Department of Political Science


Legal and Political Theory

Lady Justice on Old Bailey, London, UK


Our department is home to a vibrant community of political and legal philosophers. Through our work, we aim to make progress in major scholarly debates while grappling with some of the most difficult moral questions faced by citizens and policymakers in today’s world. Our scholarship engages deeply with empirical political science and law, enabling us to specify the implications of abstract political and moral principles for concrete issues in policymaking, institutional design, and legal interpretation. We generate leading research on a variety of conceptual and normative questions about political values, social institutions, and public policy. What is democracy? What is the proper role of religion in public life? How do we justify human rights? What is the right role of individual responsibility in a theory of justice? In what ways should we reform our domestic criminal justice systems? Should groups, such as states, be held accountable for the injustices they commit, and if so, how? What acts ought to constitute war crimes under international law? By investigating these questions and many more, our department has emerged as one of Britain’s top research centres in legal and political theory.

Research Themes

1. Crime, Punishment, and Resistance

The study of crime, punishment, and resistance at UCL focuses on a wide array of questions about what makes a criminal justice system just—and what citizens may do in response when it isn’t.

One of the most important functions of government is to enact and enforce criminal laws. But what sort of conduct ought to be criminalised? What measures may authorities employ in its efforts to prevent crime, and what measures are morally forbidden? And what is the moral justification for punishing citizens who break the criminal law? Our scholarship aims to answer these questions, within the contexts of both domestic and international law. We also aim to determine what should happen when governments answer these questions incorrectly. Does the state have the authority to punish citizens who break unjust laws? Does it have the authority to punish citizens who break just laws, but were incentivised to do so by the state itself? Finally, we aim to appraise the variety of ways in which citizens may resist a state whose laws are unjust. When, if ever, are rioting and other forms of violent resistance morally permissible, or even required? When resistance is futile, what should citizens do?

2. Democratic Theory

The study of democratic theory at UCL examines what a democracy is, what the philosophical justification for it might be, how it could be held accountable, and explores republican theories of democracy, among others.

Political philosophers tend to agree that democracy is the best form of governance. Yet they disagree fiercely about why, exactly, this is so. At UCL we have written and continue to write on what democracy is and what renders it valuable. Is a democracy merely a collection of individuals, or is it a genuine group agent? Is democracy morally required because it respects citizens’ equal moral status, or because it produces good results? Is the best defence of democracy even moral at all, or does it instead appeal to citizens’ rational self-interest? How much civic virtue and patriotism does democracy need? What is citizenship? What is the relationship between democracy and political leadership? How can we ensure that democracies protect rights? We are also intensely interested in examining what should happen when democracies perpetrate injustice. How should the burdens of compensation and punishment be distributed among the citizenry? What does it mean to punish a state? And should courts be empowered to strike down legislation that they regard as unconstitutional or unjust? Finally, we interested in questions about the role of constitutionalism, democracy and republicanism at the supranational level—most notably, in the European Union.

3. Ethics & Public Policy

Our scholarship subjects a wide range of public policies to philosophical scrutiny, assessing the best arguments for and against them in order to determine their moral permissibility.

We are interested in substantive policy debates across numerous areas of domestic and foreign policymaking. Should fertility treatment be publicly funded? Would it be fair for the NHS require co-payment in order to control costs? How might evidence from social psychology help policymakers ? Would medical “neurointerventions” to alter the brains of dangerous criminals be morally permissible? Is it justified to ban students from wearing religious dress in state schools? What are the principles that should govern international trade policy? How should we think about supranational environmental regulation (for example, in the European Union)? What are the moral principles that should govern our public debates about public policy, especially concerning such controversial issues as abortion? Is it permissible to pay ransoms to terrorists? Should policymakers be willing to use violence and deception in the pursuit of political objectives? 

4. Human Rights and Global Justice

The study of human rights and global justice at UCL uses a diversity of methods in normative theory and legal interpretation to engage with various fundamental questions of international politics.

At UCL we are interested in a wide variety of topics related to human rights and global justice. What are the demands of justice during periods of war and conflict? What are the normative foundations of international law—particularly the laws of war, international criminal law, and human rights law? What justifies the legitimacy of states, and the legitimacy of international institutions? How should we think about the collective responsibility of state and citizens for global injustices? What are human rights, and specifically, what are their nature, scope, and justification? What are the moral standards that should govern our participation in international trade and our design of international institutions, especially in light of global poverty?

5. Justice, Equality, and Responsibility

The UCL political theory team engages with the latest debates in contemporary political philosophy about how justice, equality, and responsibility are interrelated. 

A central tension in contemporary political philosophy is between those who think that justice is a matter of distributive fairness and those who think it is a matter of having the right relationships among citizens, especially, relations of social equality. Our team investigates a series of questions that arise on each side of this tension, as well as seeking ways to unite the two sides. So, should a just society reward talent and effort? To what extent should people be held responsible for the inequalities they suffer? Does justice sometimes demand differential treatment, in cases of structural disadvantage on racial, gender, or sexuality grounds? Who should bear the costs of the choices that people make – for example, their health-related choices - about their personal lives? Is justice a matter of fair laws and rules of distribution, or is it also about social norms and how people behave? Can citizens be educated to endorse justice-conducive social norms, and how? Finally, can citizens ever be held responsible for the behaviour of the groups they belong to? And is it ever acceptable to benefit from the wrongdoing of others?

6. Liberalism, Political Theory and Religion

Recent scholarship at UCL has contributed to foundational questions such as the justification of the state and the basis for political agreement under conditions of pluralism, the role of religion in the liberal state, and the relationship between politics, ethics and theology.

Our team has a long-established interest in key questions of political theory, such as the relationship between liberalism, pluralism, consensus and compromise. How exactly can individuals agree to live together politically, given the depth and intractability of disagreement between them? An influential strand of contemporary liberal philosophy requires the state to be neutral between the different conceptions of the good held by its citizens. But how can neutrality be justified?

It is often thought that one implication of neutrality is that religion is not uniquely special, and that religious and non-religious citizens must be treated with equal respect. But this raises a host of tricky questions. Can the state fund religious activities in the way that it funds non-religious activities? Can the state justify providing special exemptions from general laws to religious objectors? Should the state prevent churches from discriminating on grounds of gender and sexuality? Is the liberal neutral state a secular state, and in what sense? Is liberal neutrality biased towards Christian, or post-Christian, religions and societies? 

Relevant Faculty

Richard Bellamy Saladin Meckled-Garcia
Jeffrey Howard Avia Pasternak
Emily McTernan Albert Weale

Funded Projects:

Emily McTernan
“Social Equality”
Funder: The British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust
Collaborators: Martin O’Neill (York), Christian Schemmel (Manchester), and Fabian Schuppert (Queen’s University Belfast)

Link to Research centres:

Global Governance Institute

UCL Institute for Human Rights

Religion and Political Theory RAPT