Political Theory

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Course Description: 

The course deals with a few of the most fundamental problems of contemporary political philosophy, regarding the ground and scope of the authority of the state to make and enforce rules that bind its citizens. Most people agree that governments indeed have such authority, and that citizens are usually under a moral obligation to comply with the rules made by the government. However, there are deep disagreements concerning the source of this authority as well as about its proper limits: what are the goals that the government may or must rightfully pursue and by what means? Under what circumstances are its citizens exempt from the obligation to obey its laws? These are among the questions that will be examined in this course. First, we will discuss different theories of political obligation, i.e. theories about the moral basis of our obligation, if any, to comply with laws. The theories discussed will include consent theories, justice-based theories, and reciprocity-based theories. Second, we turn to the form of collective political decision-making that confers authority to the decisions of the government. Most contemporary theorists agree that only democracy possesses such authority, but they disagree about the grounds of the authority of democracy: we will explore intrinsic and instrumental justifications of democracy. Next, we will attend to the problem of distributive justice: are material inequalities between citizens unjust, and if so, under what circumstances? Which inequalities are relevant from the point of view of justice? Is the state required to pursue some profile of distribution of goods in society, and if so, what characterizes that profile? We will discuss utilitarian, egalitarian, and libertarian accounts of justice, as well as their feminist and socialist critiques. Finally, is the state permitted to endorse, encourage or enforce any particular conception of the good life, i.e. of how its citizens should lead their lives, what ideals they should pursue, etc.? Is it permitted, in particular, to enforce the ethical or cultural preferences and beliefs of the majority or of the dominant historical tradition? What rights individuals have to pursue their own conception of a worthy, fulfilling life? In this context, we will discuss liberal individualism, perfectionism, communitarianism, and multiculturalism.

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