Modern political philosophy

Basic Information

Course 2023/2024
Andrew Williams
Universitat Pompeu Fabra
Module 5. Research Seminar in Practical Philosophy


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 studies the answers 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. In previous years, authors we discussed included Elizabeth Anderson, Tom Christiano, G.A. Cohen, Ronald Dworkin, David Estlund, Niko Kolodny, Japa Pallikkathayil, Joseph Raz, Samuel Scheffler, Seana Shiffrin, Hillel Steiner, Zofia Stemplowska, Anna Stilz, Philippe Van Parijs, and David Velleman.

The questions we shall address will include the following.

  1. Do we need a state, and, if so, why?
  2. Under which conditions, if any, do we have a moral duty to obey a government’s commands,
  3. Under which conditions, if any, do we have a moral right to overthrow an illegitimate government?
  4. Do individuals possess rights that the state has a moral duty to respect and protect?
  5. How, if at all, can freedom of speech be justified?
  6. What’s wrong with paternalism?
  7. What’s so good about democracy?
  8. Can private property be justified? If so, how should it be distributed? If not, why not?
  9. How do capitalism, socialism, and communism differ? Are there good reasons to favour one system over another? What role does unconditional basic income play in answering this question.



Week One: Hobbes on Conflict in the State of Nature Primary Reading to be read before Class 1

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




Time: The course is normally taught via ten three-hour classes, divided between a two-hour interactive lecture on the primary reading and a concluding hour involving student-led discussion of relevant work in contemporary political philosophy.


Bibliography 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.

For useful reference works it will also be helpful to consult David Estlund, The Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which is available online at this site:

Other considerations

Availability: Because this is a core course for a relatively large group of students it is available for credit only to students from the UPF M.A. in Political Philosophy and the UB A.Phil. It is not available for credit to Erasmus or any other visiting students.

Although we always study Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, and J. S. Mill, the precise readings will change from year to year. So, please do not rely on earlier course documents.