The best books in contemporary political philosophy that shaped my thinking about justice, liberty, and equality

Raphael Cohen-Almagor Author Of The Boundaries of Liberty and Tolerance: The Struggle against Kahanism in Israel
By Raphael Cohen-Almagor

Who am I?

Raphael Cohen-Almagor, DPhil, St. Catherine’s College, University of Oxford, is Professor of Politics, Founding Director of the Middle East Study Centre, University of Hull, and Global Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Raphael taught, inter alia, at Oxford (UK), Jerusalem, Haifa (Israel), UCLA, Johns Hopkins (USA) and Nirma University (India). A prolific author with more than 300 publications to his name, Raphael has published extensively in the field of political philosophy, including Liberal Democracy and the Limits of Tolerance; Challenges to Democracy; The Right to Die with Dignity; The Scope of Tolerance; Confronting the Internet's Dark Side; Just, Reasonable Multiculturalism, and The Republic, Secularism and Security: France versus the Burqa and the Niqab.


I wrote...

The Boundaries of Liberty and Tolerance: The Struggle against Kahanism in Israel

By Raphael Cohen-Almagor,

Book cover of The Boundaries of Liberty and Tolerance: The Struggle against Kahanism in Israel

What is my book about?

This is my first academic book (I published my first poetry book a year earlier). It's based on my DPhil dissertation, written at Oxford between 1987 and 1991 under the supervision of Geoffrey Marshall. It took me three more years to reshape the dissertation into a book. It's argued that one of the problems of any political system is that the principles which underlie and characterize it might also, through their application, endanger it and bring about its destruction. Democracy, in its liberal form, is no exception. Moreover, because democracy is a relatively young phenomenon, it lacks experience in dealing with pitfalls involved in the working of the system. This is the "catch" of democracy theory.

The books I picked & why

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A Theory of Justice

By John Rawls,

Book cover of A Theory of Justice

Why this book?

If there is a classic, great book in political philosophy that will be discussed and taught for many more years to come, alongside the iconic books of John Locke and JS Mill, then this is the one. When I studied at Oxford during the 1980s, it was near impossible to write about anything in political philosophy without referring to Rawls’ philosophy. Rawls convinced me that of all the values, justice is the most important value in life. And he provided a comprehensive answer to the intriguing question: What is justice? I engage with this book constantly, reread it and refer to its rationale in many of my writings. I keep copies of this seminal book at home and at my office. I was fortunate to meet Rawls at Tel Aviv University.

A Theory of Justice

By John Rawls,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Theory of Justice as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Since it appeared in 1971, John Rawls's A Theory of Justice has become a classic. The author has now revised the original edition to clear up a number of difficulties he and others have found in the original book.

Rawls aims to express an essential part of the common core of the democratic tradition--justice as fairness--and to provide an alternative to utilitarianism, which had dominated the Anglo-Saxon tradition of political thought since the nineteenth century. Rawls substitutes the ideal of the social contract as a more satisfactory account of the basic rights and liberties of citizens as free and equal…


Justice for Hedgehogs

By Ronald Dworkin,

Book cover of Justice for Hedgehogs

Why this book?

Of all my superb teachers at Oxford, one stood out: Ronald (Ronnie) Dworkin. He was the sharpest scholar I have ever met. I attended most of his seminars and some of his lectures during my four years at Oxford and deeply cherished my private talks with him. Ronnie was a master communicator of ideas, orally and in writing. He would come to class with an empty yellow pad and speak for one hour non-stop. In this book, Dworkin discusses truth in morals, moral skepticism, moral responsibility, dignity, free will, political rights and concepts. I could have chosen any one of his other great books – Taking Rights Seriously, A Matter of Principle, or Sovereign Virtue. I choose Justice for Hedgehogs because this book discusses themes that I also constantly engage with: Truth, social responsibility, dignity, democracy, equality, liberty, and justice. 

Justice for Hedgehogs

By Ronald Dworkin,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Justice for Hedgehogs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The fox knows many things, the Greeks said, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. In his most comprehensive work Ronald Dworkin argues that value in all its forms is one big thing: that what truth is, life means, morality requires, and justice demands are different aspects of the same large question. He develops original theories on a great variety of issues very rarely considered in the same book: moral skepticism, literary, artistic, and historical interpretation, free will, ancient moral theory, being good and living well, liberty, equality, and law among many other topics. What we think about any one…


The Morality of Freedom

By Joseph Raz,

Book cover of The Morality of Freedom

Why this book?

This brilliant book was published one year before my arrival at Oxford and it made a strong, immediate impression. Joseph (Joe) Raz was one of my teachers and his scholarship influenced my thinking greatly. Raz weaves together discussions on law, morals, politics, the nature of autonomy, self-realization, deliberative choice, freedom, and authority. He places the idea of neutrality within the broader concept of antiperfectionism. Raz brought me to think that the conduct of policies can be evaluated on a continuous scale between the two extremes of strict perfectionism and liberal complete neutrality. The policy to be adopted does not have to be either one or the other. It could well take the middle ground, allowing plurality and diversity without resorting to complete neutrality, and involving some form of perfectionism without resorting to coercion. For perfectionism does not necessarily imply governmental exercise of force, nor does it strive to ensure uniformity, as liberal neutralists fear. And if we insist on the importance of autonomy, then resorting to perfectionism is unavoidable.

The Morality of Freedom

By Joseph Raz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Morality of Freedom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'as significant a new statement of liberal principles as anything since Mill's 'On Liberty'.' The Times Literary Suplement . Winner of the W.G.M. Mackenzie Prize for 1987 of the Political Studies Association.


Offense to Others

By Joel Feinberg,

Book cover of Offense to Others

Why this book?

This is one of the very few books that tackle the neglected subject of offence, and does a great job in doing this. I have been teaching from this book for many years in my freedom of expression courses, and the book always stimulates interesting conversations as Feinberg utilizes many provocative examples to examine offence, what it is, and to what extent it should be tolerated. I recall a fascinating conversation I had with Feinberg about his thesis at Oxford, which helped me elucidate my own understanding of offence, for which I am most grateful.

Offense to Others is the second volume of Joel Feinberg's most impressive work on the moral limits of criminal law, a four-volume work that explores the kinds of conduct the state may make criminal without infringing on the moral autonomy of individual citizens. The other volumes are Harm to Others (1984), Harm to Self (1986), and Harmless Wrongdoing (1988).

Offense to Others

By Joel Feinberg,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Offense to Others as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Offense to Others is the second volume of Joel Feinberg's magisterial work, The Moral Limits of Criminal Law, a four-volume work that addresses the question: what kinds of conduct may the state make criminal without infringing on the moral autonomy of individual citizens? In volume I, Harm to Others (also available in paperback), the author illuminated the moral implications of the `harm principle' and demonstrated how it must be
interpreted if it is to be a plausible guide for legislation. In this second volume, he focuses on the `offence principle', the principle that preventing shock, disgust, or revulsion is always…


The Second Sex

By Simone de Beauvoir, Constance Borde (translator), Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (translator)

Book cover of The Second Sex

Why this book?

This is a classic book. Originally published in 1949, French feminist thinker and political activist Simone De Beauvoir discusses the duality in society where man represents the essential ‘self’ while woman embodies the ‘other,’ inessential sex. De Beauvoir raised a clear voice against any form of oppression. She criticized the tendency of protecting women against their inner weakness. She criticized men for dictating to women what to do, and she also criticized women who accept their status as the ‘other’ in society and who are complacent towards men. 

When this book was first published in 1949 it was to outrage and scandal. Never before had the case for female liberty been so forcefully and successfully argued. De Beauvoir’s belief that ‘One is not born, but rather becomes, woman’ switched on light bulbs in the heads of a generation of women and began a fight for greater equality and economic independence. The book remains both relevant and influential.

The Second Sex

By Simone de Beauvoir, Constance Borde (translator), Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (translator)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Second Sex as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The essential masterwork that has provoked and inspired generations of men and women. “From Eve’s apple to Virginia Woolf’s room of her own, Beauvoir’s treatise remains an essential rallying point, urging self-sufficiency and offering the fruit of knowledge.” —Vogue

This unabridged edition reinstates significant portions of the original French text that were cut in the first English translation. Vital and groundbreaking, Beauvoir’s pioneering and impressive text remains as pertinent today as when it was first published, and will continue to provoke and inspire generations of men and women to come.


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