PHIL 414 A: Philosophy of Law

Winter 2024
MW 1:30pm - 3:20pm / SAV 137
Section Type:
Syllabus Description (from Canvas):

a black and white image of a statute of lady justice, holding a sword and scales of justice. Text reads "Phil 414: Philosophy of Law"

Ph 414:Philosophy of Law

Dr. Amelia M. Wirts

M/W 1:30-3:20 in Savery 137

office hours: W 3:30-4:30, Th 1-2 (Savery 381)


Course Description:

What is law? Is it distinct from morality and politics? If so, how? What role does law play in distributing power in American society? What is a constitution and what legal guidance should it provide? What role do judges have in interpreting law? What kind of role should they have? Is law a tool for fighting oppression, or does law reinforce existing oppressive structures? These are some of the main questions that we will be discussing in this class.

The content of this class will focus on classical debates in philosophy of law about what law is and what the role of judges should be in interpreting it. We will also read criticisms of legal structures from the positions of critical race theory, feminist jurisprudence, and critical race feminism. We will glean this content from philosophical texts, American case law, statutes, and the Constitution.

The goals of this course are for students to learn the basic contours of these debates, to develop the capacity to analyze philosophical texts and American case law, and to apply concepts and critiques from this class to current events.

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.

Class Policies and Resources

Please review these class policies that apply to all UW Philosophy courses. You are responsible for knowing the rules about academic honesty and plagiarism that are discussed in this document. You will also find helpful resources for everything from campus safety to academic resources to emergency resources. 

Policies Specific to this Course:


There is an automatic grace-period of 24 hours for writing Assignments 1 and 2, and the final paper. This is to account for sudden emergencies like internet malfunctions, family care responsibilities, or illness. It also gives an additional window for you to proof-read your paper with fresh eyes if you would like.

If you need longer than 24 hours for an extension FOR ANY REASON AT ALL, simply email me. Papers turned in after the 24 hour extension might be graded later, but there will be no penalty for turning them in late. All papers must be received by March 14 at 11:59PM in order for me to grade them in time for final grades.

There are no extensions for reading quizzes because the purpose of these is to prepare you for class discussion. If you have an extended illness or personal emergency situation that causes you to miss more than one quiz, email me so we can make a plan for you to make up the quizzes you missed. 

COVID Stuff:

Please always stay home if you are feeling sick, not only to protect others from the spread of COVID, colds, and flus, but also to take care of yourself! Feel free to mask in class, and please respect those who chose to wear masks. 

Please be sure that you follow all University, State, County, and City regulations regarding COVID. Get tested if you have symptoms, and follow the instructions if you test positive. 

Academic Misconduct

Be sure to read the academic misconduct policy below. Students who turn in papers that are plagiarized or fail to cite outside sources risk receiving a zero for the whole assignment and/or failing the whole course. Likewise, most uses of AI, including chat gpt for any assignments in this course will constitute academic dishonesty. We will discuss the details of this policy for writing assignments in class. If you follow the directions in the assignments and do not copy work from other people or from the internet, you should have no problem!

Required Readings:

All required readings will be available in the weekly modules on canvas. There is no textbook to purchase. I will assign readings and post reading quizzes at least one week before they are due. 

Grade Components:

  • Reading Quizzes: 10% (lowest 3 dropped)
  • Writing Assignment 1: 25%
  • Writing Assignment 2: 25%
  • Final Paper Proposal: 5%
  • Final Paper 30%
  • Class Participation: 5%

Grade Scale

  • I convert percentage to the UW 4.0 Scale in the following way:
  • 95%=4.0,
  • 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%.

Reading Quizzes:

There will be short, 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 weekly modules. They must be completed by noon the day we discuss them in class. They are open book, and I strongly encourage you to take the quiz while you complete reading. There is no time limit, and you will have two attempts. After the first attempt, canvas will show you which questions you missed. Then you will have your second attempt.

I also strongly recommend that you review the correct answers, which will be available on Canvas, after you take the exam but before class. 

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.

Writing Assignments

Each writing assignment is designed to develop a specific philosophical writing skill, and each assignment builds on the skills in the previous assignments. In addition to learning philosophical writing skills, these writing assignments also help you learn the content of the course in a deeper way. If you want to really understand an idea, write about it!

 Writing assignment 1 will focus on charitably interpreting and reconstructing a philosophical position and the argument that supports it. 

Writing assignment 2 will focus on identifying objections and responses to philosophical positions. 

Final Paper

As a conclusion to the course, students will propose their own topic and write a paper in conversation with texts from the course. Students should develop a philosophical position and explain how it relates to texts from the course. In developing the position, students should raise and respond to a potential objection.  


Philosophy is hard! Attending and participating in class discussion is necessary for fully digesting the course material. Practicing talking through key concepts and arguments is an important part of understanding the debates we will be having in class. One does not have to speak in front of the whole class to get participation points or to get the most out of class. Other forms of participation include contributing in small groups by taking notes, asking questions, and listening actively. You can also ask me questions one-on-one during small group discussion. Students will set participation goals and revisit them throughout the quarter.

Tentative Reading Schedule 

This is the tentative reading schedule for the term. Weekly Modules will include links to readings, quizzes, and other class materials. Defer to weekly modules where there is a conflict between this list and the weekly modules. 

January 3: Introduction

Unit 1: What is Law?

 Natural Law Theory vs Legal Positivism (Hart/Fuller Debate)

  • January 8: MLK's 'Letter From a Birmingham Jail',  Thomas Aquinas, selections from Summa Theologica
  • January 10: HLA Hart, "Positivism and the Separation of Law and Morals"
  • January 15:  No Class, MLK Day
  • January 17:  Lon Fuller, "Positivism and Fidelity to Law: A Reply to Professor Hart"
  • January 22: Hart/Fuller Debate Day

Positivism vs. Integrity: Hart/Dworkin Debate

  • January 24: Hart, "Law as the Union of Primary and Secondary Rules" and "The Foundations of a Legal System."
  • January 29:: Finish Hart. Begin Dworkin, "The Model of Rules I" from Taking Rights Seriously
  •  January 31 "Integrity in Law" From Law's Empire.
  • February 5::  Hart/Dworkin Debate Day

Unit 2: Constitutional Interpretation 

  • February 7: Justice Antonin' Scalia's A Matter of Interpretation
  • February 12: Dworkin's reply to Scalia
  • February 14: Obergefell v. Hodges, Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health
  • February 19: NO CLASS (PRESIDENTS' DAY)
  • February 21: NO CLASS (WORK DAY)  

Unit 3:  Law and Social Change

  • February 26: Kathleen Sullivan "Constitutionalizing Women's Equality," US v. Virginia
  • February 28: Catharine MacKinnon, "Unthinking ERA Thinking," and "Towards a Feminist Jurisprudence"
  • March 4:  Brown v. Board of Education, and Derrick Bell's "Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest Convergence Theory"
  • March 6:  Delgado and Stefancic "Social Construction of Brown v. Board"


Catalog Description:
Nature and function of law. Relation of law to morality. Legal rights, judicial reasoning.
GE Requirements Met:
Social Sciences (SSc)
Writing (W)
Last updated:
February 23, 2024 - 12:43 pm