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Political philosophy PY3090

Political philosophy is the study of how we can and how we ought to live together. Throughout the history of Western philosophy, those figures whose thought has engaged with ethical problems have been equally concerned with political philosophy and vice versa. Just as the form of ethical theories has varied greatly over the last 2,000 years, so too have the forms that questions and answers take within political philosophy. It is, therefore, very important to address the problems of political philosophy within both a historical and an ethical framework.

Topics covered

Throughout history we have considered the following problems (among others): the question of the nature and claims of justice; the existence of natural rights; the status of positive law; the existence of distinctive obligations towards the state or towards each other as co-members of some society; claims of property; claims of liberty; the best understanding of equality and its claim on us.

In ancient political philosophy we find concerns about the nature of justice and the well-ordered state. In early modern discussion, the authority of the state and questions of right loom large. From this tradition we derive the heuristic use of the state of nature: Hobbes uses this to ask how we can be rationally compelled to obey the sovereign, and to offer an answer; in Locke we find an influential discussion of property rights and the origin of political obligation; Rousseau, much more radically, seeks to explain how we can be bound rationally by law, through the concept of the general will. In different ways Hegel and Marx offer critiques of the Enlightenment conception of the citizen and state. In Mill, we find the radical utilitarianism of the early nineteenth century modulated into a delicate plea for liberty.

In Anglo-American political philosophy over the last 30 years, the work of the Harvard philosopher John Rawls has been central in defining the scope and focus of debate, although the ideas of Isaiah Berlin, G.A. Cohen, Ronald Dworkin, Robert Nozick, Joseph Raz and T.M. Scanlon are of great importance too.


One three-hour unseen written examination.

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