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Contemporary Political Philosophy I: Authority, Obligation and Democracy

Course Code Term I: PUBLGL08

Course Tutor: Dr Deborah Savage (Department of Political Science)

Assessment Term I: 1,000 word essay (40%) + 2,000 word essay (60%)

Credit Value: 15

About this course

This course critically examines the ethical and philosophical questions surrounding the relationship between individuals and ‘governing agencies’ (e.g., states, international institutions), with a particular focus on how these questions have been addressed by contemporary Anglo-American analytic political philosophers. The course is divided into three parts, each addressing a specific set of issues.

Obligation and Authority: It is often said that the state has the right to rule and its citizens the obligation to obey its commands but what are the grounds of these rights and obligations? Is the state’s right to rule compatible with the autonomy of the individual? Can citizens have both the obligation to obey the law and the right to engage in civil disobedience?

Democracy: In this day and age, it is often thought that a state has authority only if it is democratically organised. But why is this so? What exactly is democracy? What is the nature of its value? Why wouldn’t an enlightened elite have more of a claim to legitimate authority than a poorly informed electorate?

Authority and Democracy Beyond the State: With the advance of globalisation, our lives are increasingly governed by institutions and agencies well beyond the state. But what would make these institutions’ authority legitimate? Are we (via our states) obligated to obey the rules they lay down even though these rules are not an object of democratic approval?

Course aims

This is a course in political theory/philosophy. It aims to familiarise students with the contemporary literature on political authority, obligation and democracy at both the domestic and the international level.

Course objectives By the end of the course students will:

  • have a clear understanding of the problem of legitimate political authority; 
  • have (i) a clear understanding of different competing grounds of political obligation/authority and (ii) the ability to offer sophisticated philosophical arguments about them;
  • be familiar with the normative debates concerning the nature, moral status and limits of democratic authority;
  • be able to apply considerations about legitimate authority and democracy to both domestic and international institutions;
  • be able to engage in normative/ethical debates about political matters.

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The Rubin Building,
29/31 Tavistock Square,
London, WC1H 9QU.
Tel: +44 (0)20 7679 4999,
Fax: +44 (0)20 7679 4969,

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