Incoherent thoughts on political epistemology

Politics is another realm where logic can often fall short — even more than in the moral realm. Humans are complex and politics is messy.

I’m skeptical of arguments from first principles and even more so when talking about politics.

One thing I find fascinating about Machiavelli’s The Prince is the way he classifies principalities. He takes into account their histories. A hereditary principality is different from a new one. Then, there are further subdivisions. The people who are in a new principality could be used to being free or used to living under a prince. Each type should be governed differently.

When it comes to government, we have to start with the people and history, not with first principles. We have to start with what’s there, not with ideology. Take ideas like fairness and equality. If you start with first principles, you have an abstract representation of what government might be like if its fair. People should be treated exactly as equals. You have an idea of what laws should look like in that case. If you get treated better than me, then that’s unfair. However, there are multiple flaws with this approach. The first flaw is that it misses historical (and current) iniquities. We don’t live in an abstract realm. We live in this human realm. Truths about government aren’t actually self-evident; they’re contingent on what’s happened already. (Which reminds me, I really should try reading Oakeshott some time.) If you start with the fact that people have been treated unequally in the past, then fairness includes rectifying this history rather than just trying to treat everyone exactly the same now. Affirmative action is unfair if you start from first principles instead of historical understanding.

The other flaw is the creation of Procrustean beds. In the more violent versions of the myth, Procrustes has two beds — one long and one short. Tall people go on the short bed and he lops their heads off. Short people go on the long bed and he stretches them. He fits the people to the bed. Those who argue from first principles do the same, fitting people to their ideology, rather than the other way around. They even tend to be more violent than Procrustes. (My thoughts on this would definitely be strengthened by more specific examples, but I’m just kind of scaffolding my own thoughts for myself right now.)

That’s it for now. I’ve got more posts in me on this topic, including how knowledge can be encoded in tradition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *