What is the purpose of government? Why should we have a State? What kind of State should we have?
Even within a political community, there may be sharp
disagreements about the role and purpose of government. Some want an active, involved
government, seeing legal and political institutions as the means to solve our
most pressing problems, and to help bring about peace, equality, justice, happiness,
and to protect individual liberty. Others
want a more minimal government, motivated, perhaps, by some of the disastrous
political experiments of the 20th Century, and the thought that
political power is often just a step away from tyranny. In many cases, these disagreements
arise out of deep philosophical disagreements.
All political and legal institutions are built on
foundational ideas. In this
course, we will explore those ideas, taking the political institutions and
political systems around us not as fixed and unquestionable, but as things to
evaluate and, if necessary, to change.
We will consider the ideas and arguments of some of the world’s most
celebrated philosophers, including historical thinkers such as Plato,
Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Mary Wollstonecraft, José
Martí, and John Stuart Mill; and more contemporary theorists such as Kwame Anthony Appiah, Linda Bosniak, Joseph Carens,
G.A. Cohen, Angela Davis, Ronald Dworkin, David Estlund, Frantz Fanon, John
Finnis, Lani Guinier, H.L.A. Hart, Robert Nozick, Martha Nussbaum, Julius Nyerere,
Ayn Rand, John Rawls, Chin Liew Ten, and Jeremy Waldron.
The aim of the course is not to convince you of the
correctness of any particular view or political position, but to provide you
with a deeper and more philosophically-informed basis for your own views, and,
perhaps, to help you better understand the views of those with whom you
We will begin by thinking about four core values, values
that we either want our political institutions to respect or to help us bring
about: happiness, Justice, equality, and freedom. We will consider
these values—and the relations between them—in thinking about the question: Why
should we have a State? We will
then consider four more questions, with a unit of the course structured around
Module One: Why should
we have a State? Happiness and Justice
Happiness: Many have suggested that the role of the State is to
promote peace, stability, and human flourishing—in short, to bring about
various kinds of good consequences.
We’ll consider some questions about this kind of view. Should we use an objective measure of
happiness or utility, or a subjective measure, based on what people think is good for them
or makes them happy? What is the
relationship between happiness and economic activity? How can States promote happiness or individual welfare? What should the State’s role be in structuring
economic activity? In solving
‘collective action’ problems? Are
States good at promoting domestic and international peace? If one role for the State is to prevent
people from harming each other, how should we define harm? How does concern about happiness and
flourishing differ if there is disagreement within the political community
about what is worthwhile?
Justice: One role offered for the State is in helping to bring about justice. What does justice require? Is justice about matching merit and effort with reward? About making sure the good prosper and the bad suffer? About making sure that all have enough before some have a lot? What role does or should the State play in all of this?
Module Two: Why should
we have a State? Equality and Freedom
Equality: Many suggest that a fundamental concern for the State is to both promote and abide by the value of equality. Some questions we’ll consider: Should we care about procedural equality (equal treatment under the law and equal say in creating law) or substantive equality (equal distribution of resources, equal access to health care, etc.), or both? Should our focus be on equality of opportunity? Why should we care about equality? What should we be trying to “equalize,” if anything? What can we make equal? In what sense are all people created equal? What role does or should the State play in promoting equality?
Freedom: A final role offered for the State is helping to ensure or
bring about freedom (autonomy, liberty, non-domination). Is freedom just freedom from external
restraint—not being put in prison or in chains? Or does freedom require various support, too, so that one is
not free to choose one’s occupation if, say, certain educational opportunities
are blocked for that person? What
kinds of freedom are important and valuable, and why? Should we care about freedom of individuals only, or also
freedom of communities? What role
does or should the State play in promoting freedom? How does the State threaten freedom?
Module Three: Should
our State have borders?
What is the appropriate size and
basis of political community?
Should we be in a political community together because we share a
geographic region, a religion, a cultural tradition, a set of values, a
planet? Should we be allowed to
change or to choose what political community we are a part of? If so, how easily? Should we have open borders? What is the value of political
community? What is the
relationship between community and autonomy? Who should have a say in how the community is governed?
Module Four: Should we
have an electoral representative democracy?
Should we create laws through representatives,
rather than directly? If so,
why? How should representatives
decide what to do once they are in office? Should they do what we want, just looking at polls of their
constituents; or should they do what they think is best? Should just one person represent a
particular district or should we have multi-member districts? Should representatives be elected, or
randomly selected through a lottery?
If we have elections, how should they be structured and
regulated? How frequent should
they be? Should we have term
limits? Should we regulate how
much candidates can spend or what people can say during the electoral
process? Should all of our votes
count equally, or is it acceptable for some to count more because they
represent a distinctive, underrepresented, or better educated voice? Should voting be legally required? As a voter, should I vote for what (or
whom) I think would be best for me, or best for the country, or best for the
Module Five: Should our
State have a constitution?
Should we have a Constitution? If so, why? What kinds of things should be in it? How should it be created? How should future generations use it
and interpret it? How hard should
it be to amend it? If we have a
‘higher’ law such as a Constitution, who should be in charge of interpreting it
and making sure its values and limits are honored and respected? Should it be an unelected court, like
the United States Supreme Court?
Or should it be elected officials?
Should judges be elected or appointed? For how long should judges serve?
Module Six: Should our
State have prisons?
What should happen to people who
break the law? Should we punish
people? How? Why? How much? What
do a practices of punishment reveal about our moral views of people? Are those views plausible? Problematic? Should we be troubled if a disproportionate number of people
who are punished are of a certain race, economic class, or mental health
status? What is the point of putting
people in prison? What are
alternatives to incarceration?