"Politics" Defined


A Progressive Living Definition

A Definition of Politics

In principle, politics is concerned with determining the nature of an ideal society and with determining what institutions might best implement such an ideal. As the objective of any ideal society is to create the conditions for the best possible lives for its members, and since determining the nature of the best possible life is one objective of the philosophical discipline known as ethics, perhaps the most important dimension of politics is the ethical/philosophical dimension.

Some political scientists, confused about the fundamental nature of politics as identified above, have instead falsely defined politics in terms of mechanisms for the resolution of conflict. However, even with regard to this characterization, most political scientists have again exhibited profound confusion. The nature of justice, or fairness, is the issue that lies at the foundation of this aspect of political theory. This, too, is fundamentally a debate inseparable from ethics, and is therefore inseparable from philosophy; and yet political scientists, having adopted a positivistic attitude toward their discipline, often profess to be interested exclusively in objective fact, as opposed to objective norms. An especially important issue for politics is the question of how the decision-making processes of society should be managed; and it is in this connection that questions concerning the exercise of political power and the justification of political authority arise. Over time, such alternatives as democracy, authoritarianism, oligarchy, and plutocracy have developed. As much of adult life is concerned with earning a living, another important dimension of politics is economics. An especially important economic issue in the political arena is the question of who should own and/or control wealth; and this is where we encounter debates concerning such systems of economics as capitalism and socialism.If the foregoing analysis of the nature of politics is correct, then a political model of (at least) three dimensions is needed in order to capture the most important of the political possibilities. As we said, one dimension of this model would be the ethical dimension. An especially important issue here is the question of responsibility to the community versus individualism.Another dimension of this model would concern political power. Here the most important issue is centralization versus decentralization of power. The third dimension of the model concerns the ownership and control of the economic assets of society. Here the most important issue is common ownership versus private ownership.In the West, political philosophy began with Plato, and his book The Republic. This work remains important and provides a good starting point for political analysis. In the East, political philosophy began with Confucius. The Analects, a compendium of Confucian observations, also remains important, and also provides an excellent starting point for political theory and analysis. (No introductory textbook of politics that fails to devote some space to the political thought of both Plato and Confucius can be regarded as worth the paper it's printed on. Unfortunately, this would include almost all such texts.)

Finally, it's important to understand that on the most practical level, politics is concerned largely with the crafting of legislation so as to determine who will benefit the most economically in any given society. Thus, the political process is inherently immeshed in conflicts of interest among the various classes that comprise a society.




  • Political theorist A. Allen Butcher has provided an analysis of the nature of capitalism and democracy, together with recommendations which we endorse. To see this analysis, go to this link.
  • He has also developed a model that captures the major political alternatives. To see a modified version, go to this link.
  • For the ethical dimensions of politics, we endorse the thinking of American philosopher Brand Blanshard and Canadian philosopher Thomas Hurka, as well as that of Confucius. Blanshard's most important ethical work may be found in Reason and Goodness, and Hurka's may be found in Perfectionism. For a better understanding of Confucianism, see the discussion in Huston Smith's The World's Religions and An Introduction to Confucianism by Xinzhong Yao, or go to this link.
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