Political philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S099-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 20, 2024, from

Contemporary political philosophy

The last quarter of the twentieth century has seen a powerful revival of political philosophy, which in Western societies at least has mostly been conducted within a broadly liberal framework. Other ideologies have been outflanked: Marxism has gone into a rapid decline, and conservatism and socialism have survived only by taking on board large portions of liberalism. Some have claimed that the main rival to liberalism is now communitarianism (see Community and communitarianism); however on closer inspection the so-called liberal-communitarian debate can be seen to be less a debate about liberalism itself than about the precise status and form that a liberal political philosophy should take - whether, for example, it should claim universal validity, or should present itself simply as an interpretation of the political culture of the Western liberal democracies. The vitality of political philosophy is not to be explained by the emergence of a new ideological revival to liberalism, but by the fact that a new set of political issues has arisen whose resolution will stretch the intellectual resources of liberalism to the limit.

What are these issues? The first is the issue of social justice, which in one form or another has dominated political philosophy for much of the century. Most of the many liberal theories of justice on offer have had a broadly egalitarian flavour, demanding at least the partial offsetting of the economic and social inequalities thrown up by an unfettered market economy (see Market, ethics of the; Justice; Rawls, J.; Dworkin, R.; though for dissenting views see Hayek, F.A. von; Nozick, R.). These theories rested on the assumption that social and economic policy could be pursued largely within the borders of a self-contained political community, sheltered from the world market. This assumption has become increasingly questionable, and it presents liberals with the following dilemma: if the pursuit of social justice is integral to liberalism, how can this be now be reconciled with individual freedoms to move, communicate, work, and trade across state boundaries?

The second issue is posed by feminism, and especially the feminist challenge to the conventional liberal distinction between public and private spheres (see Feminist political philosophy). In many respects feminism and liberalism are natural allies, but when feminists argue for fundamental changes in the way men and women conduct their personal relationships, or advocate affirmative action policies for employment that seems to contravene firmly-entrenched liberal principles of desert and merit, they pose major challenges to liberal political philosophy (see Desert and merit).

Third, there is a set of issues arising from what we might call the new politics of cultural identity. Many groups in contemporary societies now demand that political institutions should be altered to reflect and express their distinctive cultures; these include, on the one hand, nationalist groups asserting that political boundaries should be redrawn to give them a greater measure of self-determination, and on the other cultural minorities whose complaint is that public institutions fail to show equal respect for those attributes that distinguish them from the majority (for instance their language or religion) (see Nation and nationalism; Multiculturalism; Postcolonialism). These demands once again collide with long-established liberal beliefs that the state should be culturally neutral, that citizens should receive equal treatment under the law, and that rights belong to individuals, not groups (see Citizenship; Affirmative action; Discrimination). It remains to be seen whether liberalism is sufficiently flexible to incorporate such demands.

Finally, liberalism is challenged by the environmental movement, whose adherents claim that liberal political principles cannot successfully address urgent environmental concerns, and more fundamentally that the liberal image of the self-sufficient, self-directing individual is at odds with the ecological picture of humanity’s subordinate place in the system of nature as a whole (see Green political philosophy; Environmental ethics; SUSTAINABILITY). Liberalism, it is said, is too firmly wedded to the market economy and to consumption as the means of achieving personal well-being, to be able to embrace the radical policies needed to avoid environmental disaster.

None of these problems is capable of easy solution, and we can say with some confidence that political philosophy will continue to flourish even in a world in which the sharp ideological divisions of the mid-twentieth century no longer exist. We may also expect a renewal of non-Western traditions of political philosophy as free intellectual enquiry revives in those countries where for half a century or more it has been suppressed by the state. Political questions that have concerned philosophers for two millennia or more will be tackled using new languages and new techniques, while the ever-accelerating pace of technological and social change will generate new problems whose solution we can barely begin to anticipate.

Citing this article:
Miller, David. Contemporary political philosophy. Political philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S099-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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