Contemporary Political Philosophy
by Will Kymlicka
Reading this work nearly a decade after publication, I am struck by how little things changed. The 1990s produced no well-known political philosophies, a terrible situation. The world needs some new philosophies and much less care ethic, communitarianism, liberalism, neoconservatism, and so-called libertarianism.
Kymlicka covers the inadequacies of four incomplete versions of consequentialism. Hedonistic utilitarianism and mental-state utilitarianism differ little from a pleasure pill existence. Preference satisfaction utilitarianism is better, yet ignores the fact that present preferences often harm us.
The strongest of the four, informed preference utilitarianism, argues that we should choose informed, well-reasoned goods, including those having no affect on our conscious states. He criticizes informed preference utilitarianism for being too unspecific, but this criticism is weak. Moral goods vary colossally with situations. A general theory allows us to apply our moral reasoning powers to cases rather than having people trying to trump each other with slogans such as “From each according, blah, blah, blah,” and buzzwords such as loyalty. Criticisms of informed preference utilitarianism should concentrate on rights and merit matters.
Informed preference utilitarianism is close to the strongest version of consequentialism but not quite. You will have to look elsewhere for the strongest version. Kymlicka notes these versions of consequentialism are not perfect, therefore, let’s sign up for vacu-feminism and liberalism, which are much, much worse.
Kymlicka covers the arguments of John Rawls, finding them weak because they give too much weight to the claims of individuals born with natural disadvantages and to those who chose to screw up their lives. Rawlsian theories of equality of circumstance cause too much harm. Kymlicka argues that Ronald Dworkin’s theories are better.
Unfortunately, the works of Dworkin are seriously flawed because they support bad status quo practices, support bad 1970s liberalism, fail to account for injustices to and within families, and give an inadequate account of consequences—weaknesses shared by most of the theories Kymlicka covers.
Kymlicka then explains the so-called libertarian ideas of Robert Nozick, ideas that maximize freedoms for some individuals. Kymlicka claims that Nozick believes in absolute property rights—a scary thought. I can think of only a couple rights that might qualify as absolute rights, and they are not property rights. Libertarianism uses the word free both as a substitute for good and as synonymous with good, which leads to bad results. Libertarianism ignores the rights of children, non-rich adults, and individuals in other countries. Libertarianism attracts because it is simple and because it pretends that there is no need to make distinctions between choices and unchosen circumstances.
The author has little to say about neoconservatism, which is fine by me. Neoconservatives and so-called libertarians already have a zillion think tanks and media outlets to spread their views, though they constantly pretend the liberal media dominate the world.
Marxism and communitarianism get more attention from Kymlicka. Among its millions of flaws, Marxism emphasizes distribution over production. Liberals argue that communitarianism prevents individuals from finding out the good and from learning from our mistakes. Communitarians claim liberalism ignores our social natures. Liberals counter they have nothing against some communities. They oppose state enforced communities and group think communities.
Communitarianism is simplistic and status quo oriented. Communitarians are too lazy too study problems and figure out detailed, accurate solutions. They find solutions in exhortations for more will power. History is full of evil leaders who thought the biggest failing was lack of will power in the people. Communitarianism does not take the rights of children and the non-rich seriously.
The author does a great job explaining most of these theories and making complex ideas understandable. It is not his fault that most political philosophies are disasters.
Kymlicka is a brilliant writer and a wonderful organizer of ideas. The problem: He sticks with rotten ideas from the past. He tries to soup up Yugos. Political philosophers spend too much time concocting theories out of thin strands.
Many philosophers have little knowledge of social science and everyday human activities.
Last, Kymlicka explores feminist theories such as the ethic of care. These he treats with kid gloves. The care ethic is flawed because it is provincial and anti-reason. The care ethic considers trivial caring activities more important than non-care activities with major beneficial results.
Most current political philosophies deserve the trash can of history. Worth skimming.
—Book review articles by J.T. Fournier, last updated June 29, 2009