This course is an introduction to political theory. What is political theory? One way of answering the question is to say that political theory entails the normative and conceptual analysis of politics. For example, rather than ask the question, Why do we obey states?, political theory might instead ask, Why should we obey states? That is, it asks a normative question: what should be done, rather than what is done.
This question – Why should we obey states? – is the central question of this course, and it structures the choice of texts that we will be studying and how we will study them. We live in a world of states, and we can demonstrate their empirical existence in a number of ways. Whether we should live in a world of states, whether we should obey states, or any particular state: those are different issues. Is there a reason, then, why we should obey governments (apart from the fact that they can fine or imprison us)? Is there a reason why, for all of their problems, democratic forms of rule are better than non-democratic forms of rule? Is there a reason why, under certain circumstances, a state can cease to be legitimate – and may in fact be disobeyed or overthrown? These are some of the questions we will be concerned with in this course.
Of course, we take it for granted that not only do states exist, but that we should obey their laws. But this belief, like any other belief, is not self-explanatory, and should be subjected to critical analysis. And much of what we will do in this course is study intensively how a number of writers – Wolff, Plato, Hobbes, Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, Mill, Rawls, Nozick, and Scott – have explored the nature of this belief. We will discuss obedience, obligation, legitimacy, rights, consent, rebellion, revolution, monarchy, democracy, human nature, religion and politics, and a variety of related topics. And we will start, and end, our discussion with readings which suggest that our understanding of political obligation should be much thinner, if not done away with altogether.