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Course Details

Political Authority and Political Obligation (Perry)

Spring 2023   LAW 946-001  

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Stephen R. Perry

John J. O’Brien Professor of Law & Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus

Additional Information
Satisfies Senior Writing Requirement



Class meets in person.

Meeting Times/Location
R 4:30PM - 6:30PM
Silverman Hall 270



In this course, entitled Political Authority and Political Obligation, we will be examining, from a philosophical perspective, the related questions of whether and under what circumstances the state possesses the legitimate moral authority to govern, and whether and under what circumstances citizens have a general moral obligation to obey the law. Theorists often treat these two questions as though they are theoretically interchangeable, but, as we shall see, some have doubted that this is so. We will begin with Robert Paul Wolff’s famous anarchist thesis that the state never has legitimate moral authority to govern, and, relatedly, that citizens never have a general obligation to obey the law. After discussing the potential role of coercion in justifying legitimate political authority and the general question of whether there exists an obligation to obey the law, we will examine a number of well-known theories that claim to show that, under certain circumstances, the state is capable of possessing at least partial moral authority to govern. We will look at, inter alia, consent theories, A. John Simmons’ version of a principle of fair play, Joseph Raz’s “service conception” of authority, John Finnis “natural law” theory of political authority, Jeremy Waldron’s version of John Rawls’ theory of the duty to support just institutions, Samuel Scheffler’s theory of associative obligations, and Thomas Christiano's theory of democratic political authority. In addition to examining these specific theories, we will also inquire into the more abstract set of conditions that any theory of legitimate political authority or legitimate political obligation must meet if it is to have any chance of being successful, either in whole or in part. In this regard, the work of Leslie Green and David Copp, among others, will prove particularly helpful.

The course will be taught as a seminar. The main basis of evaluation, worth 80% of the final grade, will be a paper of approximately 17-20 pages in length (typed, doubled-spaced, normal font). Students will be expected to attend class regularly, and to participate in the general discussion. Each student will also be expected to introduce one main reading from the syllabus and to lead the discussion of that reading during one class. This presentation of a course reading is a course requirement, but it will not be graded. There will, however, be a general participation grade of 20% for the semester. The baseline for the participation grade will be the paper grade. The former will only depart downwards from the latter in cases of egregious non-participation, and will only depart upwards in cases of particularly noteworthy and meritorious contributions to class discussion throughout the term.

All readings will be made available on Canvas.