Course: WWS 370
Instructor: Professor Macedo
F 2017

Description of Course Goals and Curriculum

WWS370 Ethics and Public Policy aims to challenge students to think about policy from a different perspective than many Woodrow Wilson School courses: instead of navigating through the particulars of policy implementations, students step back and ask what the policy is trying to achieve by critically analyzing moral and political theories. The course uses the first half of the semester to introduce these theories such as Utilitarianism, Natural Rights Theories, and the Theory of Justice of John Rawls. After learning the basics of these theories and how they can interact with each other, the rest of the semester is spent looking at different subjects in US Policy and where they are rooted in theory. Some examples include immigration laws, the right of the state to restrict your behavior for your own good (paternalism), as well as criminal justice and its relationship with social justice.

Because you are introduced to such a wide range of topics, it is difficult to know the facts and nuisances of every policy that goes along with them, but the point of the course is not to get in the policy weeds, but rather to relate the questions regarding policy to the underlying political theory . It will give you a greater understanding for the reasons why the US (and other countries) legislate in the way they do, as well as give you a theoretical framework to look at policy implementation that gets down to fundamental questions about the state’s role in public affairs.

Learning From Classroom Instruction

  • Lectures
The lectures serve as a supplement to the course readings, and the assigned readings and their arguments are frequently the main topic of the lecture. For this reason, it is very helpful to have read the readings before class to understand the analysis of the arguments made. With that being said, if you have not done the readings before class, the lecture will give you insight into the key ideas that you should focus your attention on when you do read. Because the issues are often complex and controversial, the lectures are focused on relating the issues back down to fundamental questions of political and moral theory and help you to recognize common arguments and evidence given to support a popular theory.  
  • Assigned Reading
The assigned reading is perhaps the most important aspect of the course. The bulk of the material comes from the readings and the assigned papers will pull heavily on ideas from the readings. The readings come from a few different categories. Most of the reading is centered around modern political theorists and their arguments about a specific policy or program. This allows students to see how political theorists think about and combine theory and specific facts in order to make a compelling argument. The assigned papers often mirror this type of structure of pulling evidence from theory and practice. The second class of readings are directly from the source of original theorists (Kant, Stuart Mill, Rawls, etc.), and the third class of readings come from social scientists or policy experts that present facts about specific policy. Consider the second and third class of readings as the basis by which the first are written. As stated, the readings are essential to the course and are the topic of lectures, precepts and assignments throughout the semester.  
  • Precepts
The precepts in this course function in a similar manner to other philosophy or political theory courses. The format is often a forum to discuss questions about the readings or ideas brought up in lecture. There are no assignments that force you to prepare for precept, but students should make sure to have the readings done, or at least have the main ideas from lecture in order to get the most out of precept. This can be a good time to bring up a potential argument for a paper and get feedback on what counterarguments and sources exist surrounding that idea.

Learning For and From Assignments

The assignments are very straightforward: medium-length papers on large topics that are the subject of the readings and lectures for several weeks. The papers often require you to pull from several of the sources that were part of the required reading for previous weeks. The topics are straight-forward and are focused on subjects that you will be very familiar with. The papers are less about seeing a really creative and novel argument, and more about making sure that you understand and can interact with the required readings; you must show that you understand the argument of the sources and how they relate to political and moral theories discussed in lecture and precept. It will benefit students greatly to have good notes/outlines from the readings and to be able to show how the readings interact with each other. Also, the recommended readings can give you further insight into the topic and may be necessary to read/understand if you want to do very well. The main ideas will have already been the focus of lecture, so knowing what material is the most important is a matter of being engaged in both the readings and lecture. The assessments (midterm and final) consist of ID’s and essays. The potential ID’s will be given to you beforehand and the essays will be very large over-arching themes of the course – no surprises. Students are expected to understand basic concepts that have been introduced, with less of a focus on the exact authors or arguments of the readings. The essays serve to show that students can do the type of analysis of a certain policy with respect to moral and political theories – the main idea of the course. The assessments don’t try to trick you, an in-depth knowledge of the main themes of the course material will allow you to do well. As usual, notes from readings are helpful, as are notes from lecture that refine the readings and give students the main idea of the topics discussed.

External Resources

The course is mostly bound to the readings and materials given in class, however for any philosophy or political theory course, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy can be very helpful for clarifying the fundamentals of many different theories. The Encyclopedia entries also often address counterarguments and examples which can help put the ideas into perspective.

What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course Selection

This course is a great introduction to ethics and political theory and will provide a basis for analyzing many different policy issues. The course also uses recent, real life legislation (immigration policy or criminal justice in response to mass incarceration) to address the underlying political theory, which helps students to understand why the theory behind the law is important. The assigned readings give you insight into arguments about what should shape policy, and the lectures and precepts serve to highlight key ideas and clarify any problems with the readings. There are only a few assigned papers that allow you to bring together all course material around a main idea (i.e. Immigration or criminal justice). This course will allow you to look past the nuisances of policy implementation (funding, cooperation, partisanship) and look instead at the reasons we create laws and policy in the first place.
Ethics and Public Policy

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