Spring 2024 - PHIL 120W D100

Moral and Legal Problems (3)

Class Number: 7290

Delivery Method: In Person


  • Course Times + Location:

    Jan 8 – Apr 12, 2024: Thu, 2:30–4:20 p.m.

  • Exam Times + Location:

    Apr 22, 2024
    Mon, 3:30–6:30 p.m.

    Apr 22, 2024
    Mon, 3:30–6:30 p.m.



A critical examination of a range of moral and legal issues we confront in our dealings with the state and our fellow human beings, such as: Is it wrong to break the law? Should pornography and recreational drugs be illegal? Do animals have rights? Is there a duty to admit immigrants? Are there duties to the world's poor? Are indigenous peoples owed reparations? Students with credit for PHIL 120 may not take this course for further credit. Writing/Breadth-Humanities.


Imagine you are smart enough to earn $150 billion during your lifetime and want to save the planet. Suppose the laws are getting in your way. You believe you can break the laws without getting discovered.  Should you resort to fraud to help save the planet? For Sam Bankman-Fried (founder of FTX crypto exchange, on trial at the time of this writing) and other utilitarians this poses a hard question. Bankman-Fried was affiliated with “Effective Altruism”: a group of contemporary utilitarian philosophers who have considerable influence among venture capitalists. For some utilitarians, a person’s duty to comply with rules, laws and norms depends exclusively on the expected value of each action. From the vantage point of rival theories of justice, however, the end does not always justify the means. Justice does not issue moral blank cheques to break the rules: even to altruists who might have a shot at saving the planet.

Philosophers have attempted for several millennia to describe in a systematic way the shape of a just life and just laws. This course is an introduction to that ongoing conversation. It will include: (1) a survey of the classical theories of justice developed in the Western philosophical tradition, and (2) a series of special topics. Examples may comprise,

  • The territorial rights of indigenous peoples
  • What is wrong with authoritarianism in politics?
  • What is the justification for democracy?
  • The meaning of domination
  • Is there a right to work?
  • The justification for civil disobedience and revolution
  • Why might opportunities for offending people in society and within universities be valuable for everyone?

The course Syllabus will be available on Canvas the day before term begins.


PHIL 120W may be applied towards the Writing Requirement, and the Breadth-Humanities Requirement. The course is strongly recommended for students intending to pursue a Philosophy Major or Minor (especially with the Law and Philosophy concentration), or the Certificate in Ethics.

The general aim of the course is for students to learn how to:

  • Identify a thesis and its supporting arguments in philosophical materials and other relevant sources
  • Engage with those arguments in respectful discussion with peers
  • Construct written arguments and anticipate replies to those arguments
  • Since this is a w-course, students have the valuable privilege of learning how to revise their work in response to written feedback

This course is excellent preparation for: the Law and Philosophy and the Philosophy and Beedie School degrees, law school, public policy degrees, business school, or for anyone wishing to participate in public deliberation with their fellow citizens.

Videos: Why Study Philosophy? and Meet Our Professors!


  • Ten single paragraph reflections (1% deducted per missed assignment)
  • One essay and one revision, 500 words 20%
  • One essay and one revision, 700 words 20%
  • One final paper 1000 words, no revision 30%
  • One short final exam: (multiple choice, 1 hour) 30%


All papers must include references (with page or section numbers) and bibliographies. Students are permitted to use generative AI but are required to indicate where they have relied on that technology and are responsible for its content. Be prepared to explain and defend each and every sentence in your papers. I reserve the right to substitute a student’s score on an oral examination for their paper grade. Also, please consult the University Policy on Academic Dishonesty.



All course materials are available free online from at least one of the following sources: the SFU Library, the Web, SFU Canvas. There is no course reader or text.



Your personalized Course Material list, including digital and physical textbooks, are available through the SFU Bookstore website by simply entering your Computing ID at: shop.sfu.ca/course-materials/my-personalized-course-materials.

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 philcomm@sfu.ca   More details on our website: SFU Philosophy

Registrar Notes:


SFU’s Academic Integrity website 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