Political Ethics

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Course Level:
Course Length:
15 weeks

Course Objectives:

In a time in which the term “political ethics” has become an oxymoron of sorts, we will attempt to understand what is morally required of us in order to be both good people and good citizens. In order to accomplish this, we will consider what a number of thinkers have had to say, from both ancient and modern times. We will begin, necessarily, at the beginning, by attempting to understand just what politics is. From there, we will better be able to understand the question of what politics should be. While these issues and concerns are certainly timeless, we will be attempting to address them through the lens of 20th century America. It is expected that all students will have taken political science 301, and will therefore be able to discuss the issues presented in light of present day American politics.


Course Requirements:

Because of the small size of the class, we will operate in seminar fashion, which puts a good deal of the responsibility of the course on your shoulders. Your grade in this class will be determined by three short papers (no more than four pages long) which you will present in class, and a take home final examination. You will be held to a high standard of performance. Competence in written English is, simply put, expected. Papers that do not meet this standard will be returned ungraded. Late papers, given the presentation requirement, will not be accepted. You will choose the topics that you want to write on for your short papers, and the final examination topic will be given to you well in advance of the due date. The short papers will be worth 30% of your total grade. The final will be worth 50%. The remaining 20% of your grade will be reflective of your attendance and participation. Penalties may go beyond 20% of your total grade for excessive absences or complete lack of participation.


Required Texts:

  1. Machiavelli, The Prince.
  2. Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Martin Ostwald, trans.
  3. Kenneth M. Dolbeare, American Political Thought, 4th edition, 1998. (Hereafter APT).


Course Outline:

  • I. Two competing understandings of politics: Aristotle and Machiavelli, Ancient and Modern.
    • Readings: Leo Strauss, “On Classical Political Philosophy.” (handout)
    • Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1, Chapters 1-5, 7-13. Book 2, Chapters 1-3, 5. Book 3, Chapters 1, 2, 5. Book 5, Chapters 1, 3, 6, 7. Book 8, Chapters 9, 10. Book 10, Chapters 1, 4, 7, 9.
    • Machiavelli, The Prince, entire.
  • II. The American Founding: Ancient or Modern?
    • Readings: The Declaration of Independence. APT page 62.
    • Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Henry Lee (handout).
    • Thomas Paine, Common Sense. APT page 49.
    • Federalist, Numbers 10, 51, 55. APT page 98, 110, (handout for Number 55).
    • George Washington, First Inaugural Address (handout).
  • III.The Nature of Sovereign Power and the limits of Individual Rights.
    • Readings: Hobbes, Leviathan, chapters 13-15 (handout)
    • Sophocles, Antigone (handout).
    • Plato, The Apology of Socrates, (handout).
    • Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience. APT page 222.
  • IV. Individual Rights, Race, and Gender.
    • Readings: Dred Scott v. Sandford (handout)
    • Frederick Douglass, Speech at the Anti-Slavery Association, 1848. APT page 249.
    • “The Various Phases of Anti-Slavery.” APT page 252.
    • Abraham Lincoln, Speech on the Dred Scott Decision. APT page 281.
    • Letter to Boston Republicans. APT page 284.
    • Cooper Union Address. APT page 285.
    • First Inaugural Address. APT page 286.
    • The Gettysburg Address. APT page 294.
    • W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk. APT page 382.
    • Martin Luther King, Letter from a Birmingham City Jail. APT page 482.
    • Malcolm X, The Ballot or the Bullet, 1964 (handout).
    • Students for a Democratic Society, The Port Huron Statement. APT page 490.
    • John and Abigail Adams, Correspondence, 1776. APT page 82
    • Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Seneca Falls Declaration and Resolutions. APT page 244.
    • Address to the New York State Legislature. APT page 247 **Emma Goldman, “The Tragedy of Women’s Emancipation.” APT page 376. **Betty Friedan, Our Revolution is Unique. APT page 499.
  • V. The Progressive Reinterpretation of American Politics: Ancient or Modern?
    • Readings: Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life. APT page 412.
    • Woodrow Wilson, “The Meaning of Democracy.” APT page 441.
    • John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems. APT page 447.
    • Franklin D. Roosevelt, An Economic Bill of Rights. APT page 468.
  • VI. Contemporary American Issues.
    • Readings: National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Economic Justice for All: Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U. S. Economy. APT page 515.
    • Carolyn Merchant, Ecological Revolutions. APT page 524.
    • Glenn C. Loury, Achieving the “Dream”: A Challenge to Liberals and **Conservatives in the Spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. APT page 538.