POLITICAL philosophy investigates both the shape that a social and political order should take and the reasons that apply to individuals both in relation to the best social order and to imperfect ones. Central topics are: the problem of the authority of the state over the individual and the obligation of the individual to the state; the problem of social justice; and the problem of whether the state should be democratic or not (and what that means). Do individuals have certain fundamental and inalienable rights that are prior to the social and political order? Do those rights include the right to own private property?
While contemporary political philosophers address these questions directly, drawing on tools from other parts of philosophy (ethics, epistemology, the philosophy of social science) and from the socal sciences (economics, psychology, sociology), they also draw on a rich tradition of philosophical speculation about social and political matters, at tradition that goes back to the ancients. For further guidance on some parts of that tradition (Ancient Philosophy, Kant, Marx) students should consult other sections of this Guide. Specific recommendations on social contract theory are included below.
- Jean Hampton, Political Philosophy
- Jonathon Wolff, An Introduction to Political Philosophy
- Will Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy
- Robert E. Goodin and Philip Pettit (eds), A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy
- Robert E. Goodin and Philip Pettit (eds), Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Anthology
- Anthony Quinton (ed.) Political Philosophy
The two most important journals publishing high quality work in political philosophy are Philosophy and Public Affairs and Ethics. Other important journals in the field are the Journal of Political Philosophy and Political Theory. The main journal for the history of political thought is History of Political Thought. Political philosophy is also to be found in many law and political science journals as well as in the main philosophy journals.
The state: consequentialist arguments
Both Hobbes and Hume sought to justify the state because (among other things) things go better with a state than without. Specifically, they argue that the state is necessary to secure the good of social order without which life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’. This has been challenged by anarchist writers who argue that social order can be otherwise provided.
- Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, chs 13-21
- David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book III, part 2, esp. §§ 1–2
- Michael Taylor, The Possibility of Co-Operation, ch 6
- Michael Taylor, Community Anarchy and Liberty, chs 1 and 2
- Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia part 1
- For a modern defence of anarchism see
- Colin Ward, Anarchy in Action
Authority and autonomy
Perhaps Hobbes and Hume are right that social order can only be, or is best, provided by the state. But states claim for themselves an authority over individuals. That is, they claim that they have the right to issue commands (perhaps in the form of laws) to individuals and that individuals have a duty to obey. But can an individual moral agent surrender the right to determine what she is to do to another person or agency?
- R.P. Wolff, In Defense of Anarchism
- Leslie Green, The Authority of the State, ch. 2
- Joseph Raz ed., Authority
- A. John Simmons, Moral Principles and Political Obligations
- Keith Graham, The Battle of Democracy (sections dealing with Wolff)
Isaiah Berlin famously distinguished between ‘two concepts of liberty’: positive and negative. Is this distinction a tenable one? Why should we value liberty in any case?
- Isaiah Berlin, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, in his Four Essays on Liberty and in A. Quinton ed., Political Philosophy
- G. MacCallum, ‘Negative and Positive Freedom’, Philosophical Review, (1967)
- Keith Graham, The Battle of Democracy, ch. 3
- Hillel Steiner, ‘Individual Liberty’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (1974–5)
- Charles Taylor, ‘What's Wrong with Negative Liberty’, in A. Ryan ed., The Idea of Freedom
What are rights? Is it in the very nature of things that persons are endowed with rights? Or are they just a matter of social convention or public utility?
- Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously
- Jeremy Waldron (ed). Theories of Rights
- Hillel Steiner, A Theory of Rights
Self Ownership and Property
Do people have rights over themselves akin to the kind of rights they might have over objects? Can their ownership of themselves underpin a more extensive right to private property?
- Locke, Second Treatise of Government, ch 5
- Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, ch 7 ( and ch 3)
- Hillel Steiner, An Essay on Rights, ch 7
- G. A. Cohen, ‘Self-Ownership, World-Ownership and Equality’, in F.Lucash (ed.) Justice and Equality Here and Now.
- Will Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy, pp. 95–125
John Rawls’s Theory of Justice
John Rawls is the most important political philosopher of the twentieth century. It is now a cliché that his A Theory of Justice (1971, revised edition 1999) transformed the discipline and made possible once again fundamental philosophical inquiry into political values and institutions.
- Chandran Kukathas and Philip Pettit, Rawls is a readable intruduction. There are also useful chapters in Stephen Mulhall and Adam Swift, Liberals and Communitarians
- Allen Buchanan, Marx and Justice, ch. 6 contains a good introduction to Rawls
- Norman V. Daniels ed. Reading Rawls is the classic collection of papers (now somewhat dated), and the papers by Nagel and Dworkin remain essential reading
The ‘communitarian’ line of criticism is best articulated by Michael Sandel in his Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. The ‘libertarian’ alternative’ is put by Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State and Utopia ch. 7. Rawls receives support against both of these critics from Thomas Pogge in his Realising Rawls
- Rawls’s evolution can be charted via his Collected Papers and in his later work Political Liberalism
Liberalism ,‘neutrality’, and public reason
One part of the post-Rawls debate has involved an attempt to define the essential committments of liberalism. One thought has been that liberalism requires that the social order be justifiable to all those who are subject to it. Does this mean that we must abstain from employing public justifications that we know are actually unacceptable to our fellow citizens (perhaps because of their religious or metaphysical committments)? Or can we appeal to reasons that rationally, they ought to accept?
- John Rawls, Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical in Philosophy and Public Affairs 14, no, 3 (1985) and in Milton Fisk ed. Justice
- Jeremy Waldron, ‘Theoretical Foundations of Liberalism’ in his Liberal Rights, and in the Philosophical Quarterly, 37 (1987)
- Papers by Dworkin, Macintyre and Sandel; in Michael Sandel ed, Liberalism and its Critics
- Stephen Mulhall and Adam Swift, Liberals and Communitarians, Introduction. ch 1, 2 [3 and 4]
- Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy, ch 6
- Joseph Raz, ‘Facing Diversity: The Case of Epistemic Abstinence’ in Philosophy and Public Affairs (1990) and in his Ethics in the Public Domain
- Gerald Gaus, Justificatory Liberalism
- Fred D’Agostino, Free Public Reason
- Christopher Bertram, ‘Political Justification, Theoretical Complexity and Democratic Community’, Ethics, (1997)
What is democracy? Do democratic institutions have intrinsic value, or should we favour them because of their good consequences? Is majority rule compatible with individual autonomy? Should we favour representative democracy or wider popular rule?
- Keith Graham, The Battle of Democracy
- Richard Wollheim, ‘A Paradox in the Theory of Democracy’ in Laslett and Runciman eds, Philosophy, Politics and Society Third Series
- Geoffrey Brennan and Loren Lomasky, Democracy and Decision, chs 1–3
- Essays by Elster and Goodin in Jon Elster and A. Hylland eds, Foundations of Social Choice Theory [HB846.8 FOU]
- Carole Pateman, Participation and Democratic Theory, especially chs 1, 2 and 6. or
- Peter Bachrach, The Theory of Democratic Elitism
- Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy
Equality and the Metric of Distributive Justice
The value of equality poses two major problems for political philosophy. First, should one be an egalitarian at all? Does justice require equality? Second, if one is, or to the extent to which one is, what sort of equality should one favour. In relation to the first question, an important challenge is posed by so-called ‘prioritarians’ who argue that we should value giving priority to those with least rather the trying to establish a particular – egalitarian – pattern of distribution. On the second, debate has raged between those favouring equality of welfare, those favouring equality of resources and those who favour some subtle combination of the two.
Equality and Priority
- Derek Parfit, ‘Equality or Priority’, Ratio, (1977)
- Dennis McKerlie, ‘Equality and Priority’, Utilitas (1994)
- Joseph Raz, The Morality of Freedom, ch. 9
- Larry Temkin, Inequality, ch. 9
Equality of What?
- Amartya Sen, ‘ Equality of What?’ in S. McMurrin ed, The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, I.
- Ronald Dworkin, ‘What is Equality? Part 1: Equality of Welfare’, Philosophy and Public Affairs (1981)
- Ronald Dworkin, ‘What is Equality? Part 2: Equality of Resources’, Philosophy and Public Affairs (1981).
- Richard Arneson, ‘Equality and Equal Opportunity for Welfare’, Philosophical Studies (1989)
- G. A. Cohen, ‘On the Currency of Egalitarian Justice’, Ethics (1989).
- Amartya Sen, Inequality Re-examined
Feminist Political Philosophy
One important development in recent years has been feminist political philosophy. How does this relate to the traditional approaches of liberalism and communitarianism? Is feminism compatible with contractarian methods in political philosophy?
- Susan Moller Okin, Justice, Gender and the Family
- Will Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Philosophy, ch. 7
- Elizabeth Frazer and Nicola Lacey, The Politics of Community
- Susan Moller Okin, 'Reason and Feeling in Thinking About Justice', in Ethics (1989)
- Jean Hampton, 'Feminist Contractarianism', in A Mind Of One's Own : Feminist Essays On Reason And Objectivity edited by Louise M. Antony, Charlotte Witt
- Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract
The history of political philosophy includes many thinkers dealt with elsewhere in this Guide (such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Marx). Central to the understanding of modern political philosophy are the most important of the social contract theorists: Hobbes, Locke and Hume. Social contract theories hold that a legitimate state is one that is, has been, or perhaps might be the object of an agreement among persons.
- Michael Lessnoff, Social Contract
- Christopher W. Morris (ed.), The Social Contract Theorists : Critical Essays on Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau
- Leviathan, books 1 and 2 (esp. chs 13–21)
- The best recent commentary is Jean Hampton, Hobbes and the Social Contract Tradition
- See also Kavka, Hobbesian Moral and Politcal Theory
- Two Treatises of Government (especially the Second Treatise)
- John Simmons, The Lockean Theory of Rights
- John Simmons, On the Edge of Anarchy
- David Lloyd Thomas, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Locke on Government
- Joshua Cohen, ‘Structure, choice and legitimacy: Locke's theory of the state’, Philosophy and Public Affairs (1986) and in Morris.
- Social Contract
- C. Bertram,
- N. J. H. Dent, Rousseau
- T. O’Hagan, Rousseau
- Tracy B. Strong, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Politics of the Ordinary
- Joshua Cohen, ‘Reflections on Rousseau: Autonomy and Democracy,’ Philosophy and Public Affairs (1986) and in Morris.