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Fr. 481

January 14, 2014

In regards to the form of political institutions and expectations of the citizens, the question remains as to who has the right of the situation. Should we advocate realist or idealist approaches?

Experience and casual observation seem to confirm that people are self-interested in the way seen above. Individuals litter, let their things pile up in public places and shared spaces and, generally, take the easiest way out. So, on this account, it seems that realist approaches have correctly diagnosed the situation to an extent. Yet there seem to exceptions to this rule in the form of individuals not motivated primarily from self-interest in the political realm. Additionally, even those citizens who are mainly motivated from self-interest in political life have other motives and interests at work in their practical reasoning. In short, it is one thing to say that these citizens are primarily motivated by self-interest; it is quite another to maintain that they are motivated exclusively by self-interest. Finally, as suggested above, there remains the worry that individuals are that way simply because the powers that be do not expect any better of them and confront them with little in the way of communal values.

To come back to the case of freeriders or political abstainees, it seems likely that there must be at least some individuals who do so out of principle rather than self-interest, which would present a related though different difficulty for the realist approach. A number of these come to mind. Although Jehovah’s Witnesses pay taxes, they otherwise abstain from political life as authority over their life lies elsewhere and they are, for better or worse, not of this world. Though an extreme case, we could also cite those who are opposed to democracy on principle as a modern institution that breaks down traditional values and institutions. Similar to such anti-democrats are those who oppose democracy not in principle but in its current form, for they see no reason to perpetuate a corrupt system. They do this not because they do not stand to benefit, but simply because it does not serve the interests of the people and, thus, they want not part of it.

In short, these positions and others like them show how principles as well as self-interest can be primary motivators for action in and towards political life. Indeed, we might even go so far as to maintain that, in certain cases, both motives coincide in a single individual. Consider the case of an individual who refuses to perpetuate current political institutions both because they are corrupt and because she cannot change anything (i.e. it would be a waste of effort or input). More simply, both tendencies seem to be at play in most individuals. Accordingly, the divide with which we are faced is far from an either/or affair in that this divide centers more precisely on a dual capacity for action from principle and action from interest. This result is hardly surprising as the conceptual generality that either/or divides seem to require fits poorly with the more flexible empirical generalities with which we content ourselves in ordinary life. (A parallel can be seen in the analysis, diagnosis and subsequent breakdown of the nature/nurture divide, to which the current case is closely linked.)

Consequently, it would be wrongheaded to privilege exclusively one of the two horns of this apparent dilemma. Still, we require a more precise, adequate formulation for solutions that would permit us to move beyond the initial difficulties that this divide imposes when examining action in political life. Two possible solutions come to the fore:

1.) Show that values and principles (e.g. active participation in political life, institutions and forums) can promote or advance self-interest at a reasonable cost (in the form of a sort of buy-in to self-interest).

2.) Seek a regulative or ideal balance of these tendencies in encouraging as many as possible to participate (while still allowing for abstentions of whatever sort), thus maximizing the minimum number of participants in political life (in the form of a kind of maximin equation to principled government action).

While both solutions have their merits, each seems skewed towards one of the two poles in the divide sketched above. Namely, 1.) seems to gravitate towards realism in that emphasis is placed on remaining within an empirical theory framed in terms of self-interest. In turn, 2.) seems a tempered form of idealism in that questions of action calculus and self-interest are left out all the while allowing for isolated cases of inaction from self-interest. Is there some other solution that splits their differences and provides a true third way?

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