Can Philosophical Insights or Empirical Knowledge Help Us Make Hard Choices?


Course Code:
LAW 681B
Law Mandatory P/R/F


We will explore both two overarching themes and five specific problems that I hope are intrinsically interesting. The first general question is whether philosophical inquiries on big issues – e.g. what it means to be well-off; what obligations do we have to strangers who are radically worse off than we are; when should we observe rights-based limits on our pursuit of aggregate welfare; what does it mean to coerce another party – help us make choices when it is not obvious what we should do. The second, related question is whether empirical knowledge – e.g. psychological, economic – might help us, in addition, instead, or no more than philosophical insight. The specific questions we will focus on have little in common, other than that they are not easily answered. Some refer to decisions that seem wholly self-regarding, others that seem to refer to obligations to others. Some involve acting in professional role, some out of role. Some seem plainly important, others might seem more trivial. And it is possible, of course, that you will come to believe that philosophers or empiricists may have more to say about some of the issues that we discuss than others. The five questions I tentatively plan on exploring are: (a) how a late adolescent patient (or a doctor advising that patient) ought to choose between an operation that will significantly improve various aspects of her life over the next thirty years but poses a substantial risk of leaving her wheelchair-dependent in middle age and an operation that will lead to impaired functioning for the next few decades but mobile without mechanical aids past the age of 50 (b) how we can evaluate claims that virtually all of us living in economically prosperous countries are obliged to give away a substantial chunk of our income to save the lives of very poor people around the world (c) how we should evaluate the propriety of torture designed to elicit information about planned criminal/terrorist activities that might arguably save those who would be harmed if the plans came to fruition (d) how an attorney in a big law firm ought to determine when and whether it is appropriate to ask an administrative assistant to do work that is not directly related to the production of legal services (e.g. pick up laundry from the cleaners) and whether (and if so, why) the answer to that question is sensitive to the gender of the attorney and the attorney's administrative assistant, and finally, (e) whether existing rules governing the conduct of war that draw significant distinctions between killing soldiers and killing civilians and between killing civilians intentionally rather than knowingly are sensible. Begin in Winter Quarter and run through Spring Quarter. Class meeting dates: To be determined by instructor. Elements used in grading: Class attendance at all sessions and class participation. DISCUSSIONS IN ETHICAL & PROFESSIONAL VALUES COURSES RANKING FORM: To apply for this course, 2L, 3L and Advanced Degree students must complete and submit a Ranking Form available on the SLS Registrar's Office website (see Registration and Selection of Classes for Stanford Law Students and then see Consent of Instructor Forms). See Ranking Form for instructions and submission deadline.

Past Offerings

2014-2015 Spring

Can Philosophical Insights or Empirical Knowledge Help Us Make Hard Choices? LAW 681B Section 01 Class #30417

  • Enrollment Limitations: Consent 8

2014-2015 Winter

Can Philosophical Insights or Empirical Knowledge Help Us Make Hard Choices? LAW 681B Section 01 Class #33354

  • Enrollment Limitations: Consent 1
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