An Introduction to Political Philosophy by Colin Bird

Title: An Introduction to Political Philosophy

Editor: Colin Bird

Publisher: Cambridge

ISBN: 9780521544825

Each chapter of this book looks at an important issue in political philosophy. Some of the issues discussed (and, hence some of the chapters, are more accessible than others. Teachers could use this book to come to terms with the major issues in contemporary political philosophy, as a source of ideas for lessons, or to locate passages (for presentation to older students, especially).

The first section (pgs 1-3) of the Introduction gives an especially accessible overview of what political philosophy is.

Chapter Two, entitled ‘The common good’, contains an accessible explication of Plato’s ‘tripartite self’ (pgs 39-41). As well as being an interesting and important piece of historical philosophy, this concept is useful in that it can be used to get students thinking about the ways in which we might usefully understand human nature. Teachers could ask students whether or not they think that Plato’s account of the self is useful (what its strengths and weaknesses are), and how far they think it can help in political theory.

Chapter Three gives a detailed treatment of Utilitarianism (pgs 47-66). Utilitarianism is an important topic in Political Philosophy and Ethics; it is also an important topic in the history of Philosophy. The chapter contains a nice overview of the topic (pgs 47-48). The section entitled, ‘The problem of incommensurability’, (pgs 49-51), could be presented to older students, to get them thinking about the various ways of understanding well-being. The section entitled, ‘Problems with hedonism’, (pgs 51-53), offers an account of Nozick’s ‘experience machine’ – an idea that students of all ages would be able to engage with.  The section entitled, ‘The subordination of the individual’, (pgs 61-64), presents one of the strongest criticisms of Utilitarianism, which is that it would frequently require the unreasonable sacrifice of important individual interests for the greater good. Older students could be presented with passages from this section, or teachers could extract ideas from it to discuss with younger students.

Chapter Four, entitled, ‘The Social Contract,’ details a number of important ideas – but secondary students are unlikely to find the way in which these ideas are presented easy to engage with. However, the section entitled, ‘The simple consent model,’ (pgs 70-71), offers an accessible account of the idea that underpins much social contract theory. Although most of this chapter is stylistically inaccessible, it is a rich source of ideas, and the section entitled, ‘The Theory of John Rawls,’ (pgs 90-92) is especially fertile. (John Rawls was the single most influential political philosopher of the Twentieth Century, and his ideas inform most contemporary political philosophy. His views are, then, especially important.)

Chapter Five, entitled, ‘Property and Wealth,’ (pgs 99-124), deals with some important ideas. It does, however, presuppose a basic understanding of economics – which many secondary students are unlikely possess. Teachers might, however, use the section entitled, ‘The famine-relief argument,’ (pgs 120-122), to source ideas about affluence, poverty, and responsibility, which could then be presented to students in a more accessible way.

Chapter Seven, entitled, ‘Authority,’ contains a section, ‘The claims of states,’ (pgs 155-157), which gives an accessible treatment of state authority. Teachers might use this section, or passages from it, to introduce a discussion on the topic of authority. The section entitled, ‘Legitimate authority,’ (pgs 171-173), offers a list of five conditions that Raz thinks can help to qualify authority as legitimate. Teachers might ask students what they think of this list – whether any of these conditions are unnecessary, or whether any could be added.

Chapter Eight, entitled, ‘Liberty,’ (pgs 176-200), deals with important, and interesting, concerns – but is, for the most part, too theoretically complex for most secondary students. The section entitled, ‘The Harm Principle,’ (pgs 197-200), is relatively accessible, and offers an account of Mill’s harm principle (which holds that interference with a person’s liberty is only justified when they are causing harm to others), and paternalism (which is interfering with a person’s liberty ‘for their own good’). Teachers might present passages from this section to students of all ages.

Chapter Nine, entitled, ‘Democratic Rule,’ (pgs 201-222) is a useful source of ideas. It is also likely that students will find this topic both interesting and relevant. The sections entitled ‘What is democracy?’ (pgs 201-202), and ‘The complexity of democratic forms,’ (pgs 202-205) are especially fertile.

Chapter Ten, entitled, ‘War,’ (pgs 223-250), treats a topic that students of all ages will find engaging. The introductory section (pgs 223-224) and the section entitled, ‘Three views,’ (224-225), offer a nice overview of the issues surrounding this topic. This chapter also contains an accessible discussion of just war theory (see esp. pgs 226-230), which is not only engaging, but has influenced international relations significantly – over the last decade, especially.

Chapter Eleven, entitled, ‘Living with difference,’ looks at how difference, which is endemic, can be accommodated within political frameworks. The introductory section (pgs 251-252), and the sections entitled ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’ (pgs 252-254), and ‘Two angles: tolerance and respect’ (pgs 254-256), are accessible, and could be presented, as extracts, to older students.

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