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Instructor: Erik Zhang. This course meets MWF 12:20 – 1:10 p.m. in DE 305.

This course provides an introduction to some of the central issues and debates in philosophy of law.  We will focus on questions in both analytical jurisprudence — What is the nature, ground, and force of law? — as well as normative jurisprudence — What should the law be in this or that area? The course is divided into three main parts, covering respectively philosophical issues that arise in constitutional law, criminal law, and the institution of law as a whole.

In the first part of the course, we will investigate questions such as:

  • What justification can we provide for a broad right to free speech?
  • Should hate speech receive First Amendment protection?
  • Is the “diversity interest” rationale, adopted by the US Supreme Court, an adequate defense of affirmative action policies in education?
  • Is moral disapproval a legitimate interest of the state in crafting its laws?
  • Which method of constitutional interpretation should judges adopt?

In the second part of the course, we will shift our focus from constitutional law to criminal law. Some of the key questions we will examine include:

  • Is it justifiable to punish the guilty?
  • What is the moral status of law enforcement in an unjust society?
  • How should we respond to the reality of mass incarceration in the US?
  • Is it permissible to punish a successful murder more severely than an attempted murder, if the attempt failed merely by chance?
  • Is it morally okay to punish a person before she commits any crime?

Finally, in Part 3, we will delve into two issues that sit at the foundation of philosophy of law:

  • What exactly makes something law (as opposed to a mere rule or custom)?
  • What bearing does the fact that something is law have on our attitudes and conduct (do we always have reason to follow the law)?


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