Sunday, October 17, 2021

Teaching political theory in a pandemic

This semester, I'm once again teaching our introductory political theory module (PAIR1004). This year, it's a mix of historical and contemporary views but with the overarching theme focusing on freedom. While it's not a module about current events, we thought that we could emphasise the topicality of these discussions, given how freedom keeps coming up in debates over lockdowns.

Here's a brief outline of the module content:

1. Introduction. What is politics? Where do we find it? If politics is about the power to command, then the University itself is a political institution, much like the state. Is there a difference – with respect to freedom and obligation – between the government telling its citizens to wear face masks and the University telling its students to do so?


2. Hobbes on the establishment of political society. The state of nature as a lawless free-for-all (like the scramble for toilet roll or petrol). People have no rational incentive to keep contracts, or do anything for the benefit of others, such as wearing face masks, unless we institute an all-powerful sovereign authority to resolve collective action problems.


3. Locke on limited government. Locke imagines a more peaceful state of nature – one of liberty, but not licence – in which people mostly respect the rights of others but, since each is judge of his/her own case, disputes may arise – e.g. if I think you should wear a face mask to protect me, but you do not.


4. Rousseau on the general will. If facemasks are in the general interest, then the general will may be for everyone to wear a face mask. Those who refuse to comply are ‘forced to be free’.


5. Mill on the harm principle. There should be complete freedom of self-regarding action. For instance, society has no right to prohibit activities such as drinking, gambling, or homosexual intercourse, provided that all involved are consenting adults. But society may interfere with conduct that threatens harm to others, such as drink-driving or not wearing a face mask.


6. Negative and positive liberty. What are the ends of liberty? What things constrain it? Does a mask mandate reduce liberty? On the negative conception, probably. But, on the other hand, does some people’s refusal to wear masks also reduce the liberty of others? Possibly. If ‘freedom for the pike is death for the minnows’ then how should we adjudicate between competing freedoms?


7. Republicanism. The opposite of freedom is not interference, but arbitrary domination. Consequently, law is compatible with freedom, provided it is not arbitrary. For instance, a mask mandate is not arbitrary interference and therefore does not abridge republican liberty.


8. Consent theory. According to consent theorists, to consent to membership of a group, such as a state or a University, is to consent to the rules of that group. Thus, if the University’s code of conduct requires the wearing of masks, then members of that University have an obligation to do so in virtue of their consent.


9. Other accounts of obligation. Obligations need not be grounded in consent. We have various ‘natural duties’ which include not harming others, for instance by refusing to wear a mask. We may have particularly strong obligations towards those with whom we share community ties, such as members of a family, nation, or university. According to fair play theory, if others make sacrifices for our benefit – for instance, wearing a mask – we may have an obligation to reciprocate.


10. Politics in times of emergency. During the recent pandemic, governments have instituted various measures – such as mandatory face coverings, curfews, and lockdowns – that (seem to) abridge our ordinary freedoms. When and why are these measures justified?


Our reading list is mostly unchanged, since we can illustrate the application of ideas to the pandemic in class, but an interesting looking collection on political philosophy in a pandemic (Amazon affiliate link) has recently been published. If I were to teach a course like this again, then I might make use of that, but I didn't have time to redesign the course from scratch.

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