Morality and Law (PHIL 280)

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Instructor: Jonathan Tresan. This course meets on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 12:00 – 12:50 p.m. in Caldwell 105.

Humans formulate rules of all sorts: rules of games, sports, households, workplaces, clubs, debate, etiquette, and so on. In this course we focus on the nature of and relationship between two sorts of rules: those of law and those of morality.  Moral and legal rules are unlike other sorts of rules such as the rules of a game.  For instance, we tend to associate an authority with these rules which we don’t associate with game rules.  Punishments for violations are often far more severe.  It is easy to be free of game rules: if you choose not to play chess then the rules of chess simply don’t apply to you – not even moving chess pieces randomly around a chess board thereby counts as breaking any rules.  But whether moral or legal rules apply to you is not up to you: if you murder someone then your behavior is illegal and immoral regardless of any prior decision to play by those rules.  However, there is another way in which morality seems even more independent of us than law.  Whether slavery is legal or not is up to us in the sense that we can, by collective action, make it legal.  But although we may be able to get ourselves and others to believe that slavery is morally okay it does not seem up to us whether it really is morally okay.  In this course we will investigate these and other putative features of morality and law to achieve a deeper understanding of their nature.  We will then apply that understanding to analyze contemporary disputes about such matters as free speech, private property, affirmative action, same-sex marriage, and torture.

Jonathan Tresan’s webpage