PHIL 280.001 – Morality and Law

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Instructor: Steven Swartzer. This course meets MTWRF 1:15 – 2:45 p.m. in CW 105.

In this course we will look at the relationship between law and morality. During the first part of the course we will examine questions about the nature of law. When your community tells you that you may not leave your car parked on a city street for more than twenty-four hours or it will be impounded, this command has the force of law. But what makes this command any different from when the mafia warns that if your car is still there twenty-four hours from now it will be “impounded”? What makes the first a law and the second a mere threat? In short, what makes a law a law? Is it merely a matter of who gives the command? Or, are there some other conditions that must be satisfied (e.g. must a putative human law be sufficiently related to a natural or divine or moral law to be considered a genuine law)? We will also examine whether we have a moral obligation to obey the law. During the second half of the course we will examine the topic of punishment. Typically, it is impermissible to make bad things happen to other people. When it comes to punishment, things seem to be different—it seems morally appropriate to fine people or to throw them in jail for a period of time in response to some inappropriate action they performed. What makes it ok to do these things to these people in response to those actions? Is it because the individual somehow deserves to be treated badly because of what she did? Or, is it because treating them badly in this way would help prevent that kind of action from happening again in the future? We will also discuss questions about what the state can and cannot justifiably criminalize, as well as questions related to the influence of race, class, and gender on the current system of mass incarceration in the United States.

This course is designed for students who have an interest in ethics, political philosophy, political science, or law. Phil 280 satisfies the Philosophy Core requirement for UNC’s PPE program.