LAW 418

Contemporary Philosophy of Law: The Cutting Edge

Law & Philosophy

  This course offers a fresh way to introduce students to philosophy of law.  (No previous study of philosophy is required.)  We’ll engage with cutting-edge work — exciting developments of the past five years or so – focusing on four or five topics that have recently sparked important and interesting debates.  These will include many of the following: criminal attempts; the use of statistical evidence; statutory and constitutional interpretation; foundations of negligence liability; law as a branch of morality.  We’ll begin with more familiar and less abstract topics like criminal attempts and statutory interpretation, and conclude with more abstract topics like the foundations of negligence liability.

The pace of the course will allow us time to explore background material on each topic before approaching the cutting-edge work.  For example, in the case of criminal attempts, we’ll begin by reviewing the courts’ doctrinal struggles with fascinating conundrums such as how to treat impossible attempts.  We’ll then examine the recent intriguing theory of Gideon Yaffe and how it purports to solve the problems.  Similarly, in the case of legal interpretation, we’ll begin with well-known theories of legal interpretation, such as textualism and intentionalism.  We’ll then turn to recent work that draws on contemporary ideas in philosophy of language and linguistics.  I have been an active participant in this debate, arguing that, though an understanding of some important linguistic distinctions is valuable, linguistic considerations cannot resolve the central issues concerning legal interpretation.  We will study this and other lively debates in the area.

This class seeks to introduce students to philosophy of law, to show how philosophy of law is continuous with familiar legal issues, and to give students a sense of the excitement of cutting-edge work.  Students will be introduced to many important philosophical issues, concepts, and distinctions.  Developing analytical skills that are valuable in any legal work will be an important focus of the class.  The course will require short reaction papers and a final exam rather than a long paper. 

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