The Future of Political Philosophy

Katrina Forrester in Boston Review: “Since the upheavals of the financial crisis of 2008 and the political turbulence of 2016, it has become clear to many that liberalism is, in some sense, failing. The turmoil has given pause to economists, some of whom responded by renewing their study of inequality, and to political scientists, who have since turned to problems of democracy, authoritarianism, and populism in droves. But Anglo-American liberal political philosophers have had less to say than they might have.

The silence is due in part to the nature of political philosophy today—the questions it considers worth asking and those it sidelines. Since Plato, philosophers have always asked about the nature of justice. But for the last five decades, political philosophy in the English-speaking world has been preoccupied with a particular answer to that question developed by the American philosopher John Rawls.

Rawls’s work in the mid-twentieth century ushered in a paradigm shift in political philosophy. In his wake, philosophers began exploring what justice and equality meant in the context of modern capitalist welfare states, using those concepts to describe, in impressive and painstaking detail, the ideal structure of a just society—one that turned out to closely resemble a version of postwar social democracy. Working within this framework, they have since elaborated a body of abstract moral principles that provide the philosophical backbone of modern liberalism. These ideas are designed to help us see what justice and equality demand—of our society, of our institutions, and of ourselves.

This is a story of triumph: Rawls’s philosophical project was a major success. It is not that political philosophers after Rawls didn’t disagree; fine-grained and heated arguments are what philosophers do best. But over the last few decades they built a robust consensus about the fundamental rules of the game, conceiving of themselves as engaged in a common intellectual project with a shared conceptual framework. The governing concepts and aims of political philosophy have, for generations, been more or less taken for granted.

But if modern political philosophy is bound up with modern liberalism, and liberalism is failing, it may well be time to ask whether these apparently timeless ideas outlived their usefulness….(More)”.