Chapter 10 : Political Philosophy

Individual versus Group Interest

So there are a variety of theories on government.  There are a variety of Political Philosophies.  Each offers it view on how it is that government is to hold and exercise power over individuals.  Each operates within a more general view of how it is that society ought to be regulated.  Each has what Plato would term an “Ideal Model”.  According to that model government acts.  One of the ways in which governments must act is to resolve the conflicts that arise in every society between the interests that individuals have in their own welfare and happiness and the interest that the group as a whole has in its welfare. 

In any society there is a natural tension between the interests of individuals and the interest of the group as a whole.  There is a conflict between what individuals want and what serves their interests and what is needed for the welfare, safety and security of the entire group.  Government needs to moderate that conflict.  Depending on the type of view that is operative concerning the nature of the social arrangement and the nature of government, the conflict will be resolved in favor of one or the other sets of interests. 

Examples: 

1. Individuals may believe that they have the right to smoke tobacco.  The group or society as a whole has an interest in preserving its heath and well being.  How is the conflict to be resolved?  In different societies there are different resolutions.  In those favoring individualism there may be a great amount of freedom and a great reluctance on the part of government to restrict the liberties of individuals even when they are placing the welfare of others in jeopardy.  In other societies that favor the common good over that of individuals there is less reluctance on the part of that government to intervene in the personal lives of individuals in order to preserve the common welfare and provide for the common good. 

2. Individuals have an interest in preserving their earnings and using them as hey see fit.  In most countries the government takes a portion of those earnings through taxation and distributes the goods and services purchased with those funds as the government thinks best to provide for the more general good. 

3. Individuals may want to ride in their automobiles without wearing a seat belt.  Society acts to protect itself from foolish behavior that threatens the common welfare.  Government enacts laws requiring the use of seatbelts in order to reduce the number of accidents in which the drivers are injured and become so impaired that society must provide for their medical and physical care for the rest of their lives. 

4. Individuals have an interest in self-protection, sporting pleasure, or hunting and so want to have guns and handguns.  Society has an interest in reducing injuries and deaths caused by the use of such devices as weapons involved in crimes or accidents.  In some countries government has acted for the common welfare and has prohibited private ownership of such devices. 

There are many other examples of such conflicts.  If you consider some of the social topics of greatest interest and concern today you will probably find this basic conflict involved in it in some way.  In the USA in 2001 consider the topics of the government’s tax surplus and what is to be done with it or education and whether or not to allow for vouchers for parents to use in selecting a school.  Both of these topics involve individual interest against that of the group. 

The topics involved with Social and Political Philosophy are far from being uninteresting or unimportant.  The theories of philosophers who discuss such topics are far from being of no concern to that of society.  The ideas of philosophers on these matters have led directly or indirectly to revolutions and legislation and many social and political activities in all nations of the world. 

A great problem facing the USA and the world at this time that involves the conflict between individual and group interests is the growing enormity of the inequality in wealth and income. Ideas concerning distributive justice and forms of government that would provide for such justice will be involved in the settlement of this conflict.

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Introduction to Philosophy by Philip A. Pecorino is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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