Political Philosophy: An Introduction and Collection of Resources

This page contains an organized collection of links to beginner friendly videos, podcasts and articles on political philosophy. To get started, simply choose a topic from the list below.

What is Political Philosophy?

“It has been said that there are only two questions in political philosophy: ‘who gets what?’, and ‘says who?’ Not quite true, but close enough to be a useful starting-point. The first of these questions is about the distribution of material goods, and of rights and liberties. On what basis should people possess property? What rights and liberties should they enjoy? The second question concerns the distribution of another good: political power. Locke defined political power as ‘the right of making laws with penalties of death, and consequently all less penalties’. This probably goes further than we need, but we can see the point. Political power includes the right to command others, and to subject them to punishment if they disobey. Who should hold this power?

As soon as we reflect on these questions puzzles emerge. Is there any good reason why one person should have more property than another? Are there any justified limits to my liberty? And what should the relation be between political power and economic success? In some countries few obtain political power unless they are already wealthy. In others, those who gain political power soon find themselves rich. But should there be any connection at all between possession of wealth and enjoyment of political power?” – Excerpt from An Introduction to Political Philosophy by Jonathan Wolff.

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Political Concepts


“Think for a minute about your own political subjugation. You are continually subject to rules not directly of your own making, called laws, governing not only you but others, mandating, for example, how fast you can drive on a highway, what kind of behavior you can exhibit in public, what kinds of treatment of other human beings are permissible, what objects count as “yours” or “theirs,” and so forth. These rules are enforced by certain people following the directives of those who create the rules and who set the penalties for breaking them. Thus you know that if you don’t obey the rules, you are likely to suffer undesirable consequences, which can range from small fines to incarceration and even (in some societies) to death.

But on the surface this seems to mean that when you are ruled you are not only subjugated but coerced. We don’t approve of a gunman’s pointing a gun at your head and demanding that you give him your money, so why should we approve of any group’s using threats of fines, jail, or death to demand that you behave in a certain way or that you pay them money (which they call “taxes”) or that you fight in wars of their making? Is this subjugation really permissible from a moral point of view, especially given that human beings require freedom in order to flourish?

In order to answer this question, we need to think about the difference between what intuitively strikes us as “good” and “bad” kinds of control. The control of a parent over a two year-old is normally thought to be not only permissible but morally required. The control of a gunman over a victim he has kidnapped at gunpoint is normally thought to be highly impermissible. The second kind of control is condemned as morally unjustified—a violation of the coerced person’s “rights.” The first kind of control is thought to be morally justified and consistent with, and even supportive of, the child’s rights. But what is the difference between rightful and wrongful kinds of control over human beings? And since political control is importantly different from the control that parents have over children, why should it count as an example of the “good” rather than the “bad” sort of control?” – Excerpt from Political Philosophy by Jean Hampton.

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“Democracy, we are told, is government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’. Government for the people is the idea that the government exists for the sake of its citizens, not for the benefit of the rulers. Democratic governments rule ‘in the interests of the governed’, to use Bentham’s words. But then, so could other types of government. Voltaire argued in favour of ‘benevolent dictatorship’, where an enlightened despot, without the need to consult the people, would nevertheless govern in their interest. In contrast, democracy is, most obviously, a system in which the people rule: collective self-rule. This, then, is an account of what it means to say that democracy is government ‘for the people’ and ‘by the people’. The first item in the original triad – government ‘of the people’- seems a rather empty idea at first: what would government not of the people be? Anarchy? But the thought is that a democratic state has power only over the people who make up the electorate. Ruling over a subservient class, or territory, is claimed to be antithetical to the true ideals of democracy.” – Excerpt from An Introduction to Political Philosophy by Jonathan Wolff.

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“Do contemporary political theories appeal to conflicting ultimate values? I want to explore a suggestion, advanced by Ronald Dworkin, that modern political theories do not have different foundational values. On Dworkin’s view, every plausible political theory has the same ultimate value, which is equality. They are all ‘egalitarian’ theories (Dworkin: 1977 179-83; 1983: 24; 1986: 296-301; 1987: 7-8; cf. Nagel 1979: m). That suggestion is clearly false if by ‘egalitarian theory’ we mean a theory which supports an equal distribution of income. But there is another, more abstract and more fundamental, idea of equality in political theory – namely, the idea of treating people ‘as equals’. There are various ways to express this more basic idea of equality. A theory is egalitarian in this sense if it accepts that the interests of each member of the community matter, and matter equally. Put another way, egalitarian theories require that the government treat its citizens with equal consideration; each citizen is entitled to equal concern and respect. This more basic notion of equality is found in Nozick’s libertarianism as much as in Marx’s communism. While leftists believe that equality of income or wealth is a precondition for treating people as equals, those on the right believe that equal rights over one’s labour and property are a precondition for treating people as equals.

So the abstract idea of equality can be interpreted in various ways, without necessarily favouring equality in any particular area, be it income, wealth, opportunities, or liberties.” – Excerpt from Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction by Will Kimlicka.

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“Imagine you are driving a car through town, and you come to a fork in the road. You turn left, but no one was forcing you to go one way or the other. Next you come to a crossroads. You turn right, but no one was preventing you from going left or straight on. There is no traffic to speak of and there are no diversions or police roadblocks. So you seem, as a driver, to be completely free. But this picture of your situation might change quite dramatically if we consider that the reason you went left and then right is that you’re addicted to cigarettes and you’re desperate to get to the tobacconists before it closes. Rather than driving, you feel you are being driven, as your urge to smoke leads you uncontrollably to turn the wheel first to the left and then to the right. Moreover, you’re perfectly aware that your turning right at the crossroads means you’ll probably miss a train that was to take you to an appointment you care about very much. You long to be free of this irrational desire that is not only threatening your longevity but is also stopping you right now from doing what you think you ought to be doing.

This story gives us two contrasting ways of thinking of liberty. On the one hand, one can think of liberty as the absence of obstacles external to the agent. You are free if no one is stopping you from doing whatever you might want to do. In the above story you appear, in this sense, to be free. On the other hand, one can think of liberty as the presence of control on the part of the agent. To be free, you must be self-determined, which is to say that you must be able to control your own destiny in your own interests. In the above story you appear, in this sense, to be unfree: you are not in control of your own destiny, as you are failing to control a passion that you yourself would rather be rid of and which is preventing you from realizing what you recognize to be your true interests. One might say that while on the first view liberty is simply about how many doors are open to the agent, on the second view it is more about going through the right doors for the right reasons.” – Excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Positive and Negative Liberty by Ian Carter.

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“Justice has something to do with punishment and reward, and something to do with equality, but how should we define it? A very old definition, offered by the Roman Emperor Justinian, states that ‘justice is the constant and perpetual will to render to each his due’. Taken by itself, this may not seem very informative, but it does at least point us in the right direction. First, it emphasizes that justice is a matter of each individual person being treated in the right way; it is not a matter of whether society in general is prosperous or poor, culturally rich or culturally barren, and so forth. This is not to say that the idea of justice for groups can be dismissed out of hand – and we shall be looking at it more closely in the following chapter – but the primary concern of justice is with how individuals are treated. Second, the ‘constant and perpetual will’ part of the definition reminds us that a central aspect of justice is that people must be treated in a non-arbitrary way: there must be consistency in how one person is treated over time, and there must also be consistency between people, so that if my friend and I have the same qualities, or have behaved in the same way, we should receive the same benefits, or the same punishment, depending on the circumstances.” – Excerpt from Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by David Miller.

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Markets and Exchange

“Markets are institutions in which individuals or collective agents exchange goods and services. They usually use money as a medium of exchange, which leads to the formation of prices. Markets can be distinguished according to the goods or services traded in them (e.g. financial markets, housing markets, labor markets), according to their scope (e.g. regional, national, international markets), or according to their structure (e.g. competitive markets, oligopolistic markets, monopolistic markets). From a normative perspective, markets are of interest for a number of reasons: various arguments for and against markets relate to central questions of social and political philosophy. In addition, markets depend on, and in turn influence, many other institutions and aspects of social life. They thus co-determine the ways in which values such as liberty, justice or solidarity can be realized. Questions as to which markets, for what goods, can be defended by normative arguments, and how they relate to other institutions, are therefore at the core of thinking about a just society.” – Excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Markets by Liza Herzog.

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“When do governments merit our allegiance, and when should they be denied it? This most enduring of political dilemmas motivates our inquiry. Socrates, Martin Luther, and Thomas More remind us of its vintage; Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, and Aung San Suu Kyi underscore its continuing force. They are moral heroes because they faced down wrongful political authority, just as surely as Adolph Eichmann was a moral villain for his failure to do so. His motivation and behavior as a middle-level officer in Nazi Germany exemplify obedience to a technically legitimate authority. Yet his actions in sending countless thousands to Nazi concentration camps suggest that there must be limits to any government’s legitimate authority.

As the events surrounding Eichmann’s own death underscore, it is a good deal easier to say that there should be such limits than to say what they should be or how they should be enforced. Captured by Israeli commandos in violation of Argentinean and international law, he was spirited to Israel, tried and executed for crimes against humanity and against the Jewish people. Many who shed no tears for Eichmann were nonetheless troubled by the manner of his apprehension: he was tried in a country and by courts that did not exist when he committed his crimes and a law was tailor-made to facilitate his sentencing and execution. These actions seem at odds with the hallmarks of legitimate political authority that rule out illegal searches and seizures, post hoc crafting of laws to fit particular cases, and bills of attainder. Yet if we are unnerved both by Israel’s acting on what its leaders saw as a moral imperative despite the legal institutions of the day and by Eichmann’s slavish adherence to the legal institutions of his day, our question is thrown into sharp relief. Who is to judge, and by what criteria, whether the laws and actions of states that claim our allegiance measure up?” – Excerpt from The Moral Foundations of Politics by Ian Shapiro

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“Punishment involves the deliberate infliction of suffering on a supposed or actual offender for an offense such as a moral or legal transgression. Since punishment involves inflicting a pain or deprivation similar to that which the perpetrator of a crime inflicts on his victim, it has generally been agreed that punishment requires moral as well as legal and political justification. While philosophers almost all agree that punishment is at least sometimes justifiable, they offer various accounts of how it is to be justified as well as what the infliction of punishment is designed to protect – rights, personal autonomy and private property, a political constitution, or the democratic process, for instance. Utilitarians attempt to justify punishment in terms of the balance of good over evil produced and thus focus our attention on extrinsic or consequentialist considerations. Retributivists attempt a justification that links punishment to moral wrongdoing, generally justifying the practice on the grounds that it gives to wrongdoers what they deserve; their focus is thus on the intrinsic wrongness of crime that thereby merits punishment. “Compromise” theorists attempt to combine these two types of theories in a way that retains their perceived strengths while overcoming their perceived weaknesses.” – Excerpt from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Punishment by Kevin Murtagh.

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A right to life, a right to choose; a right to vote, to work, to strike; a right to one phone call, to dissolve parliament, to operate a forklift, to asylum, to equal treatment before the law, to feel proud of what one has done; a right to exist, to sentence an offender to death, to launch a nuclear first strike, to castle kingside, to a distinct genetic identity; a right to believe one’s eyes, to pronounce the couple husband and wife, to be left alone, to go to hell in one’s own way.

We encounter assertions of rights as we encounter sounds: persistently and in great variety. Making sense of this profusion of assertions requires that we class rights together by common attributes. Rights-assertions can be categorized, for example, according to:

  • Who is alleged to have the right: Children’s rights, animal rights, workers’ rights, states’ rights, the rights of peoples.
  • Whatactions or states or objects the asserted right pertains to: Rights of free expression, to pass judgment; rights of privacy, to remain silent; property rights, bodily rights.
  • Why the rightholder (allegedly) has the right: Moral rights are grounded in moral reasons, legal rights derive from the laws of the society, customary rights exist by local convention.
  • How the asserted right can be affected by the rightholder’s actions: The inalienable right to life, the forfeitable right to liberty, and the waivable right that a promise be kept.

Excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Rights by Leif Wenar.

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Social Contract

“The imaginary device through which equally imaginary individuals, living in solitude (or, perhaps, in nuclear families), without government, without a stable division of labour or dependable exchange relations, without parties, leagues, congregations, assemblies, or associations of any sort, come together to form a society, accepting obligations of some minimal kind to one another and immediately or very soon thereafter binding themselves to a political sovereign who can enforce those obligations. The contract is a philosophical fiction developed by early modern theorists to show how political obligation rests on individual consent—that is, on the consent that rational individuals would give were they ever to experience life without obligation and authoritative rule. To make this fictional consent plausible, the theorist must tell a story about what is commonly called the state of nature, the asocial condition of humankind before or without political authority. Commonly, the more harrowing
the story (Thomas Hobbes’s ‘war of all against all’ is the limiting case), the more authoritarian the political order established by the contract—for rational men and women cannot be imagined to consent to tyranny or absolute rule except to escape something worse. They accept the rule of the lion only in order to avoid an anarchy of wolves. A more liberal or democratic politics follows from a more benign story (as in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government) or from no story at all: John Rawls’s rational decision-makers in the *original position are denied any knowledge of their actual interests and so of their past competition or co-operation. But the assumption that they are not adventurers or risk-takers probably serves the same purpose as a benign story.” – Excerpt from The Oxford Companion to Philosophy edited by Ted Honderich.

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“The term “toleration”—from the Latin tolerare: to put up with, countenance or suffer—generally refers to the conditional acceptance of or non-interference with beliefs, actions or practices that one considers to be wrong but still “tolerable,” such that they should not be prohibited or constrained. There are many contexts in which we speak of a person or an institution as being tolerant: parents tolerate certain behavior of their children, a friend tolerates the weaknesses of another, a monarch tolerates dissent, a church tolerates homosexuality, a state tolerates a minority religion, a society tolerates deviant behavior. Thus for any analysis of the motives and reasons for toleration, the relevant contexts need to be taken into account.” – Excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Toleration by Rainer Forst.

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“Some reject the very idea of the “morality of war”. Of those, some deny that morality applies at all once the guns strike up; for others, no plausible moral theory could license the exceptional horrors of war. The first group are sometimes called realists. The second group are pacifists. The task of just war theory is to seek a middle path between them: to justify at least some wars, but also to limit them (Ramsey 1961). Although realism undoubtedly has its adherents, few philosophers find it compelling. The real challenge to just war theory comes from pacifism. And we should remember, from the outset, that this challenge is real. The justified war might well be a chimera.” – Excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on War by Seth Lazar.

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Political Theories and Ideologies


“Anarchism is a political philosophy, or better, a family of political philosophies, favoring a social order based on voluntary association and rejecting the legitimacy of the state. Although for most of its adherents anarchism means an opposition not solely to the state but also to various broader forms of hierarchy, domination, or aggression (with the details differing from theorist to theorist), anarchists agree at the very least on the desirability of abolishing the state in particular, whatever else they might agree or disagree about.

The Greek word anarkhia means the absence of a ruler or arkhon; that the term has traditionally been associated with disorder and social chaos is due solely to the presumption, rejected by anarchists, that such chaos is the natural result of the absence of rulers. Indeed, for anarchists it is precisely uncoerced, anarchic association that is responsible for social order, while government produces mainly disorder.

Throughout most of its history, the word “anarchist” has been used as a term of abuse; the first thinker to embrace the term and apply it to his own ideas appears to have been the French writer Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865) in 1840, and it took some time for the term to catch on with most other anarchists. The term remains difficult to define precisely, inasmuch as the question of which thinkers and positions count as genuinely anarchist has long been a matter of intense debate among self-described anarchists, with virtually every faction having been read out of the movement by some other faction at some point.” – Excerpt from The Routledge Companion to Social and Political Philosophy edited by Gerald Gaus and Fred D’Agostino.

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“A common ground among conservatives is that history is the best guide to what political arrangements ought to be preserved. Conservatives do not think that the reasons for or against political arrangements should be derived from a hypothetical contract, an ideal theory, the supposed common good, or a sacred or secular book. In preference to these alternatives, conservatives look to the history of their society in order to understand what deserves their allegiance and what is inimical to well-being. The preservation of political arrangements, of course, depends on continually adapting them to changing circumstances. Conservatism, therefore, does not involve rigid adherence to any political arrangement, but a flexible judgment about what political arrangements should be preserved and how they should be changed to cope with changing circumstances.

Preserving political arrangements is like preserving one’s house. It requires constant repair, refurbishment, additions if circumstances warrant them, anticipating problems and coping with them if they occur unexpectedly, being on good terms with neighbors, having trustworthy people to do the upkeep, and generally making and keeping it a comfortable place conducive to living as one wishes. But throughout all the necessary changes it remains the house that, for better or worse, one lives in. The reason for taking pains with it is to make living in it better.” – Excerpt from The Routledge Companion to Social and Political Philosophy edited by Gerald Gaus and Fred D’Agostino.

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“Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” I love this definition, which I first offered more than 10 years ago in my book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. I love it because it so clearly states that the movement is not about being anti-male. It makes it clear that the problem is sexism. And that clarity helps us remember that all of us, female and male, have been socialized from birth on to accept sexist thought and action. As a consequence, females can be just as sexist as men. And while that does not excuse or justify male domination, it does mean that it would be naive and wrong-minded for feminist thinkers to see the movement as simplistically being for women against men. To end patriarchy (another way of naming the institutionalized sexism) we need to be clear that we are all participants in perpetuating sexism until we change our minds and hearts, until we let go of sexist thought and action and replace it with feminist thought and action. – Excerpt from Feminism is for Everybody by Bell Hooks.

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“One of the major political ideologies of the modern world, liberalism is distinguished by the importance it attaches to the civil and political rights of individuals. Liberals demand a substantial realm of personal freedom—including freedom of conscience, speech, association, occupation, and, more recently, sexuality— which the state should not intrude upon, except to protect others from harm. Major philosophical exponents of liberalism include Locke, Kant, Constant, Humboldt, J. S. Mill, Green, Hobhouse, and, in the post-war era, Berlin, Hart, Rawls, and Dworkin.” – Excerpt from The Oxford Companion to Philosophy edited by Ted Honderich.

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“In politics, libertarians advocate the maximization of individual rights, especially those connected with the operation of a free market, and the minimizing of the role of the state. In the libertarian vision, exercises of state power for positive ends, such as amelioration of social disadvantage through social welfare programmes, constitute infringements of the rights of others (‘taxation is forced labour’). The state is confined to a ‘nightwatchman’ role of maintaining order and providing only those public services that will not arise spontaneously through the free market. The most influential text of modern libertarianism is the American philosopher Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974).” – Excerpt from The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy by Simon Blackburn.

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“Karl Marx (1818–1883) is best known not as a philosopher but as a revolutionary, whose works inspired the foundation of many communist regimes in the twentieth century. It is hard to think of many who have had as much influence in the creation of the modern world. Trained as a philosopher, Marx turned away from philosophy in his mid-twenties, towards economics and politics. However, in addition to his overtly philosophical early work, his later writings have many points of contact with contemporary philosophical debates, especially in the philosophy of history and the social sciences, and in moral and political philosophy. Historical materialism — Marx’s theory of history — is centered around the idea that forms of society rise and fall as they further and then impede the development of human productive power. Marx sees the historical process as proceeding through a necessary series of modes of production, characterized by class struggle, culminating in communism. Marx’s economic analysis of capitalism is based on his version of the labour theory of value, and includes the analysis of capitalist profit as the extraction of surplus value from the exploited proletariat. The analysis of history and economics come together in Marx’s prediction of the inevitable economic breakdown of capitalism, to be replaced by communism. However Marx refused to speculate in detail about the nature of communism, arguing that it would arise through historical processes, and was not the realisation of a pre-determined moral ideal.” – Excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Karl Marx by Jonathan Wolff.

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“The idea of multiculturalism in contemporary political discourse and in political philosophy is about how to understand and respond to the challenges associated with cultural and religious diversity. The term “multicultural” is often used as a descriptive term to characterize the fact of diversity in a society, but in what follows, the focus is on its prescriptive use in the context of Western liberal democratic societies. While the term has come to encompass a variety of prescriptive claims, it is fair to say that proponents of multiculturalism reject the ideal of the “melting pot” in which members of minority groups are expected to assimilate into the dominant culture in favor of an ideal in which members of minority groups can maintain their distinctive collective identities and practices. In the case of immigrants, proponents emphasize that multiculturalism is compatible with, not opposed to, the integration of immigrants into society; multiculturalism policies provide fairer terms of integration for immigrants.” – Excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Multiculturalism by Sarah Song.

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“It is difficult to subsume all the various socioeconomic beliefs that have been referred to as ‘socialism’ under one definition. In its broadest sense, socialism refers to the views of those who: (1) claim that capitalism has grave moral flaws and (2) advocate some revolutionary socio-economic reform to remedy these flaws.

Certain elements of what is typically thought of as socialist thought appear throughout the entire history of philosophy, such as in Thomas More’s Utopia and even Plato’s Republic. But the term ‘socialism’ was first used in connection with the views of early nineteenth-century social critics, such as Robert Owen, Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Pierre Proudhon. These social critics were reacting to the excesses and injustices of early capitalism, and advocated reforms such as the transformation of society into small communities in which private property was to be abolished and the radical redistribution of wealth. Socialism is also an important part of the philosophy of Karl Marx and Marxism. For Marxists, socialism is viewed as a stage in history characterized, in part, by state ownership of all capital goods and central planning of the economy. This stage in history they see as transitional between capitalism and the final stage of history, communism, which will be characterized by the absence of differing social classes and thus the end of class warfare.

Among the grave moral flaws that socialists typically claim to be inherent in capitalism are vast, unjust inequalities in wealth, income, opportunities, and power. Other moral flaws seen in capitalism include excessive individualism, competition and materialism, and the exploitation of ordinary working people. Perhaps more than anything else, however, socialists oppose the unjust oppression of one group by another, whether through class domination, discrimination, or an unequal distribution of power. In short, socialism, in the broad sense, champions the ‘underdogs’ of society. The revolutionary socio-economic reforms that have been proposed by socialists for remedying the declared moral flaws of capitalism are so diverse as to defy any precise characterization. Typically, these reforms involve radical changes in the ownership or distribution of property throughout society.” – Excerpt from The Oxford Companion to Philosophy edited by Ted Honderich.

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Why do we need political philosophy?

“When we think about politics, we make assumptions that we are often barely aware of – underlying assumptions that nevertheless do change quite radically over the course of history. At the time Hobbes wrote, for instance, it was commonplace to argue politically by appeal to religious principles, and especially to the authority of the Bible. One of his lasting legacies was to make it possible to think about politics in a purely secular way. Although Hobbes himself was deeply preoccupied with religious questions, his radically new approach to political authority allowed politics and religion to be separated and discussed in different terms. Or consider that in Hobbes’s time, only a few extreme radicals believed in democracy as a form of government (typically, Hobbes himself did not rule it out altogether, but he thought it was generally inferior to monarchy). Nowadays, of course, we take democracy for granted to the extent that we can barely imagine how any other form of government could be seen as legitimate. How has this change come about? The story is a complex one, but an indispensable part in it has been played by political philosophers arguing in favour of democracy, philosophers whose ideas were taken up, popularized, and cast into the mainstream of politics. The best known of these is probably Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose impact on the French Revolution through his book The Social Contract is hard to dispute. (Thomas Carlyle, at least, had no doubts. Challenged to show the practical importance of abstract ideas, he is said to have replied, ‘There was once a man called Rousseau who wrote a book containing nothing but ideas. The second edition was bound in the skins of those who had laughed at the first.’)” – Excerpt from Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by David Miller.

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Related Subjects

Philosophy of Economics

“The basic questions of economics blend with those of political philosophy and ethics. Perhaps the most fundamental concern is whether we can compare and measure different levels of well-being in economic terms, given that the sources of value are diverse, and only partially concerned with economic activity. Other problems include the difficulties of achieving a social welfare function, and of understanding the conception of the free economic agent who exercises choices in the market.” – Excerpt from The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy by Simon Blackburn.

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Game Theory

“Consider the following situation: when two hunters set out to hunt a stag and lose track of each other in the process, each hunter has to make a decision. Either she continues according to plan, hoping that her partner does likewise (because she cannot bag a deer on her own), and together they catch the deer; or she goes for a hare instead, securing a prey that does not require her partner’s cooperation, and thus abandoning the common plan. Each hunter prefers a deer shared between them to a hare for herself alone. But if she decides to hunt for deer, she faces the possibility that her partner abandons her, leaving her without deer or hare. So, what should she do? And, what will she do?

Situations like this, in which the outcome of an agent’s action depends on the actions of all the other agents involved, are called interactive. Two people playing chess is the archetypical example of an interactive situation, but so are elections, wage bargaining, market transactions, the arms race, international negotiations, and many more. Game theory studies these interactive situations. Its fundamental idea is that an agent in an interactive decision should and does take into account the deliberations of her opponents, who, in turn, take into account her deliberations. A rational agent in an interactive situation should therefore not ask: “What can I do, given what is likely to happen?” but rather: “What can I do in response to what they do, given that they have a belief about what I will do?” Based on this perspective, game theory recommends rational choices for these situations, and predicts agents’ behavior in them.” – Excerpt from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Game Theory by Till Grüne-Yanoff.

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Philosophy of Law

“The studies of politics and law are closely related in that both deal with the use of coercive power in society, yet the two disciplines are often curiously isolated from each other. Political theorists are rarely concerned with the specific content and application of the legislation which they regard as one of the main outputs of a political system, while legal academics are, traditionally at least, noted for their general indifference to the political and economic context of the rules and they seek to explain and systemize.

Increasingly, however, the academic discipline of law, as it has become less doctrinal and more policy oriented, is influenced and revitalized by the application of information and ideas derived from political science and political philosophy. The flow of intellectual stimuli in the reverse direction is not as pronounced but, as we shall see, it is not insignificant. Moreover, it seems clear that the study of politics and, in particular, political philosophy, could be further enriched by a deeper awareness of what is going on within the discipline of law – for instance, with respect to constitutional law and regulatory theory as well as law-school-based ‘law and society’ and mainstream legal philosophy.” – Excerpt from the essay on Legal Studies by Tom Campbell from A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy edited by Goodin, Pettit and Pogge.

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Further Reading

If you have never read any political philosophy, the following works are a good place to start:

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Secondary Sources:

Miscellaneous Resources


In Our Time

The Philosopher’s Arms

Philosophy Bites

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

If you are interested in political philosophy, the following pages may also be of interest: