the boundaries of vizag municipal corporation, or creating a new mandalam.

Leave a Reply

Go to Y.a.r.n Facebook Application to comment using your facebook profile

By clicking on Submit, you agree to release your comment under this Creative Commons license: Creative Commons License