Adam Swift’s Political Philosophy: A Beginner’s Guide for Students and Politicians

by Harry on November 10, 2006

I’ve been using Adam Swift’s Political Philosophy: An Beginner’s Guide for Students and Politicians (UK) in my Political Philosophy course this semester, and, having now had several students thank me for assigning it, I should probably recommend it more widely. The book is written at an angle to my course. The course goes through the main ideas of various important contemporary theorists of justice: Rawls, Sen, Nozick, Milton Friedman (ok, he’s the odd-one-out, but my view is that nobody should leave college without reading chapters 1,2 and 6 of Capitalism and Freedom, and I abuse my position as a professor to do my bit), Kymlicka, Okin, Fraser, and G.A. Cohen. The book is more conceptual; it consists of chapters on Social Justice, Equality, Freedom, Community and (in the new, second, edition) Democracy, which go through various distinctions and problems in thinking about those concepts, and it only refers to the work of particular philosophers insofar as it is relevant to the problem at hand. The book also includes a lovely discussion of the division of labour between political philosophers on the one hand and political activists and politicians on the other, and offers a semi-sympathetic diagnosis of the reasons that politicians often seem to be such uncareful thinkers about matters of value. It really is a superb piece of writing, accessible to anyone with an interest in these matters, but somehow achieving the accessibility without compromising the complexity of the issues in question.

I usually feel obliged to talk in class a good deal about the books I assign, but I haven’t been talking about Swift’s book much because it getes everything right (so nothing to argue with) and is written with such precision and transparency that there’s nothing to clarify or explain. I do frequently use arguments or ideas from the book when explaining particular positions in the authors we are studying. I had expected some irritation from students for making them read a book that we don’t discuss, but, as I say, several of them have (I suppose rather insultingly) thanked me because they find that it is an easy read that illuminates the other readings (more than my lectures do?). Its a great book for anyone who wants to understand better what political philosophers do, especially I would say if you have a background in the social sciences, and the perfect holiday gift for the politically engaged but intellectually serious young person in your life.

A coda: Some people might ask why I don’t use my own book, Justice, as a background to the course, given that it is an elaborately written-up version of the lectures for the course. Two reasons. I wrote it, and am extremely inhibited from compelling students to buy my own book. I also felt that most of what is in my book they can get through my lectures (and occasional emails of my notes) whereas Swift’s book would add another dimension to their understanding of the material. Finally, full disclosure, lots of readers will know that Swift is a friend and close collaborator of mine. I don’t think this colours my view of the book at all, but if you’re a cynic you might think so.

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Matt 11.10.06 at 10:05 am

How do you think it compares to Jo Wolff’s into to political philosophy book? I thought his was really quite nice. Do you see the advantage of Swift’s book being the it relates things a bit more directly to poltical action? (I thought Wolff was pretty good at that too, though.)


herr ziffer 11.10.06 at 10:16 am

What. No Leo Strauss?


Nicholas Gruen 11.10.06 at 10:25 am

OK, I’m in. I’ll buy the book and have a read.


Chris Bertram 11.10.06 at 10:39 am

I wrote a survey of the books that were then available at my old blog a long-time back. I make a Swift/Wolff comparison, at least by implication. Swift was in its first edition back then, so the chapter on democracy is an important addition.


loren 11.10.06 at 11:20 am

What about Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom chapter 10, which sets up Rawls’s informal argument so nicely?


Jon Pike 11.10.06 at 12:51 pm

Swift’s book is excellent at unpicking Berlin’s ‘two concepts’. Brian Barry claims in his blurb that Swift makes ‘two concepts’ an optional read. We will use this (plus an hour long audio interview with AS) in restructuring the OU undergraduate political philosophy course for next year, clearing up the all too easy binary framework from Berlin. Students on that also have Wolff as a set book – which fills in the historical references better that Swift – they’re roughly complementary.


Ben 11.10.06 at 2:14 pm

I also think Swift is an excellent textbook. I was annoyed when the 2nd edition included democracy – I’d have thought he could’ve written another whole book if he wanted covering further issues. Thankfully I didn’t shell out again because I read it from the library and it was much like his lectures.

While we’re plugging, another Oxford tutor of mine, Stuart White, has a new textbook on Equality in the Key Concepts range. I was given some drafts while an undergrad, and remember finding them clear and helpful on Rawls, Dworkin, Luck Egalitarianism etc.


josh 11.10.06 at 4:20 pm

With all due respect to Jon Pike (and Adam Swift), I (no doubt predictably) found the discussion of Berlin’s ‘Two Concepts’ rather unsatisfying. It certainly points to a good deal of genuine confusion in Berlin’s argument; but it also seemed to me to raise objections that missed the main point of Berlin’s argument. I don’t remember all of these, but I do recall the discussion beginning with criticising Berlin for talking about ‘two concepts’ of freedom rather than ‘two conceptions’ — which, given that Berlin seems to be clearly using ‘concept’ in the same way that thinkers later used ‘conception’, seemed to me mere quibbling over terminology (and imposing terminological distinctions anachronistically). I remember the discussion as proceeding in a similar vein, prefering to read Berlin so as to be able to pick holes in his argument, rather than more sympathetically so as to get past the confusions to the main points Berlin was trying to make.
That said, I thought the discussion of justice was excellent, and the book seems to be a good guide to beginners overall (actually, this reminds me that I never finished it — I really wanted to read the chapter on Communitu, which I suspect is very good, but never got to it). And I’m one of these tiresome kooks who think that almost no-one gets ‘my’ pet author right, so the objections to Swift’s use of Berlin should no doubt be taken with a grain of salt.


harry b 11.10.06 at 4:33 pm

Well, I think (in response to Loren) that everyone should read the whole of Capitalism and Freedom, but I don’t abuse my position to enforce that. I think I shall do so next time I teach the course, though.

FOr me, actually, the fact that Swift doesn’t have much direct discussion of legtimacy and obligation, is an advantage, as I don’t have time to have much more than a brief discussion of them in the course. I like his book more than Wolff’s, I think largely because of the absence of historical discussion, but I also think Wolff’s is very good. IN fact, I recently had reason to note in a report that there is a glut of excellent and, perhaps even more tellingly, excellently written, intro texts (none when I was an undergrad, if I remember correctly).


Meteor Blades 11.11.06 at 1:09 am

You feel inhibited about compelling students to buy your own book? I wish you had been my professor in the half dozen classes I took where his – in one case, her – book was required, and, but for one, poorly written, poorly thought out and, for the time, overpriced.

So, now, I feel compelled to buy your book.


Oat Willie 11.11.06 at 11:34 am

Taking a quick look at the Table of Contents on Polity Press’ web site, Swift divided the text into 4 Parts: Social Justice, Liberty, Equality, and Community. Under the community section, he seems to be taking up 7 objections with liberals, i.e., they: 1) assume people are selfish or egoistic, 2) advocate a minimal state, 3) emphasize rights rather than duties or responsibilities, 4) believe values are subjective or relative, 5) neglect how individuals are socially constituted, 6) fail to see the significance of communal relations, shared values, and a common identity, and wrongly think that the state can and should be neutral. It seems, and I’ll phase this as a question as I have not read the text, is Swift jousting at the liberalism that J. Barzun in “From Dawn to Decadence” characterized as liberality?

Also James O’Toole in “The Executives Compass”, which is a book prepared with the Aspen Institute and used as a basis for some of its courses, counsels executives when confronted with complex decisions to orient solutions based on the four poles: liberty, equality, efficiency, and community. I think there is merit in the counsel if adequately tempered with other decision tools, and again a question. Is Swift’s text similarly, even if tacit, prescribing to students and politicians similar counsel? And what was the cost of excluding efficiency values as a section? To wit, the U.S. Government requires cost-benefit analysis on all significant regulations.


harry b 11.11.06 at 2:05 pm

Thanks, meteor blades! I was curious if anyone would say anything about this. I have taught one class in which a book of mine was assigned, but it was assigned and taught by my co-teacher of the course, who was critical of the book in a way I couldn’t have been. Otherwise I am very reluctant to do assign my own books. I can imagine cases where it would be natural to do so (I hope Friedman assigned Capitalism and Freedom when he taught, and Rawls A Theory of Justice!!). And I have had conversations with students who think one ought to do it, so that students realise that their professors are engaged in a direct way in the debates they are learning about. And, if I ever edited a collection of articles by other people for, say, a Contemporary Moral Issues course, I would assign that, but I guess I’d try to work out a way of getting a good deal for my own students. But, especially for a textbook, it seems that the huge benefit of using someone else’s is that it provides the students with a different voice and way of presenting the issues which, in the case of my using Swift’s book, is complementary rather than confusingly contradictory!


Kosta Calfas 11.11.06 at 3:12 pm

To be devil’s advocate for a moment, conspicuously absent are philosophers not in the liberal tradition. Socialism, Fascism, Syndicalism and other views, which, while unfashionable or historically discredited, still merit discussion. As wonderful as everyone believes liberalism to be, it is one of a myriad of political theories which students are not being exposed to. Consequently, the horizons of inquiry are curtailed, probably inadvertantly. An education, as opposed to an indoctrination, involves the discussion of many views, debating the merits and faults, and being able to critically argue for one’s views against alternatives. Right now, students seem to know nothing about “socialism” “communism,” “fascism,” or “oligarchy” except that they are “bad.” Also absent from the list of philosophers discussed are those unfortunate enough not to be born in the twentieth century. It’s unfortunate because, again , telling by the list, it’s the century in which apparently every political theory originated.


Kosta Calfas


harry b 11.11.06 at 4:31 pm

kosta — Swift’s introduction is certainly an introduction to the activity of political philosophy as we currently do it in the late 20th/early 21st century. And there’s no doubt there’s a liberal tilt to the book. But throughout the book you’ll find consideration of positions and arguments that are normally associated with socialism, communism, and even fascism (to a lesser extent). The chapter on democracy is about oligarchy as much as it is about democracy, since that is the alternative position, and the burden of that chapter is to consider arguments for and against democracy. The organising principle is to consider values that students (and politicians) reading the book assume are good (before reading it) and show them that things are much more complex than they thought, and that the arguments for their favoured positions are not obvious. There is hardly any consideration of pre-modern ideas about how to organise political society, all of the chapter headings except one designate
values clearly articulated and defended long before the 20th century started, and all of which have some role to play in the socialist and communist traditions as I understand them, at least.

Oat willie — there’s extensive discussion of the value of efficiency in the book (esp int he equality chpater). A good reason for not naming a chapter efficiency is that there’d be nothing to left to say about it unless you removed all discussion of it from the other chapters, in which case those chapters would be distorted and incomplete.

So I think he is innocent of both charges.


tom hurka 11.12.06 at 9:16 am

Having been sent the 1st edition of the Swift book (maybe by Adam himself), and prompted by Harry, I read the first chapter on “Social Justice.” And while I admire the writing and approve the absence of historical discussion, I have serious problems with the chapter.

Swift says in his Introduction that he won’t tell readers what to think; his aims are “clarificatory and expository, not argumentative.” But I thought that wasn’t at all true of the justice chapter, which treats the different views it discusses very differently.

The section on Rawls is basically uncritical. There are objections about the details of the two principles, but the underlying framework of the original position and the broadly egalitarian view that’s supposed to result aren’t seriously challenged. And along the way what I consider some of Rawls’s grossest non sequiturs, e.g. that a state that promotes one conception of the good or religion treats the adherents of others unfairly, or that people have a fundamental interest in revising their conception of the good, are presented without critical comment. (I now have a conception of the good that’s true, and revising it would lead me to replace it with one that’s false, and I somehow have a fundamental interest in doing the revising?)

The section on Nozick, by contrast, is much more critical, with objections that go to the heart of his view, e.g. the account of justice in initial acquisition doesn’t work, and the Wilt Chamberlain argument begs the question. And the section on desert is almost completely negative while also, I’m afraid, seriously unfair. (Desert theorists don’t say people deserve on the basis of their talents; they deserve on the basis of their contribution to others, and while having talents may be one necessary condition for making that contribution, another is choosing to use those talents productively.) Nor does the section note that the Rawlsian arguments against desert it’s repeating beg the question as blatantly as any argument of Nozick’s (because they assume equality as a morally privileged baseline).

So though it’s not said in so many words, the overall thrust of the chapter is pretty clear: the correct view is some version of liberal egalitarianism, though there are important questions about which version, while the main alternatives face serious if not insuperable objections. And that’s the thrust because one view is treated with kid gloves while the approach to another is seriously uncharitable.

I have nothing against a book that surveys a subject-area from a definite point of view, so long as it’s up front about doing so. As I recall, Kymlicka’s book is like that. But my problem is that Swift’s book, or at least this chapter, is actually seriously parti pris while claiming not to be.

Nor, I can’t help but add, am I alone in thinking the book parti pris. Brian Barry’s backcover blurb praises the book because if “deftly refutes” the objections to liberal egalitarianism and shows that appeals to desert are “morally disreputable” pandering. Did the publishers not notice that Barry was praising the book for doing something it said it wouldn’t do?


harry b 11.12.06 at 9:45 am

Tom — I’ll take up the main point later (opinionatedness in the textbook), but Rawls never says (nor do Rawlsians) that you have a fundamental interest in revising your conception of the good, only a fundamental interest in being able to do so (having the means and conditions which enable you to do so). And revising means something like “reflecting on it to see what is wrong and what is right about it” — which, if you have a completely right conception and revise it rationally will lead you to reaffirm, rather than reject, it.

But perhaps you deal with this in Perfectionism. I haven’t read it for the stupid reason that I wasn’t that interested in the issues when it was published; it is now sitting by my desk waiting till my baby is 6 months old and I can concentrate on it properly.


tom hurka 11.12.06 at 12:20 pm


No need to read Perfectionism, at least for these purposes. It has only a brief discussion of the rival neutralist view, spending most of its time developing a positive perfectionist theory (some parts of which I now think don’t work, though others may). But you may find the last chapters interesting, since they try to give (non-absolute) defences of individual liberty and distributive equality on perfectionist grounds.

Re “revise,” isn’t your reading very much at odds with the ordinary meaning of the word? If I said, “I’ve revised my opinion of you — I thought about it again and still believe what I did before,” I think most people would find that very odd. And in any case, my objection was to the claim that the interest concerning revision is *fundamental*: revision is at best good instrumentally, if it leads you to a better view, but has no value if it doesn’t. And a merely instrumental value can’t underwrite the strong claims about liberty Rawlsians want the revision interest to support.

But I probably shouldn’t have mentioned the issue, since it’s tangential to the main topic Swift’s chapter discusses.


Matt 11.12.06 at 1:31 pm

But Tom, since you’re obviously mistaken about your conception of the good (despire being sure!) it seems you should recognize the importance of being able to change it! (Kitcher’s review of _Perfectionism_ is a good place to start, I think…)


Chris Bertram 11.12.06 at 1:38 pm

But Tom, the higher-order (rather than “fundamental”) interest isn’t in revising but in _being able_ to do so. A typical quotation:

bq. persons conceive of themselves as beings who can revise and alter their final ends.

TJ first p. 131.

The “can” is crucial. Similarly, in PL, their interest is always rendered as being in having _the power_ to revise. Not in revising.


harry b 11.12.06 at 4:36 pm

Tom –no, I do have to read Perfectionism, and am more or less ready to do so, personal circumstances allowing! I’ll read the whole thing, but will be very curious to know (afterwards) what you think doesn’t work in it. The positive perfectionist view is what I want to see (and I am, no doubt surprisingly, completely sympathetic to the project).

More on revision later…

But on the issue of opinionatedness, my reading of the full passage from which you quote is that it is more open than you suggest about the book’s opinionatedness:

This book does not tell the reader what to think. Its aim is clarificatory and expository, not argumentative. It tries to present
some of the more important arguments developed by political philosophers in a way that will help the reader to understand the issues at stake and to decide for herself what she thinks about
them. True, getting a clearer sense of what a particular position involves may make that position less attractive or plausible than it
seemed when things were less clear. True, I am critical of the way in which some arguments are formulated, mainly when they obscure what is really at stake. (Part 4 gives some appeals to
‘community’ a rough ride.)
But I’m not trying to persuade the reader of any particular political views. When abstract topics like social justice, liberty, equality, or community come up in political debate, or in my students’ essays, my usual reaction is not ‘I disagree with this person. Can I persuade her to change her
mind?’ It is more: ‘This person is confused. Can I help her see some distinctions that would help her understand what she really thinks and why?’ I don’t pretend that my own views are irrelevant,
or inscrutable to the careful reader. Making a distinction, or clarifying the precise meaning of a claim, is often the first step towards exposing the kind of simplification or ambiguity that
leads people to get things wrong. (‘Now that you’ve seen what you’re actually saying, you can’t go on believing it, surely?!’) But it really wouldn’t bother me if, having read this book, somebody continued to hold all the political views that she did before she started, however mistaken. What matters is that she should understand
better why she holds them, and have considered the reasons others might have to reject them.

I agree that it is more opinionated than it might be, and in fact I like that about it (as a general matter I find it hard to read and also to teach unopinionated books). He’s not as frank as he might be, but not as coy as you’re making him out to be, about that aspect of the book; but I take him at his word that he doesn’t care if readers leave with the same opinions they came in with.

And, although I accept that desert is sometimes used in the literature in a way that connects to contribution, and that the book would be better if it dealt with that, my experience is that amateurs (including students) have the unnuanced view that Rawls thinks no-one can really believe, and that Swift deals with — it comes up on this blog often enough.


tom hurka 11.12.06 at 7:13 pm

Matt: The Kitcher article was strange, since it attributed to my book a naturalist (in the metaethical sense) project that I thought the book couldn’t have been more explicit in rejecting. But the parts of the book I’m now skeptical about are the parts Kitcher criticized, though not for Kitcher’s reasons. That said, any doubts about those parts don’t touch the substantive values defended later in the book, e.g. knowledge and achievement, and they’re all that matter for the political issues being discussed here.

Chris: I don’t have my Rawls books at home, but the highest-order interests were introduced in the Dewey Lectures, and they couldn’t be more explicit. They say persons have two moral powers: for an effective sense of justice, and to form, revise, and rationally pursue a conception of the good. They then say that corresponding to these powers are “two highest-order interests to realize and exercise these powers” (not to be able to exercise them, but to do so) (p. 525), and add, in case anyone was in doubt, that persons “are moved by these interests to secure the development and exercise of the moral powers” (again, not just the ability to exercise them). And you exercise a power to revise by actually revising.

If you’re still inclined to your reading, ask how it applies to the interest relating to our power for an effective sense of justice. Would Rawls think this interest was fully satisfied if a person was able to act from a sense of justice but just didn’t, because he was an unjust bastard? Surely not.

In any case, I don’t see how your weaker capacity reading of Rawls makes a difference. My claim was that the value of revising one’s conception of the good is only instrumental: good if it leads to a better conception of the good, valueless if it doesn’t. But surely the same applies to the capacity to revise one’s conception. Imagine that I now have a completely adequate or true conception of the good. Then not only is their no need for me actually to revise my conception, there’s also no need for me to be able to: the two are on a par. (Will you say that revising/reflecting on one’s conception of the good is good in itself? That sounds like the kind of substantive or comprehensive claim Rawls isn’t allowed to make.)

Harry: Fair enough on the longer quote from Swift. But I still think his discussion is considerably more slanted than those introductory remarks suggest, in particular because he’s so much softer on Rawls than on Nozick or the desert theory. He gives us the underlying rationale for Rawls’s theory (free and equal persons, yadda yadda) but doesn’t do the same, IIRC, for either of the other two. He has material explaining why common objections to Rawls are mistaken, but no similar material for Nozick or desert. (Are there no mistaken objections to them?) And he never even mentions that many people think the original position construction is unacceptable for selecting among principles of justice, in part because it’s so clearly biased against all but a very few.

And my complaint wasn’t that Swift doesn’t discuss contribution-based desert: his whole discussion of whether people deserve more when others will pay more for their labour is essentially about that. It’s that, like Rawls, he elides the difference between saying that people deserve on the basis of their talents (clearly unacceptable) and saying that they deserve on the basis of something, i.e. contribution, that may have talents as one necessary condition but also has free choice as another (not so clearly unacceptable). The objection, in other words, is that here he isn’t “making a distinction, or clarifying the meaning of a claim,” as in the bit you quote he says he will do.

(It’s not as important as your baby, but I have a paper trying to explain what desert theories do and don’t say in a volume edited by Serena Olsaretti and called, I think, Desert and Justice.)


loren 11.12.06 at 10:23 pm

Tom, your criticism has Rawls asserting ‘we have highest order interests in realizing and exercising each of the following capacities: a) to form, b) to revise, and then c) to pursue a conception of the good.”

We could read Rawls in this fashion, in which case (b) is indeed without worth if we happen to hit upon the right conception our first time up to bat; or if we find, upon reflection, that the answer we’ve inherited fits right off the shelf, no tailoring required.

But it seems to me that we could think of Rawls as meaning that we have highest order interests in realizing and exercising our capacities for a sense of justice and a conception of the good, full stop. The second moral power oughtn’t to be read as a laundry list, each element representing a specific power we have a highest order interest in realizing and exercising.

How to make sense of this reading — specifically, of keeping revision as an essential, rather than merely instrumental, element of the latter power?

Off the cuff …

We might think that something like the burdens of judgement apply not only to sincere argument among bearers of differing conceptions of the good, but also to our own internal deliberations about a worthwhile life. Revision is an essential part of this moral power because we can never (in our most honest moments of introspection) be certain enough of the correctness of our conception to deny an abiding value to the power of revision. But I suppose we might still say here that, while these burdens make revision attractive, its value to us is still instrumental: what we really want is to find the right way to live, and revision is important as insurance, not a worthy practice in its own right.

To give revision the weight Rawls appears to grant it, we might instead conclude that the powers to form, revise, and pursue a conception of the good are inextricably bound up in an ideal of autonomy that Rawls implicitly affirms. Revision simply comes with the package of powers that characterize the sort of agent who can reflect upon, and try to lead a life worth living, and being that sort of agent is what we have the highest order interest in achieving. That is, of course, to assert “the kind of substantive or comprehensive claim Rawls isn’t allowed to make” (Tom’s point).

But I think a Rawlsian can concede something like that point — agreeing, say, with Robert Taylor’s recent analysis in P&PA about Kantian autonomy and the priority of liberty in Theory — and then concluding that much of what the later Rawls was up to was crafting an account of legitimacy that doesn’t hang so closely to his more comprehensive account of justice.

Again, off the cuff.


Chris Bertram 11.13.06 at 3:15 am

Imagine that I now have a completely adequate or true conception of the good. Then not only is their no need for me actually to revise my conception, there’s also no need for me to be able to: the two are on a par. (Will you say that revising/reflecting on one’s conception of the good is good in itself? That sounds like the kind of substantive or comprehensive claim Rawls isn’t allowed to make.)

Not at all Tom. It seems to me that, given Rawls’s so-called “realistic utopianism” he’s fully entitled to say that individuals must always consider themselves to be fallible regarding their CG. Since the fact that they might be wrong is always a live possibility, they retain an interest in being able to revise, and therefore in protecting their freedom to do so. Of course, creatures other that people “as they are” might be in a different epistemic condition, but so what?

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