In this occasional series, we ask Arts and Sciences instructors to discuss how they engage students in the great questions of our time.
Q. How would you describe this course?
A. This course first teaches general philosophical views about what law is and what law should do. We then switch to a topic that changes each time I teach this course. The first question we ask is, ‘What is law?’ Although this may seem like a simple and silly question, there are competing and serious answers. Throughout this class, we address these questions, sometimes examining legal systems in the U.S. and other societies.
Part of addressing these questions is examining the relationship between law and morality. This is a difficult topic with competing answers across traditions of legal scholarship.
What do we want our laws to do? What should the legal system provide? There are competing answers to these questions, and the students survey several. We also examine some real-life cases, and students ask each other why we have various laws and whether they have any justification. These are interesting topics in a contemporary setting.
Q. What makes this course appealing for students?
A. Many students have an intrinsic interest in law and the moral and political arguments that might justify or support legal systems. Other students want to take this course because they want to go to law school. The course is designed for both groups of students.
Q. Why is this course important?
A. There are so many things that legal professionals assume people know that many don't. For example, I am frequently amazed that people don’t know what tort law is. When you sue someone, you are bringing a tort case against them. No statutory laws are broken, but a court may find that their action caused you harm for which they can be held responsible. It’s also crucial because many misconceptions about our legal system are propagated by TV and movies.
I think it's helpful to get a firmer understanding of how our entire system works. Students should understand the mechanics of laws; for example, why prosecutors stack charges (pursuing multiple charges in one case). By understanding these patterns, we can approach modern problems more thoughtfully.
Q. What got you interested in this subject?
A. My earliest work was about the relationship between individuals and their communities. That eventually morphed into questions about what should be tolerated. One aspect of that is asking what the state should legally permit and what it should make impermissible.
More generally, I am interested in all aspects of how we live in a society with others, and that obviously includes law. From my perspective, the philosophy of law is thus part of political philosophy.
Q. What is the most unusual or interesting assignment you give in this course?
A. A couple of years ago, I started having students write 4-sentence papers. It’s not my invention, but it’s a fantastic idea. It strikes me as really helpful because it models a very standard format of an excellent academic paper.
The assignment forces students to think very carefully about what they need to get across to their readers. Later in the semester, students develop one of these into a longer paper. By the time they get to that longer paper, they already know what they want to defend and how.
– Interview by Emma Barrett (B.A., English, ’25). Photo by Raven Schley.