Social and Political Philosophy
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Social and Political Philosophy

A Contemporary Introduction

John Christman

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eBook - ePub

Social and Political Philosophy

A Contemporary Introduction

John Christman

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About This Book

This accessible book is invaluable to anyone coming to social and political philosophy for the first time. It provides a broad survey of key social and political questions in modern society, as well as clear discussions of the philosophical issues central to those questions and to political thought more generally. Unique among books of this kind is a sustained treatment of specifically social philosophy, including topics such as epistemic injustice, pornography, marriage, sexuality, and the family. The relation between such social questions and specifically political topics is discussed. These topics include: political authority, economic justice, the limits of tolerance, considerations of community, race, gender, and culture in questions of justice, and radical critiques of current political theories. Updates to the Second Edition emphasize the non-statist areas of the subject and include two brand new chapters on social philosophy and transnational justice. This Second Edition also includes revisions throughout and coverage of recent theoretical discussions and world events.

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1 Introduction

This is an exciting but challenging time to be studying social and political philosophy. Conflicts in the world have opened up new fault lines among people that make the search for common principles and legitimate social institutions much more fraught. In both academia and in the streets, confrontations have arisen that question the very terms with which we might try to justify social practices, political power, and governmental institutions. Deep and perplexing questions about how to conduct critical social inquiry itself are being raised both by theoreticians and activists responding to new dimensions of social conflict. When reason itself is the subject of political critique, it is sometimes difficult to know where to start.
For an earlier generation, debates in political philosophy centered on the clash between socialism and capitalism, framed (oversimply) as a conflict between valuing (economic) equality and valuing (political and economic) liberty. However, in the current landscape, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, the model of a constitutional democracy with regulated but competitive economic markets has come to predominate political understanding in most parts of the world, including most former communist regimes. But this does not mean that such a framework is therefore acceptable uncritically—quite the opposite—for what political philosophy has now focused on are the fundamental evaluative presuppositions of that framework, and the perhaps controversial principles about individual citizens, social life, and sources of value that such a model presupposes. Moreover, various conflicts within and between societies have revealed seemingly intractable cultural, religious, and ideological differences that threaten the very possibility of peaceful, stable, and just social relations. When examined against this backdrop, liberal democracy faces questions about its very foundations, raised in a way that forces us to inquire into the ultimate legitimation of political power itself.
Moreover, increased social mobility, broader cultural awareness, and economic globalization have made traditional assumptions of insulated, homogeneous societies in political thought quite suspect. Societies have become manifestly multicultural, containing (or at least finally recognizing) a more fully diverse population. Increased international communication has made interaction between cultures and traditions more robust as well. This interaction has thrown into doubt centuries-old assumptions about the uniform identity, interests, and needs of human beings; theorizing about “the rights of man” without inquiring into the different kinds of “men” (people) being conceptualized is now highly controversial.
More generally, in many areas of the academic world the presuppositions of “modernity”—the cultural and philosophical orientation of the Western world since the seventeenth century—have come under basic challenge. Post-modernism in its various forms has raised fundamental questions about meaning, power, the self, and the possibility of human knowledge that strike at the heart of the worldviews that inform political and social theory. Post-modern critiques are also often couched in explicitly political terms, where a focus on models of rational thought, language, and selfhood that are presumed in the justifications of human rights and justice is replaced by complex pictures of the dynamics of power, decentered agency, unstable meanings, and the like. And such power dynamics are alleged to structure self-consciousness, conceptual schemes, and philosophical traditions, undercutting the pretensions of objectivity and detached rationality assumed in them and in the theories of justice they support. Even when thinkers conclude that such critical challenges ultimately fail, the force of these critiques have nevertheless changed the terms in which political thought is often couched. In this way, political philosophy is engaged with debates about the fundamental elements of thought, language, and identity.
Social-political philosophy is the study of people living in societies, governed by institutions and practices that mold, constrain, and in many ways constitute the lives they lead. It is not merely an explanatory or descriptive enterprise, such as sociology or (most parts of) political science, though it freely utilizes such material; nor is it a historical recounting of how such institutions and practices arose, though again, historical material is directly relevant to it. Rather, political philosophy interprets and evaluates these phenomena. It constructs theoretical accounts of the meaning and justification of social practices and institutions. Its main task is normative, asking whether a particular social organization is good or right or justified. However, it also includes the interpretive, asking how such an organization should be best understood so that such normative questions can be asked most clearly.
Social and political philosophy focuses on individuals in social settings and, more particularly, on those norms and laws that shape citizens’ lives. Its subject matter is “people,” whether viewed as individuals or as groups, but people engaged in norm-guided practices and living within rule-governed institutions.1 The most important of such institutions is the state, with its various legal, political, and economic functions, but many other institutions govern the way people live in societies and hence are the proper focus of political philosophy. One could say, then, that at the most general level political philosophy is simply the study of power, of the institutional centers of social power that shape and constrain the lives of people living together.
Central to political philosophy are such questions as these: what is the ultimate justification of political authority in an area to begin with; what is the most fair and just distribution of material goods and social benefits for a society (and to what degree should inequalities in wealth that capitalist economic markets produce be left uncorrected); how tolerant must the state be toward dissidents and subversive groups; and to what extent should the state attempt to promote the good of its citizens, as opposed to simply protecting their liberty to pursue their own good (even if they predictably fail in doing so)? These last issues lead to more abstract but also more fundamental questions of political philosophy. When we theorize about what is just in a society, do we automatically (and problematically) assume only one kind of citizen to whom such justice will apply, surreptitiously leaving out of account those who do not fit the mold? What priority should be given to the rights and liberties of individuals in a society as opposed to the protection of communities and cultures, especially when those aims conflict? Can we formulate a set of principles of justice for a society in a way that abstracts from historical and continuing injustice found in that society, injustice such as racism and sexism? And do the methods that we use to philosophize about all these issues themselves mask patterns of exclusion, a privileged position of thought, or an unsustainable reliance on objectivity and reason? These are the sorts of questions we will examine here.
However, centralized political institutions are not the only focus of analysis, as social attitudes, values, and practices of the citizens of such states must also be interrogated in a manner separated from a focus on government and law. Less formal norms and expectations shape people’s lives in ways that are often much more immediate and dramatic than is the case with laws: the nature of family life, sexual attitudes and mores, a sense of social standing and recognition, are deeply relevant to whether people living in a society feel well served by that society. While I will suggest that the analyses of social practices themselves—social as opposed to political philosophy—ultimately must be linked to questions of the justice and legitimate authority of state institutions, we must also look at social attitudes and practices themselves as a separate area of study.
This book will focus on contemporary social and political philosophy as developed in Europe and the North Atlantic states, and primarily in the Anglo-American philosophical tradition. It will tend to utilize the language and style of the so-called “analytic” approach to philosophy, one usually contrasted with the “continental” tradition. But it must be emphasized that political philosophy lately has increasingly blurred this distinction, where the ideas of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Foucault (considered in the “continental” tradition) are placed alongside arguments by Locke, Mill, and Rawls (names associated with the analytic mode). Nevertheless, while the broad title of this book may indicate otherwise, it should be clear that this will be a survey of recent philosophical work in a particular intellectual tradition, for the most part framed by a particular philosophical method.
But this geographical and cultural localism should not prevent us from asking pointed questions about its own privilege: why does a book purportedly surveying contemporary political philosophy say nothing at all about theoretical reflections on politics from places like Japan, India, Africa, or South America? I won’t try to answer that question itself, though our discussion of racism and sexism in Chapters 7 and 8 will refer to literature from other traditions. But I can say here that it is a question that is itself one of political philosophy: why are social institutions like universities arranged in a way that topics labeled in general ways (“history of philosophy” sans phrase) actually exclude many traditions of philosophy that occur outside of European and North Atlantic traditions?
This book is structured in line with a certain shift in emphasis in (Anglo-American) political philosophy that has occurred in the last 30 years or so. Attention has moved from asking questions about political principles from within the framework of what I will call the “liberal paradigm” to raising questions about the legitimacy of that paradigm itself. For example, through much of the 1970s and ’80s, philosophers focused a great deal on such questions as what economic justice amounts to and what the legitimate basis of political obligations is.2 But the various positions on these issues were articulated within a framework where the rights and interests of autonomous individuals, conceived as undifferentiated by race, gender, culture, or communal connection, and generally motivated by the rational pursuit of self-interest, were the assumed subject of the principles under debate. And while questions of economic justice and the like continue to be important, political philosophers have also begun asking more basic questions about the assumptions lying behind this framework, questions relating to the identity and motivations of the people assumed within it, the metaphysical orientation presupposed by it, and various facts about social dynamics, psychology, and institutional structure taken as true. In this way, controversies over such things as the separation of church and state or affirmative action are no longer necessarily seen as merely disputes within an accepted tradition of political thought—one where the rights and liberties of the autonomous individual are always paramount for example—but as disputes about the neutrality and inclusiveness of that tradition itself.
Interestingly enough, the work of John Rawls—arguably the most important political philosopher in the Anglo-American tradition in the twentieth century—manifests the shift I am describing. Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1971) is often credited not only with bringing up to date the tradition of enlightenment liberalism that inspired, for example, the U.S. Constitution, but also with providing a framework for the discussion of political principles that had direct relevance to actual controversies in the real world (such as the distribution of wealth in society).3 Many philosophical controversies were played out within the framework Rawls’s work represented, a view that saw all questions of obligation and right as fundamentally focused on the free and equal individual person. But things began to change in the 1980s when thinkers began questioning the basic assumptions underlying that model. Spurred greatly by the “communitarian” challenge to liberalism, as well as the work of feminists, race-theorists, and other philosophers aligned with ongoing political struggles in the real world, questions were raised about whether arguments over political principles presupposed an overly narrow conception of the persons on whose behalf those principles were meant to be justified, one that reflected the individualism of traditional enlightenment liberalism at the expense of more socially embedded conceptions of the self.
Things had changed, however, by the time of the publication of Rawls’s second book, Political Liberalism, where he attempts to respond to these challenges to the liberal tradition (Rawls 1993). In this work, Rawls attempted to recast the basic justification of the framework for deciding questions of political principle he had earlier utilized in a way that did not presuppose any controversial conceptions of citizens’ personalities, value commitments, or sense of identity. He argued that the traditional liberal principles he earlier defended—the priority of liberty, the protection of equality of opportunity, and the limitations of material inequalities—could be justified without reference to a universal, all- encompassing moral theory but as a view that fundamentally different kinds of people could commit themselves to in a spirit of mutual respect. (We will discuss Rawls’s views in greater detail in Chapters 4 and 5.) This, however, indicates where were are in the current landscape, where central questions of political philosophy concern how any set of political ideals can be justified for a population that is marked by deep and irreducible differences in culture, social identity, and moral and religious commitment.
This relocation of philosophical attention provides the motivation for the structure of this book. The “liberal democratic paradigm” will first be spelled out and utilized in order to discuss various controversies in political life, such as the nature of obligations to the state and the justice of the distribution of material resources. Then, however, the entire framework of liberalism will be challenged from a variety of viewpoints, ones which all question its basic presuppositions as well as its policy implications. Parts I and II of the book manifest these two orientations, respectively. To make this clearer, let me explain further what I mean by the “liberal” paradigm of political philosophy.

The Liberal Democratic Paradigm

In one’s initial encounter with political philosophy, the term “liberalism” conjures up rather specific political programs, ones associated with the Democratic party in the U.S., for example, or (to some degree) the Labour and Liberal Democratic parties in Britain. It is thought to be contrasted, as well, with the “conservatism” of American Republicans, British Tories, and European Christian Democrats. But the concept of liberalism in political philosophy is meant to apply much more broadly than this. Specifically it refers to the philosophical principles underlying the model of the constitutional democracies that emerged in Europe and the north Atlantic in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, regimes which are generally committed to the rule of law, popular sovereignty, and the protection of individual rights (at least in the abstract). Under that rubric, philosophical liberalism as we might call it encompasses much if not all of what is labeled conservative in contemporary Western politics. (Though in Chapter 6 we will consider a philosophical view meant as a challenge to philosophical liberalism which we will label “conservativism.”) I will expand on the basic components of the liberal model in the third chapter (and in Chapter 4), but first, some preliminaries.
I will refer to the paradigm of political philosophy being discussed here as (interchangeably) “the liberal democratic model,” “philosophical liberalism,” “political liberalism” (though this last term will be narrowed in scope in Chapter 5), and simply “liberalism.” It is a general approach to the justification of political authority that sees such authority as resting fundamentally on the rights and choices of individual citizens, whose rational autonomy and freedom to choose for themselves are respected by such authority. In particular, liberalism is the view that the most fundamental role of the state is to secure justice for citizens and not, for example, promote their flourishing or their virtue. Protecting their rights and regulating social relations among them is the first priority of political institutions, not trying to make sure such citizens live fulfilling or fully successful lives.
So the protection of individual liberty, in particular the liberty to form and revise one’s own conception of the good life, is fundamental. This means that religious freedom, freedom of association, speech, and privacy, will have basic importance. This priority is based on the equality of status that all citizens enjoy in regimes organized by liberal principles. This equality of moral status is attributed to all persons because they are rational, autonomous agents. Therefore, the concept of the “person” or “citizen” assumed in liberal theory is that of an independent rational agent, one who has the capacity to reflect upon and alter her choices and to form commitments with others (and with traditions, religions, families, and nations) by way of this rational reflection.
In short, the liberal state is committed to a kind of neutrality regarding its citizens’ pursuit of their own good. This is because such neutrality is required by the more basic principle that every citizen is autonomous and of equal moral standing and so deserving of respect. And given that citizens pursue (autonomously) diverse conceptions of value, the state violates that respect if it is not neutral concerning those conceptions. This is why the liberal state is also committed to a principle of tolerance, tolerance for any value system or set of beliefs that citizens may hold, as long as their pursuit of that value system does not inhibit similar pursuit on the part of others. The question that we will have to consider, however, is how to draw the line defining the limits of this tolerance: for example, should liberal states tolerate those who advocate sexist or racist (or any non-liberal) policies?
This relates to a question that will snap constantly at the heels of liberal theorists: whether a liberal state can maintain the kind of neutrality to which it is committed in light of the extreme diversity of its population. The increasing globalization mentioned in the beginning of this chapter makes the assumption of a culturally homogeneous population no longer tenable. Along with increasing multiculturalism comes greater plurality of values, ways of thinking, social structures, religious faiths, and political outlooks, many of which include views that are diametrically opposed to certain aspects of a liberal culture. A trenchant issue for liberalism will be whether it can retain its supposed neutral stance in light of such heterogeneity, or whether liberal philosophy itself is just one more contender in the arena of political disagreement and not the impartial, objective, framework within which all such disagreements can be worked out that it pretends to be.
Indeed, what we are calling liberal political philosophy here emerged in Europe out of the intellectual milieu of the Enlightenment, where faith i...

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