Political philosophy, Fall 2020

If you are a student in the class, please go to this page for links to the readings and additional information.


A survey of important issues in contemporary political philosophy, with a particular focus on the questions of social justice and political legitimacy.

What is the reason for or purpose of political authority? How should a just society be organized? Should its decisions follow certain procedures? Should it display particular patterns and outcomes? How should we reach important social and political decisions for them to be (and not just appear) legitimate? Is the majority always right? Should we elect representatives or practice a more direct form of democracy? What are the rights of minorities?

In 2020 we will pay special attention in the last stretch of the class to democracy, civil disobedience, dissent and protest.


Thursday Sep 3


Tuesday Sep 8

The Hobbesian state

Thursday Sep 10

The Utilitarian state

Tuesday Sep 15

The libertarian minimal state

Thursday Sep 17

The Rawlsian state

Tuesday Sep 22

Rawls on justice: the two principles

Thursday Sep 24

Rawls on justice: the argument from the original position: risk aversion

Tuesday Sep 29

Rawls on justice: the argument from the original position: publicity, reciprocity and stability

Thursday Oct 1

The libertarian challenge

Tuesday Oct 6

Responding to the libertarian challenge: how much to socialize?

Thursday Oct 8

How to spend it? A capabilities approach.

Tuesday Oct 13

How to spend it? Liberal neutrality and universal basic income.

Thursday Oct 15

Discussion and student presentations

Tuesday Oct 20

Market troubles

Thursday Oct 22

Beyond the labor market?

Tuesday Oct 27

Beyond the market? A socialist proposal.

Thursday Oct 29

Discussion and student presentations

Tuesday Nov 3

Too little concern for social relations?

Thursday Nov 5

Against oppression

Tuesday Nov 10

The limits of recognition

Thursday Nov 12

Discussion and student presentations

Tuesday Nov 17

Why democracy?

Thursday Nov 19

Troubles with democracy

Tuesday Nov 24

Institutions for participation

Friday Nov 27

Final project

Tuesday Dec 1

Discussion and student presentations

Thursday Dec 3

Civil disobedience

Tuesday Dec 8

Dissent and protest

Thursday Dec 10

Discussion and student presentations

Tuesday Dec 15

Discussion and student presentations

Book review

Thursday Dec 17

Final paper


Participation (10%)

Participation grades will reflect

The last two components are, in and of themselves, optional. Talking in class is strongly encouraged and rewarded because it is the best way to have an inclusive conversation with the whole group. Chat and forum participation are optional but can lift your participation grade.

Point groups and response papers (twice 5% + 15%)

Part of the group work to prepare for two sessions (one before Oct 12 and another after).

Two-to-three-page response papers should articulate

When a session features more than one text to read, you are free to concentrate your response paper on one of them.

Grades will also reflect the in-class conversation (5%).

You can register for a third session if you wish. Only the best two grades will count.

Book review (5% + 20%)

Students will choose a book of (mostly very recent) political philosophy to read among a list of books relevant to different parts of the class (see below).

They will explain the key novel points to the class on the pertinent “Discussion and student presentations” session, discuss what the author has to say about them, and answer questions from the group (for about 20 minutes).

By the end of the semester, students will submit a five-page book review. Reviews should present the books, explain the thoughts of the author, and engage in some critical discussions of some of the points made.

Final project and paper (25%)

Students will choose a philosophical topic about which to write their final paper and submit a one-page proposal (not graded) with their research question, proposed thesis, and proposed list of sources.

Student will write their ten-page final paper with the help of my comments on their project.

Projects can fall into two main categories:

Students are invited to run any creative idea by me.

The need for outside sources depends on the nature of the project. As a rule, they will be more important for the second kind of project than for the first.

The only formal constraints on the final paper is that it has to allow for and to facilitate dialogue between competing points of views. For example, students who find it easier to adopt this dialectical mode of thinking if they write an actual dialogue between two characters are welcome to do that.

List of books for reviews

Links to be added.

For October 15 — on justice

Edmundson, William A. (2017) John Rawls: Reticent Socialist, Cambridge University Press (NYU access)

Moller, Dan (2019) Governing Least: A New England Libertarianism, Oxford University Press (NYU access)

For October 29 — on markets

Anderson, Elizabeth (2017) Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It), Princeton University Press (NYU access)

Azmanova, Albena (2020) Capitalism on Edge: How Fighting Precarity Can Achieve Radical Change Without Crisis or Utopia, Columbia Univeristy Press

Reiff, Mark R. (2020) In the Name of Liberty: The Argument for Universal Unionization, Cambridge University Press

Thomas, Alan (2016) Republic of Equals: Predistribution and Property-Owning Democracy, Oxford University Press

For November 12 — on recognition, oppression and relational equality

Alcoff, Linda Martín (2006) Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self, Oxford University Press

Appiah, Kwame Anthony (2018) The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity: Creed, Country, Color, Class, Culture, Liveright Publishing

Khader, Serene J. (2019) Decolonizing Universalism: A Transnational Feminist Ethic, Oxford University Press

For December 1 — on democracy

Green, Jeffrey Edward (2016) The shadow of unfairness: A plebeian theory of liberal democracy, Oxford University Press

Kim Sungmoon (2018) Democracy after Virtue: Toward Pragmatic Confucian Democracy, Oxford University Press

Landemore, Hélène (2020) Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the Twenty-First Century, Princeton University Press

Talisse, Robert (2019) Overdoing Democracy: Why We Must Put Politics in its Place, Oxford University Press

For December 10 — on dissent, disobedience, protest and rebellion

Brennan, Jason (2018) When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice, Princeton University Press

Delmas, Candice (2018) A Duty to Resist: When Disobedience should be Uncivil, Oxford University Press

Harcourt, Bernard E. (2015) Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age, Harvard University Press

Shelby, Tommie (2016) Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform, Cambridge University Press