Professor Susan Dwyer, Department of Philosophy

Visits to the U.S. Supreme Court and lobbying organizations will be arranged during the semester.

Gun Control. Abortion. Pornography. Physician-Assisted Suicide. Gay Marriage.

Different people care deeply about these issues, and they seem to care about them whether or not they themselves want to own a gun, have an abortion, consume pornography, receive assistance in dying, or marry a person of the same sex. People care so much about abortion, for example, that they cast their votes merely on the basis of what they believe about a politician’s view on voluntarily ending a pregnancy. Similarly, when a person is nominated to serve on the Supreme Court, a great deal of public attention is focused on his or her history of judicial opinions concerning abortion.

While it is easy to say that viewing pornography or owning a gun are matters of individual liberty, clearly not everyone agrees. So, what makes something a genuine liberty; how are individual freedoms justified as such? Are liberties defined just in legal terms? Or is there a deeper moral basis to our freedoms, one that reveals why those freedoms matter in human life, and which also provides the foundations for an argument for their stringent protection?

The Bill of Rights does not explicitly mention a right to abortion, or a right to consume pornography, or a right to receive assistance in dying. It does not specify anything about the conditions of legal marriage, and the meaning of the Second Amendment right to bear arms is notoriously controversial. Hence, jurisprudential argument about these rights must look outside the law – to morality and, sometimes, to science – in order to justify judicial decisions that seriously and significantly impact individual people’s lives.

Our aim in this seminar is to understand how moral views influence judicial reasoning at the level of the Supreme Court. We will also critically consider whether that influence is legitimate and whether it ought to be more or less powerful.

You should expect to experience both intellectual and emotional discomfort in this seminar, as some of your deepest convictions will be seriously challenged by our discussions and by the views and arguments expressed by your co-participants. At the same time, the seminar is designed to assist each of you to discover, articulate, and defend a plausible position about these contentious issues in American society today.