Course Syllabus


Instructor:  Brian Talbot

Pronouns:  he, him, his or they, them, theirs

Email: or

Office:  Hellems 186

Office hours:  Tuesday and Thursday, 1:30-3:15.  If you can’t make those times, email me and we can set up a special appointment.


Course Overview

This semester we will focus on two broad issues that come up throughout the legal system.  The first is the issue of collective goods and collective harms.  Legal practices are often justified by goods that can only be brought about by large groups of people working together.  Legal practices are often criticized for bringing about harms that again can only be brought about by large groups of people.  We see both in, for example, discussions of punishment. Punishment is supposed to deter crime, but it is only effective if systematically imposed in a great many cases.  On the other hand, certain practices of punishment create and perpetuate injustices, but this is due to systematic punishment practices.  We will spend half the semester discussing how the issue of collective harms and goods connects to legal practices, and what sorts of obligations they create:  do groups as a whole have obligations, and to what extent do individuals have obligations to be part of helpful groups and avoid being parts of harmful groups?

The second issue we will cover has to do with conformity to legal rules.  Everyone acknowledges that the law is imperfect.  To what extent should judges, police officers, attorneys, juries, or citizens deviate from the law when they think the law goes wrong?  This connects to current debates in ethics and metaethics.


Course Requirements

Your course grade will be based on:


Homework: 20% of final grade

Quizzes:  15% of final grade

First paper:  Percentage of final grade to be determined by student

Final paper:  Percentage of final grade to be determined by student


Midterm and final:  There is no midterm or final.


Assigned books:  There are no books to buy.  All readings will be on the course website.


Homework:  Homework will be assigned roughly once a week (occasionally more often).  It will be posted online as the semester progresses; it is not all posted at the moment.  Homework exists for your benefit.  It helps you to do the readings by asking questions that direct you towards the most important issues in the texts.  It improves class discussion, because we’ll all be better prepared.  It allows me to assess your understanding and adapt my lessons to your needs.  Finally, the feedback you get on the homework helps you to improve how you read and learn. 

In order for the homework to accomplish these functions, it has to be done before we talk about it in class.  In the past, some students have done the homework during class on their laptop, and then claimed that they forgot to print it out.  This defeats the purpose of the homework, and other students felt it was unfair when people got away with this.  To avoid this issue, I will only accept homework if you turn in a printed copy in class the day that I collect it.  No late homework will be accepted, nor early homework, nor emailed homework, and no one else may turn homework in for you (exceptions can be made for excused absences).  I will not accept homework written by hand, nor will handwritten notes on your homework be graded.


Quizzes:  At least four quizzes will be given (maybe more); these will not be announced in advance.  Most of what is tested on the quizzes will only be covered in class.

Like the homework, the quizzes serve a number of functions.  Research shows that frequent, short quizzes greatly help better students to retain what they learn.  Further, in order for us to have a mutually beneficial conversation, we all need to be able to use the concepts we’ve learned in that conversation.  Quizzes encourage you to acquire this fluency.  They also allow me to assess what people need help with.  And they tell you what you need to work more on.

If you miss a quiz, and have a documented good excuse for your absence, you can make the quiz up; otherwise, you cannot.


Papers: We’ll have two papers, which will require you to explain and defend your own views on issues we’ve covered in class.  I’ll give out detailed instructions and grading standards when the paper assignments are handed out.

Papers exist to give you the opportunity to really engage with some of the hardest questions we’ve covered, and to work out what you think about these as best you can.  The topics and structure of the assignments will be chosen accordingly.  These will be challenging, but students in the past have reported that they find this challenge extremely rewarding.

The papers together will comprise 65% of your class grade.  Before you submit your first paper, you will decide how that 65% is distributed between the two papers (no paper can be less than 20% of your final grade, however).


Attendance:  One of the goals of this course is that you learn to think well about philosophical questions.  This is a skill that is developed through interaction with other students.  We will also cover a lot of material in class that is not in the reading.  Attendance is thus mandatory.  You can miss up to four classes, for any reason at all.  You don’t need to tell me why you missed; that’s your private life.  If you miss more than four classes, you get an F in the course (I will make exceptions for very unusual circumstances or religious holidays).

It you miss class when homework is due, you can turn it in the next class you attend.  If you miss class when there is a quiz, contact me to make it up.


Laptops and phones:  I’m trying out a no laptops and phones policy this semester.  This is for three reasons.  One, student feedback from past classes.  Two, research showing that students who take notes on a laptop perform worse than students who take notes by hand (  Three, research showing that use of laptops or phones both negatively affects the students using them and also students who sit nearby (  So, leave your laptops and phones (and tablets etc.) in your bag during class time. If you need a laptop or phone for some reason, contact me and I am happy to make exceptions.


Additional Policies


Accommodation for Disabilities  If you qualify for accommodations because of a disability, please submit your accommodation letter from Disability Services to your faculty member in a timely manner so that your needs can be addressed.  Disability Services determines accommodations based on documented disabilities in the academic environment.  Information on requesting accommodations is located on the Disability Services website. Contact Disability Services at 303-492-8671 or for further assistance.  If you have a temporary medical condition or injury, see Temporary Medical Conditions under the Students tab on the Disability Services website.


Classroom Behavior  Students and faculty each have responsibility for maintaining an appropriate learning environment. Those who fail to adhere to such behavioral standards may be subject to discipline. Professional courtesy and sensitivity are especially important with respect to individuals and topics dealing with race, color, national origin, sex, pregnancy, age, disability, creed, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, veteran status, political affiliation or political philosophy.  Class rosters are provided to the instructor with the student's legal name. I will gladly honor your request to address you by an alternate name or gender pronoun. Please advise me of this preference early in the semester so that I may make appropriate changes to my records.  For more information, see the policies on classroom behavior and the Student Code of Conduct.

Honor Code  All students enrolled in a University of Colorado Boulder course are responsible for knowing and adhering to the Honor Code. Violations of the policy may include: plagiarism, cheating, fabrication, lying, bribery, threat, unauthorized access to academic materials, clicker fraud, submitting the same or similar work in more than one course without permission from all course instructors involved, and aiding academic dishonesty. All incidents of academic misconduct will be reported to the Honor Code (; 303-492-5550). Students who are found responsible for violating the academic integrity policy will be subject to nonacademic sanctions from the Honor Code as well as academic sanctions from the faculty member. Additional information regarding the Honor Code academic integrity policy can be found at the Honor Code Office website.


Sexual Misconduct, Discrimination, Harassment and/or Related Retaliation  The University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) is committed to fostering a positive and welcoming learning, working, and living environment. CU Boulder will not tolerate acts of sexual misconduct (including sexual assault, exploitation, harassment, dating or domestic violence, and stalking), discrimination, and harassment by members of our community. Individuals who believe they have been subject to misconduct or retaliatory actions for reporting a concern should contact the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance (OIEC) at 303-492-2127 or Information about the OIEC, university policies, anonymous reporting, and the campus resources can be found on the OIEC website.

Please know that faculty and instructors have a responsibility to inform OIEC when made aware of incidents of sexual misconduct, discrimination, harassment and/or related retaliation, to ensure that individuals impacted receive information about options for reporting and support resources.


Religious Holidays  Campus policy regarding religious observances requires that faculty make every effort to deal reasonably and fairly with all students who, because of religious obligations, have conflicts with scheduled exams, assignments or required attendance.  Please notify me in advance if there are any classes you need to miss for religious reasons, and we will work out accommodations. See the campus policy regarding religious observances for full details.




This is subject to change.  The most current schedule, all readings, and all assignments will be posted on the course website.


Week One

  • Larry Alexander and Emily Sherwin, The problem of rules


Week Two: 

  • Jean Hampton, Punishment, feminism, and political identity


Week Three:

  • Jeffrey Brand-Ballard, Are judges morally obligated to obey the law?


Week Four: 

  • Tracy Isaacs, Moral Responsibility in Collective Contexts (excerpts)


Week Five: 

  • Shelly Kagan, Do I make a difference?


Week Six: 

  • Brian Talbot, Collective action problems and conflicting obligations


Week Seven

  • Candice Delmas, Political resistance: A matter of fairness


Week Eight 

  • Review for first paper


Week Nine: 

  • Thomas Christiano, The authority of democracy
  • First paper due


Week Ten:

  • Alasdair MacIntyre, Social structures and their threats to moral agency


Week Eleven: 

  • Heidi Hurd, Challenging authority


Week Twelve: 

  • Sarah McGrath, Moral disagreement and moral expertise


Week Thirteen:

  • Holly Smith, The moral clout of reasonable beliefs


Week Fourteen

  • Student selected topic


Week Fifteen

  • Final paper due



Course Summary:

Date Details Due