PHIL 314 A: Philosophy of Crime and Punishment

Meeting Time: 
TTh 1:30pm - 3:20pm
* *
Amelia Wirts
Amelia Wirts

Syllabus Description:

course image.jpg

Dr. Amelia M. Wirts, ESQ,

T, TH 1:30pm-3:20pm via Zoom (links in Calendar, passcode CRIME)

Office Hours, Weds. 11:00am-12:00PM, Th 3:30-4:30 via Zoom (links in Calendar)

Course Overview:

Is it legitimate for the government to impede the freedom of movement of some of its citizens? Usually in a modern democracy like the United States, we say that the right to freedom of movement is essential. But, at the same time the US has about 2.3 million people incarcerated currently.* Philosophers of crime and punishment offer different kinds of justifications for why some activities can be deemed "crimes" and therefore merit "punishments" such as incarceration. Are any of these theories sufficient to justify locking up this many people? What about just violent criminals? Is it morally permissible to prevent citizens from voting because of their criminal history? What about currently incarcerated people? Do any of the theories of crime and punishment meaningfully respond to the current realities of policing, incarceration, and the legal process in the United States? What about the racial and class disparities? In this course, we will attempt to answer these questions by understanding and critiquing traditional theories of crime and punishment as well as asking if any of these theories justify the current system in the United States. 


Special Note:

If you encounter any problem in this class, including feeling behind or lost or needing accommodation because of disability, family concerns, physical or mental health, please talk to me sooner rather than later. We can often find a way to address the issue if we can talk about it early on. I want each student to succeed in this class.

Course Format

This course will take place synchronously via Zoom. Students should expect to engage in class discussion and small group work in class. 

Course Goals:

In this course students should 

  • critically engage theories of crime and punishment, including theories about the function of criminal law and punishment and the justifications for both
  • learn empirical data about policing and incarceration in the United States
  • evaluate the adequacy of traditional theories of criminalization and punishment for justifying the current structure of the American Criminal Justice System
  • develop philosophical writing skills, including how to reconstruct and analyze arguments

Grade Components:

Class and Small Group Discussion Participation: 5%

Reading Quizzes (between 15 and 20 in total): 20%

Weekly Discussion Posts (none due on week 10): 25%

Short Paper (due Feb. 1): 20%

Final Paper (due March 18): 30%

(note, all quizzes, discussion posts, and papers are due at 12pm (noon) for the sake of consistency). 


Regular participation in class discussion as well as in small group discussion in breakout rooms is an important part of understanding the material in class. Consistently volunteering answers in class, respectfully posing questions or responses to classmates, and being the note-taker for small group discussions are all ways that you can participate in class. If you are unable to regularly attend class, please let me know so that we can find an alternative way to address class participation.

Reading Quizzes:

There will be 5-question, multiple choice reading quizzes to be completed before class on days when there are no other significant assignments due (usually 5 questions). Quizzes will be accessible on Canvas through links on the Modules  They must be completed by noon (12pm) on the day of class. They are open book, and you get two attempts. Canvas will tell you how many questions you got right (but not which ones) after you submit your first attempt. You can try one more time if you wish. Canvas will record the higher of the two scores. Remember to press submit!

I strongly encourage you to take the quiz as you do the reading. I also strongly recommend that you review the correct answers, which will be available on Canvas, after you take the exam but before class. You may not speak to any other students about the content of any quiz until after the quiz closes.

The purpose of these quizzes is both to incentivize you to do the reading and also to give you a sense of how well you are understanding the reading. If you are regularly getting less than 80% on the quizzes, consider taking more time to do the reading or talking with me about strategies for improving reading comprehension. Because there are many of these quizzes, doing poorly on a few will have little impact on your grade, but regularly doing poorly or failing to complete the quizzes will harm your grade.

I drop your lowest 3 quiz grades, and then take the average score of the remaining quizzes.

Discussion Posts:

Each week (except week 10), I will post a discussion question in the weekly module. You should post at least one longer post (200-300 words) and at least one meaningful response to someone else’s post. The discussion thread will remain open for one week, closing Friday at noon, one week after the close of the week it was assigned.

The purpose of the discussion posts is  to allow you to practice writing about the theories we discuss, to continue the conversations we have in class, and to share ideas with your classmates. You should look at the rubric when you see your grade for each post to see if your posts are accurately recounting the theories we discuss in class. 

See this sample discussion post to view the discussion posts grading rubric. 

Short and Final Papers:

You will get detailed instructions for paper assignments well in advance of their due dates.

Grade Scale

I convert percentage to the UW 4.0 Scale in the following way:

95%=4.0, and 85%=3.0, 75%=2.0

Between these, 1% =0.1., so a 93%= 3.8

I round 0.5% up; thus, de facto 94.5%=4.0, 84.5%=3.0, etc.

I  round up 60% to 0.7, instead of leaving the 0.7 cutoff at 62%.

chart illustrating grade scale described under that heading in the syllabus

Class Policies and Resources

Tentative Class Schedule 

This schedule is subject to change, and the authoritative reading assignments will be whatever is listed in the weekly modules. Where there is a difference between this list and the weekly module, always follow the weekly module.

NOTE: All readings will be available as PDFs on Canvas. You can find readings in the weekly modules as well as in the readings folders on the Files tab on the left. 

Jan. 5: Introduction

What is the purpose of the criminal law?

Jan. 7: “Theories of Criminal Law” (Intro, part 1., part 2) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Is Prison Necessary? Ruth Wilson Gilmore Might Change Your Mind” (NYT Magazine)

Jan. 12: Moore, Michael S., “The Function of Criminal Law” from Placing Blame: A General Theory of the Criminal Law.

Jan. 14: Duff, Anthony, “Towards a Theory of Criminal Law?”

Jan. 19: Husak, Douglas, “The Price of Criminal Law Skepticism: Ten Functions of the Criminal Law.”

Jan. 21: Chiao, Vincent, “What Is the Criminal Law for?”

Criminal Law and Punishment in the United States

Jan. 26: 13th (documentary on YouTube)

Jan. 28: Selections from Pfaff, John, Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform.

Feb. 1: Short Paper Due

Feb. 2: Special guests: Callan Martinez, Prosecutor, and Samuel Harold, Public Defender

Theories and Justifications for Punishment

Feb. 4: Feinburg, Joel, “The Classic Debate”

Feb. 9: Moore, Michael S. “The Moral Worth of Retribution.”

Feb. 11: Dagger, Richard,  “Playing Fair with Punishment.”

Feb. 16: Shelby, Tommie, “Punishment” from Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent, and Reform.

Feb. 18: Brooks, Thom. “Deterrence” from Punishment.

Feb. 23: Kelly, Erin, “Rethinking Punishment.” from The Limits of Blame: Rethinking Punishment and Responsibility

Law Enforcement in the United States

Feb. 25: Selections from Vitale, Alex, The End of Policing.

March 2: Kelly, Erin, “Law Enforcement in an Unjust Society” from The Limits of Blame: Rethinking Punishment and Responsibility

March 4: Wills, Vanessa. “‘What are you doing around here?’: Trayvon Martin and the Logic of Black Guilt” in Pursuing Trayvon Martin: Historical Contexts and Contemporary Manifestations of Racial Dynamics

March 9: Zack, Naomi, “Black Injustice and Police Homicide” White Privilege and Black Rights: The Injustice of U.S. Police Racial Profiling and Homicide.

March 11: Cherry, Myisha. “The Color and Content of Their Fears: A Short Analysis of Racial Profiling”



Catalog Description: 
Examination of philosophical theories regarding criminal habits and punishment and the philosophical problems connected with specific topics in criminal law. Examines proper subject matter of criminal law (drug use, pornography, euthanasia); limits of criminal sanctions; crime and privilege (corporate crime, white-collar crime, blackmail); justifications for punishment; mercy; and execution.
GE Requirements: 
Individuals and Societies (I&S)
Writing (W)
Last updated: 
October 16, 2020 - 9:15pm