Justice, Action, Legitimacy and Power

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This seminar examines five frameworks of normative and social analysis, focusing on the issue of how to understand power, action, legitimacy, justice, and gender in contemporary social worlds. We will read works by four of the most influential and systematic contemporary political theorists—John Rawls, Jurgen Habermas, Michel Foucault, and Hannah Arendt—and by feminists, as well as other theorists, who either criticize or extend their works. In this way, we examine—first on their own and then in comparison—the resources, implications, and limitations of different conceptions of social justice, human flourishing, political legitimacy, the organization of social power, and the nature of gender relations. We test the relevance of different approaches by examining the ways in which they either contribute to or impede feminist criticism and other egalitarian movements. Stark differences will emerge between the five theoretical perspectives examined. For instance, a variety of positions will emerge on the issue of the worth or legitimacy of European modernity, the historical process that produced capitalism, representative and constitutional democracy, religious pluralism, the modern sciences, ethical individualism, secularism, fascism, the discourse on human rights, communism, new forms of racism and sexism, and many “new social movements.” While they are all late- or post-modern thinkers, the authors we study disagree radically on the possibilities that modernity opens for social justice, political legitimacy, empowered human action, or new and insidious forms of domination and inequality. Issues to be discussed include: What is the content of social justice, and can it be realized in contemporary social conditions? What is the relationship among identity, action, and politics? Can democracy be realized in advanced capitalist societies; and, if so, what institutional and social forms does it require? Should we view the process of Western modernization as representing genuine moral and political progress or simply as replacing older with newer and more insidious forms of domination? Does a feminist perspective contribute to, modify, or lead to the rejection of contemporary theories of justice, action, legitimacy, and power? Emphasis will be on close and sustained readings from original texts.