Does Social Justice Matter? Brian Barry's Applied Political Philosophy

Ethics 117 (3):391-412 (2007)
Applied analytical political philosophy has not been a thriving enterprise in the United States in recent years. Certainly it has made little discernible impact on public culture. Political philosophers absorb topics and ideas from the Zeitgeist, but it shows little inclination to return the favor. After the publication of his monumental work A Theory of Justice back in 1971, John Rawls became a deservedly famous intellectual, but who has ever heard political critics or commentators refer to the difference principle or fair equality of opportunity in discussions aimed at a wide audience? Writing philosophically astute and beautifully accessible prose, often in not strictly academic journals of opinion, Ronald Dworkin has been in some ways the very model of a public intellectual, but the only reference to his opinions that I have seen in any newspaper occurred in a New York Times review of a restaurant near London along the Thames (as I recall, Dworkin was quoted as saying it was at the very least the best restaurant in the northern hemisphere). You might chalk up the situation to the fact that political philosophers tend to be liberal and the public political culture in the United States has been growing decidedly conservative, but that mismatch can hardly be the whole story. Right-wing libertarianism is a popular doctrine, but Robert Nozick’s classical and never superseded 1974 exploration of that view in his brilliant Anarchy, State, and Utopia is not cited. Nor is there a significant literature that seeks to derive practical policy recommendations from Nozick’s theory and relevant factual claims. Moreover, the isolation of political philosophy stands in marked contrast to the wide influence of theory in some disciplines. For example, consider the enormous germinating impact of Richard Posner’s ideas on law and economics over the past thirty years on academic and extra-academic American legal culture.
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DOI 10.1086/511732
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