Course Description

PHI 234/POL 312


  • Last Zoom class May 12 starting at 2pm. Be ready to share your ideas about Graded Assignment #4 (due May 19). I know the end of the semester is hectic, especially during these difficult times, so this final class meeting is not mandatory. But you are very welcome to join!

  • Zoom class May 5 starting at 2pm. Note that Pass/Fail Assignment #4 (due May 12, optional) and Graded Assignment #4 (due May 19) are now posted.

  • Zoom class April 28 starting at 2pm. In preparation for the class, please write three short paragraphs explaining (1) false positive (FP) and false negative (FN) rates; (2) wrong positive and wrong negative predictions; and (3) how (1) and (2) differ from one another. Check out this handout.
  • Zoom class April 21 starting at 2pm. Graded assignment #3 due April 21, please submit here

  • Zoom class April 14 starting at 2pm. Please join!

  • No Zoom class Tuesday April 7 since classes follow a Wednesday schedule.

  • The CUNY chancellor said that we are officially on a break from March 27 to April 1. You are not required to attend classes or do any work during this period. I am still holding a Zoom class Tuesday March 31 starting at 2pm, but your attendance is completely optional! If you join please be prepared to share ideas and thoughts on graded assignment #3.

  • Zoom class March 24 starting at 2pm. Please join!

  • Submit your third pass/fail assignment due March 24 here (If you have technical difficulties, let me know.)

  • Course is migrating to on-line. Stay tuned for updates.

  • The third pass/fail assignment is now due March 24.

  • Instruction suspended until March 19.

Welcome to PHI 234 / POL 312 for Spring 2020!

This is an introduction to philosophical questions about law, legal reasoning and the justice system.

The course is divided into three parts:

  1. Law and interpretation – What makes a written text a piece of law? What principles inform the writing of laws? Are laws mere human conventions? How should judges decide difficult cases?

  2. Law and morality – Are laws grounded on moral and ethical principles? Should we obey immoral laws? Why should we obey the law in the first place?

  3. Algorithms and the justice system – How are algorithms used in the justice system today?Do they pose a threat? Can they improve the justice system?

The instructor for the course is Marcello Di Bello.

All course materials are available on this website. Check out the course schedule and syllabus. Blackboard will not be used. Please check this website for updates.

Course schedule

Class meets every Tuesday from 2pm to 4:40pm in Carman 349. The course is now on-line.
DateReadingsOther materialsAssignments due
PART 1Law and interpretation
Jan 28Fassin, Why Does One Punish?
Feb 4Hammurabi's code and NY Penal CodepostGraded #1
Feb 11Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill (1978)summaryPass/Fail #1
Feb 18DeBoer v. Snyder (6th Circuit, 2014)summary
Feb 25Writing workshop
PART 2Law and Morality
Mar 3Sophocle, AntigonevideoGraded #2
Mar 10Plato, CritoZoom meeting / in-person class canceledvideoPass/Fail #2
Mar 17Class cancelled
Mar 24Hart, Positivism and the Separation of Laws and MoralsslidesPass/Fail #3
Mar 31Fuller, Positivism and Fidelity to the Lawslides
Apr 7No class: classes follow a Wednesday schedule
Apr 14Writing workshop
PART 3Algorithms in Criminal Justice
Apr 21ProPublica, Machine BiashandoutGraded #3
Apr 28Mayson, Bias In, Bias Outpost
May 5Aziz, Racial Equity in Algorithmic Criminal Justice
May 12Writing workshopPass/Fail #4 submit here
May 19No class: exam periodGraded #4


There two types of assignments for this course:

  • four graded assignments – receiving a letter grade between F and A, each worth 25%
  • four pass/fail assignments – receiving a grade of either pass or fail

Every assignment, graded or pass/fail, must be handed in paper copy at the beginning of class.

For due dates, check the course schedule.

Late policy

For each day a graded assignment is late, one third of a letter grade will be taken off. For example, an A becomes an A-; an A- becomes a B+; a B+ becomes a B; and so on.

If you do not hand in a pass/fail assignment by the due date, you have the option of either completing the assignment by the week after together with an additional pass/fail assignment at the discretion of the instructor or failing the assignment. The latter option will negatively affect your final grade.


Your final grade grade will depend on the average of your graded assignments. In addition:

  • For each pass/fail assignment you failed, two thirds of a letter grade will be subtracted from your final grade (that is, A becomes a B+; an A- becomes a B; and so on.).

  • If you misssed three or more classes, this will negatively affect your final grade up to a one full letter grade at the discretion of the instructor. If you attended class regularly and participated in the discussion, this will positively affect your final grade up to one full letter grade at the discretion of the instructor.

Grading criteria

C Range - The writing demonostrates a sufficient grasp of the main concepts and ideas, with some occasional mistakes, and also shows reasonably good mastery of expository and argumentative writing.

B range - The writing shows a good grasp of the main concepts and ideas, with only minor mistakes, and also shows a full mastery of expository and argumentative writing.

A range - The writing shows an excellent grasp of the main concepts and ideas, as well as excellent mastery of expository and argumentative writing. In addition, the writing shows clear in-depth indepedent and creative thinking.

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