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  • Writer's pictureAgit Utkan

Political Philosophy, First- and Second Order Questions

Updated: Jul 6, 2022

Political philosophy is of importance for individuals living in a complex and all-too-common world: a world of cultures, countries, moral beliefs, nationalities, policies, etc. We are, sort of speak, forced to make decisions about utmost compelling questions raised in marketplaces, schools, neighborhoods, houses, and many other physical environments that we have beings in place. We face many challenges and try to find solutions in practical life. There is no escape from it. In the face of choices that one can put into action, the refusal to act upon any one of the choices available to the immediate reflection, is also a choice.


The given conditions of the world and the physical nature of things (causality, or supervenience, whatever one likes to commit to, etc.) enforces that one is left with choices and a limited power to do things differently. Power, here, refers to the ability to will and act accordingly to one’s will in favor of an expected outcome.

Given that actions and choices are left to be deliberated directly by the person's own will, with the person's power to do so, some preliminary questions arise. Preliminary questions, as we may call them first-order questions regarding social and political philosophy, are discussed at length in the history of philosophy. These questions regard the nature of self, the epistemological nature of beliefs and knowledge (say, episteme politike), the nature of human beings, the question of free will, etc. The enlightenment philosophers such as Bentham, Smith, Voltaire, Rousseau have occupied themselves with these questions before their claims and theories of normative nature. Whether or not one's will is his only appeal to justified action, for instance, proved fruitful debates between liberal, republican, and contemporary communitarian thinkers; the question here had two stages: first, whether or not there are any considerations beyond the will; and, secondly, whether we ought to act upon the will or other considerations. As I explained, the former is a question of first-order nature, while the latter is purely normative, and, consequently, second-order. The typical approach to political philosophy is thus reducible, very broadly and loosely, to these two categories of questions.


David Hume / Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash


Let us now suppose that person X has a theory of human nature. X claims that humans were created by God to act freely according to their will (the idea was elaborated by Locke and his followers like Wollstonecraft). X, in his mind, is committed to free will, as given to all human beings by God (perhaps, he justifies his belief in free will by referring to the Biblical Scriptures, or a religious deity, which provides him a formal argument). This person can follow such claims and prove sovereignty to the will of individuals, in the sense that one is justified in claiming authority in her actions, as far as she acts accordingly to her will. At this point, the Y person on the opposing side is left with two choices. As her first choice, Y can argue that God doesn’t exist, so the reliance on its existence is mistaken. It would convince X to dismiss the argument at first glance. As her second choice, Y can refuse the fact – claim it not to be obtained – that human beings have free will to act upon in the first place or claim the appeal to free will as (normatively) wrong. Be careful to see that both in the former and the latter points, the opposition claims the argument as being incoherent; but the former refuses to adhere to the argument because the appeal to free will is not possible in the sense that our ontological commitment to free will is mistakenly held; while the latter refuses the appeal to free will because it is not right to appeal to free will, at least not always, etc., even though it happens to be the case whether free will exists or not. The two positions here are very different from each other. This difference can prove very different conclusions, such as convincing the one to uphold the argument or proving the one to unconvincing it all together. The one who confirms the former position of the opposition would be concerned about the preliminary question, regarding the nature of human beings and will, while the one who confirms the latter position would be concerned about a second-order question, regarding what we ought or ought not to do.


It is significantly different to make an ontological or epistemological assertion than to making a normative claim of how one should act or, very broadly, which facts about the world should be obtained, if given that the physical world (the truthmaker of facts, let us suppose) is causally incomplete and subject to the deliberation of one’s action within the limits of her power.

We may delve into political philosophy by considering both first-order and second-order questions of interest. In this sense, the dubbed field ‘political philosophy’ is not a complete description of this field after all. It consists of many subjects such as personhood, identity, social cooperation, liberty, civil rights, human nature, multiculturalism, immigration, state, the normative theory of politics, positive law, and many more. In the end, the groundwork of political thinking, say, the first-order subjects, which one wishes to start developing her political theory, affects plenty of second-order and further subjects.


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