POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY MATTERS
Floyd is a lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Bristol.
His forthcoming book is entitled Is Political Philosophy Impossible?
(Cambridge University Press).
is the specter haunting Europe today? It’s simple. The thing
that truly dogs us, that really drags at our heels, is ignorance.
Ignorance of the fundamental ideas at the heart of politics. Ignorance
of the key terms of political argument: liberty, equality, power,
justice and so on. Ignorance of the subject matter of political
ignorance is a specter precisely because it is invisible to us.
You might, for example, not know how a microwave works. But you
know you do not know that. Now imagine there are purple aliens
growing yellow mushrooms on the other side of the moon. In this
case you are unaware that you unaware of them.
lunar mycophiles, so for political philosophy. We are ignorant
of our ignorance of it, as well as what that ignorance costs us.
It is, to borrow from Donald Rumsfeld, an unknown unknown, when
it could be something else: the thing that liberates the minds
of our citizens; a weapon of mass deduction.
such ignorance matter? After all, if you’ve never heard
of string theory, or nanotechnology, does society really suffer?
Maybe not, but political philosophy is different. It matters the
way that literacy matters, or secondary education matters.
society debates more productively, votes more wisely, and more
easily holds its politicians to account than an illiterate one.
A society that educates to 18 gets a better brand of politics,
and a better brand of politicians, than one that educates to 12.
And notice: in neither of those contrasts have we changed the
political system itself. We imagine democracy as a constant. Yet
we changed something. We changed, and improved a key part of that
term, the demos, or people. And we can change them again with
By educating teenagers in the core concerns of political philosophy,
as part of their existing ‘citizenship’ curriculum.
This means, at root, teaching them to dissect and evaluate the
core elements of political debate, so they can see the pros and
cons of every key political position.
the recent junior doctors' strike in the UK, and the talk on both
sides of a ‘fair settlement.’
does fair mean?
fair settlement one by which the doctors get the pay and conditions
they deserve because of the valuable work they do, and the years
they devoted to learning how to do it? Is it one by which patients
get the care they need, with doctors doing more weekend work,
or perhaps working fewer, but safer, hours? Or is it one by which
the government gets the policy it is entitled to, having won a
democratic election on the basis of particular manifesto commitments?
of the loveliest house in your neighbourhood. Who should get that
house? Again we might say, the person who deserves, needs, or
is entitled to it. Is the neediest person a Syrian refugee, disabled
pensioner, or single parent? Is the most deserving person a nurse,
teacher, or social worker? Is the most entitled person a British
citizen, someone who has spent ages on a waiting list, or simply
the person prepared to pay the most for it?
TO THE PUPIL
way, political philosophy picks apart the core ideas at play in
political argument. It unmasks the various claims we hear about
budgets, manifestos and referendums. It demystifies terms such
as legitimacy and fairness, as well as phrases such as social
justice and the right thing to do. It makes us, not just better
voters, but also better citizens, enabling us to take part in
conversations we had previously not understood. Imagine a world
in which all of us saw right to the core of the arguments many
politicians make, and turned up our noses at the result. This
would not be a world in which they made such arguments for very
don’t we already enjoy such teaching? Perhaps because we
fear it would amount to indoctrination. Yet that fear is misplaced,
as well as ironic. Misplaced because teaching political philosophy
in schools would be like teaching it in universities, where we
consider arguments either side of every issue, and let students
argue and decide for themselves. Ironic because we already permit
religious education in schools, even without hearing both sides
of the case.
know that the English curriculum for citizenship already wants
pupils to be able to ‘think critically and debate political
questions’? My point is that only political philosophy delivers
that skill. It would open and enrich the minds of our teenagers
as surely as it would open and enrich our political culture. It
would transform tomorrow’s voters and tomorrow’s politicians.
It would transform tomorrow’s politics.