IDEAL STATE

Political ideals
        Plato's Republic
        Myth of Gyges’ Ring
        Myth of the Cave
        The Republic: a meritocracy
Democracy
Karl Marx's Communism
        Marx’s theory of revolution
        Labor theory of value
        Marx’s position on morality and the ideal state                                                                                           Return to contents

Political ideals

    Political theorists have presented ideals, political utopias, and even anti-utopias or political nightmares, to help clarify political thinking. Brave New World, and Animal Farm are examples of anti-utopias. Walden Two by the American behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner, is an attempt to specify the ideal community. Here Skinner advocates social conditioning to ensure that people lead healthy, productive, fulfilled, and happy lives.
    Although we do have recent utopian models, the most famous political utopias are found in the history of philosophy. We will examine two influential examples of utopian thinking: Plato's Republic and Karl Marx's nineteenth-century political doctrine. We will also examine democracy as an ideal.  Top

Plato's Republic

    Plato's ideal state serves two functions. First, Plato hopes to instruct us on the value of competence, a type of equal opportunity, and the need for a hierarchical structure. Though he believes that the state he designs, his Republic, is utopian -- we can never have such a state, at least in a stable way -- his account is intended to help us understand the need for and the value of the structures he presents. Plato, however, had more in mind. The state and the person are, he thought, analogous: the state is the individual written large. We can more easily detect desirable properties in a state, he thought, because the basic structures of a state are free from idiosyncratic features and special individual needs. This is the second purpose of Plato's Republic: once we understand the ideal state, we better understand the ideal individual and can accordingly better guide our behavior.  Top

    Myth of Gyges’ Ring

For Plato, justice is the main virtue of the ideal state, as it is for the ideal person. But why be just? Why be morally good? In the Republic, the "Myth of Gyges' Ring" underscores this question: Why not be immoral presuming you can get away with it? In the myth, Gyges' ancestor, a fine example of a morally proper person, finds a magic ring that allows him to become invisible. Once he realizes that his invisibility permits him to get away with evil, his character changes. He kills the king and takes over the kingdom. Wouldn't everyone act in a similar way, doing immoral actions if all sanctions could be avoided? When immorality is to a person's advantage, and he or she can get away with it, wouldn't the reasonable person act immorally?
    In answer to this challenge, Plato has Socrates explain, in great detail, what the just state would be like. His conclusion is that the ideal state would be productive, secure, beautiful, and good. In short, it would be a healthy state. The moral or just individual is, by analogy, personally happy, productive. and leads a life of beauty and goodness. This healthy life, a reward in itself, would be more beneficial than the unhealthy life of the immoral person.  Top

    Myth of the Cave

    Plato emphasizes knowledge. He believes that goodness is an absolute, unchanging ideal that we only know through constant effort, solid education, and nearly overwhelming desire that drives our search for it. He portrays this knowledge, and how it differs from what ordinarily passes as knowledge, in another myth, the "Myth of the Cave," which may well be the most famous piece in Western philosophical literature. The myth is about a group of people chained from birth in a dark cave, forced to face forward; the only source of light is from a fire behind them. In front of the fire, but behind the captives, cut-out figures of the things we see -- trees, cows, houses -- are passed by, projecting shadow figures on to the wall. The shadow figures seen on the cave wall by the prisoners provide their only knowledge of reality. The prisoners name those figures and, in what passes as science, speculate about them. One of the prisoners is released and brought out into the daylight. The passage to the light is frightening, and the sun causes initial pain. When the freed prisoner adjusts his sight and sees the reality behind the shadow figures. He is overjoyed at the beauty of reality. However, instead of staying in his new found world, his social instincts compel him to go back to the cave to tell the others about his experiences and set them free. They find him incomprehensible, made crazy by his experience, and would kill him if they were not in chains.
    Plato wants to show that our world is the world of the cave. We are generally ignorant of the truth, including the nature of proper values, and people, like Socrates, who attain true knowledge of the ideals, lead a life of beauty and goodness, are misunderstood, even executed.
   Most of Plato's dialogues, including the Republic have Socrates -- Plato's teacher and the paradigm of philosophical wisdom -- as the leading figure. Socrates was executed by the state for heresy and for corrupting the morals of the youth.  Top

    The Republic: a meritocracy

    Plato constructs his Republic as a meritocracy meritocracy based on knowledge. The leader should be a philosopher-king who knows the ideal of justice, knows what is right, productive, efficient, and beautiful. If this person leads and others follow his or her directives, the state functions properly. Each person does what he or she does best, and participates fully in the life of the state. Each gains from the production of goods by those who are best at it, including shoes and beds from the best cobblers and carpenters, protection by the best warriors, and guidance from guardians who are genuinely wise. The state embodies philosophical wisdom through the ultimate leader, the philosopher-king. This is a healthy, happy, and just state, a properly ordered state. Those best at leadership have genuine knowledge; those best at protection, the warriors, have a "spirited" nature, much like a contemporary athlete; and the workers produce the items that best suit their talents. The essential thing, for Plato, is to ensure that the workers and the warriors are under the control of the wisdom of the ideal leaders who act according to their knowledge of the ideals of truth, goodness, and beauty.
    Plato believes that each individual has a productive aspect, a spirited aspect, and an intellectual aspect. When we are guided, in all aspects of our personalities, by genuine insight into the truth, we also will be healthy and happy and live beautiful, productive lives, thus answering the claim, expressed through the Myth of Gyges' Ring, that doing evil is better than doing good.
    Plato's emphasis on skill and knowledge is thorough, even dictatorial. The rulers are to decide, based on their insights into truth and beauty, who is to have children and at what time, the professions of other people, and the nature of the ideals and values toward which the state is directed. This means, for example, that art, literature, and hisory in the state are decided by the ruling class. This is an aristocracy, albeit an aristocracy of merit, and is used to support aristocratic thinking. Though presented as an ideal, Plato's state is extreme in many ways, including his notion that only a select few have knowledge enough to lead the state.  Top

Democracy

    Democracy, as an alternate ideal, seems to be the antithesis of Plato’s Republic; in a complete democracy all decisions that affect the lives of people would be made jointly. In an ideal democracy all have the minimum knowledge to make informed decisions about social and individual policy and have special knowledge about their own needs and desires that makes each voice especially valuable. An ideal democracy includes the workplace, where all would have a more or less equal voice about the jobs they perform; thus, an ideal democracy involves industrial democracy as well as political democracy. Talent may have a large role in the ideal democratic state, but the knowledgeable person functions with the consent of those who are affected by his or her decisions.
    An ideal democracy seems unattainable if only due to the difficulties involved in voting intelligently. People are not well informed about all aspects of their society and often vote on illusory information. Plato rejects democracy because it leaves social rule in the hands of ignorance, which is susceptible to the persuasion of the demagogue -- to someone with appealing but false answers to difficult social problems. Furthermore, full democracy suffers from the problem of the tyranny of the majority. If majority rule settles every issue, then the majority may decide to exploit some minority group. Thus, in many countries today constitutional safeguards are in place to protect individuals and groups against harmful political action -- even if supported by the majority.
    The dispute between a meritocracy and a democracy is fundamental in political thought. Although many advanced industrial societies boast of a democratic base, much decision-making often is not democratic. Industrial and political decisions are frequently made without any vote, either by representatives or directly by the people. Many decisions are made by experts, but many other decisions are made by people with power and without general knowledge about how those decisions affect others. Democracy expressed as an ideal can help us to detect the ways in which advanced industrial societies fail to be democratic. This may help to establish a critique social structures and to guide social reform.  Top

Karl Marx's Communism

    Communism is thought of as another ideal political order. The nineteenth-century German philosopher-economist Karl Marx speculated on the ideal version of communism and focused on the way he thought it would be achieved. Yet most of what Marx wrote centered on his critique of capitalism. He believed that economic forces would cause capitalism to fail, ushering in a dictatorship of the proletariat, where the working class would rule with the aim of eventually developing full communism -- a classless society without the need for political control.
    Marx's greatest intellectual influence probably rests in his doctrine of economic determinism . For him social institutions, such as the state, law, marriage, family structures, and education, are molded by economic forces, meaning that the way goods are produced and distributed determines the nature of social institutions. Capitalism comes about through the development of large-scale production in factories made possible by the productive power of machines. Factories and machines are the factors of production. They are owned by the capitalist class, the bourgeoisie. Marx argues that there is hostility between the working class, called the proletariat, and the bourgeoisie. The proletariat are the only productive class; they make things, including machines, using the tools and the factories of the bourgeoisie. Although they are the productive class, the means of production they use are controlled by the bourgeoisie. Hostility between these classes is so serious that it moves a capitalistic society toward violent revolution. Class struggle is the label Marx attaches to class hostility. Class struggle is the driving force behind the change of social organization. When a hostile, dominated class has the opportunity and the power to rebel, it will. So Marx confidently predicted that the proletariat would rebel once it was able.  Top

    Marx’s theory of revolution

    According to Marx, economic conditions create classes (or social groups defined by their economic role), including the relative power of those classes. When economic conditions change, relative class power changes. With the advent of large-scale production, economic arrangements gave power to the bourgeoisie, and so the power of the nobility in Europe decreased. Through class struggle, with the bourgeoisie becoming dominant, the power of the nobility was destroyed. Marx believed that class struggle would provide the force needed to destroy the bourgeoisie. This would happen as soon as the proletariat gained in power through changing economic conditions.
    Marx attempted to prove four things, all pointing to a future successful revolution. (1) The bourgeoisie is superfluous, or unneeded in the production process. (2) Economic depressions make the bourgeoisie numerically smaller and more vulnerable to violent overthrow. (3) Capitalism continually forces the proletariat, in general, to live at a level of bare economic subsistence, making enough to survive, and so workers become even more miserable in a depression. (4) The structure of capitalism fosters periodic cycles of depression and recovery, progressively increasing the chance of revolution because each depression diminishes the power of the bourgeoisie.
    Although the economic position Marx stakes out is complex, we can briefly give its main features. Economic depression comes, paradoxically, because capitalism unleashes tremendous economic productivity. This productivity is not centrally planned, so in expectation of profits, individual capitalists produce more than can be consumed. Overproduction leads to layoffs, and layoffs mean less spending. These spiraling consequences produce a depression, with capitalists forced out of production and out of the bourgeoisie. When production bottoms out, not enough is produced, causing another spiraling increase in productivity, and, eventually, a booming economy. However, the structure is changed; now fewer capitalists exist, because some were forced to sell out in the depression. In this way units of production become larger and larger. The capitalist class, now fewer in number, becomes more isolated from the production process.  Top

    Labor theory of value

    Marx examined the notion of economic value (the price of goods and services) in a capitalistic society to show that the bourgeoisie is unnecessary and that labor lives at the edge of subsistence. Marx argued that in an economy everything sells for what it is worth. And the worth of an item depends on the labor that goes into it. This is the classic labor theory of value. Labor extracts raw materials, mixes raw material and machine productivity with its labor to build factories and machines, and then makes consumer goods in factories. Everything eventually is produced by labor, with machines and factories considered to be stored labor. Marx believed that the labor theory of value is a scientific theory, but many economists today believe it is a philosophical or political doctrine. It proclaims that labor produces everything, and that capitalists are unnecessary.
    The labor theory of value also shows that labor, an economic good under capitalism, will be paid what it is worth -- that is, an amount equal to the cost of goods needed to keep the laboring class alive. The goods that keep labor alive cost an amount equal to the labor in them; for example, 30 hours of labor a week may be required to make the goods needed to keep labor alive. An equal exchange would be 30 hours of work for the goods that it took 30 hours to produce. But labor must eat to live, so the capitalist can bargain for extra hours, say 40 hours of work for the equivalent, in money, of 30 hours worth of goods. The capitalist thus exploits labor. In this example, 10 surplus hours are gained, which help to make the capitalist rich without contributing, in Marx's view, to the production of any goods.
    The labor theory of value shows that the bourgeoisie is unnecessary (because it doesn't produce anything, that labor is driven by its low wages to subsistence, and that labor is exploited. All this, together with the weakened numerical status of the bourgeoisie, leads to revolution. Where social classes are found, Marx claims exploitation exists. The exploitation in capitalism is unpaid labor, or wage slavery. That exploitation leads to class struggle and eventually to a revolution. This process only stops at a classless society (where everyone has the same basic economic role). A classless society can succeed, Marx thought, when production is so abundant that exploiting others makes no sense. This classless society would come with advanced communism, Marx's utopia.  Top

    Marx’s position on morality and the ideal state

In Marx's view, once the proletariat rebels and a new social order is developed, the state, laws, police, and even ethics will not be needed. All of these are part of what Marx calls the superstructure. The superstructure is made up of the features of society designed to protect the interests of the dominant social class, a class that has power because of the economic structure, the substructure. Ethics and religion Marx scorned because he believed that both served the interests of exploitation. Once exploitation is eliminated, through the elimination of the exploiting bourgeoisie class, only one class would exist, or rather, because there would be no class structure, no separate classes would exist; it would be a classless society without need of "morality." Since everyone is united in interest, oppression ends. Marx thought that under communism people would produce things based on their ability, and receive whatever they need. Production would not be a problem, because capitalism paved the way for abundance. Each person could work a few hours a day, and use the other hours for productive leisure time.
    Marx's image of communism does not square with actual communist societies. This may be the fault of those societies, or it may indicate that Marx's hope was unrealistic and too utopian. Many economists reject Marx's labor theory of value as old-fashioned, and they reject his claim that labor is the only productive class. Marx's theories are now aging. We expect them to be wrong in numerous ways. Yet he does offer a vision, sometimes a dangerous vision, of the way things could be. He also instructs us to carefully examine the influence of economic arrangements on the way we live our lives, for better or worse.
    The history of contemporary Marxist states show that utopian ideals, however good they sound, can be destructive, just as charismatic "ideal" leaders can be. We should never give up a full vision of moral experience, including rules, principles, and conventions, as well as ideals. When one dominates the others, say an attractive social ideal, over our basic moral principles, we may find ourselves in tragic circumstances.  Top

See also:

     EQUALITY
     FREEDOM
     HARM AND WELFARE
     NORMS: THEIR MORAL STATUS
     PLURALISM