Society, Law, and Morality

Course Description:

The official description of this course says that we will focus on “Concepts and principles involved in analysis and appraisal of social institutions with attention to freedom, rights, justice, and the relation between laws and morality.”  More specifically, we will be focusing on theories of punishment.  In this class, we will be considering questions such as: what is punishment?  What is a good reason to punish a person?  Whom should we punish? What limitations to punishment are there?  By considering these questions, we will, more broadly, be considering what it means to be a moral agent, the relationship between a society and its members, and the extreme limits of how one human being is ever morally permitted to treat another.

Required Materials:

Why Punish? How Much? A Reader on Punishment, ed. Michael Tonry, Oxford University Press.

Selected readings, available through Canvas and the library.

Grade Elements:

Throughout this course, there will be 11 assignments total: 10 exercises due throughout the term and a final paper.

The exercises go up in value throughout the term. The first is worth 5 points, the last several are worth 20 points. Please see the section of Canvas entitled “Exercises” for the instructions, point values, and due dates for each individual exercise. Each exercise has different instructions, so it is vital that you check this section of Canvas regularly. I will also regularly provide more information about completing the assignments during class before it is due. The sum of all the exercises is 140 points.

The final paper is worth 100 points. It will be due on December 10th.


The exercises are intended to grow more difficult throughout the term, though their growing difficulty is meant to match your growing skills. Each exercise requires close and careful attention to the texts, as you will be expected to locate portions of arguments within the text and then analyze them. You will be graded on your ability to do this, as required by the exercise’s instructions.

I will only provide limited commentary on any individual exercise, though students are encouraged to see me during my office hours for any clarification. I will also allow for you to argue for a reconsideration of the grade given on any particular exercise: if you believe that your answer to a particular exercise deserves a higher grade than I have given, you may request reconsideration in the form of a written essay.  This written essay must be clear and detailed, providing a convincing argument in favor of a higher grade. However, no reconsideration plea will be considered unless you have spoken to me about your assignment during my office hours beforehand.

The final paper is your opportunity to analyze and critique the material covered in class. You will be graded on 1) your ability to express the theories and arguments under consideration and 2) your ability to construct and support an argument for a thesis. It is expected that you can write in a well-structured and grammatically-correct style.  More information will be provided later. Grades given on the final paper are final.

There may be opportunities for extra credit throughout the term. I will inform students of these opportunities, in case they occur. Extra credit will be applied to the total exercise score.

Students are expected to attend an event that will be held outside of class hours. This event is a talk by James Pirtle, entitled “The children of war: responsibility and reconciliation in Central Africa today.” It will be Wednesday, November 13, at 4pm in Fraser Hall 2. Any student unable to attend this event must contact me for an alternative. Because of this event, class on the 12th is an optional study time.

Late Policy:

All work must be turned in by the due dates listed in Canvas. Late work will be accepted, but a late penalty will apply.  If you turn an assignment in late on the due date, your score will be lowered by 5%.  If you turn an assignment in late the day after the due date, your score will be lowered by 10%. Each additional day lowers your grade by another 10%. Under unusual circumstances, students may be permitted to redo an assignment or complete an alternative. What constitutes “unusual” circumstances is left to my discretion. If you believe your circumstances may be unusual, see me during my office hours.

In case of emergency, documented in the form of an official leave of absence from either the health center or the Student Life Office, students are allowed to turn work in late without penalty.

Electronic Communication:

I encourage students to contact me!  You are more than welcome to e-mail me with any questions, problems, or comments related to the course.  Usually, I am disturbingly quick to reply, but please allow me 48 hours to respond.  If I do not respond within 48 hours, assume I did not receive your e-mail. Just send it again. When you e-mail me, please include your full name and the name of the course.  Any e-mail I send to the class will be sent through Blackboard, so make sure your account is appropriately set up to receive such e-mails.

Class Conduct:

You are expected to attend class every day, to arrive promptly, and to stay for the entirety of the class.  Arriving late or leaving early is disruptive and rude.  If you have an actual need to do either, let me know before class starts. You are expected to use electronic equipment in ways that help your participation in the course.  If I suspect for any reason that you are using electronic equipment in a distracting or inappropriate way, you will lose the privilege of using that equipment during class time.

This is a class in which your ability to succeed is directly related to your level of participation. You are expected to complete the assigned readings before class and to participate in discussion while in class.

ADA Accommodations

             At Western Washington University, we are committed to providing a campus community, workplace and academic environment that is fully accessible to people of all abilities. Under federal and state law, no qualified person will be denied access to, participation in, or the benefits of a University program or activity on the basis of their disability.

For information on accommodations, please see the DisAbility Resources ( Reasonable accommodation for persons with documented disabilities should be established within the first week of class and arranged through Disability Resources for Students: telephone 650-3093; email

Academic Dishonesty:

Academic dishonesty is a serious infraction and it is dealt with severely. Possible consequences include permanent dismissal. It is your responsibility to understand what constitutes academic dishonesty—see appendix D of the university catalog:

This syllabus is subject to change at my discretion.


List of Readings:

 “An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation,” Jeremy Bentham

“The Penal Law and the Law of Pardon,” Immanuel Kant

“The Expressive Function of Punishment,” Joel Feinberg

“Prolegomenon to the Principles of Punishment,” HLA Hart

“From Slavery to Mass Incarceration: Rethinking the ‘Race Question’ in the US,” Loic Wacquant

“Marxism and Retribution,” Jeffrie Murphy

Event: “The children of war: responsibility and reconciliation in Central Africa today,” James Pirtle

“Equity and Mercy,” Martha Nussbaum

“Restorative Justice and Reparations,” Margaret Walker

“Truth-Telling as Reparations,” Margaret Walker

“For the Law, Neuroscience Changes Nothing and Everything,” Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen