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About this book

Introducing the major theories, issues and concepts in contemporary political theory, this text is a comprehensive and engaging introduction to the field. The book examines a range of topics to explore questions such as:

• What kinds of political community best support democracy?
• Do members of wealthy societies have duties to eradicate global poverty?
• Who or what should be the authority on human rights?

Chapters are carefully organized to enhance learning by first setting out rival perspectives on key political issues which are then compared and analysed through a series of key debates. Discussion boxes are used throughout the book to consider the policy implications of different theoretical perspectives from thinkers including John Rawls, Susan Okin, Isaiah Berlin, Jane Mansbridge and Will Kymlicka. Offering an in-depth survey of the landscape of contemporary political theory and written in an engaging and lively style, this book will equip students with the tools to think through the complex questions whose answers determine our collective political lives.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

Abstract
Political theory describes an activity rather than a body of knowledge — it is something we ‘do’ rather than something we ‘know about’, and we do political theory whenever we reason and argue about important political questions. This book aims to help you to become better at these activities by introducing you to some of the most important arguments to have been proposed by political theorists writing today and in the recent past, focussing mostly on work that has been produced in the last three decades. Exploring how these authors develop their theories and probe those of their rivals will help you to better understand what is at stake in political argument and what you yourself think about important issues. Moreover, it will also help you to make arguments for yourself and to evaluate those you come across in ordinary political life.
Andrew Shorten

2. Political Community

Abstract
There are many different kinds of human association, such as households, families, companies, universities, trade unions, religious congregations and friendship groups. We explore political communities in this chapter, which are distinguished from these other associations by two things. First, they are more encompassing, since they establish the terms under which other associations regulate their affairs. Aristotle, for example, described the political community as the ‘highest’ community that ‘embraces all the rest’ (Aristotle, 1996, p. 11). Second, they are self-governing, in the sense that the community itself gives shape to its laws and is not controlled by an external authority. Increasingly, this has come to mean that political communities should be democratic communities, which means that members should — in principle at least — be given an equal say over how their common affairs are conducted. In Chapters 3 and 4 we will look at how a political community might realise the ideal of democracy, whilst Chapters 6–9 will explore some other important values that contemporary political communities have sought to honour. Meanwhile, in this chapter we will focus on the question of what it is that makes a political community a community.
Andrew Shorten

3. Pluralism

Abstract
The fact that people disagree fundamentally about morality, religion and the good life is a defining and intractable feature of modern social life. It also raises a number of difficult normative questions for political theorists. For instance, can citizens who favour conflicting ethical, political and religious ideologies agree about fundamental political values? Can a broadly secular society treat religious believers as equals, and vice versa? And how should a society respond to individuals and groups who are profoundly sceptical about, or even hostile to, its basic values? In this chapter we will explore three different ways in which contemporary political theorists have responded to questions like these.
Andrew Shorten

4. Representation

Abstract
Representation is about making present what is absent, such as by standing, acting or speaking for another person or a group. In politics, representation can take many different forms. For instance, presidents and prime ministers can be said to represent their countries, politicians can be described as representing their constituents, and trade unions can be characterised as representing their members. Not all forms of political representation involve an electoral relationship. For instance, a scientist appearing on a television show might be said to represent the perspective or interests of the scientific community, or a member of a religious minority speaking at a council meeting might be said to represent the opinions or values of their co-religionists. In this chapter, we will examine some of the complexities of these different forms of representation, as well as exploring how they connect up to the idea of democracy.
Andrew Shorten

5. Democracy

Abstract
Democracy is one of those things that everyone seems to be in favour of. Unfortunately, the glow of approval that surrounds the term can be misleading. This is because, as Bernard Crick once suggested, ‘[d]emocracy is perhaps the most promiscuous word in the world of public affairs’ (1962, p. 56). For example, a person who says that they want more democracy might mean that governments should be more responsive to citizens, that politicians should be more socially representative, that people should have more control over political decisions, or that more institutions should be subject to popular control. Confusingly, however, someone could also oppose any of these things on democratic grounds. For instance, being responsive to popular opinion might neglect the interests of minorities, and a socially representative legislature might need to implement a quota scheme in place of free and open elections. Similarly, empowering people to directly control political decisions might impoverish democratic deliberation by focussing attention on blunt and simplistic referenda questions, and democratising institutions like the workplace might undermine the freedom of employers to run their own businesses. Democracy, then, might be something that nearly everyone favours, but not everyone favours the same kind of democracy.
Andrew Shorten

6. Power

Abstract
According to Terence Ball, ‘power is arguably the single most important organising concept in social and political theory’ (Ball, 1992, p. 14). Like the other concepts we have examined in this book, although we are often able to employ the word in a serviceable enough fashion, things become more difficult when we try to pin down exactly what ‘power’ is. Indeed, as one leading theorist of power has observed, although scholars are able to discuss how ‘to gain, resist, seize, harness, secure, tame, share, spread, distribute, equalize or maximize’ power, they cannot agree ‘about how to define it, how to conceive it, how to study it, and if it can be measured, how to measure it’ (Lukes, 2005, p. 61). In this chapter we try to sort through some of these disagreements about power by comparing four different views about what it is, and by exploring their complex relationships with democracy and freedom. Before doing so, however, it will be helpful to establish some general features of power and to explore a closely related concept — domination.
Andrew Shorten

7. Freedom

Abstract
In 1958, the political theorist and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin gave an Inaugural Lecture at the University of Oxford, which was subsequently published as an essay entitled ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. Almost certainly the most influential English-language essay in twentieth-century political thought, it continues to be included in nearly every philosophical anthology that touches on the topics of freedom or liberty (in this chapter we will use these two terms interchangeably). Berlin was addressing a difficult and persistent puzzle about the multiple and often contradictory purposes to which these terms can be put, which will also serve as our starting point here. For example, sometimes we speak of people being unfree to dine at a fine restaurant because they cannot afford to do so, or being free to publish a novel or to give up smoking because no one is stopping them from doing so. In different contexts, we might say that democratic citizens are free in a way that subjects of dictators cannot be, or that a people can become free by throwing off their colonial masters. Furthermore, some social and political theorists associate structural inequalities, such as patriarchy or racism, with unfreedom, arguing that oppressed people can only become free if those structures are reformed or abolished. In all of these cases, and in the many others that we use on a regular basis, it seems unlikely that the word ‘freedom’ signifies the same thing. This raises an obvious question: what is it that we mean when we invoke the concept of freedom?
Andrew Shorten

8. Equality

Abstract
Political theorists refer to the concept of equality in a number of different contexts. For instance, sometimes equality is understood to mean the principle of formal or legal equality, which refers to the idea that each of us should have the same status before the law, and prohibits applying different legal rules to people because of things like their race, religion, gender or social class. Additionally, equality is also sometimes understood to mean political equality, and as we saw in Chapter 5, political theorists defend different views about what kinds of democracy and citizenship are required to uphold this ideal. Despite disagreements about how to formulate them, both of these ideals are now widely supported amongst political theorists and in wider society. In this chapter, we will address a more controversial and demanding kind of equality, concerned with social and economic inequalities, called equality of condition. This principle is defended by egalitarians, who believe that inequality itself is bad or unjust (Parfit, 1998). However, as we shall see, egalitarians take different views about which inequalities matter, which prompts Richard Arneson to describe egalitar-ianism as a ‘protean doctrine’ (2013).
Andrew Shorten

9. Justice

Abstract
Justice is about giving people what they are due, and theories of social or distributive justice aim to explain how the benefits and burdens of social life should be shared. Typically, this is done by specifying principles that tell us how things like wealth, goods, services, opportunities, liberties and rights should be allocated. Philosophers and lawyers also discuss retributive justice, which is concerned with the treatment of people who break laws and with the justification of punishment. However, in this chapter ‘justice’ is used to refer to distributive or social justice, and these two terms are used interchangeably. In the first half of the chapter we will compare three rival perspectives, summarised in Table 9.1, contrasting them with the egalitarian view already explored in Chapter 8.
Andrew Shorten

10. Rights

Abstract
Assertions of rights are a persistent and important feature of contemporary politics. Consider, for example, the various debates that have been triggered by claims concerning children’s rights, animal rights and workers’ rights. Or, think about the various controversies concerning how we should interpret the rights to free expression, to privacy, or to marry. Rights are claims with a special normative force, which Ronald Dworkin captured by comparing them to ‘trumps’ (Dworkin, 1984). By this, Dworkin did not mean that rights are absolute, only that they outweigh routine political considerations and themselves are only outweighed by considerations of special urgency. For example, consider situations in which upholding an individual right could jeopardise the pursuit of another goal, such as when the right to free expression is believed to jeopardise social peace. The metaphor of rights as trumps suggests that a society which values rights must place limits on how it is to pursue its various ambitions.
Andrew Shorten

11. Conclusion

Abstract
As we have seen throughout this book, contemporary political theorists use theories in different ways and for different purposes. Sometimes they use theories critically, to draw attention to particular forms of oppression or injustice that might otherwise be invisible, or to reveal the shortcomings or limitations of our current social practices and ways of doing things. At other times they use theories more constructively, to propose principles that we ought to use to govern our collective lives, or to identify the different ways in which we might understand basic political values. Behind these different uses lurk some substantive disagreements, both about what political theory ought to be and about how we ought to do it. In this short conclusion we will explore some of these disagreements, initially by examining the idea that political theory has recently experienced an ‘ontological turn’, and then by contrasting some different accounts of what political theory and political theorists should aspire to. Throughout, I will emphasise some of the objections that have been raised against ‘mainstream’ approaches to political theory, and consider some of different ways in which proponents of these approaches might respond.
Andrew Shorten
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