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School of Social Sciences

Student in the Alan Gilbert Learning Commons
BSocSc Politics and International Relations
Gain the skills to critical examine international and comparative politics.

BSocSc Politics and International Relations

Year of entry: 2018

Course unit details:
Anarchy and Authority

Unit code POLI32031
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by Politics
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


The state uses its authority to regulate almost every aspect of our existence. Do these complex legal institutions that we’ve built really help us to lead flourishing lives? Or does the experience of living under centralised state authority distort and degrade human nature? Is the state a democratic tool for preventing the strong from dominating the weak? Or is the state merely a tool that the wealthy and powerful use to dominate others? And if we got rid of states how would we organise our affairs? Is it possible to create and enforce law via the market rather than via the state? Or would this free market approach (anarcho-capitalism) lead to even greater problems? Does the anarcho-communist alternative offer a realistic solution? Or does it rely on an overly optimistic conception of human nature?


Ultimately, our aim on this course is to work out whether the centralised authority of the state is a force for good, or whether instead we should think more radically about how we live and work together. Key topics of discussion include:

• The nature of moral disagreement and the role played by the state in resolving it.

• The malleability of human nature and its potential to be distorted by either the centralising control of the state or the decentralising effects of the market.

• The role of legal regimes in defining and enforcing our rights, and whether there are any viable alternatives to such legal regimes.


This course unit aims to:
- Help students understand the nature of power and authority and the various ways in which theorists have tried to justify the state’s exercise of power and authority over citizens.

- Give students the conceptual tools to enable them to engage in sophisticated normative criticism of the state and its legal structures.

- Explore contemporary and historical views of the possible alternatives to centralised state authority, in order to help students assess the comparative advantages of life under the modern state.

- Develop students’ scholarly skills (by means of the analysis of historical texts), philosophical reasoning abilities (by means of the analysis of philosophical arguments), oral skills (by means of general discussion), team-work skills (by means of group work), and written skills (by means of an assessed essay).

Learning outcomes

On successful completion of this unit students will be able to demonstrate:
- A deep understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of the dominant form of political organisation in the modern world.
- An ability to engage in sophisticated moral criticism of the law, and to understand the difference between reasonable and unreasonable moral disagreement between people with competing moral views.

- Familiarity with contemporary and historical arguments that draw conclusions about the legitimacy of state authority by comparing it to ‘state-of-nature’ scenarios and other anarchic situations.
- The ability to engage in sophisticated and abstract philosophical arguments about justice, authority, and rights, in a way that applies to real-world questions in contemporary politics.
- An understanding of the philosophical roots of much contemporary liberal theory.

Teaching and learning methods

The course will be taught on the basis of ten two-hour lectures and ten one-hour seminars. The lectures will comprise a mix of traditional lecture material, interactive question and answer sessions, and small tasks in break-out groups. Seminars will involve detailed discussion of set texts, rigorous ethical debate, and collaborative analysis of arguments. All students will be expected to have completed the required reading and to have made preparatory notes.

Assessment methods

The course will be assessed in three ways:

1. A mid-module short essay (1,500 words, 25%)

Submitting these review essays in Week 5 will allow enough time for students to receive detailed feedback which will be helpful to them when writing the longer essay at the end of the course;

2. An end-of-module assessed essay (4,200 words, 60%)

To be submitted after the end of the module (in early January);

3. Seminar participation (15%).




Feedback methods

Politics staff will provide feedback on written work within 15 working days of submission via Blackboard (if submitted through Turnitin).

Students should be aware that all marks are provisional until confirmed by the external examiner and the final examinations boards in June.

For modules that do not have examination components the marks and feedback for the final assessed component are not subject to the 15 working day rule and will be released with the examination results. This applies to Semester 2 modules only. Semester one modules with no final examination will have their feedback available within the 15 working days.

You will receive feedback on assessed essays in a standard format. This will rate your essay in terms of various aspects of the argument that you have presented your use of sources and the quality of the style and presentation of the essay. If you have any queries about the feedback that you have received you should make an appointment to see your tutor. Tutors and Course Convenors also have a dedicated office hour when you can meet with her/him to discuss course unit specific problems and questions.

On assessments submitted through Turnitin you will receive feedback via Blackboard. This will include suggestions about ways in which you could improve your work in future. You will also receive feedback on non-assessed coursework, whether this is individual or group work. This may be of a more informal kind and may include feedback from peers as well as academic staff

Recommended reading

- David Miller, Anarchism, (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1984).

- Chris Bertram, Rousseau and The Social Contract (London: Routledge, 2004).

- A. John Simmons, On the Edge of Anarchy: Locke, Consent, and the Limits of Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).
- Jeremy Waldron, Law and Disagreement, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

- David Boucher and Paul Kelly (eds.), The Social Contract from Hobbes to Rawls (London: Routledge, 1994), chapters 1-3, 6-7.

- Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, (London: Penguin Books, 2002), chapters 8 and 16.

- David Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism, 1st, 2nd or 3rd edition, (available online).

- Erich Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man, (1961), (available online).

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 20
Tutorials 10
Independent study hours
Independent study 170

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Richard Child Unit coordinator

Additional notes

For lecture timetable see

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