Friday, September 16, 2005

Political Science Take Home Exam

This was a take home exam for political science class.  I didn't write down the original questions here, but the questions can be inferred from the content.
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Joel Swagman
Political Science 240
March 14,2000

Midterm Exam

1.) Well over two thousand years since it was written, Plato’s Republic still inspires controversy in those who read it.  There are two diverging views regarding the Republic.
The first option is that “Plato’s ideal city is very similar to a totalitarian state.  They say that under the façade of justice hides the tyranny of the few, and that the majority of citizens are condemned to live without freedom and in complete submission.  Other people argue that Kallipolis is truly a well balance (sic) and harmonious community.  Each person can develop his or her particularl abilities and can find a place to do what he or she can do best.  The government is run by competent and intelligent people, wise individuals who have been trained for a long time to fulfill the task most judiciously.
I would like to argue that both statements are true.
1st Statement
Plato’s Kallipolis is certainly totalitarian.  Strict regulations are put on all participants to ensure that the state functions as well as possible.  Freedom of expression is taken away.  Examples of this are many, but to me the best example of how restrictive Kallipolis would be is found on R53 and following where Plato outlines which literary passages would no longer be allowed in Kallipolis.
However, at the same time it is a state that allows individuals to develop to their fullest potential.  For example, on R48 Plato acknowledges that people have certain appetites besides the basic natural urges (eating, procreating) and so he plans to accommodate these urges to allow people to be philosophical as well.  He also realizes the importance of educating the Guardians, and talks about their mental and Physical education in book three.  In the allegory of the cave Plato also makes clear the value of education (R186-191).
In Kallipolis a small group is in control of a larger population, known as an oligarchy.  While this is not considered progressive politics today, at a time when the world was still dominated by absolute monarchs an oligarchic system is a step up because you have the group making decisions instead of one individual.  Therefore, there is theoretically the higher probability that bad ideas will be weeded out by the group.
Also, although one could call these people tyrants, and be technically correct, because as a group they have complete control over the minority, they are at the same time trained in to rule justly and in theory would be benevolent tyrants.  Thus the situation is not as bad as the connotations associated with the word make it appear.  The same would be true for those “condemned to live without freedom and in complete submission.”  Although this is technically true, it sounds worse than it is.  In Plato’s ideal these people would still be happy while in their state of servitude to the greater good.
2nd Statement
The second statement is also true, provided one analyzes Kallipolis under the assumption that things would have operated as Plato intended them to.  (That is, we assume that the Philosopher Kings would have remained benevolent dictators, and not used their power to their own advantage).  After all, most political systems if looked at in their ideal form are well balanced and harmonious.  This being said, I doubt that Kallipolis would have worked as Plato intended it to, and I believe a group put in power over another will naturally exploit those it has control over.  However, on paper Kallipolis is well balanced and harmonious.  Plato spends much of book seven describing how he would ensure that only the good philosophers became leaders.
In Kallipolis there is certainly stratification according to class.  Although Plato makes some allowances for moving between classes, for the most part one is stuck in the class one is born into.  However, there is harmony between the classes.  The concept of class warfare is absent from Kallipolis.
Plato’s underlying assumption seems to be that if people could see what is good, they would do it.  This is why I think he created a harmonious society like Kallipolis, which in reality is probably not possible.  This explains why Plato believed a totalitarian society could be well balanced and harmonious.  Those in charge would do what is best for those they had control over.

2). The word Freedom is somewhat of an overused word in our society.  Political groups on both the left side and the right side of the spectrum claim that they are on the side of freedom.  So what exactly is freedom?  The answer depends on whom you talk to.
For example, I once had a high school teacher who advocated that true freedom was “being free to develop into the person you need to be.”  According to his argument, true freedom involved allowing limitations to be put on our behavior so that we could develop into the best person we could.  This is obviously a different view of freedom than one might find at an anarchists convention.
My high School teacher might be on to something when he suggests that human beings are happiest when they do operate within restrictions.  However I think he misused the word “freedom”.  Without bothering to consult Webster’s, I believe the word should be defined as it is commonly used.  After all, why give the word a different meaning than the one everyone uses?
I believe freedom should be defined as “the absence of restrictions or limitations.”  It then becomes obvious that a state of complete freedom is unachievable.  For instance, I have restrictions placed on me simply by the fact I am a material being operating in a world controlled by the laws of physics.  I do not have the freedom to fly, and this is no one’s fault, not even the government’s.
Also, whenever human beings live together in society, their freedoms are contradictory.  For instance, someone’s freedom to own a gun might contradict my freedom not to get shot.  This is why so many different political groups can all claim to be protecting freedom.
Since it is essential for human beings to live together in an orderly society, some amount of freedom must be given up.  Plato realized this when he created the idea of Kallipolis.  In Kallipolis people are not necessarily free, but Plato would argue that they are happy.
Being a good American, I believe that the best form of government is one that takes away only the freedom necessary for society to function.  (What exactly this means in practical terms is admittedly open to debate).  This means that I believe freedom is desirable and should be pursued.
The relationship between freedom and justice is another question that is difficult to answer.  If freedom was hard to define, then certainly justice is much more so.  In fact, Plato’s whole Republic is framed in the question of trying to define justice.  However, at some level the question can be addressed if justice is simply looked at as a type of moral obligation.  What exactly this entails has been debated, but Justice is some sort of moral duty that one has.  Human beings are morally compelled to strive for a just society, whatever that means.
Dostoevsky in “The Grand Inquisitor” beautifully addresses the inherent contradiction here.  Ivan uses the example of Jesus, who refused to turn stones into bread.  The reason he did this, according to Ivan, is he wanted people to follow him out of their own free will, instead of out of a desire for bread.  “You did not want to deprive men of freedom and You rejected this suggestion for, You thought, what sort of freedom would they have if their obedience was bought with bread” (GI 304).
Why did Jesus not purchase our obedience with bread?  Because Jesus knew that if we do justly, but do it because we are forced to, it is meaningless.  It is not really justice, because there is no decision.  Therefore, justice can only exist when people are free to make a wrong decision, but choose to make a morally correct decision.
Therefore, I believe true justice can only exist in a state where freedom is maximized.  Of course, I hasten to put qualifications on this.  I do not consider myself a libertarian, and believe that many laws are necessary for society to function.  For instance, I would not argue that welfare should be abolished because it forces one party to give to another without that party’s consent.  I think because welfare helps us to live together as a society, it should be maintained.  However, in the case of recreational drugs, I believe it should be the individuals choice whether to indulge or not so that freedom and justice are both preserved.

I believe Plato would agree with my basic concept of freedom and its relationship to society.  Plato would also argue that each member of society must give up certain freedoms in order for society to function.  In fact, this is the whole argument on which the Republic is based.  The combined good outweighs the individual freedom.  Although Plato advocates giving up much more freedom than I think would be necessary, I can at least agree with his basic premise.

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