POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

Last Updated 28/04/05

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  1. The Paper
  2. History
  3. Contemporary Problems

1. The Paper

Political philosophy is the study of how we can and how we ought to live together. Throughout the history of Western philosophy, those figures whose thought has engaged with ethical problems have been equally concerned with political philosophy and vice versa. Just as the form of ethical theories have varied greatly over the last 2,000 years, so too have the forms taken by questions and answers within political philosophy. Hence it is very important to address the problems of political philosophy within an historical framework and an ethical framework.

Amongst the problems considered throughout history have been: the question of the nature and claims of justice; the existence of natural rights; the status of positive law; the existence of distinctive obligations towards the state or towards each other as co-members of some society; claims of property; claims of liberty; the best understanding of equality and its claim on us.

In Ancient political philosophy we can find concern with the nature of justice and the well-ordered state. In the Early Modern discussion, the authority of the state and questions of right loom large. From this tradition we derive the heuristic use of the state of nature: Hobbes uses this to ask how we can be rationally compelled to obey the sovereign, and to offer an answer; in Locke we can find an influential discussion of property rights and the origin of political obligation; Rousseau, much more radically seeks to explain how we can rationally be bound by law through the concept of the general will. In different ways Hegel and Marx offer critiques of the Enlightenment conception of the citizen and state. In Mill, we can find the radical utilitarianism of the early nineteenth century modulated into a delicate plea for liberty.

In Anglo-American political philosophy over the last thirty years, the work of the Harvard philosopher John Rawls has been central in defining the scope and focus of debate, though of great importance too are the ideas of Isaiah Berlin, G.A. Cohen, Ronald Dworkin, Robert Nozick, Joseph Raz and TM Scanlon. In recent years increasing attention has been paid to the work of Amartya Sen, and topics related to global poverty and injustice have become increasingly discussed.

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2. History

General Commentaries

Three good general commentaries for the history side are

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Main Historical Text

Plato

On which see:

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Aristotle

On which see:

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Hobbes

On which see:

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Locke

On which see:

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Rousseau

On which see:

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Hegel

On which see:

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Marx

On which see:

For further details see the entry for Marxism.

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Mill

On which see:

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Further Historical Text

Sometimes questions are asked on:

It is not worth revising these thinkers unless there have been recent lectures on them, but they are often suitable subjects for pre-submissions.

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3. Contemporary Problems

General Text

Excellent general texts of relevance to this side of the paper are

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Journals

Two journals which include much top quality recent work in political philosophy are Philosophy and Public Affairs, and Ethics. These will be particularly useful as reference points for those preparing pre-submissions or a dissertation. Political Studies, Political Theory, The Journal of Political Philosophy, Economics and Philosophy, Utilitas, Philosophy, Politics and Economics, and Social Philosophy and Policy also publish important work in this area.

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Specific Topics

Rawls

Without doubt Rawls is the most important contemporary political philosopher. Central topics include the arguments for his two principles of justice; the acceptability of those principles; the idea of a ‘hypothetical contract'; the libertarian (see Nozick) and communitarian (see below) critiques of Rawls; the new doctrine of Political Liberalism ; the relation between the ‘old' and ‘new' Rawls; and Rawls's late writings on international justice.

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Nozick and Libertarianism

Nozick presents a ‘libertarian' political philosophy, based on what he calls the ‘Entitlement Theory of Justice'. How well does Nozick defend this view, and in particular can he justify initial acquisition of property? A related question concerns his use of the ‘Wilt Chamberlain example' to attempt to establish the claim that ‘liberty upsets patterns'. By this argument Nozick claims to have refuted almost all competing theories of justice. A further topic concerns his success in defending the minimal state against the claims of the anarchist. More recently the possibility of ‘left-libertarianism' has been a major topic of discussion (Steiner, Otsuka).

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Justice

How is the concept of justice best understood? Does justice require impartiality, mutual advantage, fair compromise, or something else again?

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Democracy

What is democracy, and why is it so revered in the modern world? Can democracy be justified in terms of its consequences, or does it have intrinsic value? These are the primary philosophical questions concerning democracy.

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Equality, Priority and Sufficiency

It has been claimed that all political philosophies appeal to the idea of equality in one respect or other. Egalitarianism, however, is the view that the just society is the society in which, in some sense or other, all enjoy equality of condition. But can a coherent and plausible notion of equality of condition be defined? Is equality a matter of equal distribution of something, or is the idea of equality a matter of the relations enjoyed between citizens? Finally are there arguments for preferring egalitarianism to other theories of justice? (See also Rawls, Nozick.)

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Liberalism, Toleration and Neutrality

Liberals claim that the state should be neutral between competing conceptions of the good. Is this achievable or desirable? Does it pre-suppose moral scepticism? To what extent do contemporary societies achieve this aim? If the law should not enforce popular morality then what should it do? (See also Rawls, Nozick, Liberty, Communitarianism.)

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Liberty

Berlin argues that there are two concepts of liberty: positive and negative. Is there a genuine distinction? Is one concept more ‘authentic' than the other? What is the relation between liberty and other values?

(These are all reprinted, with other useful readings, in David Miller, ed., Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991)

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Property

By what procedures, if any, can individuals legitimately come to own private property? The starting point for this topic is Locke's discussion of property, in his Second Treatise, Ch. 5. (See also Nozick.)

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The Free Market

Arguments for the free market are often made in terms of liberty (see Nozick) and efficiency. But arguments for limiting the market have also been mounted on these terms, and also on the basis of equality and justice. Can we conceive of society without the market in some form or other? What role should there be for government intervention?

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Communitarianism

Communitarians argue that we should pursue a politics of the ‘common good' in preference to liberal neutrality. This view is often premised on a metaphysical account of the person: that individuals are ‘partly constituted' by the communities of which they form part. Liberalism is said, by communitarians, to presuppose an implausible metaphysics of the self. In response liberals often claim to be neutral on metaphysical, as well as moral, issues. (See Rawls, Liberalism.) More recently the debate has broadened to include a discussion of ‘perfectionism' (the view that some conceptions of the good are objectively better than others, as urged by J. Raz, The Morality of Freedom, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1986)) and whether public institutions should recognise or respect the particular identities of members of minority cultures. See W. Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship: a Liberal Theory of Minority Rights, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).

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Rights

Can we make sense of the idea of ‘natural rights'? If not, how can we understand rights claims? Can rights be given a consequentialist justification? And what rights do (or should) we have? (See also Nozick.)

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Anarchism

Is there a plausible account of what life could be like without the state? Can this be combined with reasons to prefer such a situation to one in which a coercive state exists? (See also Nozick, Political Obligation.)

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Political Obligation

Should I obey the law just because it is the law? Can political obligations be given any moral foundation? Answers have been given by social contract theorists, as well as by advocates of the ‘theory of fairness', utilitarians and communitarians. (See also Anarchism, Nozick, Rawls.)

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Social Choice Theory

The problem for the technical subject of social choice theory is to define a formal function that will aggregate individual choices or preferences into a ‘social ordering'. Arrow proved that no such function is consistent with a number of apparently trivial assumptions. The significance of this result is much debated.

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Feminism

Feminist political philosophy has become a major area of interest and research. One central question is whether there is a distinctive feminist subject matter, or whether feminist concerns can be subsumed under more general demands for justice and equality. Important contributions to the subject include

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Punishment

A legitimate state is thought to possess a ‘monopoly' on the right to punish. Does it possess such a monopoly, and on what grounds? Can a right to punish be derived from a right of self-protection? Assuming that the state possesses a right to punish, what is the purpose of punishment? Is it in order to deter others from committing crimes? To give criminals what they deserve? To reform criminals? Should completed crimes be punished more severely than mere attempts?

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Multiculturalism

A topic of increasing concern is whether liberalism is able to accommodate people who have very different moral and religious traditions within a single society, or whether some other response is called for. Important recent works include:

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Global Justice

Do our obligations to other human beings stop at national boundaries? On the one hand it seems arbitrary to suppose that they do. On the other hand any other approach would seem to lead to obligation of massive redistribution. How, then, should we understand the demands of global justice?

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