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Reviewed by:
  • The Political Philosophy of Needs
  • Marc Caldwell (bio)
Lawrence Hamilton (2003) The Political Philosophy of Needs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Lawrence Hamilton pulls no punches in his lively critique of the rights-based discourse that is central to democratic politics today, and which is found at the heart of the South African 1996 Constitution. Hamilton's book, The Political Philosophy of Needs (2003), argues that in political theory far more emphasis should be given to the satisfaction of certain categories of needs rather than is currently given to the protection of human rights. With this reorientation, he argues, the state (or what becomes, as he calls it, a 'state of needs') would be far more capable of attaining the kinds of developmental objectives extant in democratic politics. What exists in liberal politics instead is a general contradiction between human rights issues and ineluctable needs.

Rights, as they are now understood, thereby simultaneously distort two things. First, they make a necessity out of aspiration: they transform a political goal into a part of human nature, thereby unintentionally reducing the political significance of the goal. Second, they trivialise the real priority of necessity by giving vital needs and agency needs the same essential properties: both are reduced to the same inalienable properties of humans.

(2003:123)

Hamilton sees contemporary political philosophy as focussing too strongly on issues of justice and social welfare, and as a result paying too little attention to political participation and the satisfaction of human needs. He applies this outlook to an analysis of the South African Constitution in the conclusion of his book, which some readers more interested in the 'bottom line' might find disappointingly short. However, as the examples (such as land redistribution and public transport) he provides in other chapters are [End Page 108] quite salient in South African news media, these readers should not feel themselves to be unduly short-changed.

As interesting as these aspects of the book are - albeit difficult to imagine being applied with any measure of efficiency - it is the provocative way in which Hamilton engages the 'orthodoxies' of current liberal political theory that is most likely to stimulate animated discussion among those engaged not only in politics and philosophy, but also among those reading in sociology, political economy, development studies and anthropology.

At the risk of over-simplification, the main thrust of the thesis fits within the 'turn to practice' in social theory. 'Practice theory' is a notoriously elusive expression to pin down, and 'practice theorists' themselves are an unusually diverse group that seem not to have found its lack of agreement anything to get anxious about. Only recently has some work been done to compare and contrast the different approaches to 'practice' in The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory (2001), co-edited by Schatzki et al.

Those engaged in questions of moral philosophy, however, are likely to find controversial the way in which Hamilton severs the field from politics. This is made more contentious in the way he rejects the dominance of moral philosophy in modern political theory, preferring that it embrace political sociology and political economy instead (2003:116). Moral philosophy, along with politics and economics, forms an essential ingredient of political economy, if adherents in the field are to remain vaguely faithful to its founding fathers. Then again, perhaps the number of journals starting up in 'business ethics' acts as some indication of how morality has slid out of political economy.

Nevertheless, Hamilton reserves his harshest criticism for the influences this field has had on particularly the rights-discourse that significantly informs liberal politics. However, to be fair to the author, he does not object to questions of ethics and morality per se, but implicates moral theory in the tendency in rights-discourse to adopt a priori positions irrespective of context, and to posit various human rights (and needs) accordingly as universals. In keeping with his objections to the place of moral philosophy in political theory, he takes unbridled issue with communitarian theorists Charles Taylor (1989) and Alasdair MacIntyre (1981).

Hamilton's approach to morality is limited to the evaluation and satisfaction of specific needs in situ, which brings his approach closest (by his own...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1726-1368
Print ISSN
0258-7696
Pages
pp. 108-115
Launched on MUSE
2005-04-19
Open Access
No
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