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Distance from Power Politics

The balance between self-enriching and societally-enriching choices is one of two shaping topics in value theory; the second is the means-ends dichotomy. These are orthoganal issues; let's focus specifically on societally-enriching choices and the conducts permitted in the means-end space.

This space is shaped by conduct-ideals; what are we willing to do to serve society? Even given the intent to serve society, we label this spectrum as idealism versus pragmatism; an idealist has a strong notion of virtuous conduct, a pragmatist cares simply for virtuous ends. Excessive idealism may achieve nothing; excessive pragmatism limits the potential for greatness.

This divide is not fixed in the nature of things; rather, it is situational and depends on the context of society. We recognise that at base, there are power politics; blunt tools that are very pragmatic and effective to produce the greatest harms, but power politics hold humans roughly enough as to stifle the goodness we would like to see. Those living outside of society or in societies where little is assured of the goodwill or idealism of their neighbours would be wise to use power politics as their code of conduct. When more trust is possible; when a society forms and a certain level of goodwill or at least reasonably fair conduct can be reasonably and usually assumed; motion away from power politics is possible. The more distance one can achieve from power politics, and the more commitment there is to abstract principles of justice, fairness, and so on, the more idealism is possible within a society and the more that society (and the people that compose it) can reach its potential. This is aided by rule of law, but it is not strictly a legal feature; it's a feature of the demos and its culture.

The cost of being too idealistic is high to the would-be idealist; the cost of being too pragmatic is high to society. There are mechanisms on both sides to pull people towards where society rests; the especially virtuous will continually pull societal norms upwards (and attempt to impose costs on those who operate at a lower level), while the especially pragmatic will do the opposite. These differences will play out in politics and interpersonal dealings; an early philosopher who had some view of this tension was Mozi, who railed against the (relatively) pragmatic Confucian values in China.

One difficult matter for relatively idealistic societies is that even if the people within their nation or group have achieved great distance from power politics, they may still interact with/be affected by other groups that are not nearly so ideal; the norms which they have for each other may be unsuitable for interactions with those outside their group or society. If they believe their codes of interaction should be universal (or otherwise lose sight of the historical slow climb from power politics and the value of their height), they may see those other groups destroy them.

One possible solution for these ideals is to separate the codes/norms of those operating normally within society from those exercising positions of power; those taking leadership roles would act outside the normal codes of interaction between members of their society in ways potentially much more pragmatic, but when taking this status implicitly mark themselves as outside the normal privileges of being a member of society; rather than being judged/shielded by good intent, they are judged purely by the results of their actions (or failure to act), they lose a right to privacy or property, and should their hold on their position be long-term then there is lessened reprisal for their assassination corrisponding to the (expected or real) length of their tenure; these are the burdens of stepping greatly downward in idealism in order to serve society; in return, they may act as needed to serve society with the following caveats:

  • They may never permit, order, or conduct torture
  • They may not lie about the history of nations
  • They may not conduct genocide
  • Their actions must not create a cult of personality
Under this theory, the execution of dictators, heirs to that position, and their high officials is permitted, particularly when during a revolution those who would replace them would wish to end a bloody rebellion quickly; by being a dictator, one has already yielded the right to a fair trial, and those who would execute a dictator have likewise stepped into power politics and entered a similar status to the dictator (for better or for worse). Precedence for this concept comes from the role of dictators in the Roman Republic as well as from the totality of Machiavelli's work (the tension between the Discourses and the Prince is crucial to an adequate understanding).

Idealism and Pragmatism, properly understood, are wagers and intuitions relative to the context of time and society they're rooted in; we should do what is needed to ensure our society survives, be willing to engage in power politics when necessary, but be eager for higher levels of idealism in more tamed and advanced societies.