Friday, 9 December 2011

What is the political philosophy of “The Courageous State”?

There is a strong case to say that Richard Murphy’s new book ‘The Courageous State’ is a work of political philosophy, given that it engages with normative issues. However, it is not pitched as such, and contains virtually no references to any political philosophers or their ideas. I thought it might be interesting and useful, therefore, to try to reconstruct a political philosophy from what he says. I found a few candidates, but these might be contradictory with one another, in which case it would be necessary for him--or those who follow his ideas--to choose. My hunch is that his views fit in best with those of Amartya Sen, but there are other threads in there as well.

A good first question is what debates the book seeks to engage with. On the one hand, it is clearly focussed at public policy. However, it strays often into the territory of what the good life is. Liberals (that is, those who have the dominant liberal political philosophy, which would encompass people in all parties of modern UK politics) would worry at this point that the state should not be in the business to getting people to live what it has decided to be the good life. Murphy at times strays into paternalist territory (p60, 61, 113), where he seems to suggest that people are not able or responsible enough to look after their own interests in a market setting.

There are aspects of the book that appear opposed to liberal thinking. One is the references to the public good, which appears communitarian (p6, 19, 115). At these points, Murphy seems to be suggesting that the good in life should be determined by the community itself, and not something that people should decide for themselves, which places him in similar territory to Aristotle and Sandel. Another thread is one that is found in the work is the idea that people have a duty to contribute to society (p118). This places Murphy with other Labourite socialist thinkers such as Stuart G. White (See his “Civic Minimum”). This duty is something with which I broadly agree on a personal level, but which—as a political liberal—I could not approve of the state enforcing. These threads show that Murphy isn’t troubled with the usual liberal concern to keep personal answers to the question “what is the good life” separate from state policy that should take no position on this question.

Distributive justice is a crucial aspect of the book, since it largely about taxes, redistribution and market regulation. However, the book makes no reference to any political philosophy on this front. Murphy is clearly focussed on the poorest in society, and this potentially places him in a socialist or Rawlsian framework. However, he implies throughout that there is a correct distribution which has been violated (p100-1) without ever saying what that correct distribution is. We are left to assume that it is a very egalitarian one. I should mention though, that there are also sufficientarian strands in his view; He uses words like satisficed and satisfied at various points, particularly in relation to his invocation of overconsumption.

Regarding the “equality of what” question, it would appear (p6, 114-5) that Murphy’s view is close to that of Amartya Sen, as expressed in its fullest in his “Idea of Justice.” On this view, what matters when considering distributive matters is the capability of realising one’s functionings (“potential” is Murphy’s expression). This motivates Murphy’s circles of value (as I would call them), which contain material needs, emotional needs, intellectual fulfilment, and purpose (p114-5). He also shares with Sen an emphasis on democracy as a means to answering the difficult political questions. He is explicitly anti-utilitarian when criticising economists (p110, 115). Murphy may be happy to be a capability egalitarian, then, or a socialist resource-based egalitarian. I myself have a problem with these views. The first struggles to avoid answering questions about which capabilities matter and by how much (which implicitly requires answers to question of what is a good life to enter policy at a very basic level). The socialist approach explicitly places the interests of the worst off in society (however defined, and presumably often controversially defined) above the interests of all others, which seems unwarranted. For these reasons I prefer a resource egalitarian approach of the sort taken by Dworkin, as explained in Sovereign Virtue.


Aristotle, The Nicomachean ethics (Penguin classics; Harmondsworth; New York: Penguin, 1976).

Dworkin, Ronald, Sovereign Virtue (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2000).

Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice: Revised Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Sandel, Michael J., Liberalism and the limits of justice (Cambridge [Cambridgeshire]; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

Sen, Amartya, The Idea of Justice (London; New York: Allen Lane, 2009).

White, Stuart, The civic minimum : on the rights and obligations of economic relationship (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2003).

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