a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Introducing Political Philosophy with Public Policy

What is a good way to learn about political philosophy? Plausibly there is a variety of reasonable answers to this question, depending on what and why one wants to know about the subject, and it is some testament to this that there are excellent introductions that focus on the issues, concepts, and key thinkers in the field.

In our recent book – Introducing Political Philosophy: A Policy-Driven Approach – Will Abel, Elizabeth Kahn, Tom Parr, and I offer an approach that focuses on introducing the subject through the lens of public policy.

More specifically, the book introduces readers to both the methods and views of political philosophers by exploring how they speak to a range of policy debates currently prominent in many states. For example, it explores the notion of freedom by considering whether states should permit physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. It explores the wrongs of discrimination by investigating whether states should authorise the use of affirmative action. It explores justifications for punishment by reflecting on the appropriate length of prison sentences. And it explores the moral values of political community by examining immigration policy.

At the outset, the book details how one aim of political philosophy is to delve into the moral concerns that lie at the heart of these policy issues and employ the tools of philosophical analysis to reason about them. Its opening chapter explains how it is productive to organise the claims of arguments about which policies to adopt into a logical order, then use examples cases – both real and hypothetical – to reflect on the plausibility of their moral claims. It, then, employs these methods to explore fifteen policy areas, in each case arguing for a particular conclusion to demonstrate the use of these skills in action.

We think that there are three merits to introducing political philosophy in this way:

  • The focus on policy helps readers to learn about philosophical ideas and methods through their application to political controversies that are likely familiar, maybe even what interested them in the field in the first place.
  • The attention to some commonplace methodological tools is a simple way to get to grips with the basic workings of the discipline and provides readers with an insight into one of its most transferrable skills.
  • The approach of arguing for a position in each chapter gives an immediate window to how political philosophy can inform political dialogue and acts as a prompt to further debate for both those who might agree with the views we defend and those who wish to challenge them.

More generally, we think that the exchange between public policy and political philosophy makes for exciting terrain and readers may find simply that considering arguments scholars have advanced on these issues makes for an accessible way to see what the subject is all about. There is a list of the chapter titles below and we hope that this will interest some readers. And we very much hope that the way we work through these issues with readers will provide a good way to learn about political philosophy.

  1. Doing Political Philosophy
  2. Euthanasia and Freedom
  3. Hate Speech and Freedom of Expression
  4. Recreational Drugs and Paternalism
  5. Affirmative Action and Discrimination
  6. Schools and Equality of Opportunity
  7. Basic Income and Distributive Justice
  8. Parental Leave and Gender Equality
  9. Minority Exemptions and Multiculturalism
  10. Judicial Review and Democracy
  11. Prison Sentences and Punishment
  12. Intensive Animal Farming and Moral Status
  13. Environmental Taxes and Intergenerational Justice
  14. Immigration and the Political Community
  15. Development Aid and Global Justice
  16. Humanitarian Intervention and Political Self-Determination

Andrew Walton is Senior Lecturer in Political Philosophy in the Politics Department at Newcastle University. His research centres on questions of economic ethics and justice in housing policy.



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  1. Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

    This seems great! Congratulations!

    I’m convinced of the interest of articulating theory with policy issues. But, in your experience, does starting with policy lead to a good understanding of the different theories? How do you see the articulation of your book with Kymlicka’s, for example? Should it replace it, complement it? Would you use yours in a first, introductory political theory course and dig deeper into the theories in a second, more advanced one? Thank you!

    • Hi Pierre-Etienne, thanks for the comment and wishes.

      I think that the exploration of public policy can provide a good way to connect with theories in a quite direct sense. For example, our chapter on distributive justice discusses several key thinkers and we hope to have conveyed a reasonable account of these views so that readers can build an understanding of them from the investigation. One experience that lends some support for this is seeing students take to political philosophy in this way, perhaps for some of the reasons I outline in the post about it connecting with issues with which they are familiar.

      This said, we very much see the book as a *complement* to others in the field. I think this could work in either direction. For example, the distributive justice chapter flags in the suggestions for further reading that Kymlicka’s book is a good place to explore certain theories in more depth. But it could also be that one could begin with Kymlicka’s book and use ours to think further about how the views of key thinkers might relate to public policy. In this respect, I think the book can act as a pathway to or from other theoretical resources, and could be used in either such way depending on how one wants to learn or teach the field.

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