PHIL 510 A Sp 20: Seminar In Social Philosophy

PHIL 510 A Sp 20: Seminar In Social Philosophy

Philosophy 510A: Spring 2020

Seminar on Social Philosophy: The Varieties of Wickedness

Online meeting: Wednesdays, 3:30 to 5:20


Course head: Michael Blake



Most courses in social and political philosophy begin with an image of what it would be to treat people well; with, that is, an image of justice in social institutions or justification in interpersonal conduct.  But every image of what is righteous is, by negative implication, an image of what is wicked; and this seminar will explore the conceptual vocabulary of wickedness, by examining the concepts and terms by which philosophers have sought to explain that which ought not be done.


This class is, I should note, a departure from my usual teaching, in two ways.  The first is that the course will be conducted entirely online, which is likely going to prove somewhat awkward (at best) at first.  The second is that the topic of this seminar is not one on which I can claim expertise; I have written very little on this subject, and am coming to most of these readings for the first time.  This course will be, as a result, somewhat of an experiment; and it is the responsibility of each participant in the course to do their share to make the course succeed.


Course format


The course will have two aspects: a synchronous meeting, to be held on Zoom, each week on Wednesday; and an asynchronous one, to be conducted on the Canvas website.


My hope is to have everyone participate in both aspects; however, I know we are not all equally well-equipped with child care and fast internet connections, and therefore will not hold your absence from our synchronous meetings against you – so long as you participate fully in the asynchronous portion of the course.


This is not, I should note, a blanket permission to refrain from participating in the Zoom portion of our course; you are, after all, seeking to have the experience of a graduate seminar, and the Zoom interaction will provide the closest simulation of that we can currently provide.  This is, instead, to note that I am aware that such interaction is not always possible, and a guarantee that I will not hold you responsible for a type of interaction you may find impossible.


Course objectives


I presume that everyone taking this course is either a graduate student in philosophy, or interested in becoming a graduate student in philosophy.  I am aware that this is not necessarily true for each individual, but it will be a framing expectation for this course.


As such, each of you is likely interested in some aspect of philosophical inquiry – whether that is normative or not.  I hope you will be able to use what we read and discuss in this class in one of three possible ways:


  • As a means by which to make more precise the normative commitments that animate the rest of your philosophical project. There are, I think, a variety of distinct normative terms available to you in discussing that project; figuring out exactly which terms make the most sense can be of value to you in developing your own philosophical voice.
  • As a site of independent philosophical inquiry. There are, again, any number of distinct philosophical concepts that tread similar normative terrain – ranging, in our first week, from cruelty, humiliation, marginalization, social death, and so on.  Understanding whether these terms are actually distinct is, I think, philosophically interesting as a project in itself.
  • As a goad to developing new philosophical projects. The ways in which distinct terms illuminate distinct normative values might prompt the development of new sites for philosophical inquiry; you are encouraged to think of ways in which what we read here might make new sites available for philosophical writing.


Course methods


The methods of this course are, of course, rather tentative, given that I have not taught online at the graduate level.  What I hope to do is the following:


  • I will try to provide - ahead of our session - some context for the readings for that week. I hope this can take the place of that part of our discussion that usually involves my situating the reading within a larger context.
  • You are responsible for participating on the discussion board, by providing some written response to the readings, by Tuesday at midnight (so that we all have time to consider the conversation that has emerged). The goal here is to create something like a seminar community, in which people are given a space within which to provide their own take on what that writing has done (or failed to do).  You are, here, responsible for either providing your own take on the reading, or on responding – constructively – to that which has been provided by some other community member. 
    1. I should note, at this juncture, that there will be a broad obligation in this class to avoid the usual pathologies of online interaction – including demonization, mockery, hyperbole, and the like. I do not expect this to be an issue; I have rarely had to intervene against active jackassery.  But I do want to insist that you treat each other online with the same sorts of respect you would show in person.  The Evans School, by the way, has codified this requirement in a series of Conversational Norms; they are available here - - and you will be held to account for violations of those norms
    2. The online discussion board, I should also note, will provide you with the opportunity to try out topics and ideas for your paper – which will be the basis for the majority of your grade in this class.
    3. There won’t be any responsibility for providing thoughts on the readings for the first week by Tuesday; content-based discussions will start in the second week.
  • You will, God and your ISP permitting, participating in the Zoom session on Wednesdays. This Conversation will be led by me, and will begin on the assumption that we have all had an opportunity to consider and digest the discussion that has taken place on Canvas.


Course evaluation


Your grade will be made up of two parts.  The first, for 10%, involves participation – which is pegged not towards brilliance, but mere presence.  You are obligated to show up, as it were, and provide some thoughts on the week’s reading – ideally in the synchronous Zoom session, and necessarily in the discussion section.  Those who do this every week get full marks.


The rest – at, naturally, 90% - will result from a written paper, to be completed for me by one week after the last Zoom session.  This deadline is, or ought to be, rather stern; at the very least, it is bad practice to accumulate too many incompletes prior to one’s advancement to candidacy.  The paper is intended to be an argumentative essay – which is to say, your responsibility is to provide a philosophical argument, and you will be graded on the clarity and power of that philosophical argument.  If you have not read Jim Pryor’s website yet, please stop reading this syllabus and do so now:


You can, of course, write an excellent paper without discussing your paper with me before doing so; but you are more likely to succeed at the task of writing this paper if you have some conversation with me – whether through email, Canvas, or Zoom – prior to beginning the process of writing.


Course warnings


This course necessarily deals with awful things: torture, war, genocide, and evil.  I will do my utmost to present these topics without minimizing the gravity they require.  Nonetheless, the readings for this course will likely prove disturbing; if some readings cause you undue psychological distress, please let me know, and we can find some way for you to avoid participating in this particular session of the class.


Course readings


All readings will be on the Files section of the course, or linked to online.  You can, if you like, purchase Samuel Scheffler’s Death and the Afterlife, but you are under no obligation to do so. 


Course schedule


April 1: Introduction


Iris Marion Young, “The Five Faces of Oppression”


Avishai Margalit and Gabriel Motzkin, “The Uniqueness of the Holocaust”


April 8: Cruelty


Montaigne, “Of Cruelty,” available at


Judith Shklar, “Putting Cruelty First”


Adam Serwer, “The Cruelty is the Point,” available at


April 15: Social Life and Social Death, part I: Self and Other


Avishai Margalit, The Decent Society, chapters 1 and 9


Aaron James, Assholes: A Theory, chapter 1


April 23: Social Life and Social Death, part II: Self and Community


Jennifer Saul, “Stop Thinking So Much about ‘Sexual Harassment’”


Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, chapters 2 and 3


Primo Levi, “Useless Violence”


April 30: Pain, part I: The Phenomenology of Pain


Jean Améry, “Torture”


Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain, chapter 1


David Sussman, “Torture”


May 6: Pain, part II: The Uses of Pain


Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, chapters 1 through 3


Stephen Hopgood, The Endtimes of Human Rights, chapter 4


Sertan Sanderson, “Family of drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi reject new film featuring Steven Seagal,” available at


May 13: Death, part I: Death and Meaning


Thomas Nagel, “Death”


Bernard Williams, “The Makropulos Case”


May 20: Death, part II: Death and After Death


Samuel Scheffler, Death and the Afterlife, Lecture One


Michael Blake, “Justice After Death”


May 27: Evil, part I: The Banality of Evil


Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, chapters 1-8 and 15


June 3: Evil, part II: The Power of an Idea


Claudia Card, The Atrocity Paradigm, chapters 1, 2, 9 and 10


Terry Eagleton, On Evil, chapter 2

Course Summary:

Date Details
Public Domain This course content is offered under a Public Domain license. Content in this course can be considered under this license unless otherwise noted.