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Just about any problem in the world is frequently blamed on capitalism: inequality, wage stagnation, consumerism, climate change, precarious work, unemployment, high rent and latte prices – you name it! Capitalism has a clear image problem, but is it really the root of all evil? And what is capitalism anyway?
In this subject, we’ll start by taking a look at major figures of liberal political philosophy (Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill), and their defence of capitalism as a route to a more just and efficient society. This approach will lead us to challenge the familiar conflation of capitalism with unadulterated laissez faire economics, reconsider the extent to which current societies really are purely capitalist.
With a theory of why capitalism can be a force for the good in hand, and turning our attention to contemporary authors, we’ll be able to come to a more sophisticated perspective on what’s wrong with central economic aspects of contemporary society and what ought to be done about them. We’ll ask whether it’s fair for the Australian government to force people to take jobs they don’t want while others inherit larger fortunes tax-free, whether employers have power over workers akin to authoritarian dictators, whether it should be illegal to sell human organs to save lives, and what role the assessment of capitalism should have in coming to terms with the history of colonialism in Australia and elsewhere. Last but not least, we’ll examine the role of markets in generating and distributing the coronavirus vaccine we desperately need, and what ought to be done to address the economic consequences of the pandemic.
Intended learning outcomes
Students who successfully complete this subject will:
- Gain a familiarity with a variety of core texts in political philosophy relevant to the moral foundations of capitalism, and be able to both interpret and evaluate their main arguments
- Be able to understand a number of concepts that arise in moral arguments about capitalism, including exploitation, freedom, competition, ownership, and equality
- Learn how to defend, and not just coherently state, one's own position with regard to controversial questions in political philosophy
- Gain an understanding of how topics in political philosophy overlap with the subject matter of other disciplines, especially economics
- Work individually, and in groups, to clarify problems, apply reasoning techniques to different issues, and to critically evaluate the results.
Last updated: 20 February 2024