We have almost 200 questions. These questions focus on political theory, whether that be moral philosophy (ethical) questions or ones that involve scientific theory.

My experience has been that asking a good theory question has it's own nuances which are sometimes different than asking other questions. I'd like to ask the community for advice on how to ask these questions.

This post is intended to compile our individual experiences regarding political theory questions into a single spot. It should be a great source of information for users who writing theory questions, and it may be a tool for the community to point new users too as a teaching device.

So, how do we ask good political theory questions? To get things started, I'll post some of my observations below and hopefully others will chip in with their experience. Upvote/downvote to indicate whether you believe the answer is useful. And please limit each answer to one kind of thing, so that we know what we are upvoting.

  • 1
    I don't tend to ask/answer political theory questions (they're outside my expertise), but I would find it helpful if people defined terms, especially ambiguous ones such as 'right wing' or 'anarchy'
    – user7809
    Jul 19 '18 at 11:42
  • 1
    @Bad_Bishop I added an answer covering that. Jul 20 '18 at 17:38
  • If you feel like it please help work on politics.stackexchange.com/questions/33350/…. I had a swing at it but not sure it was good enough.
    – user4012
    Sep 5 '18 at 23:34

Explicitly Say That You Are Interested in Theory

Questions about political philosophy should be tagged . The body of the question should also indicate that you are asking for an answer based in theory, rather than reality. There are two reasons for this:

  1. It's a best practice across most of SE. Tags are used for browsing questions, not for guiding answers. The body of your question should include all the details necessary to formulate a good answer.
  2. Many answerers will ignore the tag anyway. By explicitly stating that you are interested in political theory, you are less likely to get non-theoretical answers.

One particularly common thing to avoid is a confusion between law questions and theory questions. For example, a user might ask:

When is it okay to not pay taxes?

It isn't immediately clear whether this is a question about law (to be interpretted as, "under the laws of country X when is it required that I pay taxes?") or a question of moral theory ("when is it morally acceptable to not pay taxes?"). Explicitly stating that you are interested in philosophic, rather than legal, answers will help avoid this confusion.

  • 1
    While some theory questions are philosophical, I can see some that would benefit from the practical application of history, political anthropology, psychology and other areas of the social sciences. In fact, most political and ethical philosophies make ready usage of real world examples in their works. For example, the philosophy of Marx is often described as the philosophy of history. Christ's teachings were one real life parable after another.
    – user9790
    Jul 7 '18 at 13:17

Establish Boundaries

Political theory questions are often at-risk of being closed for being either too broad or opinion-based. To avoid this, it is sometimes helpful to establish some boundaries to the kinds of theories you are willing to entertain.

For example, this question might attract some close votes for being too broad:

Who should be able to make laws?

This question will likely attract close votes. Even though it's a basic political theory question, it will almost invariably attract opinion-based answers, rather than answers based on extant theory. Additionally, it is difficult to answer because it requires summarizing thousands of years of philosophy to adequately address.

Establishing clear boundaries can help both problems. One option is to specify a particular kind of theoretical lens to use:

In classical republican theory, who should be able to make laws?

Or reference a particular work:

In Utopia who is capable of making laws?

Or maybe a particular author:

According to Hegel, who should be able to make laws?

Although this example was based in moral theory, the same goes for questions of scientific theory. If you can narrow down the scope of your question your question is more likely to stay open, and you are more likely to get high-quality answers.

When You Don't Want Boundaries

Sometimes you really don't want boundaries. You might really want a broad survey of philosophic arguments across history, or perhaps you don't know enough about a subject to clearly say what kind of theory you are interested in.

We have had questions on broad philosophic themes, such as "What is the difference between a republic and a democracy?". These questions tend to attract answers based on personal opinion and low-quality sources (such as dictionaries). These questions are typically not a great fit for the StackExchange format and may be better asked elsewhere. Ask at your own peril.

If you don't know what theory is appropriate, saying so in your question is helpful:

What are the key theories regarding who should make laws? I'm sure that different theories have different recommendations, but I don't know enough about the subject to guess what theory I would be interested in.

  • 2
    When you don't want boundaries but don't want opinions either: Ask directly for leading thinkers and polemicists viewpoints, be clear about this. When answering be willing to have a community based answer so itt can be added to by others as it might be very long, which is okay.
    – user9790
    Jul 7 '18 at 13:23

Clearly Define Terms

Clearly define the terms you are using. This is often annoying, but important. Don't dispair: about 50% of the work in political theory is clearly identifying what terms like "democracy", "law", "justice", "fair", and similar things mean.

Defining important terms will help you get answers you actually want. If you were to ask "Who really rules in a democracy, the people or the government?" you would want to identify what a "democracy" is.

Although you may have a clear idea in your own mind, many readers and potential answers may interpret that word differently. For example, does a democracy mean only a direct democracy, does in it include in-direct democracies? Does it only include things that are "true" democracy, or does it include things nominally called democracy (like the People's Democratic Republic of Wherever)? Does it include only democratic states, or non-state entities like a corporation governed by votes of stakeholders?

Sometimes your definition of a term may be unconventional or poorly informed. That's okay. Give it your best shot.

It's okay to not know exactly what you mean. Again - that's part of why theory is so important. But attempting to write down what you mean will help you get better answers.

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