Fall 2016

Political Obligations

Listed in: Political Science, as POSC-153

Formerly listed as: POSC-12  |  POSC-23


Hadley P. Arkes (Section 01)


[PT] The mark of the polity, or the political order, has always been the presence of “law”--the capacity to make decisions that are binding, or obligatory, for everyone within the territory. The roots of obligation and law are the same: “ligare,” to bind. When the law imposes a decision, it restricts personal freedom and displaces “private choice” in favor of a public obligation, an obligation applied uniformly or universally. The law may commit us then on matters that run counter even to our own convictions, strongly held, about the things that are right or wrong, and even on matters of our private lives. The law may forbid people to discriminate on grounds of race even in their private businesses; the law may forbid abortions or, on the other hand, the law may compel the funding of abortions even by people who find them abhorrent. This state of affairs, this logic of the law, has always called out for justification, and in facing that question, we are led back to the original understanding of the connection between morality and law. The law can justify itself only if it can establish, as its ground, propositions about the things that are in principle right or wrong, just or unjust--which is to say, right or wrong, just or unjust, for others as well as ourselves. The questions of law and obligation then must point to the questions at the root of moral philosophy: What is the nature of the good or the just, and the grounds on which we may claim to “know” moral truths?

The course will proceed through a series of cases after it returns to the beginning of political philosophy and lays the groundwork for the argument. We will begin with Aristotle on the polis, and the debate between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas on “natural rights.” We will draw on Kant and Hume, on Thomas Reid and Bertrand Russell, as we seek to set the groundwork in place. The argument of the course will then be unfolded further, and tested, through a train of cases and problems: conscientious objection, the war in Vietnam, the obligation to rescue, the claims of privacy. And the culmination will come on the issues of abortion, euthanasia, and assisted suicide.

Limited to 25 students.  Fall semester. Professor Emeritus Arkes.

If Overenrolled: Priority given to Political Science majors.


Attention to Writing


2017-18: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2008, Spring 2009, Fall 2010, Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2014, Fall 2016