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Philosophy Political Philosophy
Keith Hyams, Igor Shoikhedbrod


Political philosophy is that branch of philosophy concerned with political morality and associated concepts. Dominant themes include justice, equality, liberty, democracy, rights, the distribution of resources, and political authority. This entry focuses on contemporary discussions and debates in political philosophy.

General Overviews

Several overviews provide accessible introductions to contemporary debates in political philosophy. The widely used introduction by Kymlicka 2001 examines various debates from the perspectives of different traditions. Swift 2006 deals more concretely with some of the leading topics in contemporary political thought such as social justice, liberty, equality, and democracy. Wolff 2006 provides a key overview to debates about political rule, distributive justice, and liberty. The introduction by Miller 2003 gives a very brief overview of the field. Simmons 2007 also gives a very clear introduction to political philosophy.

  • Kymlicka, Will. Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

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    An introduction to some of the leading schools of thought in contemporary political philosophy, most notably, liberalism, libertarianism, Marxism, communitarianism, as well as feminism. This introduction will be of particular use to senior undergraduate students, as well as graduate students, who may already have some basic knowledge of the field.

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  • Miller, David. Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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    Miller introduces the field by posing a series of provocative questions, such as the possibility of living together without politics, the extent to which the market should be regulated instead of eliminated, and the future prospects of multicultural politics and global governance.

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  • Simmons, A. J. Political Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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    A very clear introduction that brings to the fore issues of political authority and organization, including the author’s own take on these issues.

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  • Swift, A. Political Philosophy: A Beginner’s Guide for Students and Politicians. Cambridge, MA: Polity, 2006.

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    An accessible introduction to the most pertinent themes in contemporary political philosophy, including social justice, liberty, equality, community, and democracy. The book is geared specifically for undergraduate students.

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  • Wolff, J. An Introduction to Political Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2006.

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    A very good overview of various debates associated with political rule, distributional justice, and the place of liberty.

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Various textbooks provide helpful introductions to the main debates in contemporary political philosophy. Each of the textbooks mentioned are edited volumes that include chapters by leading authors. McKinnon 2008 is quite unique in that each chapter is accompanied by a case study demonstrating how the topic can be applied to a real-world issue. This textbook is also supported by Oxford University Press’s online learning resource center. Goodin and Pettit 1995 provides a comprehensive coverage of the field with several excellent entries. Dryzek and Honig 2008 provides a good analysis of leading issues in political philosophy, capturing recent social and economic developments. Christiano and Christman 2009 pairs essays with opposing views to showcase current debates on central themes in political philosophy.


Anthologies provide a helpful way to access several key readings in a field in one go. Some of the entries in subsequent sections include anthologies on specific topics, whereas the present section includes only anthologies covering the whole field. Goodin and Pettit 2005 provides a rich anthology with a selection of writing from leading contemporary political philosophers. Matravers and Pike 2003 creatively juxtaposes authors in contemporary political philosophy to introduce some of the main debates. Farrelly 2004 organizes the work of contemporary political philosophers according to their different schools of thought.

  • Goodin, R., and P. Pettit, eds. Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

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    A rich anthology in contemporary political philosophy with a balanced selection of work from different traditions. This collection is broad in scope and devotes, for instance, an entire section to the issue of oppression, which has been under-theorized in contemporary thought.

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  • Farrelly, Colin, ed. Contemporary Political Theory: A Reader. London: SAGE, 2004.

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    Conveniently groups the key works in political philosophy by tradition. This should serve as an excellent point of reference for graduate students and researchers.

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  • Matravers, D., and J. Pike, eds. Debates in Contemporary Political Philosophy. London: Routledge, 2003.

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    Provides a thorough collection of work juxtaposed with one another to shed substantial light on some of the major debates in contemporary political philosophy. It includes a helpful section devoted to contemporary methodological issues and their implications for political philosophy.

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Liberalism and Communitarianism

The debate between liberal and communitarian thinkers has had a divisive influence in political philosophy. Proponents of liberalism emphasize the primacy of individual autonomy and value neutrality, while communitarians place greater emphasis upon community life, and on the role of the state in promoting the good life (although some liberals—notably Raz—have also emphasized the latter). Mulhall and Swift 1996 gives a helpful overview of the work of major theorists in both traditions. Avineri and de-Shalit 1992 provides a comprehensive selection of work by liberal and communitarian thinkers. Paul, et al. 2007 provides a recent review of liberalism, tracing the development of its central tenants in the history of political thought. Dworkin 1992 provides an in-depth assessment of liberalism and its relationship to freedom, justice, and equality. MacIntyre 2007 critiques Enlightenment liberalism and contemporary versions of liberalism. Rawls 1996 provides a novel interpretation of liberalism as overlapping consensus in the context of political diversity. Sandel 1998 demonstrates the limits of liberalism as it relates to promoting the good life. Walzer 1983 goes beyond mere critique of liberal individualism to describe a communitarian approach to justice. Miller and Walzer 1995 provides a nuanced rejoinder to the earlier debate with critical analyses by other commentators.

Political Authority and Obligation

Debate about political authority and obligation asks whether, and why, citizens of a state are obliged to obey their political masters. Raz 1990 provides a comprehensive selection of work by contemporary legal and political philosophers on the subject of political authority. Rawls 1964 develops an argument originally stated by H. L. A Hart, which claims that we have obligation to obey the law based on a duty of fair play. Klosko 2005 also examines political obligation from the perspective of fairness, rejecting alternative views. Estlund 2007 argues that the authority of democracy is grounded in its ability to make the best decisions from all reasonable points of view. Green 1988 suggests that contemporary theories of political authority fail to justify the authority of the state, and he proposes consent as the only reasonable justification. Hyams 2004 outlines Nozick’s argument for the minimal state as given in Part 1 of Anarchy, State and Utopia. Knowles 2009 provides a critique of modern anarchist, skeptical, and communitarian approaches to political authority. Both Wolff 1998 and Simmons 1995 defend philosophical anarchism, the view that we do not have a duty to obey the law. Simmons examines several arguments for political obligation and finds them all wanting. Wolff claims that we ought not bind ourselves to a legal system, in order to preserve our own moral autonomy.


Contractualism is the view that we ought morally to do what agents would agree to do in some hypothetical agreement. Originally published in 1971, the famous work Theory of Justice (Rawls 1999) provides the classic statement of contemporary contractualism. Dworkin 1989 critically assesses Rawls’s contractualist position. Freeman 2007, written by someone who studied under Rawls, outlines and responds to various criticisms directed against Rawls. The widely read rejection of contractualism by Cohen 2008 continues to provoke lively debate among philosophers. Nussbaum 2006 provides a critique of Rawls’s contractualism and its Kantian notion of rational capacity, focusing on its inability to accommodate the needs and capacities of disabled persons, justice beyond borders, and the treatment of nonhuman animals. The influential work by Scanlon 2000, What We Owe to Each Other, describes an alternative contractualist position that justifies moral principles by reference to what could be reasonably rejected. Gauthier 1987 develops a contractualist account based on game theory models of rationality. Darwall 2003’s collection includes texts by several of the previous authors as well as historical texts.


Contemporary political philosophy has been marked by a voluminous literature on the nature of our egalitarian commitments. Many of the key papers in these debates are brought together in Clayton and Williams 2002. One debate that stands out as central is the so-called Equality of What debate. The influential position named (and rejected) by Anderson 1999 as “luck egalitarianism” is defended by Dworkin 2000 and modified by Cohen 1989 and Arneson 1989. Another key debate is between Rawls 1999 and Cohen 2008 about whether inequalities can be justified on the grounds that they benefit the worst off. Olsaretti 2007’s collection brings together key papers on the role of desert in contemporary egalitarianism. Sen 2009 rejects this approach to justice entirely in favor of a comparative approach that guides us toward a more just society.


What are rights, and what is their relation to other moral concepts like freedom and autonomy? The collection by Waldron 1984 includes several key papers on rights. Feinberg 1970 demonstrates the significance of rights by outlining a thought experiment in which we don’t have rights. Dworkin 1984 describes rights as trumps, which always take priority over other moral demands. Dworkin 1977’s work in legal philosophy put rights in the frontline of an attack on legal positivism. Kramer, et al. 1998 asks whether rights are grounded in interests or choices. The classic statement of the former view is provided by Raz 1986. Steiner 1994’s classic statement of left-libertarian rights introduces the notion of “compossibility” into rights theory: rights must be “compossible” in the sense that it must be possible to conjunctively fulfill all over our rights. Campbell 2006 explains how theories of rights inform social welfare issues and self-determination for minority groups. Thomson 1990 gives a very thorough treatment of rights.

Liberty and Libertarianism

A central debate about liberty has focused on Berlin 1990’s famous distinction between positive and negative liberty. Carter, et al. 2007 provides a rich collection of writing on liberty, with an emphasis on the historical development of liberty in social and political thought. Miller 2006 provides an excellent selection of work on liberty that captures the main debates in contemporary thought. The widely read text On Liberty (Mill 1989) defends political liberty from a utilitarian perspective. Nozick 1974’s influential statement of right-libertarianism in Anarchy, State and Utopia uses a spartan rights-based morality to defend a minimal state and the free market. Cohen 1995 responds powerfully to Nozick. Van Parijs 1995 argues that real freedom is the freedom not only to be permitted to do something but also to have the means to do that thing: in order to secure real freedom, argues van Parijs, we ought to provide a universal basic income. Like Van Parijs, Otsuka 2003 also describes a version of so-called left-libertarianism, but his version is quite different.


Consent has been an important theme in legal theory and applied ethics, as well as in debate about political authority. Locke 1924 introduces the notion of tacit consent in his “Second Treatise on Government,” which he uses to defend an obligation to obey the law. Simmons 1993 uses Lockean arguments to discuss the limits of consent-based arguments for political obligation. Beyelveld and Brownsword 2007 examines the role of consent in the law. Dworkin 1988 analyzes the notion of informed consent and its relationship to individual autonomy. Feinberg 1986 looks at legal paternalism and the significance of consent in practical ethical issues. Archard 1998 and Wertheimer 2003 discuss the morality of consent in the context of its role in sexual relations. Hyams 2011 claims that consent is not effective when it is linked to violations of rights.


What is democracy and why is it valuable? Christiano 1996 considers foundational issues about democracy. The widely read book Democracy and its Critics (Dahl 1991) defends liberal democracy against a range of criticisms. Held 2006 describes the development of democratic theory from Classical Athens to the present day. Cohen 2009 includes several useful essays on democracy. Gutmann and Thompson 1996 provides an excellent resource for the growing deliberative turn in democratic theory. Pateman 1976 defends a participatory model of democracy. Young 2002 focuses on marginalized groups. Habermas 1996 continues to provide novel approaches for understanding democratic legitimacy from the standpoint of deliberative democracy.

Multicultural Citizenship

Contemporary political theorists have looked at the notion of citizenship in the context of a multicultural world. The collection by Beiner 1995 is an excellent starting point. Benhabib 2004 explores the conflict between universalism and national sovereignty as it relates to immigration, refugees, and political asylum. Callan 1997 emphasizes the importance of preserving liberal democratic values in the presence of multiculturalism while Kukathas 2003 advances a framework for promoting diversity and freedom according to which agents choose to live in separate communities each governed in accordance with their preferred political approach. Walzer 1989 gives a communitarian account of citizenship. Phillips 2007 examines tensions between gender equality, rights, and multicultural citizenship. Kymlicka 1995 argues that liberal democratic citizenship is compatible with minority rights and customs. Barry 2001 examines several legal rulings on multiculturalism and argues that they are inconsistent with distributive justice. Carens 2000 demonstrates some of the deficiencies of Kymlicka’s analysis and emphasizes the importance of context.


Feminist perspectives have challenged a series of traditional approaches in political philosophy. MacKinnon 1989 provides a radical critique of the liberal state, demonstrating how social institutions promote gender inequality and patriarchal values. Nussbaum 1999 argues for a gendered approach to social justice as meeting human capabilities and respecting dignity. Okin 1989 emphasizes the failure of modern political theory to extend its analysis of justice to the family institution. Pateman 1989 discusses tensions between gender inequality, democracy, and political theory. Saul 2006 examines the use of gender and race in political theory. Stone 2004 suggests a genealogical analysis of gender that can reconcile coalitional politics with anti-essentialism: a rejection of the claim that there are unifying features that bind women together as a group. Phillips 1998 provides an excellent collection of work on gender inequality, feminism, and political theory. More recently, Shachar 2001 proposes a series of institutional approaches for maintaining individual and cultural autonomy while also protecting the rights of women.

International Justice

A key debate about international justice is whether or not, as cosmopolitans such as Caney 2005 claims, the moral obligations that we owe to those living in other countries are merely extensions of the same obligations that we owe to our compatriots. Against this view, Miller 2007 describes a noncosmopolitan theory of international justice. Caney, et al. 1996 provides a helpful selection of papers on international justice. Another excellent collection is Brooks 2008. Pogge 2002 argues that international inequality is the result of harmful policies pursued by the West. Nussbaum 2000 develops her well-known capabilities approach to entitlements for those living in poverty. Rawls 1999 extends Rawls’s theory of justice to describe new principles of justice for the international domain. Beitz 2009 looks at global justice through the lens of human rights. Scheffler 2003 looks at a range of issues in the modern globalized world and explores the capacity of liberalism to cope with the ethical problems they raise.

Climate Justice

Climate justice has become an increasingly prominent topic of discussion in contemporary political philosophy. Key questions are: What are the grounds of our duties to the potential victims of climate change, and how should we distribute the burden of climate change mitigation and adaptation? Gardiner 2004 provides an excellent overview of debates within the literature. Three excellent collections on climate justice are Gardiner, et al. 2010, Hayward and Gould 2009, and Vanderheiden 2008b. A very thorough and well-argued treatment of the topic is provided by Vanderheiden 2008a. Shue 1993 distinguishes between what he calls luxury emissions, and subsistence emissions. Singer 2002 advocates for emission permits.

War and Intervention

When is it acceptable to go to war and how should wars be fought? Hurka 2005 examines the concept of proportionality as it relates to the theory of just war. Lackey 1989 discusses the morality of specific military interventions. McMahan 2009 repudiates traditional justifications for participating in unjust wars. Teichman 1986 defines and assesses both just war theory and pacifism. Walzer 2000 provides a classic articulation of just war theory, demonstrating the preconditions for engaging in war and military conduct during war. Rodin 2002 rejects a central tenet of just war theory that states can go to war to protect themselves. The excellent collection by Shue and Rodin 2007 contains lively exchanges on several aspects of intervention and war. Ignatieff 2004 looks specifically at responses to terrorism. Wheeler 2000 focuses on the project of legitimate humanitarian intervention by examining actual cases of humanitarian intervention, as well as some of their more recent shortcomings.

Animal Rights

Probably the most influential book on animal rights ever written, credited by some with launching the animal rights movement, is Animal Liberation (Singer 1975). Both Regan 1985 and Franklin 2005 adopt a Kantian approach to animal rights. Cohen and Regan 2001 features debates about animal rights between the two authors: one for, the other against. DeGrazia 1996 provides an excellent engagement with questions about the mental and moral status of animals. Hill 2005 examines all the main arguments for animal rights. Jamieson 2002 argues that our moral thinking has expanded to take in more and more beings, now including animals. Sunstein and Nussbaum 2005 is an excellent collection of articles at the cutting edge of current thinking about animal rights.

LAST MODIFIED: 06/29/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396577-0091

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