Morality and Law (PHIL 280.001)

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Instructor: Iskra Fileva. This class meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 12:30 – 1:45 p.m. in Caldwell 105.

Human action is governed by various kinds of norms. Some of these norms are moral (“You ought not to lie”), others – legal (“You must not to commit perjury”), yet others are a matter of social conventions (“Whenever you go to a birthday party, you should bring a gift”), or rules of etiquette (“When you talk to someone at a party, you have to be polite, you cannot say things like, ‘I think you are a really boring person.’”). Legal norms are unique in that they but not other norms are backed by State power. While non-legal norms are enforced through informal mechanisms such as social pressure, legal norms are enforced by legal officials who have the power to deprive people of their freedom. Thus, if you are impolite, for instance, you will earn bad reputation – acquaintances may not invite you to parties and may refuse to socialize with you – but you won’t get arrested or serve jail time for being impolite. If you commit perjury, on the other hand, you can go to prison. It appears, then, that legal norms are of particular import to us – they matter so much that we impose very serious penalties on violators, and we employ the coercive power of the State in order to ensure compliance. But what are legal norms and why should we obey them? Do they derive their authority from the authority of the legislator or does legal validity have some other source? Should we obey every law, regardless of what it demands of us, or should we obey only the laws we consider just? Should a judge enforce every law or only the laws he or she considers just? Should, for instance, an abolitionist judge enforce the Fugitive Slave Act? Should a lawyer who knows that his client is guilty and an innocent man is about to be convicted break the rule which obliges lawyers to protect their clients’ interests in order to prevent the wrongful incarceration of an innocent man?

These are some of the questions we will discuss in this course. In seeking answers to them, we will draw on the work of some of the best legal scholars, from H.L.A. Hart and Ronald Dworkin to Scott Shapiro and Brian Leiter.

Iskra Fileva’s webpage