Ventures: What Is Justice?

Steven G. Smith –
Office: Christian Center 11, 601-974-1334
Office hours & syllabus posted
Home: 1611 Edgewood St, 601-354-2290

FYCS 1010-05  Fall 2015
MWF 10:30, W 1:00-4:00

Humans could not live in community without a serious shared commitment to some standards for treating people rightly and some practical procedures for preventing and repairing wrong treatment. We obviously need “justice” in some form. But it’s often hard to agree what justice consists of, given the myriad, ever-changing ways in which we interact and affect each other. Justice is a conceptual issue of huge practical importance.

Do we have to treat what justice is as an issue? Well, if you live in a small, traditionalist, nonliterate society in a remote jungle or mountain valley with no communication with the outside world, you may be able to resolve all the justice issues that come up in your life simply by following the age-old customs of your group. If you live anywhere else, though, you know too much, and you’re connected to too many categories of people (and other beings), in too dynamic a situation, for mere traditionalism to work. You need to study, reflect, and discuss.

To deal effectively with conceptual issues we must call on the discipline of philosophy. Philosophy is a way of examining in depth our assumptions about what we take to be facts and what we take to be reasonable principles. Of course, people charge around all the time believing things and asserting things without examining their assumptions. That’s why confusions and biases are perpetuated. The way of philosophy, carefully examining and testing assumptions in respectful conversation, is better.

This Ventures seminar is designed to explore a question that doesn’t have a predetermined answer. We will inform ourselves about conceptions of justice proposed in some of the world’s great intellectual traditions, and we will practice justice reasoning along some traditional lines; but then we will take up difficult new justice issues in contemporary society to learn how traditional justice notions may be applicable to them or what adjustments of our thinking they may require. If we’re serious about justice we’ll need to try to “do justice” to others, which means we’ll have to reach out into the world and learn more about who is involved in a justice issue and how—who the stakeholders are and how they see their own interests.

Our inquiry will begin with a search for a usable general definition of justice. We will review a variety of classic proposals, consider their strengths and weaknesses, and formulate some promising standards for justice thinking in the contemporary world. Our first test of justice standards will involve questions about the treatment of individuals in a state—for example, whether there is a justifiable form of the death penalty. Then we will explore justice issues where it is generally recognized that the interests of individuals are inseparable from the interests of groups. In light of arguments for reparations for slavery in the American context, what constitutes racial justice? In light of arguments for full access of non-heterosexual and transgender people to social privileges such as marriage and service in the armed forces, what is sexual justice? Considering arguments for animal rights or saving the planet from global warming, what is interspecies justice?

In each cycle of our inquiry you will collaborate intensively with several other students in a Justice squad. The group will hammer out criteria for a reasonable resolution of a justice issue—at first, for a general conception of justice, and then for the specific contemporary issues we look at. These criteria will include knowledge and “due diligence” requirements—what must we be informed about, who must we have heard from, to arrive at a reasonable position on this issue? There will be a group-endorsed document setting forth these criteria. You will then present in writing and in oral summary your own resolution of justice issues in dialogue with your group’s criteria.

We’ll see how far we can get in one semester with this ambitious agenda.

Courses explore a problem or tightly-focused set of problems. Students investigate relevant issues from multiple perspectives and propose possibilities for resolution. The students engage in project-based work, collaborative learning, creative risk-taking, and adaptive strategies for problem-solving. Course topics will be diverse and from a variety of disciplines. (4 semester hours)

Aims of the course:
1. Use discipline-based problem-solving tools to identify, define and analyze a problem, and develop creative strategies for solving and coping with it.
2. Gather information from a variety of sources and consider multiple perspectives to identify criteria, analyze problems and evaluate potential solutions.
3. Reflect on the efficacy of proposed solutions to problems, revising strategies and conclusions as new information is gathered and analyzed.
4. Collaborate with others to achieve a common goal related to the problem they are studying.

REQUIRED TEXT available in the Millsaps College Bookstore

Robert C. Solomon & Mark C. Murphy, eds., What Is Justice? Classic & Contemporary Readings [WIJ], 2nd ed., Oxford U. Press



Short writings (homework)  20%

4 Justice papers  60%

Contributions to group work  10%

Oral performance  10%



  1. Seminar discussion; preparation

You are assigned to participate in 16 weeks’ worth of Seminar Meetings, with an allowance of four free absences for being sick, on a sports trip, etc.  If you fall short of meeting this assignment due to uncontrollable circumstances, I can give you substitute work in the form of writing assignments, but not to offset more than four excess absences. Past that point, let’s face it, you just aren’t as much a member of this seminar.

Seminar work is participatory by definition. Knowledge is created by the group. You’re a member of this group. We need you to question, debate, empathize, and counter-propose. It will be your responsibility to prepare for seminar meetings by reading the appropriate material and thinking and writing about it so as to be able to participate fully in each day’s discussion. (Some of our reading will be quite challenging, but you’ll get it in manageable doses.)

We’ll also take up together the very different challenge of identifying and interviewing some of the actual stakeholders in justice issues. Thus our course combines the armchair work of clarifying concepts and arguments with some fieldwork to hear from those whose voices should be heard.

  1. Oral presentations

From time to time students will be asked to make brief discussion-starter presentations based on assigned readings or brief oral presentations of work in progress. The benefit of these exercises is to gain comfort and fluency in public speaking—a major challenge for many of us but an important capacity for anyone, don’t underestimate it!—and to practice using judgment in choosing and organizing points to present.


  1. Writing

The most important writing you do in this course could turn out to be your personal journal which no one else directly sees. Even if you don’t think you’re the journaling type, I urge you to make a constant practice of writing down your thoughts and indicating your reactions to facts and ideas that come up in our course, since this will give you resources to draw on for all your coursework. In addition, I’ll give you short out-of-class and in-class writing assignments from time to time to give you more practice in thinking and writing and to rev everyone up for a discussion with a certain focus. The point is: keep track of new data and build your insights. You can’t keep track or build if you don’t write. To paraphrase Deuteronomy 30:19, I am setting before you today two ways, one which leads to Learning, the other to Forgetting and Time Wasted: choose Learning.

You’ll also write several papers presenting your own positions on justice issues, in the following format:

The Justice paper (ca. 1000 words, i.e. 3-4 pp.). This is a relatively formal work of analysis and argument. It is a position paper, but not as just one side of a point-counterpoint type of debate; rather it is a philosophical report on what you have found to be the most important considerations and the most telling arguments for working out a position on a difficult justice issue. A good philosophical paper represents the whole discussion, as best it can within its space limitations; and in our class we will be particularly interested in representing people who have various life-stakes in the issues we discuss. Ultimately, of course, your paper represents you, your own judgment—but that judgment should be reasonable. Thus you should lay out the relevant principles and facts as clearly and fairly as you can, mindful of the other folks you’re sharing the world with. We’ll be working on reasonable argumentation all semester.

In evaluating your papers I’ll focus on how you present your main idea, how you organize the paper, the style and voice of your presentation, how you use evidence and documentation to support your ideas (when appropriate), how carefully and deeply you analyze, and how carefully you handle punctuation, spelling and proofreading. The complexity of your thinking is of prime importance. Complex thinking is often termed “critical thinking,” which in this context does not mean rejecting something but rather means taking full advantage of opportunities for thoughtful assessment. Critical thinking incorporates multiple points of view, addresses problems which may have no neat and simple answers, recognizes ambiguity, and traces connections that may not have been obvious. Critical thinkers can question their own assumptions and are able to be self-assessors.

Your papers should be typed on a word-processing system (if you don’t have a computer or word-processor of your own, you should use the campus computer labs), double-spaced, in Times New Roman with a font size of 12, one inch margins, and numbered pages (beginning with the first page of the text). At the top of page 1 of each paper should be the title of the paper, your name, the name and section of the class, the date of submission, and your honor pledge: “I hereby certify that I have neither given nor received unauthorized aid on this assignment [Signature].” The abbreviation “Pledged” followed by your signature has the same meaning and is acceptable on written assignments for this course.

Make sure now that you have a reliable means of backing up your work electronically and printing it out for timely submission. Do back up your work, and do get it in by deadlines. Don’t tell anyone who has given you an assignment that the computer ate your homework. You are graded by your achievement.

Any specific ideas or phrases that you take from a published source should be documented with parenthetical notes and a Works Cited page (consult EasyWriter and the Honor Code). Citations and bibliographies should be in the MLA (Modern Language Association) format.

You can choose any of your Justice papers in this course for inclusion in your Writing Portfolio. One paper from this course must be included.



All students are strongly encouraged to visit the Writing Center, which is staffed by student Writing Consultants who are trained to help you grow as writers. Writing Consultants work with all writers, at all skill levels, and in all stages of the writing process. A writing consultation is essentially a conversation that challenges you to think deeply about your writing process, your ideas, the structure of your argument, and the organization of your essay. These conversations are most useful to students 48 hours or more in advance of a due date. Visit for more information about hours, locations, and upcoming events.

Here is what letter grades generally mean at Millsaps:

A means you have produced a paper exemplary in almost every way. You have presented your thesis coherently, you have organized your thoughts effectively, and you have supported your interpretations meticulously. An A paper is also one that is excellent in style and voice or tone. An A paper shows rigorous attention to form (spelling, punctuation, grammar, documentation) as well as content. Your work on that paper is superior.

B means you have gone beyond the minimum requirements of the assignment and have successfully balanced description with analysis. You express yourself more clearly, meaningfully, and imaginatively than in a C paper. Your work on that paper is good.

C means you have successfully completed the minimum requirements of an assignment. Your paper has no major problems of any kind, but there is still much for you to do to better your grade. Your work on that paper is mediocre.

D means your work is seriously deficient in some way.

F means your work has failed to meet the most basic requirements of the assignment.


I’ll assume you monitor your e-mail daily throughout the semester and get my messages relating to our seminar in a timely manner. Millsaps faculty frequently use e-mail to send important announcements, guidelines, and learning resources to students in their classes.

Millsaps College is an academic community where men and women pursue a life of scholarly inquiry and intellectual growth. The foundation of this community is a spirit of personal honesty and mutual trust. In order to maintain trust among members of the College, faculty and students must adhere to these basic ethical principles. Honor within an academic community is not simply a matter of rules and procedures; it is an opportunity to put personal responsibility and integrity into action. When students accept the implicit bond of honor in an academic community, they liberate themselves to pursue their academic goals in an atmosphere of mutual confidence and respect. By choosing to come to Millsaps College, you have indicated your willingness to abide by its Honor Code. The success of the Code depends on the support of each member of the community. Students and faculty alike commit themselves in their work to the principles of academic honesty. When they become aware of infractions, both students and faculty are obligated to report them in the form of a written report to the Honor Council, which is responsible for enforcement. This account must be signed, the accusation explained in as much detail as possible, and submitted to the Dean of the College.

Plagiarism, the use of someone else’s ideas or words without proper acknowledgment (even in short writing exercises and take-home exams), is not always intentional but is always reprehensible. Plagiarism and auto-plagiarism, which is the presentation of your own work done in high school or in another college course, are violations of academic honor and disqualify any work for academic credit. Besides being fraudulent, plagiarism misses the whole point of college study, which is to bring you into the intellectual action, developing your own powers of thought and expression to the greatest extent possible.

Warning: an increasingly common plagiarism scenario is that a student gathers relevant material from online by copying it and pasting it into the file for the paper, with the idea of writing the eventual paper around some of this material as quotes, or paraphrasing it; time runs out, the deadline is nigh; the student hasn’t done much original work, hasn’t kept close tabs on where the material comes from, and hurriedly hands in a paper with big gobs of unacknowledged copied material. Please notice that this is deceptively close to a good methodology for developing a paper and yet, as this student practices it, is horribly backwards. You don’t do your writing around the edges of captured material, like some anonymous medieval scribe. You write. Yours is the mind and voice the reader wants to meet.

Pledge all written work that is to be graded as a sign of your commitment to the ideals of personal responsibility and rigorous scholarship. You can either write the full pledge (“I hereby certify that I have neither given nor received unauthorized aid on this assignment”) or the abbreviation “Pledged,” followed by your signature. As a reminder, the pledge signed by all students upon entering the College is as follows: As a Millsaps College student, I hereby affirm that I understand the Honor Code and am aware of its implications and of my responsibility to the Code. In the interests of expanding the atmosphere of respect and trust in the College, I promise to uphold the Honor Code and I will not tolerate dishonest behavior in myself or in others.



If you’re having problems of any sort that are affecting your work in this course or your life at Millsaps, please feel free to come talk to me about it, or write me an e-mail. I want to know what’s going on. Maybe I can help.



In a Ventures class we cannot predict our schedule exactly. What follows is an idea of how it could go. How it actually goes depends on what we decide we need to do.

We’ll use our Wednesday 1:00-4:00 time for office consultations, collaborative group meetings, off-campus excursions, and film screenings TBA.


Week 1           Introduction to course; philosophical method; classical conceptions of justice

M, 8/24            Introduction

W, 8/26           Begin reading and discussing classical statements. Form Justice squads

F, 8/28

Reading resources: Qur’an, Aristotle, Plato, Mencius (in WIJ), Xunzi (handout)


Week 2           Classical and contemporary conceptions of justice

M, 8/31

W, 9/2

Wed. afternoon: Justice squads meet

F, 9/4

Reading resources: Hobbes, Rousseau, Engels & Marx (in WIJ)


Week 3           A working general definition of justice; criteria for justice thinking

M, 9/7              LABOR DAY

W, 9/9

Wed. afternoon: Justice squads meet

F, 9/11

Reading resources:  TBA


Week 4           Capital punishment

M, 9/14

W, 9/16

Wed. afternoon: View Dead Man Walking

F, 9/18

Reading resources: Bedau, van den Haag, Solomon (in WIJ), Prejean (handout)


Week 5           Racial justice

M, 9/21            DUE: Justice paper #1

W, 9/23           Arguments for reparations for slavery in America

F, 9/25

Reading resources: Coates (handout) and TBA


Week 6

M, 9/28

W, 9/30

Wed. afternoon: interviews with stakeholders

F, 10/2

Reading resources: TBA


Week 7

M, 10/5

W, 10/7

Wed. afternoon: consultations

F, 10/9             DUE: Justice paper #2

Reading resources: TBA


Week 8           Sexual justice. Starting points in feminism

M, 10/12          FALL BREAK

W, 10/14

F, 10/16

Reading resources: Okin, Rawls (in WIJ)


Week 9           Sexual justice, cont.

M, 10/19

W, 10/21

Wed. afternoon: view Philadelphia

F, 10/23

Reading resources: Finnis, Macedo (handouts) and TBA


Week 10         Sexual justice, cont.

M, 10/26

W, 10/28

Wed. afternoon: interviews with stakeholders

F, 10/30

Reading resources: TBA


Week 11

M, 11/2

W, 11/4

Wed. afternoon: consultations

F, 11/6             DUE: Justice paper #3

Reading resources: TBA


Week 12         Interspecies justice

M, 11/9

W, 11/11

Wed. afternoon: view Speciesism

F, 11/13

Reading resources: Singer, Regan, Warren (handouts) and TBA


Week 13         Interspecies justice, cont.

M, 11/16

W, 11/18

Wed. afternoon: interviews with stakeholders

F, 11/20

Reading resources: TBA


Week 14

M, 11/23          NO CLASS (Instructor at conference)



Week 15         Interspecies justice, cont. Climate change

M, 11/30

W, 12/4

Wed. afternoon: consultations

F, 12/6             DUE: Justice paper #4

Reading resources: TBA


Week 16         Conclusion

M, 12/7            Reflection on revisions and adaptations of justice conceptions

DUE at final exam time: your concluding reflection



  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 fifth absence. (For example, someone who missed class 9 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.

            A general college policy for first-year courses is: If a student misses three or more classes, the Dean of Academic Advising and Student Support will be notified.

  1. Electronic communication devices (phones, laptops, etc.). Electronic devices have become harmful Interrupters and Distracters in the current state of our social evolution. Their use is banned in our class. If you have special needs, discuss with me.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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).
  1. 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.
  1. 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.