Political Philosophy Part 1. Week 8. Summary.



Links: Burke and Paine Notes

Edmund Burke 1729 – 1797.

MP in 1765 (Whigs)

Opposed the French Revolution (1789) but supported the Americans in their demand for independence from Britain

Represents conservatism

In 1790 he wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France.


Burke’s Ideas:


- he believed the American revolution to be justified in order to regain or “restore” something lost: they were being taxed but had no votes, so had lost their citizenship rights, but opposed the French Revolution because:

- it sought the overthrow of a long-established government of a type that was widespread


- “natural rights” were dangerous, as they could be taken to extremes by anyone; they were too “abstract”


- collective experience builds up tradition and we know what “works” because of this


- the art of establishing the constitution of a state is complex and intricate, and requires “delicate complicated skill” and deep knowledge of human nature etc


- change should be ‘piecemeal’ and gradual, not sudden and radical


- an organic model of society: all the parts in society are inter-dependent, and play their natural roles.


- “natural” to feel awe at monarchs, “reverence to priests” etc


- ordinary citizens are fallible, or ignorant; each has only a little reason and cannot envisage the whole of society


- advocated ‘prejudice’ (pre-judging in the light of experience)


- our “natural” condition is dependency and the need for security and leadership. Our “natural rights”, he argued, are derived from society


- identified “concrete” rights, derived from society and experience, to:  justice (though he didn’t define this); the fruits of one’s industry (and though we all have equal freedom, that doesn’t mean equal entitlement); continuity and inheritance; education and religion (and he believed that religion was the most useful and powerful guide to how to run society)


- only those who have experience and background are able to govern – i.e. the “aristocracy”


- believed good order was the most important social goal, people should be ‘tractable and obedient’, government should ‘constrain the passions’ of the people


- for a ‘balance of powers’ in government.




Tom Paine 1737 – 1809.

Customs officer, councillor (Lewes, Sussex), pamphleteer

In America from 1774, drummer in the revolutionary army. In 1776 he wrote Common Sense, In 1791: Rights of Man, 1793: The Age of Reason, 1797: Agrarian Justice.

 To France in 1787 – later elected to the Convention, spoke against the execution of Louis XVI, imprisoned, released in 1793. In 1802 went to America, died there.

Represents radical liberalism


Paine’s Ideas:

- Common sense” is a fundamental attribute of human psychology. It is the ability to know whatever is spontaneously knowable. Also: the way the mind understands what the heart feels (combining feeling, moral intuition, and reason?).


- “… reason (freed from impostures of tradition and absurdities of religion) could easily apprehend the natural laws of society and government.

- the science of government is “of all things the least mysterious and the most easy to understand”. But it has been “enveloped... [with] mystery, for the purpose of enslaving plundering and imposing upon mankind”. “By the simple operation of constructing government on the principles of society and the rights of man, every difficulty retires.”


- “society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness.”


- Government is a necessary evil – it should serve to do only the few things that people cannot do for themselves


- we all have a natural love of liberty, and “inextinguishable feelings to do good, and the right to reason for ourselves.”  Therefore we all have natural rights to “act for our own comfort and happiness”


- The rights of man comprise both natural rights and civil rights: the latter are acquired as a result of being a member of society, where our individual power is not enough to ensure our own rights. Rights are, “by reciprocity” duties: “Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.”


-  Sovereignty as a matter of right, appertains to the nation only, and not to any individual.”


- A social contract can only bind the generation that agreed to it. It cannot “govern beyond the grave”…“Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself, in all cases, as the age and generation which preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave, is the most ridiculous and insolent of tyrants.”


- So, hereditary monarchy is not natural: “all hereditary government is in its nature tyranny”…“Monarchy is popery of government; a thing kept to amuse the ignorant, and quiet them into paying taxes.”


- “…a nation has at all times an inherent and indefeasible right to abolish any form of government it finds inconvenient, and establish such as accords with its interests, disposition and happiness.”


– “man is not the enemy of man, but through the medium of a false system of government.


- Without war there would be less poverty, and more money would be available for such welfare provisions as: maternity allowances, marriage grants, funeral grants, family allowances, unemployment relief and pensions. (Rights of Man Part II, 1792).