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Academic year: 2021

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Introduction to Political


What is political philosophy, and why does it




Course Readings:

Will Kymlicka (2002), Contemporary Political Philosophy. An Introduction, Oxford/New York, Oxford University Press.

Sebastiano Maffettone (2011), Rawls. An Introduction, Cambridge: Polity Press. A reader of the single texts indicated for student presentations.


Kymlicka’s Project

Introduction AND critical appraisal of the major contemporary normative political theories.

The book deals with theories of a just or free or good society and examines

notions of justice, freedom and community in so far as they constitute the criteria against which political institutions tend to be evaluated. The book does not deal with the meaning of power, sovereignty and the nature of law as well as with the history of political philosophy.

Kymlicka’s ambition is to overcome the traditional categories in which political theories are discussed and elaborate a common ground between the different theories and threads that hold them together.


Left and Right in Politics

The traditional picture

People on the left believe in equality and champion some form of socialism. Those on the right believe in freedom and endorse free-market capitalism. In the center are the liberals (reformists) who combine ideals of equality and freedom and favor welfare state capitalism.


This Left/Right Distinction is too Narrow

1. Both the left and the right are exclusively concerned with the public sphere and ignore the private sphere. Sexual equality requires us to overcome the traditional right/left distinction.

2. Both the left and the right are interested in universal principles. Yet,

communitarianism shows that political judgement is a matter of interpreting traditions and practices we are ‘embedded’ in.


The Left/Right Distinction assumes Value Pluralism

In the traditional picture left-wing and right-wing political theories have different foundational values (equality/freedom) and the disagreement is not rationally resolvable.

As a matter of fact, also the new political theories seem to appeal to different ultimate values: 'contractual agreement' (Rawls), 'the common good'

(communitarianism), 'utility' (utilitarianism), 'rights' (Dworkin), 'identity'(multiculturalism), or 'androgyny' (feminism).


Criticism of Value Pluralism

One traditional aim of political philosophy was to find coherent and comprehensive rules for deciding between conflicting political values.

Radical value pluralism does not allow us to develop a common political culture with standards of justice that allow us to evaluate political institutions under which we are constrained to live.

Without a deeper common value and comprehensive criteria in terms of which the conflicting values are judged, there could be only ad hoc and localized resolutions of conflicts and society could be only the result of compromises (modus vivendi).


The New Common Ground (1): Equality

According to Ronald Dworkin, the ultimate value of all reasonable political theories is EQUALITY, namely treating people ‘as equals’.

This means peoples’ interests matter equally and citizens are entitled to equal concern and respect. Treating peoples as equals means for the left equality of resources and for the right equal rights. Accordingly, it remains a debate between the different theories in what precisely people should be equal.

Whereas traditional theories argue over equality, new theories struggle over how to interpret equality. And we might hope to evaluate theories to what extent they bring us closer to the standards of equality and find a comprehensive theory of justice.


The New Common Ground (2): Liberal Democracy

Utilitarianism, liberal equality and libertarianism are the three main approaches defending rights, liberty, equal opportunity.

Marxism, communitarianism, feminism, civic republicanism, and multiculturalism criticize liberal democracies for neglecting either the exploitation and alienation of wage-labourers, social atomism, the subordination of women, cultural marginalization or assimilation, or political apathy.

On the other hand, these theories often suggest that the problem is not so much with the principles of liberal democracy, but rather with their imperfect implementation, or the lack of appropriate preconditions for implementing them.


The New Common Ground (3): Responsibility

The theories differ, not over the centrality of responsibility per se, but over more specific questions about personal responsibility and collective responsibility. Are we responsible for our own choices? Are we responsible for remedying the involuntary disadvantages that others find themselves?


What is Political Philosophy (1)?

There is a fundamental continuity between moral and political

philosophy, in at least two respects:

- Nozick: Moral philosophy sets the background for, and boundaries

of, political philosophy. Political philosophy focuses on those

obligations which justify the use of public institutions.

- Public responsibilities must not contradict our private obligations (e.g.

utilitarianism, ethic of care).


What is Political Philosophy (2)?

The ultimate test of a theory of justice is that it coheres with our considered convictions of justice. We have an intuitive sense of right and wrong

(intuitionism). Different theories appeal to our intuitions in different ways. Conclusion: Political philosophy is a matter of moral argument, and moral argument is a matter of appeal to our considered convictions.

A central aim of political philosophy, therefore, is to evaluate competing theories of justice to assess the strength and coherence of their arguments for the rightness of their views and provide the best possible theory of justice.



Objection to this thesis on political philosophy:

1. Moral values do not exist and values are just statements of personal


2. Moral values exist, but they do not consist in principles but a tacit

sense of appropriateness.

3. Moral values coincide with cultural values and justice is a matter of

cultural interpretation.


Still, the Challenge of Pluralism is Real

The conflicts which result from cultural, ethnic, linguistic or religious differences continue, perhaps more than ever, to dominate politics from the local to the global level. The story did not put an end to these differences and, therefore, pluralism seems to be inherent to the human condition and to be the foundation of politics. The questions in this regard are two:

(1) But what exactly are the sources of pluralism?


What is Pluralism?

There are mainly two hypotheses that are of interest for us:

(1) Some consider pluralism to be the result of our practical reason: It is

reasonable that within certain limits we disagree on political issues. (See Rawls,

Political Liberalism) There is no absolute truth in politics.

(2) Others think that pluralism has its origins in the diversity of cultures. (See communitarianism) Pluralism, therefore, concerns communities and not

individuals. Disagreements among individuals, if any, are essentially different from disagreements among communities, cultures and religions.


Justice and Legitimation

Justice is first of all about justification, that is the capacity to justify to others our ethical and political position with valid arguments.

But in an open society it is really difficult, and perhaps impossible, to find a consensus on a single conception of justice.

Therefore liberalism must also give due weight to processes of legitimation. Which means that not only counts the justification of a political conception, but also what persons act politically and according to which procedures.


Two Complementary Aspects of Justice

Given the challenge of pluralism, the concept of justice must be divided into two complementary aspects.

(1) Justice in the first sense is above all about distributive justice. The concept of distributive justice focuses on the economic and social foundations of a society and decides what assets and under which condtions can be redistributed. (First part of the course).

(2) Justice in this second sense is about recognition. Recognition concerns

questions of cultural difference, religious and metaphysical pluralism. The concept of recognition decides how miuch weight should be given in the political process to the pesons’ different identities. (Second part of the class)


First Part of the Course: Theories of Justice

Utilitarianism: Justice requires the state to maximize overall happiness.

Liberal Equality: Justice requires some form of redistribution and welfare state. Libertarianism: A just society protects the property rights and civil rights of its citizens.

Capability Approach: A just society promotes equally the capabilities of the persons that is their real opportunities to do and be what they have reason to value.

Marxism: The free market and capitalism leads to exploitation and alienation of labor power that only communism can overcome.


Second Part of the Course (1): Accomodation of


Political Liberalism: On certain essential constitutional elements we can reach an overlapping consensus among different comprehensive doctrines.

Deliberative Democracy: Since we are autonomous and moral beings we can agree upon the general will within the framework of deliberative democracy. Republicanism: Justice is the result of political participation and



Second Part of the Course (2): Accomodation of


Multiculturalism: Justice requires the recognition of cultural


Postcolonialism: Cultural differences are not absolute – cultural

identities are hybrid and multiple.

Feminism: Second-wave femninism criticizes liberal rights and equality

and conceives the emancipation of women in terms of difference.


Syllabus and Assessment

Link to the syllabus:


Assessment method:

– Presentation, class discussion and attendance: 25% – Midterm written exam: 25%


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