Recently, I was asked a question I have been asked on a few occasions: ‘what books should I recommend to a friend who has never read any political philosophy or ethics, but is interested in taking a look at the subject?’ I reply to this question with assorted recommendations, but what I recommend almost certainly varies depending on my mood, what I am currently researching/teaching, and, most significantly, how my memory is functioning in that moment. My recommendations are also limited to the list of books that I have read. To rectify these deficiencies, I write this post with two aims in mind: first, to identify some of the books I often recommend and garner suggestions from others about suitable books; and, second, thereby, to provide a list of texts to refer people when they ask the question above.
Before offering any suggestions, it may be useful to outline a few loose criteria that guide my recommendations:
1. I do tend to suggest books. It is no use suggesting articles that are behind paywalls. Meanwhile, although there are a number of good political theory blogs, some of which I recommend to people for certain purposes, their content is often too wide-ranging and varied for someone seeking a focused first read in the field.
2. I try to recommend books that can be found (at least second hand) at a reasonable price. This criterion leads me away from some of the anthologies that are available. But I think the context of the question asks for something with low barriers to entry.
3. The book must use language that is clear and simple and an engaging, accessible writing style.
4. I also try to tread a middle-ground between books that are under-involved and over-involved in philosophical discussion between theorists.
- I try to avoid ‘under-involved’ books because I take the question to be requesting texts that are engaged in the discipline of political philosophy, a discipline that involves argumentative dialogues and disagreements between positions and theorists, not texts that aim to introduce non-philosophers to some philosophical ideas or a loosely philosophical treatment of certain topics. This criterion often leads me to avoid ‘Introductions to…’-type books.
- I also try to avoid overly-involved texts that launch quickly into or are heavily focused on debates about finer details, such as the differences between various broadly similar accounts of distributive justice or understandings of important concepts, such as liberty. I think it is preferable to recommend texts that focus on familiar issues, such as contemporary political debates or everyday social problems. I do not interpret this criterion overly narrowly. I think G.A. Cohen’s Why not Socialism? meets it by providing an accessible discussion of a recognised political position, even if it does not centre on concrete policy debates of the kind most prominent in contemporary parliamentary politics. But it is meant to lean my suggestions towards texts that work via a focus on material that will be somehow familiar to the reader. I think it makes the political philosophy aspect easier to ‘latch on to’. Based on my own experience, I also think that reading deeply engaged discussions involving topics and methods with which one is unfamiliar (particularly in one’s ‘relaxation’ time) can be taxing and discouraging.
I do not mean these criteria to foreclose any discussion. I would be interested to hear if there are suggestions about variations or different criteria. I place them here merely to contextualise the way I interpret and answer the question.
Similarly, the list I offer below of recommendations that I think meet these criteria is not intended to be exhaustive, or even particularly settled. As I noted above, my interest here is to compile a list and I will be most grateful for discussion about my inclusions and additional recommendations.
The above said, here are some of my common suggestions:
- Cohen, G.A., Why not Socialism? (Princeton University Press, 2009)
- Dworkin, R., Is Democracy Possible Here? (Princeton University Press, 2005)
- Glover, J., Causing Death and Saving Lives (Penguin, 1990)
- Okin, S.M., Justice, Gender, and the Family (Basic Books, 1989)
- Satz, D., Why some things should not be for sale: The moral limits of Markets (Oxford University Press, 2010)
- Singer, P., Practical Ethics: 2nd Edition (Cambridge University Press, 1993)
Any and all thoughts would be welcome.