The philosophy courses I teach on a semi-regular basis include Philosophy and the Criminal Law, Ethics and International Affairs, and an advanced under-graduate course in Philosophy of Law.  For the PPEL Program, I have taught two different Senior Capstone Seminars, one on the ethics, economics, and politics of the Second Machine Age, and one on normative theory and international law.  Many years ago I also taught the gateway course to the major, which focused on climate change.

I am constantly updating my syllabi, so please let me know if there’s a topic, text, podcast, etc., that would make one of these classes even better.

Pragmatist Contributions to Legal and Political Philosophy (Fall 2023)

Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition that originated in the United States in the early 20th century, and that remains vibrant today.  Though originally focused on general questions of knowledge, truth, and meaning, every “generation” of Pragmatist philosophers has also made important contributions to political and legal philosophy.  These will be the focus of the course.  With respect to politics, we will examine Pragmatist contributions to the contest between universal and communitarian conceptions of justice, and the related dispute over the respective roles that reason and sympathy (should) play in political argument.  We will also examine intra-Pragmatist debates regarding the justification of democracy, focusing in particular on the implications that competing accounts of democracy’s value have for the design of political institutions and the scope of their authority.  With respect to law, we will consider Pragmatist contributions to debates over its nature and normativity, as well as competing Pragmatist accounts of legal reasoning and adjudication.  Among the questions we will consider are: What makes a practice a legal one?  How does law contribute to the production of social order?  What sort of reasoning should a judge (or an ordinary citizen) use to identify legal rights or obligations?  What are the success conditions for an assertion of law – what makes the claim ‘I have a legal right to X’ true or justified?

To download a copy of the syllabus, click here.

The Ethics, Economics, and Politics of the Second Machine Age (Spring 2022)

In this course we will spend most of the semester exploring normative questions posed by the accelerating development of the Second Machine Age – an era in which cognitive tasks formerly performed by human beings are performed by digital computers.

Our first unit will focus on bias, fairness, and discrimination in algorithmic scoring and decision-making.  How should we understand each of these concepts in the context of designing algorithms?  What sort of tradeoffs between fairness and accuracy (i.e. efficiency) should we permit or forbid?  What steps should we take to protect people from algorithmic discrimination?  In particular, does existing U.S. anti-discrimination law suffice to protect against the creation and use of unjust classifications, or do we need to reform it – and if so, how?

Privacy and manipulation will be the subject of our second unit.  What sort of actions count as violations of privacy?  Why and when should we value privacy?  How should we settle conflicts between privacy and other values, such as efficiency and security?  What are the pros and cons of different approaches to protecting privacy?  And finally, when do attempts at influencing our conduct that rely on new forms of information gathering and processing count as manipulative?

Our third and final unit will consider the economic consequences of the Second Machine Age – and some of the potential political consequences that may follow.  We will largely focus on the impact that new information and communication technologies (ICT) are having or will soon have on employment.  What sort of policy responses should we adopt?  Should we implement a universal basic income?  Or various “pro work” policies?  Should these policies include guaranteed employment by the state for those who cannot find employment in the private sector?  How might the employment effects of new ICT shape electoral politics in democracies?  What about in developing countries, where labor intensive manufacturing has provided a path out of poverty for hundreds of millions?

To download a copy of the syllabus, click here.

Philosophy and the Criminal Law (Fall 2021)

This course will address three philosophical questions raised by the criminal law.

  • First, what justifies legal punishment? The answers we will consider include giving wrongdoers what they deserve and deterring future crime.  Our investigation will focus largely, though not exclusively, on the moral justifiability of the death penalty.
  • Second, what makes someone liable to legal punishment? What must a person do to count as attempting a crime?  Should those who successfully commit a murder be punished more than those who attempt to do so, but who fail due to factors outside their control?
  • Finally, what if anything justifies requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt for a criminal conviction?

In addition, we will examine the charge that criminal law practices in the United States contribute to, and are also a product of, race- and class-based injustice, and what follows for practices such as jury nullification and stop-and-frisk policing if that charge is true.

To download a copy of the syllabus, click here.

Philosophy of Law (Fall 2021)

This course covers four topics in the philosophy of law.  We begin with the question “what is law?” which as we will see is actually a set of questions.  These include: what distinguishes law from other things in the world, and in particular from things like morality, etiquette, religious customs, or mafia threats?  What relation(s), if any, are there between morality and law?  How do, or should, we identify the laws of a particular legal order?  And what accounts for law’s normativity, it’s capacity to provide reasons for belief or action?  We will explore competing answers to these questions by tracing the debates among several of the most prominent legal theorists of the 20th century.

Under what conditions, if any, do legal subjects have a moral duty to obey the law?  That is the second topic we will investigate this semester.  Among the possible grounds for a duty to obey the law we will consider are consent, the principle of fair-play, associative duties of common citizenship, and law’s instrumental contribution to improving our (moral) reasoning.  We will also examine the moral justifiability of civil disobedience.  Can we reconcile a moral right to engage in civil disobedience with a moral duty to obey the law?  Is the state morally permitted to punish those who engage in civil disobedience?  Must principled disobedience to law always be civil, or is rioting sometimes a morally appropriate response?

Of course, before we can obey the law we must first identify what it requires of us.  In some (or perhaps all) cases this means interpreting legal norms – e.g., those contained in Title 18.2 of the Virginia Code, Crimes and Offenses Generally, or the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – and applying it to the case at hand.  How should we do so?  We will examine a variety of answers to that question.  We will also consider whether judges should have the final say on what the law is, as is broadly true in the United States, or whether the final say should rest instead with democratically elected legislators, or perhaps the people themselves.

We will end the semester by considering one or two questions of legal epistemology.  The first concerns the seemingly widespread intuition that it would be wrong to convict a person for a crime, or to hold them accountable in a civil lawsuit, solely on the basis of statistical evidence.  If statistical evidence can warrant more confidence that a person was at fault than do some forms of individualized evidence that we are willing to accept, such as eye-witness testimony, why should we hesitate to find against a defendant on the basis of statistical evidence?  The second question concerns the justifiability of the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard for a criminal conviction.  How should we understand that standard, and why think it is the correct one to employ in criminal trials?

To download a copy of the syllabus, click here.

Normative Theory and International Law (Fall 2019)

This course will begin with a relatively brief discussion of (international) law’s normativity – the kind of reason(s)for action law provides, or put another way, how law contributes to the production of social order. We will then spend most of the remainder of the semester exploring normative questions that arise in the following three areas of international law: (1) international trade law (e.g. what norms ought to regulate international trade, and the resolution of trade disputes?); (2) international refugee law (e.g. who counts as a refugee? How should duties to refugees be fulfilled, and by whom?); and (3) the law of war (e.g. should the law of war mirror or deviate in certain respects from the morality of war?).

To download a copy of the syllabus, click here.

Ethics and International Affairs (Spring 2019)

This course will focus on ethical issues raised by war, international economic inequality, and international migration. After addressing two types of skepticism regarding the possibility of ethics in international affairs, we will consider the following questions:

  • War: When is resort to war morally justifiable? What makes some people, but not others, morally liable to attack in time of war? What, if anything, justifies so-called collateral damage? Is the use of new technologies for waging war, including drones and autonomous weapons systems, morally defensible?
  • Global Poverty: What moral obligations, if any, do (people in) developed countries have to alleviate the poverty of those living in extreme poverty in the developing world? What is the basis of these obligations, and how should we go about fulfilling them? Is it immoral to purchase goods produced in sweatshops?
  • International Migration: Are states morally permitted to deny would-be migrants entry into their territory, or does justice require states to open their borders? If states do have a right to control who resides, works, etc., in their territory, are developed states morally permitted to recruit skilled laborers, such as doctors and nurses, from developing countries? Last but not least, what moral obligations do states and their citizens have to refugees?

To download a copy of the syllabus, click here.

Theory and Public Policy: Climate Change (Fall 2012)

This course has two primary aims: first, to introduce students to a range of different normative theories, or ways of thinking about what we ought to do, and second, to examine the use of these normative theories to derive specific policy responses to the challenges posed to humanity by anthropogenic climate change.  At the conclusion of this course, students that have made a serious effort to engage with the assignments and participated regularly in class discussions will be able to employ these normative theories to defend or criticize particular climate change policies, identify the essential differences between the normative theories considered during the semester, and explain how these differences lead those who use these theories to prescribe different policies.

To download a copy of the syllabus, click here.