Course Description

PHI 234/POL 312

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

The course meets every Tuesday from 2pm to 4:40pm in Carman 349.
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, CritovideoPass/Fail #2
Mar 17Hart, Positivism and the Separation of Laws and MoralsPass/Fail #3
Mar 24Fuller, Positivism and Fidelity to the Law
Mar 31Writing workshop
Apr 7No class
Apr 14No class: Spring break
PART 3Algorithms in Criminal Justice
Apr 28Mayson, Bias In, Bias OutpostGraded #3
May 5Aziz, Racial Equity in Algorithmic Criminal JusticePass/Fail #4
May 12Writing workshop
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.

Recent Posts

Algorithmic Fairness in Criminal Justice

Algorithms are used in the criminal justice system to streamline decisions in policing, pre-trial risk assessment and sentencing. …

Hammurabi v. NY on Stolen Goods

Hammurabi's Code and the NY Penal Code were written at different times in history and are obviously quite unlike one another. They …