7 key conversations that are dominating the field of political philosophy today

Even if you’ve never taken a course in political philosophy, odds are that you’ve spent time thinking about questions of political philosophy. What does it mean to be free? What is a fair way of distributing wealth and income? What do we owe citizens of other countries?

Getting started on the systematic study of these questions can be a daunting prospect, however. Even if you’ve studied political philosophy on your own or in a class, it can be hard to know what’s cutting edge in the discipline. In this post, I’ll give you of a sense of some of the topics that have captured the attention of political philosophers in recent years. By no means is this an exhaustive list; it’s just one political philosopher’s rough and incomplete impression of the state of the field.

Climate Change

As you might expect, what’s cutting edge in political philosophy partly tracks what’s cutting edge in real-world politics. Climate change is a case-in-point. What to do about climate change is not simply a question for scientists, politicians, and economists—it’s a question for philosophers, too. Should we sacrifice some of our material well-being today to leave a better world for our grandchildren? How can we have moral obligations to future generations when those generations don’t yet exist? Do you have an obligation to cut back on your pollution even though in the grand scheme of things your actions as a single individual won’t make any difference?

For those interested in climate ethics and politics, John Broome’s book Climate Matters is an excellent place to start. Broome tackles questions of what citizens and policymakers ought to do in the face of the problems posed by climate change. In “It’s Not My Fault: Global Warming and Individual Moral Obligations,”

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong argues for a counterintuitive conclusion: you do not have an individual moral obligation to reduce your carbon emissions. Because the scale of climate change is so enormous and your individual contribution is so small, driving your SUV for fun won’t make anyone worse off than they otherwise would be. On Sinnott-Armstrong’s view, it’s the job of the government rather than individual citizens to mitigate climate change.

Mark Budolfson, a philosopher at the University of Vermont, has a number of interesting papers on topics in environmental ethics. Much of Budolfson’s work tackles the aforementioned problem of “causal impotence”—what are our individual moral obligations in a world in which many of our individual actions make no difference? For a provocative book on the ethics of procreation, check out Sarah Conly’s One Child which argues that we ought to limit ourselves to producing one child.

Global Justice

Philosophers have been at the forefront of the increasingly popular “effective altruism” movement, which advises us to send our charitable donations to the places where they will do the most good. Peter Singer is the founding father of the movement and his book The Most Good You Can Do serves as a nice introduction to his thoughts on giving. William MacAskill’s Doing Good Better is also an accessible and informative overview of effective altruism. Of course, effective altruism is not without its critics–see, for instance, this discussion in the Boston Review.

Immigration also remains a topic of great interest in political philosophy. Important recent books on immigration include Joseph Carens’s The Ethics of Immigration and David Miller’s Strangers in Our Midst. Miller is skeptical about the case for open borders, whereas Carens argues for relaxing immigration restrictions. Other important pieces on immigration have been written by Javier Hidalgo, Michael Huemer, Chandran Kukathas, Loren Lomasky and Fernando Teson, Kieran Oberman, and Christopher Wellman and Phillip Cole.

One issue at the core of this debate is the nature of the special obligations (if any) that we have to our fellow compatriots. May states restrict immigration in order to prop up the wages of native-born citizens or preserve a particular sort of national culture? For excellent work on cosmopolitanism, see, e.g., Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers and Richard Arneson’s “Extreme Cosmopolitanisms Defended”.

Race and Justice

Political philosophers often make use of social contract theory to understand the nature of justice and the state. Although specific theories differ in their details, the rough idea is that the state is justified as a means of enforcing mutually agreeable terms of social cooperation. However, the adequacy of social contract theory is the matter of much debate in recent work on race and justice. Tommie Shelby argues that a Rawlsian-contractarian approach, with an emphasis on impartiality and fair equality of opportunity, contains theoretical resources to help illuminate racial justice.

Other work on race and justice has a less sanguine perspective on the social contract framework. Charles Mills’s book The Racial Contract argues that the traditional understanding of the social contract served not to secure the rights and liberties of all people but rather to perpetuate racial injustices. Mills offers a direct challenge to Shelby’s arguments in his paper, “Retrieving Rawls for Racial Justice?” Elizabeth Anderson, in her book The Imperative of Integration argues that Rawls’s original position, in which parties choose principles of justice without any knowledge of themselves or their particular social and historical circumstances, wrongly withholds crucial information about society’s past and present record of racial injustice. Christopher Lebron’s The Color of Our Shame objects that Rawls’s focus on formal principles of distributive justice unduly ignores questions of character, attitudes, and actions that are crucial to understanding racial justice.

Democratic Theory

Philosophers have been talking about democracy for thousands of years, but the recent election has reignited interest in the justification of democratic institutions. Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy might be the most discussed work in political philosophy right now. Making use of empirical social science on the biases and ignorance of voters, Brennan argues against equal suffrage in favor of “epistocracy”—roughly, rule by an intellectual elite. For a skeptical take on deliberative democracy in particular, I’d recommend Guido Pincione and Fernando Teson’s Rational Choice and Democratic Deliberation. Influential defenses of democracy include Thomas Christiano’s The Constitution of Equality and David Estlund’s Democratic Authority. Christiano argues that the justification of democracy lies is, in part, its equal treatment of all citizens. Estlund rejects epistocracy partly on the grounds that political justifications must be acceptable from all qualified points of view.


What can the state force you to do for your own good? The topic of paternalism is of perennial theoretical and practical interest. The United States bans many drugs, imposes heavy taxes on cigarettes, and restricts activities like gambling and prostitution.

But should it?

A recent book from Sarah Conly, Against Autonomy, argues for an uncompromising pro-paternalism position. Conly reviews findings from psychology and behavioral economics that suggest we do a poor job of pursuing our own long-term interests. So, Conly argues, the state should forcibly prevent us from doing things that are bad for us. For instance, rather than tax the sale of cigarettes to discourage the smoking, the state should simply ban smoking outright for the good of would-be smokers themselves. (William Glod notes some of the problems with Conly’s and others’ arguments in his forthcoming book, Against Paternalism: A Liberal Case for Self Direction as a Basic Right. He offers a preview of some of his arguments here.)

Another interesting read on paternalism is Peter de Marneffe’s Liberalism and Prostitution, which makes the case for regulations and restrictions on prostitution. De Marneffe also co-wrote The Legalization of Drugs: For and Against with Douglas Husak, which is of interest to those working on the topic of drug criminalization.

For a detailed exposition of an anti-paternalist position, I’d recommend Jessica Flanigan’s forthcoming book Pharmaceutical Freedom. Flanigan defends a robust right of choice in the context of pharmaceutical use in particular.

Ideal and Nonideal Theory

Much has been written in the last decade about John Rawls’s ideal theory. Rawls theorizes about justice and institutions on the assumption that society is fully (or at least nearly fully) just. We study the perfectly just society to, among other things, give us an ideal to guide our real-world actions.

Charles Mills’s groundbreaking paper “‘Ideal Theory’ as Ideology” argues that ideal theory is unable to provide useful real-world guidance and ignores decidedly nonideal problems, such as gender and racial inequalities. Amartya Sen’s influential The Idea of Justice criticizes ideal theory partly on the grounds that we don’t need to a conception of the perfect to have a workable conception of what counts as better. To use Sen’s example, I don’t need to know that Mount Everest is the world’s tallest mountain to know that one mountain is taller than another. Gerald Gaus’s The Tyranny of the Ideal builds a sustained critique of ideal theory as well. Gaus argues that utopian political theorizing is by nature a speculative enterprise and that the pursuit of perfect justice might mean that we fail to correct immediate injustices. My own book, Unequivocal Justice, argues against using the assumptions of ideal theory to analyze different types of political systems.

On the other side of the debate, G.A. Cohen’s Rescuing Justice and Equality criticizes Rawls for not being ideal enough. Cohen thinks that Rawls was wrong not to insist that people internalize an “egalitarian ethos” to motivate equality-minded decisions in their private lives. David Estlund’s “Utopophobia” argues that our theoretical account of justice need not be constrained by the likelihood of achieving that account of justice in practice. Other valuable insights into ideal theory can be found in the work of A. John Simmons, Zofia Stemplowska and Adam Swift, and a recent Social Philosophy and Policy volume.

Classical Liberalism and Social Justice

John Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness argues that classical liberal economists and philosophers have long endorsed a conception of social justice according to which institutions should be arranged to preferentially benefit society’s poorest members. Adam Smith and John Rawls might not be so different after all. More generally, Tomasi argues that a classical liberal political regime (in Tomasi’s terms, market democracy) can satisfy Rawlsian standards of justice and legitimacy. Another exposition of this kind of “neoclassical” liberal position can be found in Jason Brennan’s Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know.

As you might expect, these arguments have generated a flurry of responses. An online symposium on Tomasi’s book was hosted by Bleeding Heart Libertarians. For interesting criticisms of Tomasi, see articles from Samuel Arnold, Jeppe von Platz, and a recent symposium in Critical Review.

As I mentioned at the outset, this was not a complete account of the state of the field. Rather, it was an introduction to some—and only some—of the debates that are currently gripping political philosophy. There are many others that are worth exploring further.

See more posts: Ideas 

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