Social & Political Philosophy

Steve Smith
Christian Center 11
Office hours & syllabus posted

Political Science 2500—POLITICAL THEORY
Peace and Justice Studies 2750-02
Spring 2014 MWF 10 Th 8

Humans are social beings: we live cooperatively, each of us depending on fellow humans to survive and to flourish. We have various, sometimes conflicting ways of doing this.

Humans are political beings: we think together about how we can best reach our goals. We have various, sometimes conflicting ways of doing this. Often our political thinking is under ethical or religious constraint.

Humans are philosophical beings: we reflect on the possibilities of life in order to understand it and explain it to each other better. We have various, sometimes rival ways of doing this.

In this course we will investigate possibilities of social living and political thinking. We will try to attend to the issues that matter the most. Our primary goals are (1) to appropriate the most powerful ideas and arguments in the Western tradition of social and political philosophy, and (2) to strengthen our capacities of reflection and communication.

Grades for the course will be based on class participation (15%), a philosophical notebook (25%), a project (20%), a take-home midterm exam (20%), and a take-home final exam (20%).

Readings will be assigned in this book, available in the Millsaps bookstore:

E. Smith & H. G. Blocker, eds., Applied Social & Political Philosophy (ASPP)

Readings will also be assigned in handouts. Assignments will be made in class. Often important class information will be sent by e-mail.

(subject to revision by announcement)

Week of
Jan. 13 Introduction to the course. Constraints and goals of social and political theory.
READ: Malthus handout; E. O. Wilson, Sociobiology handout
Jan. 20 MARTIN LUTHER KING DAY. Classics of Western political theory: Plato’s Republic.
READ: Plato in ASPP 3-24, 24-34
Jan. 27 Aristotle on justice. Augustine on the two cities.
READ: Aristotle in ASPP; Augustine, City of God handout
Feb. 3 Natural law. Social contract.
READ: Aquinas in ASPP; Hobbes in ASPP
Feb. 10 Social contract, cont.
READ: Hobbes & Locke in ASPP; Rousseau in ASPP.
DUNBAR LECTURE: Colin McGinn 2/10 7:00 p.m. AC 215
Feb. 17 Responses to the French Revolution.
READ: Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens in ASPP; Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France handout; Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman handout
Feb. 24 The utilitarian and liberal traditions.
READ: Bentham in ASPP; Mill in ASPP 115-128
Mar. 3 Utilitarianism & liberalism, cont. Philosophy of history.
READ: Mill in ASPP 128-140; Kant, “Idea for a Universal History” handout.
Mar. 17 Philosophy of history, cont. Socialism.
READ: Marx on alienated labor, Communist Manifesto in ASPP; Engels in ASPP
Mar. 24 Feminist critique of Marxism. Responses to 20th century disasters.
READ: Firestone, Dialectic of Sex handout; Simone Weil, The Need for Roots handout
Mar. 31 Responses to 20th C. disasters cont. Rawls’ update of social contract theory and liberalism.
READ: Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism handout; Rawls in ASPP
Apr. 7 Rawls, cont. Nozick’s Lockean entitlement theory.
READ: Rawls in ASPP; Nozick in ASPP
Apr. 14. Race as a social & political issue. Rights.
READ: Alain Locke and Frantz Fanon handouts; Universal Declaration of Human Rights in ASPP
Apr. 21 Rights, cont.
READ: Bentham & Feinberg on animal rights in ASPP; Stone in ASPP
Apr. 28-29 NO CLASS (Instructor out of town)



For your course notebook, a loose-leaf binder is recommended. This will make it easier to hand in and take back your entries, and also to keep handouts together.

Once a week, usually on Wednesday, you will turn in the latest entry in your philosophical notebook—about 500 words or 2 pp. if typed double-space—in which you discuss the week’s work (readings and discussions) both positively and negatively.

Positively, you will attempt to draw out of the week’s work the elements that you most want to include in your own philosophical toolkit—ideas and arguments that are, you think, valid and worth using in the future. You are encouraged to develop ideas and arguments in ways that suit your own purposes.

Negatively, you will attempt to identify the mistakes or otherwise unhelpful elements in the week’s work. (You are not committing yourself to rejecting anything! You can change your mind later!)

The philosophical notebook for this class is an important learning tool that will enable you to keep track of what we come up with in a cumulative way. It will also prompt useful communication with the instructor and other class members.

Individual notebook entries and responses will be graded unsatisfactory (-), satisfactory (\/), or very good (+) depending on the attentiveness and thoughtfulness they show. The notebook as a whole will get a letter grade.


For your major project, a 7-8 pp. paper (typed, double-spaced), you will tackle a social and/or political issue on the basis of a philosophical rationale. In this paper you are expected to:

1. Introduce your reader to a significant, philosophically interesting issue. Show how the issue is located in (a) a real-life practical context (for example, it’s a policy issue that an institutional agency could act on), and (b) an intellectual history (for example, it’s an issue for liberalism that J. S. Mill failed to resolve in On Liberty).

2. Develop a philosophical strategy for resolving it. To do this, you must (a) identify the key basic social and political assumptions on which your issue hinges, and (b) adequately explain and justify a way of supporting, modifying, or rejecting those assumptions, leading to a better-justified way of thinking about the issue.

3. Defend your position against at least one substantial objection to it. State the objection as potently as possible; answer it as reasonably as possible.

You will consult with the instructor about your topic and approach before you write the paper. This process will begin with a 1-page prospectus for the paper that you turn in by February 28 at the latest. (The prospectus is a microcosm of the paper you might write; it tells enough about your issue and proposed approach that a reader can give you substantial advice on your project.) You can turn in a prospectus earlier, and you can change your plans later; in fact, we can communicate about this project through most of the semester. A challenge we will try to meet together is to look ahead in the semester well enough that you don’t overlook newer materials and issues in deciding what to write about.

Our experience in class will make it increasingly clear what a good topic and good philosophical approach would look like.

Be socially and politically sensitive; think carefully, yet boldly; have fun. You will have an opportunity to rewrite.


1. Class attendance. Being in class, being engaged with the work of the class, and behaving courteously are all expected. One discourtesy to avoid is coming into class late. Better late than never, definitely; but lateness counts as half an absence—that is, your work with the class that day will be counted as only half done. One percent of the course grade will be lost for each absence from class for any reason, beginning with the fourth absence. (For example, someone who missed class 8 times would lose 5% of the course grade, or half a letter grade.) The reason for this: our in-class work is a crucial and irreplaceable part of the substance of the course.

2. Electronic communication devices (phones, laptops, etc.). Electronic devices have become harmful Interrupters and Distracters in the current state of our social evolution. But they can also give helpful access to information during class discussion. While in class, be careful to use such a device only in a helpful way. If you have special needs, discuss with me.

3. Late papers. Written assignments turned in late will lose a letter grade or equivalent. Homework may not be turned in more than one week after its due date. No work of any kind will be accepted after the last day of final examinations. Exceptions to this policy will be granted only to the victims of unforeseeable and uncontrollable circumstances.

4. As a general rule, no e-mail submissions. Unless the instructor allows it under specified circumstances, e-mail submissions of assigned writing are not accepted.

5. Plagiarism. Using the words or ideas of others without acknowledgment—that is, passing them off as your own—is a fraudulent practice called plagiarism. It also misses one of the main points of being in college, which is to develop your powers of thought and expression. Plagiarism is an offense under the Academic Honor Code (see next page).

6. Incompletes. An “Incomplete” grade for the course will only be given to students who, due to unforeseen and uncontrollable circumstances, find themselves unable to complete course requirements during the term and can reasonably be expected to complete them within a few weeks after the term’s end. The “Incomplete” must be requested and appropriately justified before the end of final examinations.

7. Disabilities. Students with documented disabilities should discuss their needs with the instructor at the beginning of the semester.
From the ODS: If you have any needs or require accommodations related to a disability or learning difference, please contact Patrick Cooper to register with the Office of Disability Services. You can reach him via e-mail at or by calling extension 1228. Accommodations will not be granted until a meeting has taken place with Patrick and letters have been received by your instructor.