Not available in 2019/20
GV321      Half Unit
Concepts and Controversies in Political Theory

This information is for the 2019/20 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Laura Valentini CON 3.01


This course is available on the BSc in Government, BSc in Government and Economics, BSc in Government and History, BSc in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, BSc in Politics, BSc in Politics and Economics, BSc in Politics and History, BSc in Politics and International Relations and BSc in Politics and Philosophy. This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit. This course is not available to General Course students.

This course is capped at one group. The deadline for enrolments is 12:00 noon on Friday 5 October 2018


Students will be expected to have some familiarity with political theory (e.g., having taken GV100 Introduction to Political Theory, or GV262 Contemporary Political Theory or some other, relevant module). 

Course content

This course is devoted to the advanced study of key concepts and related controversies in political theory. The focus of the course will vary from year to year, reflecting the expertise of the convenor as well as the most recent developments in the literature. Examples of possible core concepts covered include: justice and equality, freedom, democracy, rights and human rights, authority and disobedience, power, solidarity, sovereignty and many others. Each year, the course will zoom in on one or two such concepts, allowing for in-depth study of them and the controversies they generate.

In 2018-19, the course critically examines the ethics of disobedience to state authority and the ethics of punishment (and related state responses to disobedience). Methodologically, the course is situated within contemporary Anglo-American analytic political philosophy. Substantively, the course will be divided into two parts, and address questions such as the following.

Part 1, disobedience: Under what conditions may subjects to political authority (e.g., state authority) permissibly disobey the authority’s commands (e.g., the law)? Is there a right to engage in civil disobedience? Is there a duty to resist injustice? What is the moral status of boycotting and whistleblowing? When, if ever, might violent revolution be justified?

Part 2, punishment and other responses to disobedience: The state claims not only authority over us, but also the right to punish us when we disobey its directives. Under what conditions is punishment justified? And what role, if any, do mercy and forgiveness play in responding to disobedience? May the state justifiably punish crimes that are “necessitated” by social injustice (e.g., crimes the poor commit to survive)?"

The course will discuss these questions by reference to both moral/political theories and real-world examples.


10 hours of lectures and 20 hours of classes in the MT.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to submit a 1500 words formative essay by the end of week 6 (reading week). Students will also receive feedback on their class performance, and discuss their research project for the summative essay with the convenor (i.e., they will receive feedback on the project, too).

Indicative reading

A. J. Simmons, Moral Principles and Political Obligations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979); K. Brownlee, Conscience and Conviction: The Case for Civil Disobedience (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); B. Boxill, “The Responsibility of the Oppressed to Resist their own Oppression,” Journal of Social Philosophy, 41 (1) (2010), 1-12; J. Hampton, “The Moral Education Theory of Punishment,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 13 (1984): 208–38; L. Allais, “Wiping the Slate Clean: The Heart of Forgiveness,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 36 (1) (2008), 33–68; T. Shelby, “Justice, Deviance, and the Dark Ghetto,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, 35 (2) (2007), 126-160.



Essay (80%, 4000 words) in the LT.
Class participation (20%) in the MT.

Key facts

Department: Government

Total students 2018/19: 10

Average class size 2018/19: 10

Capped 2018/19: No

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills