How to Teach Undergrads Political Philosophy in Two Hours

So for the past week, I’ve been neck-deep in teaching a two-week intensive Introduction to Philosophy course (go figure) at Moody Bible Institute (go figure), and having a blast with it.  And apparently so are some of my students—when I learned (very belatedly) that there would be no class on MLK Day, and thus had to cut the “Political Philosophy” unit out of the syllabus, several of them suggested meeting today at a local donut shop for an informal class anyway.  And so we did.  So with just two hours to introduce them to fundamental questions in political philosophy, here’s what I came up with:

Reading: David Miller, Political Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, chs. 4 (“Freedom and the Limits of Government”) and 5 (“Justice”).

 

1st Hour—Freedom:

Students, for each of the following pairs, write down which of these two you think is more free, A or B. You can go with your gut or give it a quick think, but only a minute. Be prepared to defend your answer.

1. (A) A well-fed, well-provided-for slave with a decent master.
(B) A Bangladeshi wage-laborer working on under $1 a day at an unsafe factory.

2. (A) A Christian Bible College student whose parents are paying for tuition.
(B) A student paying their own way at a secular state university who parties whenever they want.

3. (A) A low-income black single-mother who chooses to have an abortion.
(B) A well-off New York liberal who chooses to have an abortion.

4. (A) The President of the United States.
(B) A small business-owner with a decent living and no mortgage.

Now let’s discuss each in turn. There is no right answer necessarily, and there are multiple considerations at stake in each.  

 

2nd Hour—Justice:

Students, for each of the following scenarios, write down “just” or “unjust.” Again, you can go with your gut or give it a quick think, but only a minute. Be prepared to defend your answer. First, Les Mis version.

1. Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s son.

2. Jean Valjean spends 19 years in prison (“five for what he did, the rest because he tried to run”)

3. After Valjean violates parole, Javert seeks to put Valjean back in prison at every opportunity.

4. The students in Paris lead a revolution on behalf of the oppressed poor.

5. Valjean spares Javert’s life after Javert infiltrates the revolutionaries and tries to betray them.

Now let’s discuss each in turn for a half hour.

 

Ok, now Goldman Sachs version.

1. The Goldman Sachs board votes to pay Lloyd Blankfein $150 million a year.

2. The government decides to raise the top marginal tax rate on people like Lloyd Blankfein to 60%

3. Lloyd Blankfein takes advantage of loopholes to domicile his money at tax havens and avoids paying most tax.

4. The Goldman Sachs board votes to pay 10,000 of their employees (clerical staff, janitors, etc.) minimum wage.

5. The government decides to raise the minimum wage to $15/hr.

Now let’s discuss each of these in turn for a half hour.

 

Both discussions worked brilliantly, as I don’t think there was a single one of the questions on which all six students present had agreed in their initial answer, but all were able to offer good arguments and at many times persuade one another.  Most also realized that their various answers were often deeply inconsistent with one another, and worked to try to bring their convictions into a more logical framework.  Both discussions could probably have readily been expanded to twice their length, especially with a larger group of students.  So now I’m just itching to teach a Political Philosophy or Ethics course where I can do this again in greater depth.

I should add that it probably helped the good cheer immensely that we had a box of doughnuts in the middle of the table.

One thought on “How to Teach Undergrads Political Philosophy in Two Hours

  1. But were the donuts from deforestation-free palm oil? Or was your sweet lard freedom created unjustly at the cost of a home for orangutans and a stable climate? 😉

    Sounds like a great class.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s