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Kymlicka’s Contemporary Political Philosophy 1

June 20, 2017

Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction
What, if anything, binds different approaches in contemporary political philosophy and what lessons might we draw therefrom?

Preface to the second edition:
Kymlicka opens his massive tome by briefly recollecting the reasons for which he set out to write such a work: he sought 1.) to provide a comprehensive overview of recent work in political philosophy and 2.) to highlight the interconnections between its different strands. If he draws attention to these (failed) ambitions, he nonetheless thinks that he succeeds in drawing attention to certain common themes or commitments which political theorists must share, whatever their take on problems and realities. (For instance, the possibility of progress in political philosophy (x).) One, highlighted in the Introduction to the First Edition, concerns the way in which governments attempt to show equal concern and respect for their citizens. Others, which go without explicit mention in the first edition, include the centrality of liberal democracy to contemporary political philosophy and the importance of responsibility in political thought. Of the former, Kymlicka adds that most political thought can be sorted into either of two camps: either defending liberal democracy or opposing it through outright rejection or careful supplementation and alternatives. Of the latter, the author notes that all contributors to political philosophy must provide “an account of who is responsible for meeting which needs or costs or choices”, of questions of “personal responsibility and collective responsibility” (xi).

Chapter 1 – Introduction:
Herein Kymlicka lays out his plan for the work to come and emphasizes just how the traditional left-right divide fails to capture the richness of exchanges and discussions in contemporary political philosophy. Accordingly, each approach seems to put forward a different ultimate value which does not map onto the aforementioned divide. Would a comprehensive theory of justice then attempt to incorporate bits and bobs from each of the different schools? Yet the author is quick to caution against just such a view. On his reading, different approaches do not so much set out from different ultimate values as they offer different takes on one and the same value: equality in the sense of treating people as equals (a suggestion which he borrows from Dworkin 1977 and gestures towards in the Preface). Put more explicitly, “a theory is egalitarian in this sense if it accepts that the interests of each member of the community matter, and matter equally” (3-4). To which one might reply, with Amartya Sen, “equality of what?”, a question to which each school purports to bring a different, albeit equally definitive, answer.
As to methodology, notably the content of political philosophy as distinct from other approaches, the author briefly lays out several considerations without considering the matter an open-and-shut case. After all, it is impossible to say what political philosophy is independently of a substantive account thereof. Notably he posits a fundamental continuity between moral and political philosophy on two counts. Following Nozick (1974), he maintains that moral philosophy sets certain bounds to that on which the government can reasonably coerce its citizens such that political philosophy “focuses on those obligations which justify the use of public institutions” (5). Otherwise, Kymlicka holds that any account of our public responsibilities must fit with and make room for the private responsibilities. There should be no crowding out of friends, projects or promises. Finally, as to the criteria by which we must test the different approaches to political philosophy, the author appeals to Rawls’ tried-and-true (tired-and-truthy) notion of reflective equilibrium between our considered convictions and more general principles. It remains to be seen how different schools try to meet that equilibrium.

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