The Four Types in Western Political Philosophy

On this page, I discuss the four types of individuals that are present with Plato’s political anthropology. I argue that the American founders at least implicitly took these four types into account when they devised the concept of “checks and balances”. The first thing to get clear on when considering the four types is the concept of “the individual”, the single most influential yet confused idea to come out of the 60’s rights movement.

Within the framework of American political-economy, to say that “all men are created equal” is not to speak of a deep moral equality our culture holds that we possess before God and Law. Rather, it is to speak of particular incentives which political thinkers observed all human beings to have by virtue of being a particular kind of citizen. In other words, we are equal by virtue of having certain motives, or incentives, in common. It is, then, a conceptual error to treat the concept of “the individual” as operative in our political-economic system. Rather than assuming the concept of “the individual” refers to undifferentiated members of society, as American liberals as well as free market conservatives tend to do, the reality is that our system assumes there are four types of individuals. To understand these types, we must observe motives, or incentives. Over time, Western political philosophers observed how human beings behave in a political, economic and social context. From this, they inferred motives. The result is a typology discussed below as well as in the Chart of these typologies on another page on this site. Click here for that page.

Further discussion.

All cultures have core values around which political and economic life are organized. In American society, the ideas of equality and freedom are two such beliefs. What is worth attention on the part of observers of social and political life is the manner in which these ideas limit how public intellectuals think about political life. On the American right, activists often treat freedom as a moral end in itself, as if it meant to serve the highest ends of human life, (e.g. individual fulfillment). Although less influential on the left, equality is treated similarly (e.g. suggesting that real gender differences exist is often considered bad). The treatment of political norms as if they are deep moral values is a manifestation of American Puritanism, and one that is causing increasing problems today. Treating freedom and equality as if they are supposed to get us to deep moral goals is not the way these values were understood by mainstream philosophers or the American founders. These thinkers defined good government as one that make it possible for average citizens to get basic economic needs met. Our founders thought that good government would enact laws that enabled all, and not just the few, to benefit from a well functioning economy. This does not mean that economic inequality would not exist, but that the results of natural inequality would be limited with laws and regulations. Limited economic freedom would be the norm, not a laissez-faire system. To create such a system of government, the founders needed to understand what motivated different types of citizens. They assumed there were unique kinds of individuals as concerns politics and economics. Because American activists treat freedom and equality as moral values, they tend to reject this notion. Mainstream political thinkers, however, assume a naturally occurring inequality among human beings exists that society must deal with if it wants to have a just society. A “just society” is defined as one in which “all men” can attain their basic needs according to reasonable rules of the game.

The proverbial monkey wrench: How our activists and public intellectuals misconstrue the idea of equality and mess up our economy.

Many activists mistakenly believe their proper task is to pursue a particular moral ideal in a political context, (e.g. more freedom or equality in the forms of a more equal distribution of income, lower taxes, or less regulation). This has of late caused serious destabilization in American political and economic well being on the right of center. The Tea Party movement, for example, is a seriously misguided attempt to reform a broken political system. Their flaw is to treat freedom as the only moral value that matters. Attempting to realize a moral value was not the purpose for which the founders of modern politics wrote the Constitution. Rather, freedom and equality were for them practical norms that would increase the likelihood that the average citizen would be able to get basic economic needs met in peace and with less effort. Freedom and equality are not, then, meant as moral or spiritual values in a political context, but ways of helping citizens get needs met. To realize this outcome, the founders began with an attempt to understand how human beings behave by knowing what motivates human action. Then they applied their insights to create a political structure which sustained a well-functioning economy. Mainstream political thinkers, including the founders of the United States, concluded that people do not for the most part get involved in political and economic activity in order to realize deep moral values, but to get basic needs met. A few do so in order to gain power and great wealth, and these few tend to be naturally better at getting what they want. Only after mainstream thinkers got clear that human action in a social context is not about deep moral ends, but about getting needs met, did they construct a political system. The American Constitution, which is really a container to “channel” the desire for wealth, status and power in order to enable more rather than fewer get their needs met, is the most important political event to result from this philosophical project.

Paradoxically, then, our system realizes a much higher degree of justice from a defacto perspective than a system that seeks to realize deep moral values. Communism sought to realize an equal distribution of income, and this was viewed as a moral ideal. Free market democracy, however, rests on the observation that most people care about seeking material well being, a morally neutral outcome. It cannot be underestimated how paradoxical this is, or how this paradox causes so many activists confusion as to their proper function. The seemingly paradoxical nature of this requires that we repeat it: In Western civilization today, and especially the United States, the norm that guides political action is not deep moral or spiritual value, but the maximization of economic utility. This end is attained through a complex set of laws and customs at the center of which are the ideas of freedom and equality. These laws must be sustained and renewed over time. Our founders predicated that the few who most want power and wealth will naturally seek to overcome the limits imposed on their natural desire and ability to increase their wealth and power. By installing freedom and equality as practical means to utilitarian ends, not as moral values, we attain justice. “Justice” is understood as a set of rules for “channeling” the motive force of all interested citizens. In this mode, only the philosopher-as-founder is considered to be disinterested, or “detached”, caring about the common good. All other types in political and economic life are assumed to be egoistic. In an American context, then, justice does not depend on the intention of the activist to achieve a deep moral value, but counter-intuitively on his remaining neutral when he observes the egoism and self interest in a political-economic context. He seeks to sustain laws that put limits on those who would threaten justice.

In the chart linked here, I show how the American political-economy functions by highlighting the motive forces assumed to prevail in political and economic life. Our model assumes that there are four types.

Assumptions of the model:

The philosopher-type, or what is sometimes called “the founder”, is unique in the model given that only this type pays attention to the “whole picture”, and has the motive to do this. This type is not self-interested in the way the average person or strong man are.

As noted above, the end of Western political philosophers is order generally conceived, and more specifically the maximization of the probability that most citizens will be able to get their basic needs met in peace and security.

Definitions of terms:

“Basic needs” = the amount of economic goods which is necessary for survival and a quality of life considered average in the given culture.

“Peace and stability” = absence of crime and other sources of physical violence, including political violence.

“Well-functioning”: A political structure is “well functioning” when the members of society are fulfilling a role that contributes to the goals of politics as defined above. It is “poorly functioning” when a significant percentage of the population is not participating in such activity, or the quality of their activities do not result in the attainment of the quality of life judged to be minimal for this society. Criminal behavior is not treated here and it is assumed that most will not be motivated to criminal ways of getting needs met. in such activity, or the quality of their activities do not result in the attainment of the quality of life judged to be minimal for this society. Criminal behavior is not treated here and it is assumed that most will not be motivated to criminal ways of getting needs met.

Click here to be bought to chart laying out this typology.

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