Course Description



Religion, law, and morality are three abiding impulses among human beings and forces in human history. Yet the precise relationships among the three have long been subjects of doubt and debate.

This course seeks to explore the following six distinct problems:

(1) What role can or should morality play in law and legal reasoning? In particular, (a) is consistency with morality a part of the very definition of a valid law, (b) in any event, can or should the law incorporate or directly enforce moral rules, (c) how have various historic trends in legal thought understood the answers to these questions?

(2) Is morality itself an essentially law-like set of rules, or something else?

(3) What is the role of legal or law-like rules in religious life? How have various religious traditions (for instance Judaism and Christianity), and competing strands within those traditions, understood whether something called “law” is central, peripheral, or even adverse to the life of the spirit, and how have those attitudes shaped more general understandings about the meaning and significance of secular law and politics.

(4) How has, and how should, religion figure in the development of secular legal systems? What has been the fate of efforts, as in some Islamic nations, to incorporate religious law directly into the law of the state?

(5) What is the place of religion in moral reasoning? In what sense, if any, did moral thought arise out of religion? And can or should moral reasoning detach itself from religious influences and modes of thought?

(6) What is the place of morality in religious life and thought? Can there be conflicts, even from within a given religious tradition, between morality and the demands of religious faith?

We’ll also try to examine the resemblances, connections, and differences among these questions, and ask whether the various arguments can illuminate each other. Our readings will be philosophical, jurisprudential, legal, religious, historical, and anthropological. The hope is not to deal with any of these topics exhaustively, but rather to clarify a set of important questions, dig into selected treatments of those questions, and provoke lively discussions along the way.

This is not (except for occasional discussions) a course in church-state relations or religious liberty. Rather, it focuses on a broader set of questions about the relations among law, morality, and religion as concepts, institutions, forms of reasoning, and aspects of culture and lived life.