Fall 2019 - PHIL 421W D100

Advanced Topics in Ethical Theory (4)

Normativity and Law

Class Number: 4769

Delivery Method: In Person


  • Course Times + Location:

    Mo, We 2:30 PM – 4:20 PM
    AQ 5014, Burnaby

  • Prerequisites:

    two 300 level PHIL courses; it is strongly recommended that students have taken some prior course in moral theory.



A highly focused, advanced examination of a selection of topics in normative or meta-ethics. May be repeated for credit. Writing.


Selected Topics: Normativity and Law

[Note: this course is to be taught concurrently with PHIL 823.]  

The M’Naghten rule regarding insanity holds that a person is non-culpable for some action if, due to mental disease, they are incapable of knowing that they ought not to have performed that action.  But how are we to understand the force of that ‘ought’?  Is it a legal ‘ought’?  A moral ‘ought’?  Suppose you are a public official charged with enforcing a law that you believe to be morally abhorrent.  Do you have an obligation to enforce that law?  What is the nature and source of that obligation?  Is it possible to have a genuine legal obligation to do enforce an unjust law?  These questions are fundamentally about the domain of metaethics philosophers call “normativity,” and its relation to “jurisprudence” or the philosophy of law.  In this course we will be particularly concerned with questions regarding the normative authority of morality and (positive) law.   

The course will begin with a historical look at the Early Modern natural law tradition, focusing on its development in the early modern period through such writers as Suarez, Hobbes, Pufendorf, and Locke.  As these philosophers had a law-conception of morality, one of the central questions that animated their thinking was how to account for the distinctive force of Law or command as opposed to mere counsel.  As one moves later in the nineteenth and twentieth century, this law-conception of morality gives way to more naturalistic or autonomy-based conceptions of morality.  This shift gives rise to other questions such as whether the conceptual framework inherited from the natural law tradition is still appropriate, or what provides moral norms their authority.  With the rise of positivist jurisprudence in the last half of the twentieth century, similar questions arise regarding the authority of legal obligations.   In the second and third parts of the course, we will look at more contemporary attempts to grapple with these questions in normativity and jurisprudence. 


This course may be applied towards the Writing Requirement (and the upper division Writing Requirement for Philosophy Majors).

The course is excellent preparation for: graduate school in philosophy, public policy degrees, law school, business school.


  • Ten Key Concept Papers (1 page) - 1% each 10%
  • First Essay (1000-1500 words) 30%
  • Final Essay (2000-3000 words): outline 5%, first draft (not graded), final draft 55% 60%



All readings will be made available on Canvas.

Department Undergraduate Notes:

Thinking of a Philosophy Major or Minor? The Concentration in Law and Philosophy? The Certificate in Ethics? The Philosophy and Methodology of Science Certificate?
Contact the PHIL Advisor at philmgr@sfu.ca   More details on our website: SFU Philosophy

Registrar Notes:

SFU’s Academic Integrity web site http://www.sfu.ca/students/academicintegrity.html is filled with information on what is meant by academic dishonesty, where you can find resources to help with your studies and the consequences of cheating.  Check out the site for more information and videos that help explain the issues in plain English.

Each student is responsible for his or her conduct as it affects the University community.  Academic dishonesty, in whatever form, is ultimately destructive of the values of the University. Furthermore, it is unfair and discouraging to the majority of students who pursue their studies honestly. Scholarly integrity is required of all members of the University. http://www.sfu.ca/policies/gazette/student/s10-01.html