What are human rights? What is social justice? What is the purpose of government? Who should rule? Political philosophers focus on questions like these. Various answers have been suggested. None of the answers are universally accepted, in part because any answers are based at least in part on the context in which they are offered.
Social justice, for example, has been defined in terms of maximizing social welfare (“utility”) or individual liberty. Marxists define social justice as a system in which all people share equally in the creation and allocation of goods and within which all people are truly free because they are no longer subject to class repression. Rawls’s theory of social justice is based on the concept of the choices rational beings would make behind the “veil of ignorance.” Non-Western thinkers, feminist scholars, and Black philosopher/activists have developed perspectives that challenge the dominant, Western, male definitions of social justice.
Real people engaging in political action—not philosophical conceptions of human rights, social justice, the purpose of government, and just rule—determine how these concepts play out in practice. Those who rule a country ultimately determine what the actual purposes of the government will be, what kinds of justice the country will embrace, and what rights will be protected for those living there.
Humans make decisions in two main ways: by thinking fast or thinking slow. People think fast when their decisions seem almost automatic. On the other hand, there are times when people focus to make a thoughtful decision: they think slow. Thinking slow is hard, so humans more often rely on their quick judgments about what to do, whether in politics or in other areas of life.
When humans act, they may do so for strategic (or instrumental) or expressive (or emotional) reasons. When people act strategically, they take actions designed to obtain their objectives. When people act expressively, they do so not to achieve a goal but to reveal who they are (or who they want to be perceived to be). Often, behavior can have both elements: people may vote so that their candidate has a better chance of winning, but also to show their peer group that they are the kind of person who votes.
Whether people act strategically or expressively, they can do so either because they are acting in their own self-interest or in the interest of a broader community, with an eye to accomplishing broader public purposes. These motives can overlap. Often, what political actors believe to be good for the public also coincides with what they see as beneficial for themselves. A candidate for office may understandably think that working on behalf of their constituents—the public interest—will also benefit the candidate’s electoral interests.
Humans are all, literally, unique: not even identical twins are exactly alike, as they will be exposed to differing environments over their lifetimes. Still, human behavior is partially predictable. This means that, with enough information about certain characteristics of persons, it is possible to make predictions about what similar individuals will do in similar circumstances.
Predictions might be wrong for any specific person. They can be wrong because individuals often, but not always, act like other similar individuals. More generally, predictions might be wrong because of bad data (for example, when people lie to pollsters) or because people don’t act in the future as they have in the past.
The concept of motivated reasoning can explain why individuals can make incorrect judgments in politics, as well as in other areas. Motivated reasoning is a form of bias that leads individuals to arrive at conclusions that they want to believe in rather than to scrutinize the evidence neutrally.
Political scientists use games to make predictions about how humans will behave in politics because political action has many of the characteristics of a game, with the players making decisions under a certain set of rules and a given set of circumstances. These predictions can be logical, based on what political scientists consider to be rational behavior, or empirical, based on how individuals actually do behave. The ultimatum game is one example of this. The rules allow players to make choices about how to share a resource, and the choices they make determine the allocation. The choices they make depend largely on the context—for example, whether they have a relationship with the other player, or if they will play again, or how large the prize is. Studying such games can provide valuable insights into human behavior.