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Value, Conflict, and Order

Berlin, Hampshire, Williams, and the Realist Revival in Political Theory

Is the purpose of political philosophy to articulate the moral values that political regimes would realize in a virtually perfect world and show what that implies for the way we should behave toward one another? That model of political philosophy, driven by an effort to draw a picture of an ideal political society, is familiar from the approach of John Rawls and others. Or is political philosophy more useful if it takes the world as it is, acknowledging the existence of various morally non-ideal political realities, and asks how people can live together nonetheless?

The latter approach is advocated by “realist” thinkers in contemporary political philosophy. In Value, Conflict, and Order, Edward Hall builds on the work of Isaiah Berlin, Stuart Hampshire, and Bernard Williams in order to establish a political realist’s theory of politics for the twenty-first century. The realist approach, Hall argues, helps us make sense of the nature of moral and political conflict, the ethics of compromising with adversaries and opponents, and the character of political legitimacy. In an era when democratic political systems all over the world are riven by conflict over values and interests, Hall’s conception is bracing and timely.

Author Information

Edward Hall is a lecturer in political theory at the University of Sheffield.


“Hall offers a lucid and wide-ranging account of three leading philosophers who provided the impetus for the realist movement in contemporary political philosophy. He argues that the realism they sparked represents not only a negative critique of the dominant Rawlsian paradigm, as others have claimed, but also the foundation for an affirmative alternative to it.”
— William A. Galston, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution

“Over the last fifteen years, the revival of political realism has produced a sharp methodological critique of ‘ethics-first’ theorizing. But that is all this revival has produced so far. Can political realism be grounded on firm philosophical foundations? Can it offer a substantive alternative to the moralisms it criticizes? Hall’s deep and challenging book gives us grounds for optimism on both fronts. Through a sympathetic but clear-eyed reading of Isaiah Berlin, Stuart Hampshire, and Bernard Williams, Hall shows us the promise and limits of a realist ethics and politics. What emerges is a compelling vision of skepticism without despair, disenchantment without nihilism, and humility without paralysis. This book is a terrific achievement.”
— Alison McQueen, Stanford University

Audience: Professional and scholarly;