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Political Philosophy

Interview by Richard Marshall.



Jonathan Wolff is the political philosopher who joined the UCL Philosophy Department in 1980 as an undergraduate (having worked for three years after leaving school). His most recent appointment is as Dean of Arts and Humanities. Here he discusses the influence of analytic philosophy on political philosophy, the significance of Rawls and Nozik, Analytic Marxism, poverty, Sen, on paying attention to relatively neglected values, equality, health inequality, risk, and finding a place for Islam as part of the political landscape. What can be done in these twisted times? Read on and go figure…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Jonathan Wolff: A mixture of pretension and encouragement. As a teenager I liked the idea of being a philosopher, without having really read anything, or done anything about it. My school days were not a great success and so instead of going to university, I went out to work in the legal department of an insurance company. There I was encouraged to study for legal exams and after a while started to go college one day each week, which I found infinitely preferable to my four days at work. As a result I decided to go to university after all. My law teacher told me that he thought I was well suited to philosophy, which flattered me and influenced my choice of course, as I was also considering psychology and sociology. I also began to read philosophical works that friends were reading as part of their university courses. Although they didn’t all mean much to me, some did and I could see that I wanted to be part of that world.


3:AM: You’re a philosopher who thinks about political philosophy. One of the issues you’ve looked at is the influence of analytic philosophy on political philosophy. Roughly summarising you, you characterise analytic philosophy as embedding a certain precision and style, rejection of Idealism and the use of the new logic of Frege, Russell etc. don’t you? Could you sketch for us how the emergence of analytic philosophy at the beginning of the last century made a difference to political philosophy? Did it narrow the area and avoid advocacy of a particular position?

JW: I was asked to write a handbook entry on the development of analytic political philosophy, and I agreed largely because I wanted to find out about the topic, and I liked the challenge of organizing the material. Broadly my conclusion is that the only obvious connection between the initial rise of analytic philosophy and the practice of political philosophy is to be understood in opposition to idealism. In this context idealism is best taken as the advocacy of forms of holism, and the doctrine of “internal relations:” that, in effect, there are some sort of necessary connections between different particulars. Holism can be used to defend very conservative, organicist, political doctrines, and I see twentieth century political philosophy as combining a reassertion of pre-idealist forms of methodological individualism with the defence of the freedom of the individual. But it is more of a cycle than a revolution: idealism in political philosophy was very popular in the English speaking world in the late 19th and early 20th century, but political philosophy before the mid-19th Century looks much more like contemporary political philosophy than it does idealism. Methodologically, Hobbes, Locke, Bentham, Mill, and Sidgwick are clearly part of the same tradition as Rawls, Nozick and Dworkin. It is those who wrote in the tradition influenced by Hegel – Bradley, Green, Bosanquet, Nettleship, Rashdall – who are the exception. In this sense, at least in political philosophy, there is less an analytic revolution than an analytic revival.

3:AM: What is the significance of Rawls and Nozick in this story? Is it your view that although Rawls’ content has been influential the way of doing political philosophy has followed Nozick in this analytic tradition? Could you say what tendencies Nozick’s approach has encouraged. Do you find this approach a little frivolous or are you sympathetic?

JW: The rejection of idealism left a gap in political philosophy. Between the two world wars there is rather little work that seems to have survived the test of time. Things improved somewhat in the 1940s and 50s, with the work of Hayek and Popper, but political philosophy was in a difficult phase. Some think the second world war had a paralysing effect, others blame logical positivism, and others the sociology of knowledge in which political ideas became objects to be explained by social forces, rather than theories that aspired to truth or could independently inspire social movements. With a small number of honourable exceptions, such as Isaiah Berlin, H.L.A. Hart, and the lesser-recognized Margaret MacDonald there is little of lasting value in the analytic tradition before Rawls’s articles started to appear in the late 1950s. Certainly in the UK, political philosophy seemed paralysed by methodological doubts. Although in some ways as methodologically self-conscious as anyone, Rawls used his methodology for substantive purposes, rather than agonising about it, as many British philosophers were doing at the time. Reading through the political philosophy of the period, it is clear that Rawls was doing something different to most of those around him. He is deeply knowledgeable and respectful of previous philosophical work, while moving beyond it to create something constructive and original. His great service to political philosophy was to give others something to engage with: to agree or disagree with the theory, or the methodology, or the use of the methodology to derive the theory. It is not an original thought to say that Rawls created contemporary political philosophy, but it is true, in my view. Conventionally, we pick 1971, the date of the publication of A Theory of Justice, as the beginning of the Rawlsian era, but the papers began to appear about 15 years earlier.


Nozick contrasts with Rawls on just about every dimension you can think of. But the feature I’d like to focus on is the style in which they write. Rawls is in some respects a great writer but he is not an entertainer. He barely uses examples, and with the notable exception of his main device of the “original position” he uses very few thought experiments. Nozick, who wrote on epistemology before he turned to political philosophy, believed that by using fictional examples, primarily as potential counter-examples to positions in the literature, he can greatly sharpen the debate. Although Judith Jarvis Thompson got there before him, Nozick is the first to use amusing, imaginative, examples on an industrial scale as a way of debating issues in moral or political philosophy. Some political philosophers write more like Rawls, building concepts up in layers and arguing slowly, and others more like Nozick, using amusing or corny artificial abstract examples to illustrate or refute claims apparently in a single stroke. Nozick’s style is certainly more fun, and has been very appealing, but in my view it has a cost of over-abstraction in that there is always the hidden assumption that all salient features have been captured in the example used. And that assumption should often be challenged. In particular, the methodology seems unable to model the fact that social structures are so fateful for our lives, as the examples tend to look at a small number of individuals and their choices and preferences, rather than the background norms that colour their expectations and other aspects of their experience.

3:AM: Analytic Marxism, alongside Rawls and Nozick, has an important part in this story doesn’t it. Can you say what you mean by analytic Marxism and who are the figures developing this approach?

JW: Analytic Marxism is one of the few movements in political philosophy that has self-consciously described itself as analytic. It did so for political purposes: to distinguish itself from Marxist writing produced in France and Germany that it regarded as suspect. Notoriously, the founders of the group, my teacher Jerry (G.A.) Cohen, John Roemer, and Jan Elster (one of the first to leave) initially called themselves the ‘Non-Bullshit Marxist Group’, although they did change the name soon after to the September Group. Cohen himself had been brought up in a Canadian Jewish/Marxist community, and imbibed Marxism in the way in which others absorb a religion. When he arrived in Oxford for graduate work he was shocked by the contempt that the political philosophers in the UK, such as John Plamenatz and H.B. Acton, had for Marx, regarding Marx’s work as intolerably vague, and not up to the standards of rigour of contemporary analytic philosophy. Cohen decided to defend Marx, applying what he regarded as an even higher standard of rigour than Marx’s critics. This ultimately led to his book: Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence. During this process he found that others, such as Roemer and Elster, were interested in similar projects, bringing contemporary methods in economics and social theory to analyse and expound Marx’s work. The project was to use the sharpest contemporary tools, such as game theory, to expound and apply Marx’s insights. The September Group liked the idea that they were using methodologies often associated with somewhat conservative political theory for radical ends.

3:AM: A criticism of this approach to Marxism is that it moves away from Marxism proper and becomes moralising and individualistic – Cohen would reject the idea that Marxism had its own dialectic methodology but others would deny his denial. Do you think this approach is a useful way of approaching political philosophy?

JW: There are at least two questions. One is whether analytical Marxism is a good way of understanding Marx. The other is whether analytical Marxism can make an important contribution to contemporary political philosophy. On the first, I think the tide is turning away from Cohen’s interpretation, to make Marx a more nuanced and subtle thinker, who did not necessarily think that there was a blueprint to history. After Cohen published Karl Marx’s Theory of History he began to address a host of questions raised by critics, and on the whole the theory became more qualified and harder to apply. The question is where to go if Cohen’s version of technological determinism is rejected. One way is to return to dialectics, and to try to argue that there is a special methodology to Marx that can only be understood by the deeply initiated. Another is to argue that Marx was one of the most intelligent people ever to have lived, and had incredible insight into history, politics, economics and sociology, able to produce dazzling analyses of concrete events, as well as providing many deep theoretical reflections, but never quite delivering on the promise of a central guiding thought or special methodology. My sympathies are increasingly with this last approach.


The question of whether Marxism becomes ‘moralising’ on Cohen’s interpretation is complex. Marx tried to avoid moral criticism of capitalism, and this is one of the points of differentiation between ‘scientific’ and ‘utopian’ socialism. The scientific socialist is the person who understands the forces of history, especially the fact that capitalism must inevitably break down to be replaced by communism. The role of the scientific socialist is to bring this process to light so that it can be hastened. But once it is doubted that there is any such fact that capitalism must break down, the only form of socialism available, is ‘utopian’ socialism, which argues for communism on moral grounds. So it is the failure of history to follow the theory of scientific socialism, if indeed it does fail, that leads to moralism.

3:AM: Are thinkers like Michael Walzer, Amartya Sen , Martha Nussbaum and Elizabeth Anderson, for example, finding new ways of developing political philosophy away from the analytical framework whilst retaining some of its strengths?

JW: Despite having written about analytic political philosophy, I’m not sure how useful it is as a category. Insofar as it now is applied, it contrasts with Continental philosophy, but how exactly one draws that distinction is itself a matter of high contention. When called upon to explain, the best I can do is to say that, typically, analytic philosophy takes mathematics and pure science as a methodological model, aspiring to their standards of rigour, while Continental philosophy looks more towards literature, poetry and in some cases religion or history, aspiring to the standards of insight appropriate to these fields. On this account, a good analytic philosopher is somewhat like a mathematician who provides a new proof, whereas as a good Continental philosopher is somewhat like a literary critic who allows you to understand a novel in a new and illuminating fashion. Interestingly Walzer, Sen and Nussbaum are all very sympathetic to using literature and history to enrich their philosophical views (I’m less certain about Anderson). I’m not sure Walzer ever aspired to analytic philosophy, though in their ways Sen, Nussbaum and Anderson have done so. But all of these philosophers draw on sources outside philosophy to defend positions in political philosophy which, at certain times, would have made some people say that they are not “really” doing philosophy at all (something that has also been said about my own work).

3:AM: Poverty is a pressing concern and you’ve looked at the philosophical issues. Sen and Nussbaum want to change the conversation around poverty so we talk about ‘capability deprivation’ rather than low income. Do you agree with them? Won’t it make measuring poverty too vague to be useful in targeting its eradication – if that’s what we want?

JW: I am generally comfortable with the idea of talking about ‘capability deprivation’ although I do think there are complications with the notion of a ‘capability’ that many defenders of the capability approach brush under the carpet. Generally I do agree there is some case for trying to replace talk of poverty, understood as low income, with the more general idea of capability deprivation, because there are many ways in which people can be deprived of capabilities to function even if they are not poor on standard definitions (for example if they have a moderate income but are disabled, or victims of racial discrimination). But I don’t think it is a good idea to try to redefine poverty. First, poverty understood as low income is generally highly correlated with many forms of capability deprivation in any case; second, it is much more easy to measure; third, it provides a very easy to understand political target; and finally such a radical redefinition would cut the topic off from 100 years or more of excellent empirical research undertaken on the standard definition. So I would prefer to keep the concepts of “capability deprivation” and “poverty” apart.

3:AM: So what is poverty and does any definition pick out a distinct moral category that says that it is wrong?

JW: It is common to make a distinction between absolute poverty and relative poverty. Absolute poverty can be defined in various ways, but in my view the core idea is that it means having such a low command of resources that one’s basic health is threatened. To illustrate, if you cannot afford nutritious food, adequate clothing, and dry, warm, smoke-free accommodation, you have a very high chance of developing an illness that will shorten your life. Of course, we are talking averages and probabilities as you can live in absolute poverty and never suffer illness, or become ill, of course, even if wealthy, but this, still is the core idea. It doesn’t take a lot of moral or political philosophy to think that if a significant number of people in a society are living in avoidable absolute poverty, then there is a moral case to be answered. On some, theories, of course, some poverty is ‘deserved’. For myself, I don’t agree with those theories, but in any case the burden of proof will always be to show why it is deserved, against a presumption that on grounds of basic humanity no one should live in absolute poverty if it is avoidable.


Relative poverty is a different idea. It is often illustrated with an example from Adam Smith: that in the England of his day an ordinary artisan would be ashamed to appear in public without leather shoes or a linen shirt. The point is not that wearing wooden clogs or a shirt of flax, or whatever the alternative was, would damage your health. Rather it would, or at least could, damage your self-respect. The basic idea of relative poverty is not having enough to ‘fit in’ with what is normally expected in your society. I’m very interested in this notion as it matches very well with work I’m doing on social equality: basically the question of what we have to do in order to build what we might call a ‘society of equals’. A society of equals would avoid both absolute and relative poverty. It is probably more difficult to argue for the elimination of relative poverty than absolute poverty, yet the moral imperative of the elimination of avoidable humiliation is a fairly easy argument to make to anyone with a pinch of compassion.

3:AM: You argue that Sen’s approach to political philosophy is good for bringing to attention some issue, such as missing women or famine but has no teeth when it comes to making a practical difference beyond doing that.

JW: Sen has been brilliant at drawing our attention to over-looked massive injustices. As soon as these are identified we can agree that something has gone wrong with the world and there is a moral imperative to change our practices in a radical way. However many of the political controversies of our lives are less dramatic. He offers the capability approach as a way of approaching political questions, but, unlike Nussbaum, refuses to draw up a list of capabilities. He also does not offer guidance on how to weigh capabilities against each other, or how to make decisions in hard times. Rather he seems to delegate everything to the democratic process. While understandable in itself, this is rather disappointing. First, many hope for more guidance from political philosophy than this. Second, the capability approach is motivated in part by wanted to respond to “adaptive preferences” – the problem of the happy slave. But leaving everything to the democratic process simply collectivizes adaptive preferences.

3:AM: How do you think paying attention to relatively neglected values will enable philosophy to grow teeth by helping policy makers in a practical way? You’ve argued that over emphasis on the value of ‘responsibility’ has been devastating to many disadvantaged groups to illustrate your idea haven’t you?

JW: I mentioned Margaret MacDonald above. One idea I took from her is that what often appears to be a novel movement in political philosophy is simply bringing back into play a value that has been relatively neglected. It goes hand in hand with a pluralistic approach to morality and political philosophy. I think of politics and morality as like a jigsaw with too many pieces. At any point we have to leave something out – some values – to make room for other values. We can live like this for a while, but then we come to see the importance of the values we have neglected and call for a substantive change. I see the rise of libertarianism as associated with the idea that in the mid-20th Century ideas of responsibility and self-reliance had been relatively neglected. In the following decades these values were brought centre-stage, with the effect that we have shifted risk back on to individuals, many of whom are poorly placed to cope, owing to forms of disadvantage from which they suffer. My suggestion is that it is time to put more emphasis on solidarity and less on responsibility. But that will be a long road to travel.


3:AM: Is equality a basic demand of justice?

JW: This question reflects the dangers of writing a chapter to a title that has been assigned to you! That is the title of my chapter in the Norton Introduction to Philosophy, which I was pleased to be invited to write, even though I did warn that the title didn’t really reflect my view or main interest. The point of the title is to contrast views that see equality as instrumental to something else, such as social peace, stability or utility, and those in which equality is regarded as of interest for its own sake. My project is spell out what attracts me most to the idea of equality. And in this respect I find myself drawn to the idea that creating a society of equals is not a matter of distributing some “currency of egalitarian justice” equally. Rather, like Elizabeth Anderson and Samuel Scheffler I think that an equal society is one in which people relate to each other as equals. Nevertheless, cashing that idea out further is far from straightforward, and I would now argue that there are many ways of creating a society of equals. What they have in common is that they avoid unequal and alienating social relations: hierarchy, exploitation, domination, social exclusion, and so on. From here there is a very direct connection between egalitarian political philosophy and the realities of social policy, which means that even if equality is a basic demand of justice, philosophers need to much more engaged in questions of empirical social policy than sometimes has been the case in the past.

3:AM: What are the philosophical issues around health inequality that you think policy makers should be addressing?

JW: In every society, it seems, there is a social gradient in health. The wealthier you are, or the more senior you are in workplace hierarchy, or the better educated you are, the longer you will live (on average) and the better your health will be. This seems to have little to do with access to health care, but much more to do with living and working conditions, especially those that create chronic stress for the poor. Not only does chronic stress lead to health problems, it also leads people to be more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviours such as smoking and excessive drinking. From an egalitarian point of view we have reason to be concerned about the facts of health inequality, but, perhaps even more, how we have inadvertently created societies that generate chronic stress for some and resulting health inequalities. These facts should push us in the direction of thinking about transformational reform of our societies, rather than thinking that somehow tinkering with health care systems will solve our most urgent problems. Of course fair health care is vitally important, but it is only a small piece in a complex picture.


3:AM: It was Locke who argued that if you impose risk on someone or some people then the case is no longer about liberty and becomes a moral or legal issue. It seems what with climate change, waging wars etc we’re all being put at risk by decisions that we have little or no control over. So what are the moral and legal issues and how should we frame them? Perhaps of equal interest is the question how shouldn’t we think about this issue?

JW: Political philosophers have only recently began to grapple with questions of risk in a serious way. Of course one natural way of thinking about the issue is that I have a right that no-one else subjects me to risk unless I have consented to it. But as Nozick and others pointed out, that leads to absurdity, as virtually every action by one person imposes some sort of risk on others. We need to be able to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable imposition of risk. In some cases we can appeal to an implicit contract, where we all benefit (transport risk, for example). But even here there are problems, for what is the acceptable level of risk associated with cars on the road? We can always make things safer, at the limit by banning cars. It seems that we have to put some sort of financial value on the saving of lives in order to make any decisions at all, but on the face of it putting a price on life seems morally abhorrent. Yet we don’t seem to have an alternative.

To make more progress I think we need to consider different cases of risk. Normally in any risky situations there are three parties: the person who would benefit from the risk; the person who bears the potential costs; and the person who makes the decision to take the risk. In the limit case one person is in all three positions, which makes the case relatively straightforward, and a matter of individual judgement. But the worst case is where one person would benefit and can decide to take the risk, and another party would suffer any costs. These are cases of severe “moral hazard” and some have argued that the recent financial crisis had some of these characteristics: those taking financial risks would have made large profits if it had worked out, but someone else picks up the pieces if it fails. Naturally I would argue that we have to be particularly sensitive to such cases, and to try to design our institutions so that they cannot occur.

3:AM: Political philosophy seems now to be comfortably a multi-disciplinary subject – drawing on economics and sociology of various kinds – but someone like the late Ernest Gellner might complain that it has neglected until very lately the importance of Islam as a viable modern politics. Marxism, Nationalism and Liberalism/Capitalism are mainstream to a greater or lesser extent – but Gellner was arguing that Islam was a fourth option back in the eighties. Do you agree that this has been an omission of significance and broadening out the issue, do you think political philosophy as practiced in the academy is still too dominated by the liberal tradition to be able to deal with the global nature of current political issues?

JW: It is very hard to disagree with this analysis. In the last few decades we have tended to take a very whiggish view of political progress: that liberal democracy is a type of default position on which all countries will eventually converge. Yet it is worth remembering that on the verge of the second world war T.S. Eliot pointed out that there were three major ideologies – Soviet communism, German fascism, and north Atlantic liberal democracy – that could not co-exist yet it was far from clear which would triumph. Now we would have to find a place for Islam, with communism and fascism at least temporarily taking a back seat. Yet few, if any, political philosophers have studied Islamic thought as part of our training, and we have our work to do now to try to come to an understanding of what it offers, and the degree to which it does pose an intellectual challenge to liberal democracy, if, indeed, it does. I hope to be exploring these areas in the coming years.

3:AM: And finally for the readers here at 3:AM, are there five books you could recommend that will take them further into your philosophical world?

JW: It is so hard to know how to limit it to five. The only one that is absolutely obvious is John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, which as I have said in my view created contemporary political philosophy, and is an exceptionally deep and thoughtful book. Hilary Putnam said that the way of telling that a work is a philosophical classic is that “the smarter you get, the smarter it gets”. That is certainly true of Rawls. Going further back, there are many books of political philosophy that I admire hugely, and have greatly influenced my thought. But perhaps the one closest to my “philosophical world” as you put it, at least by topic, is Jean-Jacques Rousseau Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. It is an inspirational text, combining a frustratingly unsystematic approach, with regular flashes of transcendent genius, and enormous literary power. In my own work on disadvantage, equality, and social structures the three contemporary authors who stand out as having the greatest influence are Iris Marion Young, Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. It is relatively easy to pick out the most important books (for me) of Young and Nussbaum: Justice and the Politics of Difference and Women and Human Development. When I read Young I often wonder why I bother to write myself, as she seems to have said it all already. It is a bit more tricky to pick a single book from Sen, but the book which I enjoyed most, and from which I learnt most, is Development as Freedom, which is very wide in scope, covering development economics and politics in combination with philosophy. All of these books have made a very deep impression on me.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, April 23rd, 2016.