Modern political philosophy

Basic Information

Course 2017/2018
Andrew Williams
Law School, Area of Legal and Political Philosophy
Universitat Pompeu Fabra
Module 5. Research Seminar in Practical Philosophy


Tuesdays; 15:00-18:00
UPF; room 20.237


The course examines the continuing relevance of some of the greatest or most influential figures in the history of modern political philosophy. To do so, it examines the answers some of their work suggests to various central questions that arise in reflecting on political life.

More specifically, we shall consider some of the main ideas of the following five historical authors: Thomas Hobbes; John Locke; Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Karl Marx; and John Stuart Mill. We shall also examine work related to these historical precursors by various contemporary Anglo-American philosophers. These authors vary from year to year but a representative sample includes G. A. Cohen, Joseph Raz, T. M. Scanlon, Thomas Nagel, Philippe Van Parijs, Seana Shiffrin, Niko Kolodny, Thomas Christiano, Victor Tadros, David Estlund, David Velleman, and Frederick Neuhouser.

The questions we shall address will include the following.

  • Do we need a state, and, if so, why?
  • Under which conditions, if any, do we have a moral duty to obey a government’s commands,
  • Under which conditions, if any, do we have a moral right to overthrow an illegitimate government?
  • Do individuals possess rights that the state has a moral duty to respect and protect?
  • How, if at all, can toleration be justified?
  • What’s wrong with paternalism?
  • What’s so good about democracy?
  • Can private property be justified? If so, how should it be distributed? If not, why not?
  • How do capitalism, socialism, and communism differ? Are there good reasons to favour one system over another?


The course will be taught via three hour long classes, involving an interactive lecture followed (from Week Two) by a seminar-style discussion, in which students ask focused questions (rather than make presentations) about some pre-assigned paper by a contemporary author.

All students should read in advance the weekly primary reading mentioned below and to come prepared to make a comment or pose a question about the historical text under consideration. They are also strongly recommended to read the contemporary text the seminar discussion will focus on.


For assessment, students will write an assessed essay of no more than 2,000 words.


Primary Texts

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (ed. Richard Tuck)

John Locke, Two Treatises of Government (ed. Peter Laslett)

Jon Elster (ed.), Karl Marx: A Reader

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty and Other Essays (ed. John Gray)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, On the Social Contract (ed. Roger Masters)

Other versions of many of these texts are available at many internet sites.

Jonathan Bennett, a distinguished scholar working on early modern philosophy, has also produced less archaic versions of several texts, which are available at this site:

Those attending the course should read the following before the first class.


Primary Reading: Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Chapters 6, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15, and “Review and Conclusion”


Secondary Reading: G. A. Cohen, ‘How to Do Political Philosophy’, G. A. Cohen, The Currency of Egalitarian Justice and Other Essays (ed. Michael Otsuka)