Introduction to Philosophy


Introduction To Ethics

Ethics is a branch of philosophy concerned with morality. As such, it asks some of the most difficult questions pertaining to the human experience. What does it mean to act morally? Why should we be good? How should we live? This course is designed mainly as a survey of influential responses to these questions from thinkers of the Western canon and, second, as an introduction to applied ethics. In this way, once we have a solid grasp of the ethical lineage from Plato up to the present, we’ll spend the final few weeks of the semester discussing a series of controversial moral issues including abortion, pornography, animals rights, hunting, drone strikes, and global economic justice. [download syllabus]

Environmental Ethics


Introduction to Political Theory

What does a decent society look like? This course is designed to introduce students to some of the most influential responses to this question from prominent thinkers within the Western canon. Many political philosophers depict a perpetual struggle between authority on the one hand and the individual on the other. Indeed, so much of what we consider to be issues worthy of serious consideration today are, at core, related to this basic tension. This includes fundamental concepts like freedom, liberty, and justice—as well as issues of racism, sexism, war, political economy, and the nature of democracy itself. The modern state comes embedded with particular ideas and interpretations of all these notions. In tracing the lineage of our own ideas and preconceptions about politics, we’ll consider what political philosophers have had to say about some of the most persistent and abiding human concerns for over four millennia.

Authority and the Individual

This political theory survey explores the relationship between authority and the individual. Well before Plato, political thinkers have been concerned with the question of what a decent society looks like. Since the rise of liberalism especially, this question has taken the form of a struggle between authority on the one hand and the individual on the other. Moreover, so much of what we consider to be issues worthy of serious political consideration are, at core, related to this fundamental tension. This includes such weighty topics as institutional racism and perpetual war as well as debates over political economy and the welfare state. The modern, sovereign state, including liberal democracies and autocracies alike, comes embedded with notions about the proper place of authority and the individual—but while these ideas have gained traction through their present universal implementation, they are not the only ideas in circulation. We will explore thinkers from very different historical epochs and cultural contexts, some of whom are not typically read as political theory: Thomas Hobbes, Confucius, Mohandas Gandhi, Adolf Hitler, Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, Emma Goldman, Iris Murdoch, Bertrand Russell, Alexander von Humboldt, Karl Marx, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Sayd Qutb among others…

The History and Politics of Torture

For hundreds of years, torture was regarded as an especially reprehensible practice and effectively proscribed as a tool of political power. Yet the 20th century witnessed a proliferation of torture against perceived threats. Torture has again become a feature of the contemporary global landscape. Paradoxically, torture has also been adopted by a handful of liberal democracies—states that ostensibly set a higher ethical standard and claim to espouse values inimical to brutal violence. What are we to make of these developments? This course takes an historical approach to the question and practice of torture, with a special focus on its modern reemergence. We will explore original disquisitions, oratory, reports, legal cases, and memos on the use of torture in various contexts throughout history. We will also discuss influential ethical and social-psychological explanations of state violence and the permissibility (or impermissibility) of particular manifestations of state-regulated brutality as well as the depiction of torture in popular culture from Aristophanes to De Sade to the Saw film franchise.

American Political System

This introductory-level course will explore the historical and theoretical foundations of the American political system, its major political institutions (Congress, the Presidency, the Bureaucracy, and the Supreme Court), and various other topics affecting political life and political behavior in the United States (political parties, interest groups, elections, the media, etc.). During each phase of this course we will focus on both a historical perspective as well as a clear connection to the modern state of American politics. A major focus will be on the concept of power and how it affects the processes and institutions in contemporary American politics. In examining the diverse apparatuses of power that operate within the American political system, we will look at the major social dimensions that give structure to our thoughts, experiences and actions as a result of our participation in society—including class, race, and gender. Also of particular interest for us this semester will be issues surrounding the second half of the Obama Presidency and the fast-approaching 2016 Presidential elections. Over the course of the semester, we will develop a critical sense for analyzing some of the more pressing issues in contemporary American politics.

Politics of the Middle East

This course aims to provide graduate students with a general introduction to the politics of the contemporary Middle East. It will be impossible to sufficiently cover the entire Middle East region in one semester. Therefore, the course is structured around the broad theme of identity and will be conducted at two levels: 1) a macro level which focuses on the Arab Middle East in general—and does not include time on Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, or Pakistan—and 2) a micro level which focuses specifically on Israel/Palestine. As we look at the development and evolution of political identities over time, we consider the Arab context generally and the specific case of Israeli and Palestinian political identities in particular. This approach will allow students to grapple in some depth with the complexities of an important part of the region and to acquire a feel for wider political issues in the contemporary Middle East.