political top

mugIt seems to me that there is nothing more immediate and relevant than the question 'What is the good life, and how may it be achieved?'

Whether or not we take a direct interest in national or local politics, we cannot avoid being caught up in the laws, traditions and values of the society in which we live, and the 'good life' (whatever we mean by that) cannot practically be achieved in isolation from other people.

Hence, even for those sceptical about the political process or the integrity of politicians, it is always going to be worthwhile to stop and reflect on the values we hold and the sort of society we want to live in.

Getting practical…

Some see philosophy’s main task as clarifying concepts. That would imply that the task of philosophy is to look at the key ideas in political debate – freedom, rights, justice, democracy, and so on – and to examine what people really mean by them, and how they are related to one another. That is the sort of philosophy that clears the mind but does not necessarily change the world.

But there is another tradition of political philosophy. Marx famously declared that he wanted to change the world, rather than just interpret it, and many other political thinkers have impacted on the course of history. Rousseau’s writings were to influence the French Revolution and Locke’s the American Declaration of Independence. Nietzsche’s work was read by Mussolini and Hitler (and sadly misused by them), and socialist ideas lay behind the setting up of the welfare state and health service in Britain. Today, neo-conservative views in the United States have influenced, among other things, American foreign policy with respect to the Middle East and the Iraq War. Discussions about terrorism and how to resist it are not just about words, but are desperately important in terms of security and human rights. So political concepts are not just there to be clarified, they need to be examined.

Political ideas are potent; but are they valid?  The only way to establish that is by taking a two-stage look at them. First of all they need to be clarified: What exactly do we mean by fairness, or equality, or democracy? But secondly, they need to be justified: On what basis can you argue for the fairness of this or that political system? On what basis can you justify taking military action?

Like ethics, political philosophy is therefore concerned with the practical. It addresses issues of immediate concern to everyone, and examines ideas that have – for good or evil – shaped the lives of whole generations.  When some crucial event takes place – a war, an economic crisis, a global threat, a spate of terrorist attacks – people will naturally ask fundamental questions about how we should deal with such things. Politicians are required to find answers and implement them, but they need to be guided by principles about how we should live and how society should be governed. So circumstances are always throwing up new issues for political philosophy.

(from the introduction to Understand Political Philosophy)

(If viewing this page on a phone, please turn it sideways, to reveal the full list of contents on the left, along with the link to buy a copy.)

'An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.' - Plutarch

And it seems to me to be an imbalance too easily justified on economic grounds, or on the grounds that one needs to attract the best people for the job, whilst ignoring the long-term social and political damage it can bring about. Of course, brilliance and productivity should be rewarded, but what is happening today in terms of top salaries, when compared with average incomes, has become inappropriate and quite insane!

National identity in a cosmopolitan world?

union jackIs it possible to be cosmopolitan, think globally, and yet also be patriotiic or at least have a sense of national or social identity? I am exploring some of the issues related to this in my latest blog post.

Just click on my Union Jack cupcake to see my views...

Michael Sandel

For both Political Philosophy and Ethics, Michael Sandel is a great communicator, setting out arguments with consumate clarity and always engaging directly with his audience. He has a very popular on-line course on Justice, from Harvard.

And, of course, his book Justice has been extremely popular. I'm not sure I always agree with Sandel, but he is very persuasive.

rotting carThe General Election 2015

The old parliament is dead and gone; long live the political process! To find out why I think this rotting car is a suitable image for what is happening, just click on it.

(Three years on, and who would have guessed what has happened in the political sphere? 2015 - when life seemed to simple!)

Some useful titles...

For those who are (or who are thinking about) taking a course in Politics, or taking a Political Philosophy module within a Philosophy Course, there are a good range of books to develop ideas outlined in the Teach Yourself book. Here are some suggestions...

To students coming new to this branch of philosophy, there are some good general introductions. David Miller's very short introduction is readable and a good way of stimulating interest, while Wolff and Kymlicka are rather more substantial as student texts.

Two other useful books for students are Adam Swift's Contemporary Political Philosophy, and Michael White's Political Philosophy: an historical introduction.

Most books on political philosophy head straight into the fundamental concepts, but my preference is for getting a good historical perspective first. Hence I find the Michael White introduction particularly useful.

Classic texts

With all introductions to a subject, however, you get the attempt at a balanced view and a broad overview - that's what they are for. But for me, it is the classic texts that give the best feeling for how philosophers throughout the centuries have tackled political issues. Here you find polemic as well as balanced reason - thinkers who are keen to make a point and address an issue of the day. Like Marx, they wanted to change the world as much as comment on it. Here are some of the all-time greats...


But where do you start with these?
My choice would be to read either Mill's On Liberty
or Machiavelli's The Prince. They are utterly different
from one another, yet both deal with issues that are absolutely
central to an enquiring approach to politics. Machiavelli is
generally portrayed as cynical and as supporting the idea of a
ruler who is quite without moral sensitivity. That's not really
fair. What he is doing is looking at what is required of a ruler
if the defence and integrity of a state is to be his (he
wouldn't have considered a 'her' at that time) primary aim. This
is wry questioning of the real world of power politics - removed
from our own by the centuries that have intervened, but relevant
for all that.





Looking for another subject?

Questions or comments?

E-mail me here.

Political Philosophy provides the background for those studying Politics, which is more immediately concerned with the way in which political systems operate.

It's a great discipline for de-coding the arguments of politicians, and setting them in context. You will soon find that there are relatively few genuinely new ideas on the political scene.

From Plato and Machiavelli to Marx and Rawls, it is the subject that gets to grips with the basics of our common life.

Your basic introduction to the subject...

256 pages

2nd edition, 2012

Teach Yourself (Hodder)

ISBN-13: 978-1444157598

pol cover


1. Introduction

2. Looking for the Good Life

3. The Social Contract

4. Ideas, systems and ideologies

5. Equality and fairness

6. Freedom

7. Rights, Justice and the Law

8. Gender and Culture

9. Nations, War and Terrorism

10. The Global Perspective

Postscript: What hope humankind?

Taking it further


If you are thinking of buying this book, please help support this site, at no cost to yourself, by using these Amazon links...


This book is also available here from Amazon in the USA.  

For the question of justice as fairness, the book that initiated much modern debate is John Rawls' A Theory of Justice (revised edition) (OUP, 1999)


Or head for one of the classics, such as those mentioned on the right, or perhaps...



Although presented as separate brances of philosophy, political philosophy and ethics are closely bound up with one another, since Political Philosophy involves the application of ethical principles to our common life.

In developing your views on political issues, it might be useful to review the basic ethical theories, particularly Utilitarianism, which has been hugely influential in the political context.

quick thoughts





New to Political Philosophy? Here are some quick thoughts to get you started, or for you to use as the basis for a discussion...

Can there be a good dictator? / Can you do well on your own? / Is a democratic decision always right? / Is gender irrelevant? / What price freedom? / Is a nation the right size? / Should you ever intervene on behalf of the people against its government?

Just click on my image to see these thoughts and get started.