Best political philosophy/theory papers, a decade later

by Chris Bertram on January 3, 2015

Back in 2004 I wrote [a piece here]( ) asking for people to nominate the most significant political philosophy/theory papers of the previous ten years. On twitter, @sreddi_515 asks me whether there was ever a second round. Well no, but why not?

Last time I nominated five suggestions to kick us off, so why not again? Some of these papers I profoundly disagree with, but I think they are all worth the effort.

* Charles Mills (2005). “‘Ideal Theory’ as Ideology”. *Hypatia*, 20(3).
* Andrea Sangiovanni (2007). “Global Justice, Reciprocity, and the State. *Philosophy and Public Affairs*, 35(1).
* Arash Abizadeh (2008). “Democratic Theory and Border Coercion”. *Political Theory*, 36(1),
* Zofia Stemplowska, (2008). “What’s ideal about ideal theory?” *Social Theory and Practice*, 34(3).
* David Estlund, (2011). “Human nature and the limits (If any) of political philosophy”. *Philosophy and Public Affairs*, 39(3).

Over to you….



Enzo Rossi 01.03.15 at 5:50 pm

Bernard Williams, “Realism and Moralism in Political Theory”, in In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument, ed. G. Hawthorn, Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005.


Andrea Sangiovanni 01.03.15 at 5:56 pm

Very generous Chris, thanks. I have learned a tremendous amount from (among others):

Ian Carter, ‘Respect and the Basis of Equality’, Ethics, 2011
Annie Stilz, ‘Nations, States, and Territory’, Ethics, 2011


Kevin V 01.03.15 at 7:01 pm

Some papers in public reason liberalism:

Cohen, J., 2008, “Truth and Public Reason,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, 37(1): 2–42.

Lister, A. “Public Justification and the Limits of State Action” Politics, Philosophy, Economics, Vol. 9, No. 3, 2010, pp. 151-176.

Quong, J. ‘The Scope of Public Reason.’ Political Studies 52 (2004): 233-250.

Quong, J. “Political Liberalism Without Skepticism.” Ratio Volume 20, Issue 3, pages 320–340, September 2007.

Schwartzman, M., 2004, “The Completeness of Public Reason,” Politics, Philosophy, & Economics, 3(2): 191–220.

Wall, S. “On Justificatory Liberalism,” Politics, Philosophy and Economics (2010)

Wolterstorff, N. “The Paradoxical Role of Coercion in the Theory of Political Liberalism,” in Journal of Law, Philosophy, and Culture (Vol. I, No. 1; Spring 2007), 135-158.

And a selection of many great Gaus papers:

Gaus, G. “On the Appropriate Mode of Justifying a Public Moral Constitution.” The Harvard Review of Philosophy, vol. 19 (2013): 4-22.

Gaus, G. “Coercion, Ownership, and the Redistributive State: Justificatory Liberalism’s
Classical Tilt.” Social Philosophy & Policy, vol. 27 (Winter 2010): 233-275. Reprinted in
Ownership and Justice, edited by Ellen Frankel Paul, Fred D. Miller and Jeffrey Paul
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010): 233-75.

Gaus, G. “On Justifying the Liberties of the Moderns: A Case of Old Wine in New Bottles.” Social Philosophy & Policy, vol. 25 (2007): 84-119. Republished in Liberalism: Old and New, edited by Ellen Frankel Paul, Fred D. Miller and Jeffrey Paul. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2007. [2009 winner of the American Philosophical
Association’s Kavka Prize.]

There are various books and book chapters that I’d include, but we’re focusing on journal articles. I’m also probably forgetting some stuff.


Jacob T. Levy 01.03.15 at 7:31 pm

William Galston, “Realism in Political Theory,” 9(4) EJPT 385-411


Rakesh 01.03.15 at 7:46 pm

Don’t read PT journals, but I have learned a lot in recent years from books by Partha Chatterjee, Wendy Brown, Raymond Plant, Etienne Balibar, Amartya Sen, Boltanski and Thevenot, and Axel Honneth. Haven’t yet read James Scott’s Two Cheers for Anarchism.

Ranciere’s and Badiou’s idea that politics is the public action that renders visible groups of individuals who though unseen are part of a situation is interesting.

Recently couldn’t put down a popular book by Mark Weiner The Rule of the Clan of which I am very critical–no explicit place in this defense of liberalism for labor unions or labor parties, plus an unjustified faith in the ability of the (bourgeois) state to secure the something more than formal autonomy of individuals without the need for strong associations which Weiner seems think threatens to raise from the dead oppressive, pre-modern kinship-based clans in new form.


Jonathan Quong 01.03.15 at 8:02 pm

I like a lot of the papers mentioned already, particularly:

Ian Carter, ‘Respect and the Basis of Equality’, Ethics (2011)
Gerald Gaus, ‘On the Appropriate Mode of Justifying a Public Moral Constitution,’ The Harvard Review of Philosophy (2013).

Two others that had a big influence on me are:

Jeff McMahan, ‘The Ethics of Killing in War,’ Ethics (2004)
Daniel McDermott, ‘Analytical Political Theory,’ in Political Theory: Methods and Approaches (2008)


Yao Lin 01.03.15 at 8:02 pm

Jeremy Waldron (2008), “The Concept and the Rule of Law,” Georgia Law Review 43(1): 1-61
Lars Vinx (2010), “Constitutional Indifferentism and Republican Freedom,” Political Theory 38(6): 809-837
Rainer Forst (2012), “The Justification of Justice: Rawls’s Political Liberalism and Habermas’s Discourse Theory in Dialogue,” in Forst, The Right to Justification: Elements of a Constructivist Theory of Justice, trans. by Jeffrey Flynn (Columbia University Press)
Andrew Lister (2013), “The ‘Mirage’ of Social Justice: Hayek Against (and For) Rawls,” Critical Review 25(3-4): 409-444
Katrina Forrester (2014), “Citizenship, War and the Origins of International Ethics in American Political Philosophy 1960-1975,” Historical Journal 57(3): 773-801


Rakesh 01.03.15 at 8:03 pm

A friend recently taught to great success Charles Mills and Carole Pateman’s book on the contract.


Rakesh 01.03.15 at 8:26 pm

This seems to be a good candidate
finally just picked up Martha Nussbaum’s Creating Capabilities.
Kaushik Basu’s “Contract, Coercion and Intervention” is a stimulating essay in his book Beyond the Invisible Hand.


Rakesh 01.03.15 at 8:32 pm

This seems worth tracking down
Jane Gordon, “Theorizing Contemporary Practices of Enslavement,” won the 2012 Foundations of Political Theory Best Paper Prize from the American Political Science Association


Avery 01.03.15 at 8:38 pm

Awesome! Here’s a top five for me, just in order of how quickly I recalled them once the question was asked:
1. Anna Carastathis, “Basements and Intersections,” Hypatia 28 (2013), 698-715.
2. Iris Marion Young, “Responsibility and Global Justice: A Social Connection Model,” Social Philosophy & Policy 23 (2006), 102-30.
3. Tim Hayward, “International Political Theory and the Global Environment: Some Critical Questions for Cosmopolitans,” Journal of Social Philosophy 40 (2009), 276-95; as well as 4. “Global Justice and the Distribution of Natural Resources,” Political Studies 54 (2006), 349-69.
5. Samuel Arnold, “The Difference Principle at Work,” Journal of Political Philosophy 20 (2012), 94-118.


MPAVictoria 01.03.15 at 10:34 pm

Do blog entries count?

“Non-aggression never does any argumentative work at any time” by Matt Bruenig


Tony Lynch 01.03.15 at 11:16 pm

Everything by Wolfgang Streek.


Chip 01.04.15 at 1:59 am

“Do blog entries count?”

Probably excluded, for fear that one of Sarah Palin’s Facebook sharts might make the list.


Kevin V 01.04.15 at 3:14 am

There’s really a lot of global justice stuff in the lists so far. Do the best global justice pieces really rank high in the “best overall” journal articles in social and political? My sense is that while they address critically important issues, the innovation and illumination involved is qualified vis-a-vis other more pure sub-subjects, like perfectionism, public reason, distributive justice, distributive principles (priority, equality, sufficiency) and ideal/nonideal theory. Global justice pieces are powerful when they apply more general insights in political philosophy to particular issues, but I’d think the pieces advancing the insights have greater import. It’s why you don’t rank The Law of Peoples against A Theory of Justice. There’s not much of a contest, as the former is the global application of the insights of the latter.


Rakesh 01.04.15 at 4:07 am

I would welcome more political philosophy on global issues–the nature of international law and executive privilege in light of the Bush doctrine (‘pre-emptive intervention’); the tragedy of collateral damage inflicted in the name of security; the manufactured problem of loopholes in the Geneva question; the question of the legitimacy of borders in light of xenophobic populism; the nature of citizenship in a wealthy country as the principal form of inherited privilege (Shachar), given the findings of Milanovic; the justice of spillover effects from stabilization policies meant to address national problems, e.g. currency devaluation could possibly export unemployment or QE could possibly lead to destabilizing capital outflows to developing countries; the justice of comparative advantage being located in a poor country’s serving as a toxic waste dump site; and of course the Hague Invasion Act.


Thornton Hall 01.04.15 at 4:54 am


Richard York 01.04.15 at 5:06 am

Most of these sound fascinating. Is it too much to ask those of you citing such papers to put in links to them if they’re on line?

It would be very helpful to those of us who do not have access to some of the professional and academic publications you all reference.

I’m a regular reader of CT and often follow the links which are posted.



MPAVictoria 01.04.15 at 5:06 am

I really do encourage anyone reading here to read the link I submitted up at 10. One of the best things I have read in years. Anything Matt Bruenig writes is worth a read and he doesn’t get nearly the attention he deserves.


Chris Bertram 01.04.15 at 7:20 am

Kevin V: I think it a bit odd to think of questions concerning the scope of distributive justice principles as involving merely an application of prior principles of justice, rather than requiring us to address some rather fundamental issues. (Even if they turn out to be just an application, that they are is non-obvious and requires some argument.) Generally, the idea that papers on, as you put it, areas that are more “pure” necessarily outrank more applied pieces is one to be resisted.


Chris Armstrong 01.04.15 at 11:57 am

Chris is definitely right about that. I think that the fact that some of the papers might look like being ‘just’ about global justice is partly because the idea that justice has global scope is has been controversial, and hence has to be explicitly argued for rather than assumed (and so the papers often do that). But by no means are these papers ‘just’ about that question, and by now means do they simply apply extant ideas from normative debates. Along the way, they’ve helped clarify questions about what it is that makes invoking the language of justice appropriate; how and when collective responsibility might be attributed to an agent; what the responsibilities of individuals might be in light of complex injustices; and so on. Along with debates on migration, they’ve also helped trigger a much more explicit debate about fundamental issues concerning territorial rights which was very long overdue. I think it’s important that ‘global justice stuff’ doesn’t get assigned to a pigeonhole of fairly ‘applied’ political theory, simply because there are so many people doing such good work in that field these days.


J Thomas 01.04.15 at 2:54 pm

#19 MPAV

I really do encourage anyone reading here to read the link I submitted up at 10. One of the best things I have read in years.

I thought he took a trite, obvious point and made it very very clear.

What keeps it from being helpful is that most people already see it, and the ones who don’t, believe that their moral judgements are completely correct and ought to be obvious to everybody. They don’t see that there is really anything to argue about. So when they use force to defend their rights, they don’t see that anybody could legitimately argue that it is offensive force and not defensive force, because anybody who says that is so obviously wrong that they must be lying.

And this is why they get so very upset when they find themselves disagreeing with each other. When they disagree about copyright or patent law, they can’t understand why people who up until now have been reasonable and rational suddenly have turned crazy, and they start to attribute each other’s positions to naked self-interest etc. The guy who enforces copyright law about his own publications can’t *really* believe it, he’s just using it because he wants to exploit the current unjust laws to get money for himself.

Once somebody believes that he can work out the correct way to do things from first principles, he’s unlikely to become a moral relativist. (It seems to be disproportionately males that do this, in my experience, but some women do it too.)

(Obligatory disclaimer: Of course moral relativism is the only correct approach, and anybody who thinks he can work out absolute rules from first principles is obviously wrong. ;-)


djw 01.04.15 at 4:43 pm

In addition to many already listed, a few other contenders:

Arash Abizadeh, On the Demos and its Kin: Nationalism, Democracy and the Boundary Problem APSR 2012

Sophia Nasstrom, The Legitimacy of the People, Political Theory 2007

Andrew Rehfeld, Toward a General Theory of Political Representation, Journal of Politics 2005

Robert Goodin, Global Democracy: In the Beginning, International Theory 2010.


MPAVictoria 01.04.15 at 5:02 pm

“I thought he took a trite, obvious point and made it very very clear.”

Everyone is of course entitled to his or her own opinion.

I personally thought it was an excellent and interestingly argued piece that took on libertarianism from a new and ,to me, unique angle.


J Thomas 01.04.15 at 5:19 pm

#24 MPAV

I personally thought it was an excellent and interestingly argued piece that took on libertarianism from a new and ,to me, unique angle.

I agree that it was excellently argued.

My only complaint is that the people it argues against cannot understand the argument because they already know they are right. And so an argument that starts out assuming moral equivalence between two points of view cannot make sense to them. Anybody who disagrees with them cannot be morally equivalent to them, but instead must be wrong.

This is not a flaw in the argument itself.


MPAVictoria 01.04.15 at 5:38 pm

By that logic we should never argue with anyone about anything J.


MPAVictoria 01.04.15 at 5:54 pm

Anyway thank you clicking through and reading the link J.


mdc 01.04.15 at 6:03 pm

Wow, good idea for a post, thanks. I don’t keep up with the field, but I’m surprised to see from these titles how preoccupied folks still are with Rawlsian questions and problems. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.


Blain 01.05.15 at 12:19 am

Limiting myself to 5 articles from 2004-2014 (after roughly 2 minutes of reflection) I would recommend:
• Carter, I. 2011. “Respect and the Basis of Equality.” Ethics 121.
• Baehr, A. 2008. “Perfectionism, Feminism, and Public Reason.” Law and Philosophy 27.
• Heath, J. 2006. “The Benefits of Cooperation.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 34.
• Lister, A. 2011. “The ‘Mirage’ of Social Justice: Hayek Against (and For) Rawls.” Critical Review.
• Simmons, A. J. 2010. “Ideal and Nonideal Theory.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 38.

I also would recommend: Cohen, G. A. 2011. “Freedom and Money.” However, I think that the original article version of this piece predates 2004.


H Hughes 01.05.15 at 7:40 am

B. Honig’s “Ismene’s Forced Choice: Sacrifice and Sorority in Sophocles’ Antigone”, Arethusa, Vol. 44, No. 1, 2011.


QS 01.05.15 at 12:23 pm

Any rec’s for those into critical theory?


Sally Haslanger 01.06.15 at 6:33 pm

Lucas Stanczyk, “Productive Justice,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 40 (2012): 144-64.
Nancy Fraser, “Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History,” New Left Review 56 (2009): 97-117.
Miranda Fricker, “Epistemic Justice as a Condition of Political Freedom?” Synthese 190:7 (2013):1317-1332.


Sam B 01.06.15 at 11:31 pm

Interesting that beginning with Chris’ opening salvo, the literature on “methods and approaches” in political theory/philosophy (realism, ideal/nonideal theory, etc…) has been quite well represented. A few more of my favorites on this topic that have come out in the last few years and deserve more notice:

Lawford‐Smith, Holly (2013). Understanding Political Feasibility*. Journal of Political Philosophy, 21(3), 243-259.

McTernan, Emily (2014). How to make citizens behave: Social psychology, liberal virtues, and social norms. Journal of Political Philosophy, 22(1), 84-104.

Hendrix, Burke (2013). Where Should We Expect Social Change in Non-Ideal Theory?. Political Theory, 41(1), 116-143.


QS 01.07.15 at 3:59 am

Anyone familiar with IR theory will roll their eyes re: the realist/idealist stuff in PT. It’s like back to the 1940s. Who’s up for some E.H. Carr?


LFC 01.07.15 at 4:20 am

QS @34
Anyone familiar with IR theory will roll their eyes re: the realist/idealist stuff in PT. It’s like back to the 1940s. Who’s up for some E.H. Carr?

I’m breaking my resolution, which I stated in a different thread, not to comment again at Crooked Timber because I want to mention to QS that the discussion of “ideal theory” versus “non-ideal theory” in political theory bears, I think, only a very tangential relationship, if any at all, to the (so-called) “realist-idealist” debate in IR in the interwar and postwar period. (A lot of work in recent years on the disciplinary history of IR shows that the so-called ‘first debate’ is more nuanced and complicated than its presentation in what used to be the standard accounts, but that’s a different point.)

I’m considerably more familiar with IR theory than with the literature in contemp. political theory that is the focus of the OP and many of the comments, so if what I’ve said here is wrong, someone will correct me. However, my impression is that, e.g., the issues famously discussed by Carr in The Twenty Years’ Crisis are really not the issues being raised in the contemporary PT discussions of ideal vs. non-ideal theory. (Again, corrections or qualifications welcome.)


LFC 01.07.15 at 4:26 am

P.s. To put the same point differently and more succinctly, the terms “ideal theory” and “non-ideal theory” have particular, rather technical meanings in contemporary Anglophone political philosophy, and those meanings, I believe, do not easily map onto or correspond to the meanings ordinarily given to “idealism” and “realism” as those terms used to be (and in some cases are still) used in IR theory.


ZM 01.07.15 at 5:54 am

LFC I hope you keep commenting at least sometimes since you are very solid with facts and sources and would be missed. I have spare time right now – but upon revision commenting took up too much time last year, so my resolution is fewer comments especially where it is just arguing without learning.

On critical theory I read some on Habermas’ tech/admin systems vs life worlds and his idea of science controversies for an assignment on renewable energy technology wind farms. Some was sort of useful – particularly that windfarms are just part of the larger science controversy of climate change so dealing with wind farm objections as a discrete issue is problematic. In general I find the critical theorists not really to my way of thinking since they are Marxist materialists so only a bit above constructivists in my hierarchy. I also looked at works on windfarms and emplacement /place attachment which I found helpful , I first came across emplacement in relation to refugee settlement and integration as they recover from displacement .

P Devine-Wright has the most work on place attachment and wind farms , such as

Devine-Wright, P. (2009), Rethinking NIMBYism: The role of place attachment and place identity in explaining place-protective action. J. Community. Appl. Soc. Psychol., 19: 426–441. doi: 10.1002/casp.1004

I am reading

D’Arcy Wood : Eco-historicism (2008) Journal For Early Modern Studies, 8, 2,

which looks at a turn to looking at environment/climatic interactions with human so cities and their histories after a turn away from such interest due to the racism of crude geographic/climatic determinism in the past. This would be in favour of E H Carr’s argument that we examine past events through the lens of history with an eye to contemporary interests and problems ;)


Matt Lister 01.08.15 at 5:16 pm

I am never very sure about “best” lists, largely because while I can often separate the very good from the good and the good from the less good or bad, I have a harder time picking “the best” but I’ll note a few pieces that are certainly very good and which have been important and influential for my own thinking. (I’m also leaving out some very good pieces by people I have professional or personal connections to in one way or another.)

First Kit Wellman’s article, ‘Immigration and Freedom of Association’, Ethics 119: (October 2008), 109–141. I certainly disagree with many of the ways Wellman develops his point here, and to some degree even with the basic argument, but it’s been one of the most important and fruitful philosophical articles on immigration recently. A fair amount of my own work has been trying to figure out where Kit’s argument goes wrong or goes too far.

Next, Thomas Christiano, An Instrumental Argument for a Human Right to Democracy, 39 PHIL. & PUB. AFF. 142 (2011). In a way that’s similar to Wellman’s article, this piece has directed a lot of my thought in the last few years, trying to figure out why and where I think it’s wrong. It’s a really clear and well written article that should be important for philosophers as well as international relations and international law scholars. It’s also much better than most philosophy in engaging with empirical work in a fruitful way.

Finally a good amount of Pauline Kleingeld’s work on Kant’s political philosophy and in particular his views on cosmopolitanism and peace. Not all of this work falls in the right time-frame, but let me mention in particular her excellent “Kant’s Theory of Peace”, in the _Cambridge Companion to Kant and Modern Philosophy_ (2006), and “Defending the Plurality of States: Cloots Kant, and Rawls”, in _Social Theory and Practice_ 32 (2006) 559-78. A lot of her work on this subject is collected in her recent book, _Kant and Cosmopolitanism: The Philosophical Ideal of World Citizenship_ which I am now eagerly reading. Her work (along with that of Annie Stilz) is an excellent example of how well done work on historical figures can be very useful for thinking through contemporary problems.


Matt Lister 01.08.15 at 9:36 pm

One more that I forgot (surprisingly, as it’s one of my favorite papers):

Tommie Shelby: Justice, Deviance, and the Dark Ghetto: Philosophy and Public Affairs 35 (2):126–160 (2007) .

It’s really a great piece with real examples relating to moral and political obligation to obey the law, among other things. That’s not all it does, but it’s one reason why I really liked it.


LFC 01.09.15 at 2:48 am

@38, 39
Thanks for these suggestions. (The Shelby piece looks v. interesting.)

I don’t keep up with the lit. (periodicals or books) in political theory, despite being interested in an ‘outsider’s’ way. However, last year I did read parts of Jason Frank, Constituent Moments (2010). To oversimplify, it’s mostly about different ways of conceiving and talking about (or more precisely, claiming to speak in the name of) “the people” in the early U.S. republic. The book opens with a chapter on Arendt’s discussion of the American Revolution but the rest is mainly focused on writers of 18th cent. and 19th cent. (ends w/ Whitman and F. Douglass). The author’s theoretical reliance on Rancière didn’t appeal to me all that much, but there were some interesting readings.


engels 01.09.15 at 10:34 pm

Any thoughts on what were the worst?

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