Slippery Concepts: How Political Values Guide Us and Misguide Us in the Search for the Common Good Open Access

Sodagum, Charita (Spring 2022)

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My goal in this thesis is to explore a phenomenon which I call the problem of “slippery concepts”. Following insights of Plato and Aristotle, I argue that value concepts are slippery because people tend to interpret them considering their own interests, so that often their meaning deteriorates and reverses as time goes on. Because of this slippery character, some value concepts that are initially intended to change society in a positive direction are often turned upside down and used as rhetorical tools to maintain the status quo instead. As Michelle Alexander writes, “the more things change, the more they stay the same” (Alexander 1).  

To explore the problem of slippery concepts, I look first at the role of what I call “the core values,” which are goals that we think are fundamental for promoting a decent society and for living a better life. In Chapter 1, I discuss a list of examples of core values of a good political system through an analysis of Pericles’s Funeral Oration and explore the reasons for the deterioration of core values in 4 different political regimes: epistocracies, democracies, oligarchies, and tyrannies.  

In Chapter 2, I discuss how ancient philosophers were preoccupied with the deterioration of these values and how they can be reversed to maintain oppression. I begin with Plato’s analysis of the degradation of political regimes in Republic VIII-IX. This leads into an analysis of Aristotle’s Politics V 10 and 11, where he discusses reversal as one of the main tricks for preserving a tyranny.  

In Chapter 3, I discuss three modern examples of Aristotle’s trick reversal, when politicians say one thing while do the opposite, and three modern examples of Plato’s phenomenon of positive concepts that are supposed to be liberating but degrade into something oppressive. I end this chapter with a discussion of the War on Drugs as an example of both the trick of reversal and the phenomenon of degradation.  

I conclude with a reflection of how our political world is complicated by the fact that value concepts are slippery and used to maintain oppressive behaviors and suggest strategies for preventing these phenomena and preparing citizens to engage in political conversations without being tricked.  

Table of Contents

Introduction: A Brief Commentary on Slippery Concepts … 1

Chapter 1: The Core Values of a Good Political System … 7

Why Do Societies Pursue Great Values? Some Examples Ancient and Contemporary…7

Pericles’ Praise of Democracy: Analysis of the Funeral Oration … 8

Old and New Political Debates about Justice as Example of Slippery Value Concepts … 14

Examples of Core Value Devaluation in Concrete Political Regimes … 20

How We Use Great Values to Move People towards Political Action/Engagement in Contemporary Society ... 24

Chapter 2: The Deterioration and Reversal of the Core Values … 26

The Decadence of Pericles’ Regime … 27

Plato's Analysis of the Deterioration of political systems in Republic VIII-IX … 28

Manufacturing Deterioration: Aristotle's Advice to the Tyrant on How to Preserve a Political Regime … 32

The Philosophers’ Epistocracy as a Solution to the Problem of Deterioration and Reversal … 34

Chapter 3: The War on Drugs as an Example of Manufacturing Reversal … 37

Deterioration and Reversal in Modern America … 38

Michelle Alexander’s Analysis of the “War on Drugs” … 47

Conclusion: How to Pursue Core Values without Losing their True Meaning … 57

Works Cited … 60
















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