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Course Details

Political Authority and Political Obligation (Perry)

Spring 2024   LAW 946-001  

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Stephen R. Perry

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

Additional Information

Skills Training
Oral Presentations
Expository Writing

20% Participation,
80% Paper

Satisfies Senior Writing Requirement



Class meets in person.

Course Continuity
Students are encouraged to stay home if you are ill or experience flu-like symptoms. If you miss a class for any reason, it is still your responsibility to make up the work missed.

I offer the following to students who miss class due to illness:

- Class sessions are regularly recorded. If you are absent due to illness or some other unavoidable circumstance, email me and I can send you an email with instructions for accessing the recording for the class session(s) you missed.

Meeting Times/Location
W 4:30PM - 6:30PM
Silverman Hall M28



In this course, 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 legitimate moral authority to govern and whether and under what circumstances citizens have a general (or partial) moral obligation to obey the law. Theorists have often treated these two questions as theoretically interchangeable but, as we shall see, some have questioned whether this is so.

We will begin with Robert Paul Wolff’s famous anarchist thesis that no state ever has legitimate moral authority to govern and the related thesis that citizens never have a general moral obligation to obey the law. After discussing the potential role of coercion in justifying legitimate political authority and considering, from a quite general perspective, the question of whether citizens have a moral obligation to obey the law, we will examine a number of specific theories which claim to show that, under certain circumstances, the state is capable of possessing legitimate moral authority to govern, either in whole or in part.

The specific theories we will look at include, inter alia, consent theories, various versions of a principle of fair play, Joseph Raz’s “service conception” of authority, the “natural law” theory of political authority, John Rawls’ theory of the moral duty to support just institutions, the theory that a moral duty to obey the law arises if it can be understood as a so-called "associative" obligation, and, finally, a number of variations on the theme that morally legitimate political authority can be grounded in democratic governance. In addition to examining these specific theories, we will also inquire into the more abstract set of conditions that any specific theory of legitimate political authority -- or of legitimate political obligation -- must meet if it is to have any chance of success. In this regard, the work of Leslie Green and David Copp, among others, will prove 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.

Course Concentrations

Perspectives on the Law Learning outcomes: Demonstrate an understanding of how the law affects, and is affected by, the individual course topic; Perform legal analysis in the context of the individual course topic; Communicate effectively on the legal and other aspects of the individual course topic; Demonstrate the ability to use other disciplines to analyze legal issues relevant to the individual course topic, including economics, philosophy, and sociology, as appropriate.