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Introduction to Philosophy

11.4 Political Ideologies

Introduction to Philosophy11.4 Political Ideologies

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Identify key ideologies or theories in political philosophy, such as conservatism, liberalism, egalitarianism, socialism, and anarchism.
  • Discuss distributive justice within political ideologies.
  • Demonstrate how alienation continues to be a problem for workers in modern industrial societies.

When Bernie Sanders, the American senator from Vermont, ran for president of the United States in 2016 as a democratic socialist, he set off an intense debate in the country. What exactly was democratic socialism? This was a debate about political ideologies, or people’s beliefs about how a society should be run. Ideology can shape policies and laws, as the individuals holding office and positions of authority and the people who elect them are often influenced by ideological beliefs. This section looks at some key ideologies that have influenced how people think about their rights and the responsibilities of government.

Distributive Justice

One of the important differences among the ideologies examined below is how they approach the question of distributive justice. Distributive justice can be seen as a moral framework made up of principles that seek to ensure the greatest amount of fairness with respect to distributions of wealth, goods, and services (Olsaretti 2018). However, there is much debate surrounding what amounts to fairness. Is a just society one that provides for its members, allocating resources based on need, or is it one that allows for the greatest amount of personal freedom, even if that means that some members are radically better off than others? Furthermore, given that individuals begin at varying positions of social and economic status, should a society focus on meeting the needs of its disadvantaged members even if that results in an unequal distribution of goods, or should there be as little governmental interference as possible?

It is tempting to see distributive justice as a theoretical moral concern. However, views on what constitute basic needs, what resources should be considered public versus private, and whether or not there should be restrictions on the free market have real, practical ramifications when considered by governing bodies. Given this, it is important to keep in mind the role that principles of distributive justice play in the ideologies discussed below.


Conservativism is a political theory that favors institutions and practices that have demonstrated their value over time and provided sufficient evidence that they are worth preserving and promoting. Conservatism sees the role of government as serving society rather than controlling it and advocates gradual change in the social order, if and when necessary.

Edmund Burke and the French Revolution

Modern conservatism begins with the 18th-century Irish political theorist Edmund Burke (1729–1797), who opposed the French Revolution and whose Reflections on the French Revolution (1790) served as an inspiration for the development of a conservative political philosophy (Viereck et al. 2021). Shocked by the violence of the French Revolution, Burke advocated against radical revolution that destroyed functioning institutions that, though flawed, served a purpose. However, Burke supported the American Revolution because the colonists had already established political institutions, such as courts and administrations, and were taking the next gradual step: asking Britain to let them run these institutions on their own.

A drawing of Edmund Burke shows him seated beside a desk.
Figure 11.7 The Irish political thinker Edmund Burke is credited with developing the theories that form the basis of modern conservatism. (credit: “Edmund Burke” by Duyckinick, Evert A. Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women in Europe and America. New York: Johnson, Wilson & Company, 1873. p. 159/Wikimedia, Public Domain)

Fundamental Principles

Conservatives such as Burke are not opposed to reform, but they are wary of challenges to existing systems that have generally held up well. They believe that any sudden change is likely to lead to instability and greater insecurity. Moreover, conservatives are not against redistribution of resources, especially when it serves to alleviate severe poverty. However, they believe that such actions are best carried out at a local level (as opposed to a state or national level) by those who understand the needs of the individual community. Finally, conservatives are staunch supporters of property rights and oppose any system of reform that challenges them. Property rights serve as a check on governmental power and are seen as an essential part of a stable society (Moseley n.d.). As such, conservatism aligns with some principles of liberalism.

Conservatism maintains that human nature is fundamentally flawed and that we are driven more by selfish desires than by empathy and concern for others. Therefore, it is the job of social institutions such as church and school to teach self-discipline, and it is the job of the government to protect the established, fundamental values of society. Along with this rather Hobbesian view of humankind and belief in the preservation of historical traditions, conservatives believe that weaknesses in institutions and morals will become apparent over time and that they will either be forced to evolve, be discarded, or be gradually reformed (Moseley n.d.).


Liberalism in political philosophy does not have the same meaning as the word liberal in popular American discourse. For Americans, liberal means someone who believes in representative democracy and is politically left of center. For example, liberals generally favor regulating the activities of corporations and providing social welfare programs for the working and middle classes. Liberalism as a political philosophy, however, has quite a different emphasis.

Fundamental Principle of Liberty

British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) expresses the fundamental principles of liberalism in his work On Liberty (1859), arguing for limited government on the grounds of utility. His interest is in “Civil, or Social Liberty: the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual” (Mill [1869] 2018). In this regard, he defends “one very simple principle,” which is the minimizing of government interference in people’s lives:

The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. . . . The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. (Mill [1869] 2018)

In Mill’s view, real freedom is when people are able to pursue their own individual idea of “the good” in a manner they see fit. Mill’s claim is at the heart of most variants of liberalism.

Positive and Negative Liberty

We are at liberty when we are neither constrained to act nor obligated to refrain from acting in a certain way. At least since Isaiah Berlin’s (1905–1997) “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958), this sort of liberty has been called negative liberty. Berlin, a British political theorist, suggests that negative liberty is “the area within which a man can act unobstructed by others” (Berlin 1969, 122). Negative liberty in the political realm often refers to the absence of government control over the lives of individuals, or in what we are reasonably able to do without interference. Conversely, Berlin thinks of positive liberty as “the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master” (131). We want our life decisions to depend on ourselves and not on external forces. “I wish to be the instrument of my own, not of other men’s, acts of will,” says Berlin (131). The ability to participate in democratic institutions, for example, is a form of positive liberty.

The Welfare State and Social Justice

Some theorists hold that negative liberty has limits when it comes to how much liberty, in practice, a person has at their disposal. The theory of justice that sees individuals as having claims on resources and care from others is often called welfare liberalism. Such theorists are not in favor of limited government and believe that the well-being of citizens must be a vital component of our agreement to obey a government. American philosopher John Rawls (1921–2002) famously makes this argument in his seminal book A Theory of Justice (1971), in which he attempts to articulate an account of fairness that satisfies our intuition that human freedom and social welfare are both important.

Rawls begins with the idea that society is a system of cooperation for mutual advantage. Given the fact of today’s pluralistic societies, people reasonably disagree about many important issues, which means we must find a way to live peaceably together with our differences and collectively determine our political institutions. In addition, Rawls believes that there are deep inequalities embedded in any basic social structure, which result from the fact that we are all born into different positions and have different expectations of life, largely determined by the political, economic, and social circumstances that attend those positions. Therefore, Rawls says, we must find a way to distance ourselves from our own particular concepts of such ideas as justice, the good, and religion and begin with relatively uncontroversial facts about human psychology and economics. We should then imagine ourselves in an “original position” behind the “veil of ignorance”; that is, we should imagine we do not know any facts about our personal circumstances, such as our economic status, our access to education and health services, or whether we have any talents or abilities that would be beneficial to us (Rawls 1999, 11). We also remain ignorant of any social factors such as our gender, race, class, and so forth. Because Rawls assumes that no one wants to live in a society in which they are disadvantaged, operating from this position offers the greatest chance of arranging a society in a way that is as fair and equitable as possible. For instance, we would not support a system that forbade all left-handed individuals from voting because we ourselves might fall into that group.

Rawls argues that two major principles should govern society. First, the “liberty principle” states that each person has an equal right to the same basic, adequate liberties. Basic liberties are liberties such as freedom of speech, freedom to hold property, and freedom of assembly. Second, the “difference principle” states that any social and economic inequalities must satisfy two conditions: (1) they must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of “fair equality of opportunity,” and (2) they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society. Note that Rawls is not advocating for an equal distribution of goods or advantages; rather, he says that any distribution of goods or power that is not equal can further disadvantage already disadvantaged individuals. His goal is to create a society that seeks to address inherent structural inequalities as well as possible (Rawls 1999, 13).


Rawls’s theory of justice has much in common with egalitarian theories. The term egalitarianism refers to a broad family of views that gives primary place to equality. The root egal (from the French) means “equal.” Egalitarian theories assert that all individuals should enjoy equal status and moral worth and that any legitimate system of government should reflect this value. More specifically, egalitarian theories do not argue that all individuals should be treated exactly the same; rather, they insist that individuals are all deserving of rights, including civil, social, and political rights.

Some theorists argue that equality of opportunity for welfare, meaning equality of opportunity to obtain resources, is the most important type of equality. In addition to resources, equality of opportunity includes a consideration of how individuals have acquired certain advantages. For example, nepotism (giving opportunities based on familial connections) and biases based on personal traits such as gender or race interfere with an individual’s ability to compete for resources. Any society that seeks a truly level playing field needs to contend with these issues.

One way to examine equality is to look at what individuals are able to do. The Indian economist Amartya Sen popularized a framework now known as the capability approach, which emphasizes the importance of providing resources to match individual need. This approach creates opportunities for each person to pursue what they need to live a flourishing life. An example of the capability approach is basic income, in which a city, state, or country might combat poverty by awarding everyone below a certain income level $1,000 per month.

A photograph shows Amartya Kumar Sen standing with India's 13th prime minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh.
Figure 11.8 Amartya Sen, an Indian philosopher and economist and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize, with India’s 13th prime minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, in 2008. (credit: “The Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh with Prof. Amartya Sen at a Meeting with the Members of Nalanda Mentor Group, in New Delhi on August 13, 2008” by Prime Minister’s Office, Government of India/Wikimedia Commons, GODL-India)

The capability approach advocates “treating each person as an end” and “focus[ing] on choice and freedom rather than achievements” (Robeyns and Byskov 2021). According to American philosopher Martha Nussbaum (b. 1947), the capability approach would improve both justice outcomes and quality of life. She argues that a certain number of resources are necessary to enjoy a basic set of positive capabilities that all humans possess. Thus, each individual should be provided with those resources so that their life is not “so impoverished that it is not worthy of the dignity of a human being” (Nussbaum 2000, 72). What is beneficial about the capability approach is that it recognizes and respects the diverse needs of individuals based on different experiences and circumstances.

Listen to philosopher Martha Nussbaum discuss how the capabilities approach aids in creating a positive quality of life.


Martha Nussbaum


Rather than look to the individual, the often confused triad of socialism, Marxism, and communism examines inequality from an economic perspective. While socialism and communism both seek to address inequalities in goods and resources, socialism says that goods and resources should be owned and managed by the public and allocated based on the needs of the community rather than controlled solely by the state. A socialist system allows for the ownership of private property while relegating most control over basic resources to the government. Sometimes, as with democratic socialism, this is done through the democratic process, with the result that public resources, such as national parks, libraries, and welfare services, are controlled by a government of elected representatives.


Concepts of Socialism

Critique of Capital

While what are commonly called “Marxist ideals” did not originate solely with Karl Marx, he is responsible for coauthoring perhaps the most famous treatise criticizing capitalism, The Communist Manifesto (1848), and laying out a vision of a yet-unrealized true communist society. As such, it is important to examine his ideas in more detail.

Marx is critical of the private accumulation of capital, which he defines as money and commodities. Stockpiling of capital allows for private accumulation of power. Marx holds that the value of an object is determined by the socially necessary amount of labor used in the production of that object. In a capitalist system, labor is also a commodity, and the worker exchanges their work for a subsistence wage. In Marx’s view, workers’ labor in fact creates surplus value, for which they are not paid and which is claimed by the capitalist. Thus, the worker does not receive full value for their labor.


Marx identifies several kinds of alienation that result from the commodification of labor. To illustrate this, imagine some factory workers who have recently moved to a large city. Prior to the move, they lived in a small village, where they worked as furniture makers. They were responsible for each stage of the production, from imagining the design to obtaining the materials and creating the product. They sold the product and kept the profits of their labor. Now, however, they work on an assembly line, where they are responsible for producing a small part of an overall product. They are alienated both from the product and from their own productive nature because they have no hand in the product’s design and are involved in only a small part of its construction. They begin to see their labor, and by extension themselves, as a commodity to be sold.

The result of selling their labor is that they begin to see others as commodities as well. They begin to identify people not by who they are but by what they have accumulated and their worth as a product. In this way, they become alienated from themselves and from others, seeing them always as potential competition. For Marx, this leads to a sense of despair that is filled with material goods, thus solidifying the worker in their dependence on the capitalist system.


While the idea of negative liberty decries unnecessary government intervention in people’s lives, anarchism literally means “no ruler” or “no government.” The absence of a political authority conjures an image of the state of nature imagined by Thomas Hobbes—that is, a state of chaos. Anarchists, however, believe that disorder comes from government. According to this view, rational individuals mostly desire to live peaceful lives, free of government intervention, and this desire naturally leads them to create societies and institutions built on the principles of self-governance.

Motivations for Anarchism

One defense of anarchism is that governments do things that would be impermissible for private individuals. French philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865) observes that governments monitor citizens’ activities and attempt to control their behavior through force. The more technology governments have, the greater their attempts to control people. Proudhon ([1849] 2012) observes that such treatment is against human dignity.

Proudhonian anarchists are aware of the argument that people may have consented to give up some of their power to the government (as people do in a representative democracy, for example), which means that they must accept the treatment they receive. Yet Proudhon would deny that there is any example in history of a just government. Lysander Spooner (1808–1887), the 19th-century anarchist, says that all governments have come into existence through force and maintain their existence through force (Spooner 1870). Thus, some defend anarchism on the grounds that governments violate human rights.

Limits of Anarchism

Criticisms of anarchy are often twofold. The first is that without an organized police force, society would be unable to control outbreaks of violence. A related concern is that without a judicial system to arbitrate disputes and mete out justice, any resolution would be arbitrary. Anarchists, on the other hand, claim that most incidents of violence are the result of socioeconomic imbalances that would be resolved if the government were dismantled. Social anarchism, for instance, points to community involvement and mutual exchange of goods and services as a solution (Fiala 2021).

Yet some people associate anarchism with political violence, and in fact, some anarchists see violence as an unavoidable result of clashes with a violent and oppressive government. One of the most famous anarchists, Emma Goldman (1869–1940), wrote in her essay “The Psychology of Political Violence,” “Such acts are the violent recoil from violence, whether aggressive or repressive; they are the last desperate struggle of outraged and exasperated human nature for breathing space and life” (1917). However, many anarchists favor nonviolent tactics and civil disobedience, such as protests and the creation of autonomous zones, as opposed to political violence (Fiala 2018).

A photograph shows Emma Goldman sitting on a bench in a street car. Two men are sitting next to her on the bench.
Figure 11.9 Born in Lithuania in 1869, Emma Goldman experienced anti-Semitic persecution before moving to the United States at age 16 and becoming a factory worker. She was quickly introduced to the anarchist movement and became a prolific writer and passionate speaker advocating the movement’s principles. (credit: “Emma Goldman on a Street Car, Library of Congress)

Anarchism and Feminism

Within anarchism, anarcha-feminism seeks to fight against gendered concepts that create inequity. Traditional gender roles only serve to cement unequal power distribution and further the class divide. Particularly, traditional concepts of women’s role in the domestic sphere mirror the depersonalization of the worker, with the woman seen as an extension of the home and domestic labor, rather than an independent autonomous person. It is worth noting that anarcha-feminism is in direct opposition to Proudhon, who believed that family was an essential aspect of society and that the traditional role of women within the family was necessary for its success (Proudhon 1875).

The author and poet bell hooks believes that the concerns driving anarchism can provide a motivation for current social action. She notes that the gaps between the rich and the poor are widening in the United States and that because of the “feminization of poverty” (by which she means the inequality in living standards due to gender pay disparity), a grassroots radical feminist movement is needed “that can build on the strength of the past, including the positive gains generated by reforms, while offering meaningful interrogation of existing feminist theory that was simply wrongminded while offering us new strategies” (hooks 2000, 43). She sees such a “visionary movement” (43) as grounded in the real-life conditions experienced by working-class and impoverished women.

Feminists historically have had to fight to make space for themselves within anarchist movements. The Spanish female collective Mujeres Libres formed during the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) in reaction to what they saw as a dismissal of women’s issues by the anarchist movement. Members of Mujeres Libres sought to support female activists and improve the lives of working-class women through literacy drives, employment programs, and child care facilities in both neighborhoods and factories (Ackelsberg 1985). These and other initiatives that focused on creating opportunities for women helped develop a sense of social engagement and foster a desire for social change.

A headshot of Lucia Sanchez Saornil is placed over a photograph of a building that was destroyed by a bomb. The building shell is visible on the sides of the photograph, and rubble from the building is visible below the photograph.
Figure 11.10 Lucía Sánchez Saornil, pictured here in 1933, was a Spanish anarchist and cofounder of Mujeres Libres. (credit: “Lucía Sánchez Saornil in 1933” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

Table 11.2 summarizes the political ideologies discussed in this chapter.

Political Ideology Description Key Concerns
Conservatism Favors institutions and practices that have demonstrated their value over time Favors action at the local level, supports property rights, believes in the importance of self-discipline, sees the role of government as protecting the fundamental values of society
Liberalism Favors limited government on the grounds of utility (different from current meaning of “liberalism” in the United States) Attempts to maximize individual liberty, including both negative liberty (the absence of government control) and positive liberty (people’s power to control their own lives)
Egalitarianism Gives primary place to equality Aims to guarantee equal rights and equal opportunities to all, but not necessarily equal outcomes
Socialism Favors public ownership and management of goods and resources Typically allows for the ownership of private property, but gives most control over basic resources to the government
Anarchism “No ruler” or “no government”; instead of a central government, sees people as capable of governing themselves Believes that government is the cause of, rather than the solution to, most problems; views human nature as rational and peaceful
Table 11.2 Political Ideologies
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