Introduction to Political Theory

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The course deals with a few of the most fundamental problems of contemporary political philosophy. First among these is the ground and scope of the authority of states to rule, and of the obligation of their citizens to comply with their directives. 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. Within this thematic block, we conclude by discussion justified exceptions from the duty to obey, including civil disobedience and conscientious objection. We also explore whether disobedience must be “civil” or if sometimes “uncivil” disobedience may also be morally acceptable. The second thematic block explores 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 instrumental and non-instrumental justifications of democracy, as well as elitist critiques of democracy. The third block will attend to the problem of distributive justice: are material inequalities between citizens unjust, and if so, under what circumstances? Which inequalitiesare 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, aswell as their feminist critiques. Fourth, we explore the requirements of justice in the cultural domain, and in particular in the context of culturally diverse societies. We discuss liberal multiculturalism and its critiques. Finally, we tend to questionsof political theory that stretch the confines of the nation state. For example: do states have a general discretionary right to exclude noncitizens who seek admission to their territory? Alternatively, do people have a general right to enter and settle inthe territory of the country of their choice? Is the organization of the world’s population into separate states with mutually exclusive territorial jurisdiction justified? Or do we have moral reasons to prefer a world state or some other alternative arrangementinstead?

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