6.2 Philosophical Roots of Modern Government

Philosophers have advocated a wide spectrum of political ideologies. We we will take a closer look at two, Liberalism and Socialism, which despite their somewhat antithetical values, influence our modern political philosophies and forms of government.

6.2.1 Liberalism

Liberalism is a socio-political theory centered on: personal liberty; the rights and responsibilities of individuals (including the right to own property); the equality of individuals; and obligation on the part of government to protect individual rights and freedom. Liberalism in its broad sense, accommodates a spectrum of interpretations for the role of the state with respect to individuals. In looking more closely at the philosophical roots of liberalism, we will revisit the political philosophy of John Locke and look into John Stuart Mill’s views on politics.

From the topic earlier in this unit, recall John Locke and his view that natural possession of rights by humans (their state of nature) constitutes a basic moral law which applies to all people. The purpose of government is to ensure the protection of these natural rights to life, liberty, health, and property. These rights are inalienable. Recall that Locke’s conception of rights regarded property ownership as a focal point for social contract with government. He also was a strong advocate of religious tolerance.

After the publication of John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1689), establishment of governments based on theories like Locke’s and others (for example, Montesquieu (1689 – 1755) began to take place.

Another ardent defender of individual liberty, John Stuart Mill, whom we last encountered in our study of utilitarianism, published his highly influential work On Liberty in 1859, nearly two centuries after Locke’s Two Treatises. It is no surprise that Mill relied on his utilitarian principles to justify and support his views on the role of the state with regard to the freedom of individuals. A just society is created when freedom, in particular, the freedom to become the best possible version of oneself, is maximized, and harm to individuals is minimized. Social utility is created.

Mill believed “social tyranny” to be a greater danger than political tyranny. In his view, when a majority of the members of society subscribe to group mentality, constantly agree with each other, and stop thinking for themselves, individual freedom is diminished. Mill was especially concerned with intellectual and moral freedom, the right to think and do as one wishes, as long as no harm is done to others. Legislators must walk a fine line in enacting only the minimally necessary regulations to prevent harm, while still allowing the maximum freedom possible. This tricky and loosely defined criterion is referred to as the “harm principle.”

Supplemental resources (bottom of page) provide further details on liberalism.


Recall the concept of “free will” and the corresponding idea of determinism from the Metaphysics unit. Given the principle of causality, do you think that personal liberty is possible? If so, in what way?

Note: Post your response in the appropriate Discussion topic.

6.2.2 Socialism

Socialism is a sociopolitical theory which states that a society’s resources belong to all of its members and should be shared with everyone. The main value is welfare of the community. Socialism is often studied and understood in contrast to capitalism, which is both an ideology and politico-economic system where production is controlled privately and for profit. Built on principles of liberalism, capitalism is characterized by private property, accumulation of capital/wealth, wage labor, voluntary exchange, a price system, and competitive markets.

Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) was a German philosopher who whose work was a foundational aspect of socialism. Marx was influenced by George Hegel, another German philosopher, whose dialectical theory of history asserted that as history develops, the current state of affairs creates and is replaced by the opposite state, until a synthesis of the opposing elements/trends is reached.

Marx’s Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) was co-authored with Friedrich Engels, the German philosopher who wrote about the horrors of factory working conditions in England. With the goal of precipitating social revolution, this work describes the class struggle between proletariat (the oppressed) and bourgeoisie (the oppressors) and urges all workers to revolt against existing regimes. In addition, the Manifestodifferentiates between communism and other socialist movements, and it includes a list of social reforms. Marx’s communism is a refinement of the larger ideology of socialism; not all socialists are communists. Think of socialism as a theory, and communism as a fine-tuned expression of it. The goal of communism is to replace capitalism with a publicly owned means of production and communal control of the society’s natural resources.

Marx and Engel argue that economic history is an ongoing struggle between oppressors and oppressed. Applying Hegel’s theory to the struggle between social classes, they argued that a proletarian revolt against their bourgeoisie oppressors was inevitable, and then a new socio-economic order would arise. In the resulting synthesis, the proletariat (the workers) would direct production methods, and they would have equal share in the products of their efforts.

Marx and Engel portrayed a scenario in which capitalism:

  • alienates workers from the products of their labor,
  • allows the upper class to exploit the working class,
  • leaves the working class at the mercy of market forces, and
  • relegates workers to mindless tasks that diminish self-esteem and self worth.

Further, they believed that because capitalism leads to overproduction, that in turn it creates an army of workers who will be subject to layoff or dismissal. Capitalism plants the seeds of its own self-destruction, the inevitable proletarian revolt will proceed in this way:

  1. Members of the proletariat are exploited and alienated from the products of their labor.
  2. High numbers of proletariat direct their rage at imported products.
  3. Proletariat get stronger, unionize, organize and confront bourgeoisie.
  4. Open revolution takes place, with the overthrow of bourgeoisie and capitalism.

The predicted downfall of capitalism never took place. Instead, the status of workers in democratic systems increased as their numbers grew. More workers cast votes, and legislation was established to protect them — for example, a minimum wage, workers’ compensation, and safety regulations. Some argue that revolt didn’t happen for a different reason, that the contemporary upper class is better at social engineering, manipulation, and enforcement than Marx had imagined.

Supplemental resources (bottom of page) provide further information on socialism.


Describe an aspect of our socio-economic environment that is based on an ideal of liberalism and explain your reasons. Then describe another aspect that corresponds with a value of socialism, and explain your reasoning. (100-150 words)

Note: Submit your response to the appropriate Assignments folder.

Complete the Unit Test by the date on the Schedule of Work.

6.2.3 Political Theories and Forms of Government

Of the various political theories, or ideologies, of interest to philosophers, we examined two, Liberalism and Socialism. It is important now to (1) clarify some terminology related to the theory of liberalism that sometimes creates confusion, and (2) briefly describe some other political theories and forms of government.

Liberalism and Terminology

In contemporary politics, not just in this country, the terms “liberal” and “conservative” both describe viewpoints that embody the ideology of “liberalism.” While certain priorities and opinions of the “politically liberal” and “politically conservative” differ, both claim the view that the central concern of politics is protecting the freedom of individuals. These are examples of how they differ, sometimes:

  • With respect to the role of government in securing individual freedom: liberals tend to favor more government involvement, conservatives less.
  • In terms of social values, or what we might refer to as “the good:” liberals tend to favor innovation and ideals, while conservative prefer customary, historically established traditions.

Libertarianism, also a form of liberalism, is a political theory that takes individual liberty as the primary political value, above and beyond other considerations. (Recall that the term “libertarianism” is used in a different sense in connection with the metaphysical issue of free will.)

Democracy is the form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation, usually involving periodically held free elections. Democracy is compatible with liberalism’s values of personal liberty, rights, and equality of individuals. Yet, for a liberal like John Stuart Mill, democracy’s rule by the will of the people could lead to a “tyranny of the majority” that diminishes the strength of the individual. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s vision of the social contract resembles democracy; majority vote expresses a single, collective will of the people.

Other Political Theories and Forms of Government

In addition to the political theories we have focused on (liberalism and socialism), social and political philosophy spans a wide array of political theories and forms of government, including, but not limited to these:

Absolutism is the political doctrine and practice of unlimited, centralized authority with absolute sovereignty vested in a monarch or dictator, with no challenge or check by any other governmental or societal body (judicial, legislative, or religious, for example.) The monarchy as depicted by Hobbes was an absolutist authority, though Hobbes believed it possible, through social contract, to negotiate certain rights and freedoms for individuals.

Anarchism is the view that an ideal human society should have no organized government; there should be no regard for the authority of existing governments. Anarchist theories attempt to justify that individuals are not obliged to obey the state, but typically fail to propose a plan or model for how an ungoverned society would operate.

Fascism is an authoritarian system of government and social organization characterized by belief in the supremacy of one national or ethnic group, dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition, and central control of industry and commerce. While this form of government aligns with the communist variety of socialism in its elimination of private production and profit, it is far harsher and extreme in its centralized dictatorial control and embodies no regard for community welfare.

Theocracy is a form of government in which God or a deity is recognized as the source of control, as interpreted by the divine authorities. Typically, power in theocratic nations is held by a small group of it citizens. Modern-day theocracies include the Vatican, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

Supplemental Resources


Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP). John Locke. Read all of section 4, parts a, b, and c on Locke’s political philosophy.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP). John Stuart Mill. Read the short section, item e, on Mill’s On Liberty.

Mill “On Liberty” – Freedom & Empire. This 12.5-minute video takes a closer look at the Mill’s “harm principle” and then looks critically at other aspects of Mill’s liberalism, including his advocacy of colonialism, which seems to conflict with certain liberal values.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP). Positive and Negative Liberty. Read section 1 on the two concepts of liberty.


Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP). Socialism. Read section 1 on the on the basic contrasts between capitalism and socialism.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP). Socialism. Returning to this IEP article, read section 4 where democratic principles are considered in the context of both socialism and capitalism.