What Is Politics?

A friend of mine recently told me that politics escapes her. Given that we recently had a presidential election in the United States, I thought it would be appropriate to take a stab at trying to explain the concept because it is clearly lost on many people.

The first thing we have to understand is that politics is the end of a much longer and more in-depth train of thought that begins with morality. I am going to define three concepts that all build upon each other, and I will start with morality.

Morality- The discussion and determination of the rightness and wrongness of an action based upon a universal standard of value. (See my discussion on morality here.)

Ethics- The discussion and determination of the rightness and wrongness of enforcing morality.

Politics- The discussion and determination of the rightness and wrongness of a system designed to enforce ethics in order to achieve justice.

These may seem esoteric and possibly difficult to conceptualize in these terms. So, allow me to simplify with an example. Murder is one of the most commonly cited morally wrong and universally banned actions, and as such, I will use it to explain how the action fits into my definitions.

When discussing morality, we ask, “Is murder right or wrong?” I think every person can agree that murder is wrong. Why murder is wrong is also something discussed in morality, and let me put it simply that murder is wrong because it violates the self-ownership of the victim. (Again, see my blog here for more.)

Now that we have accepted that murder is morally wrong, we must ask, “Is enforcing a ban on murder right or wrong?” As an aside here, you may be wondering if we should ask, “Should we ban murder?” The answer may seem a self-evident “Yes!” but for any detractors I will say this. What would be the point in determining if murder is right or wrong if you weren’t going to ban it on some level? Even restricting you own actions against murder because you know it is morally wrong is a ban on the act. If murder is wrong, and a ban on it is something we should support, even if only on a personal level, would it be acceptable to tolerate a murderer living amongst us? This would be a contradiction of morality. If a ban on murder is good, then people violating that ban are bad and must be dealt with. Thus, we establish that enforcing a ban on murder is right.

We know that murder is morally wrong and enforcing a ban on murder is ethically right, but how do we implement our ethical determination? This is where politics comes in. Politics is the engineering in a world where morality is the physics. What works neatly in theory does not always work with the materials available. Bridges used to be built with stone and wood, then brick and mortar, then steel, and now with steel, titanium, concrete, and computers. The materials improved and thus so did the bridges. The physics was always the same, but the engineering adapted to the materials. In politics, our materials are individual people. The physics is still the same; morality remains unchanged. The only way to improve our materials is to improve people’s understanding of morality and enhance their capacity to act upon that understanding.

Politics is like bridge building with rocks, bricks, wood, steel, titanium, and the occasional computer design; you never have enough of any one input to build a bridge perfect for your material, so you cobble together what you can where you can. This is pretty much why politics sucks. Imagine you are a piece of steel trying to justify the building of a bridge that you are capable of supporting, but you are talking to a bunch of timber, bricks, and rocks. Are the rocks going to be able work with you on that bridge? Most likely not. To dispel the idea that I am calling stupid people rocks in this analogy, think of it this way. How hard is it to build a bridge of rocks and stones compared to a bridge made of steel? When building with steel, the complexity increases considerably. With rocks, you just stack rocks until you get your bridge. Both are applying physics to meet a desired end, and one does it with far less complication. When discussing politics, you want to be the rock, not the steel.

To our idea of murder, how do we enforce a ban on murder in a way that does not violate morality while simultaneously achieving justice? Answering that question is the purpose of politics. The system devised is limited by the people devising it, implementing it, and to which it applies.

If the people devising the system believe that, while murder is wrong, forcible imprisonment is right, they might devise a system in which every single person is in solitary confinement all the time. Murder would certainly be stopped, but so too would anyone’s will to live.

If you lived on a world where the intelligent people were three feet tall and blind, while the aggressive and violent were six feet tall and had no compunction against murder, the implementation of any system the intelligent people designed would fail.

If all of the animals of the jungle were to try to devise a plan in which murder was banned, the entire ecosystem would collapse. The predators such as lions, cheetahs, and tigers would all die off as they would not be able to eat, and all of the prey species would overpopulate and decimate the vegetation, thus killing themselves off in the process. Trying to apply politics to that scenario would undoubtedly fail.

For humans, if we were all perfectly rational, well informed, and had a strong grounding in morality, we would have no problem building a political system out of rocks. Ideally, anarchy is a world in which the rocks work freely together with the rocks, the steel works with the steel, and whoever wants to build whatever wherever is perfectly free to do so because every participant is doing so voluntarily. Unfortunately, we do not live in that world, and few of the materials in our political metaphor understand politics, let alone anarchy. So, we are stuck building the best bridge we can with the inputs we have.

The Want-Need Relationship

It has come to my attention that many people believe that they can go through life happily not getting what they want as long as they get what they need. This is an odd belief and it shows a lack of understanding about the want-need relationship. Allow me to elaborate.

Do you need to eat food and drink water? You’re immediate answer is probably yes, but the correct answer is no. There is nothing that you inherently need to do. You don’t even need to breathe air. That is, unless you want to survive. You don’t need to eat food or drink water unless you want to live. You don’t need to have shelter unless you want to survive the elements of nature. You don’t even need to wear clothes unless you want to live in society, nudist colonies notwithstanding.

The want-need relationship is imperative to understand because without knowing what you want, you will never know what you need. Do you want to be happy? Then you need to live a virtuous life directed at being a good person. Do you want to be healthy? Then you need to eat a plant based diet and exercise regularly. Do you want to be loved and feel desired in your intimate relationship? Then you need to be a virtuous person, find a virtuous partner, and work to make sure each of you is engaging the other to be better every day.

Your desires are the guideposts by which you orient your life. The desires you have express your maturity and values. A child may desire candy and cookies, but that is because he doesn’t know any better. An adult who desires candy and cookies has a very immature mentality and does not value health or long-term happiness.

Philosophy should help you determine what it is you want out of life and how best to get what you need in order that you may experience happiness as often as possible. Philosophy is not merely understanding the want-need relationship; it is determining what you as an individual need so that you may accomplish what you want.

As you grow and change as an adult, what you need will invariably change because you will develop a more profound understanding of what it is you want out of life and why. Experiencing happiness is what we all want, but what it is that makes us happy is different for everyone. It is also different for the same person over time. Future you will undoubtedly need different things than current you needs in order to experience happiness, and what current you accomplishes will impact what future you needs. Future you’s understanding of happiness will be tempered and encouraged by what current you experiences. Philosophy will put into perspective the importance of knowing what you want now and in the future, and it will help you prioritize so that you may experience happiness as completely as possible. (I talked about the relationship between current you and future you in a previous post, here.)

If your desires are the magnetic poles, then philosophy is your compass. Understanding the want-need relationship is the equivalent of building a state of the art GPS system, launching the satellites into space, developing a cool interactive and user friendly interface, turning it into an easy to use app, and making sweet, sweet moolah. Money isn’t everything, but metaphorical money used to represent happiness? Those are the dollar bills to stuff under your mattress, stack in your safe, and hopefully have enough of one day to do a Scrooge McDuck style high dive into and swim around in. That is a dream worth achieving.

The Two People in Your Life

There are two versions of you that exist. There is the person you are right now, and there is the person you will eventually become; current you, and future you. At the end of reading this article you will be future you from the perspective of current you, and you will be a different person. Time and experience make the future version of ourselves different from who we are right now in this moment. Even if we do nothing but stare blankly at a wall for four hours, the person we are at the end of that four hours has changed, even if seemingly imperceptibly. You will at the least be four hours older, and perhaps at the most, someone who has achieved a profound understanding of themselves. You could have been meditating about your life during that staring, only you know for certain. The point is, we are always changing, and the only control we have is over the direction of that change is the choices we make.

You can do nothing to change who you are right now, but the choices current you makes will determine who future you is. That sounds clunky, so let me rephrase. There are two people in your life, the person you are, and the person you will eventually become. You have the power to determine who you will eventually become, and you can ensure that version of yourself becomes who you want to be by the choices you make in the present. It can be empowering and scary to realize the kind of power you have over the direction of your life and the future you will have. You have the capacity to become what you have always wanted to be, to be the kind of person that will make you happy. Eventually, current you will be future you, and when that day comes, will you be happy?

We must side track for a moment to define happiness. Happiness is a state of being. It is a kind of joyous satisfaction with your life that comes as a result of living the virtues that make you a good person. It is not the immediate satisfaction of your most base desires in the moment that defines hedonism. Happiness does not come from consuming the bowl of ice cream; it comes from knowing that you have the power to choose if you want to eat the ice cream, and if you do, it will not ruin your health. Happiness is self-empowerment and self-control. Happiness is not spending time with people in your life; happiness is knowing the people you spend time with in your life are there because they practice the same virtues as you. Happiness is knowing that you will become the person you want to be because you are already making choices that make you more like that version of yourself every day. But, how do we achieve happiness?

The first thing we must realize is that happiness is not an achievement, and it is not a destination. It is a state of being, which means it can only be experienced. So, how do we experience happiness? We must make choices every day that make us virtuous and good people. I say virtuous and good because I believe virtue is living in accordance with your values. If you value honesty and want to be virtuous, you must be honest and truthful with yourself and the people in your life. You could value hurting other people, and thus would be virtuous by hurting other people. But that wouldn’t make you a good person. In order to be good, you must virtuous in living the values that make one a good person. Those values may be self-evident to most people, but this is short list of some of them: honesty, integrity, trust, compassion, empathy, sympathy, kindness, generosity, courage, and magnanimity. That is by no means an exhaustive list, and to provide a complete list may take a lifetime of work. Another reality is that being virtuous and good also takes a lifetime of work.

The truth is, none of us will ever be perfectly truthful, perfectly honest, perfectly empathetic, and that is OK. We are human. It is more important that we try and are dedicated in our effort to achieve virtue than it is to actually achieve the ideal. Being virtuous is a skill, and like any other skill, it must be practiced if we are ever going to be good at it. You do not have to be excessively rigorous, but it is important to have a working understanding of your virtues. Otherwise, you will not know what choices to make. If you want to be an honest person, this means you must always tell the truth, no matter how embarrassing. Sharing embarrassing truths can be hard, but there are two ways to make it easier. One, you start with easy, little truths. Perhaps you tell your friend you secretly have a crush on the awkward person that used to work in the mail room, or despite how obnoxious your boss is, you respect and appreciate them for what they are trying to accomplish in the workplace. Two, you have people in your life with which you can share your truths openly and honestly without fear of judgement or reproach because they accept and appreciate you for the person you try every day to become.

This is another truth; achieving virtue is a life-long pursuit, and you must make choices every day that direct you towards being virtuous. You must practice every day, every time you have to make a choice. No matter how small the choice is today, it will impact future you. You may think, “Ah, it’s just one cookie, what could it hurt?” but it is not just one cookie. It is a value judgement about whether or not immediate gratification is more important than long-term success. If you are trying to lose weight, saying no to the cookie today will make it easier to say no to the cookie tomorrow, and after saying no to the cookie a few days in a row, you will feel so empowered that no cookie will hold sway over you ever again. Understanding the kind of power future you has the potential to wield must be an ever present idea in your mind because it will have a profound impact on the power current you is able to exercise.

Future you will eventually be current you, and if you want future you to be happy, successful, and the culmination of your life’s biggest dreams, then it requires consistent, diligent work from current you. It is not about some singular herculean effort, rather it is about a lot of little efforts every single day. One snowflake is not capable of covering the mountain, but when enough of them accumulate over time, and their fall is consistent enough, you can build a ski resort and make a lot of money. The snowflakes are your choices, and the ski resort is your happiness. Isn’t it time you started accumulating?