Join us for as many of the discussions as you are able. Copies of the texts are available at the library. Please call the library or email to reserve a packet. We also have pdfs of some of the readings linked below.

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Monday, November 6, 5:30pm
Session 1: The Challenge of Collective Action
Thomas Hobbes: excerpt from Leviathan (1651)

Monday, November 13, 5:30pm
Session 2: Collective Action and Environmentalism
Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science, Vol. 162 (April, 1968), pp. 1243–1248 2.

Elinor Ostrom, et. al. “Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges,” Science, Vol. 284 (April 1999), pp. 278-272

Monday December 4, 5:30pm
Session 3: The Case for Free Speech
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (excerpt)

Monday, December 11, 5:30pm
Session 4: Regulating Speech: The Case of Hate Speech
Reading:  Stephen D. Smith, “Liberalism and Hate Speech,” from the Law and Religion Forum: 

Monday, January 8, 5:30
Session 5: Obedience to the Law
Reading:  Plato, Crito (excerpt), in The Trial and Death of Socrates, tr. G.M.A. Grube (Hackett, 2010)

Monday, January 15, 5:30
Session 6: Disobeying the Law

  1. Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience
  2. Martin Luther King, “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
  3. Malcom X “Message to the Grassroots

The readings selected for this course of study represent various problems which confront us when we consider the challenges of living together in the modern world. The readings consider three sets of problems or questions which seem inescapable in the modern world: collective action; free speech; obedience to the law. For each of these three units, we will consider conflicting viewpoints and try to find our own positions on these questions. One important goal for us is to bring diverse members of our community together in a forum where we can work through potential differences on these questions and seek common ground.

We begin with the simple yet pervasive problem of collective action: what motivates people to act in a manner consistent with the interests of the community as a whole as opposed to their own narrowly considered self-interest? Why should members of the Rosendale community volunteer instead of simply attend the Pickle Festival? Why should they participate on the many local town boards? The 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes will start us out with a (controversial!) theory of what it means to be a human being, and why that makes collective action is so very difficult. In this session we hope to explore alternatives to Hobbes’ rather egoistic understanding of the self.

Our second session will address a more specific problem of collective action centered on conservation and the environment. We begin these readings with the now classic essay by Garrett Hardin outlining the difficulty of managing collectively held resources and then update Hardin with an essay spelling out the latest findings and implications for today.

Sessions three and four focus on the problem of free speech. Should there be legal limits on what people say? To what extent should we as a community (and a nation) infringe on individual speech? In this unit we will begin by reading an excerpt from John Stuart Mill’s classic defense of free speech and then turn to a specific discussion of the problem of hate speech in which Stephen Smith outlines an argument for its regulation.

Our final two sessions concern the extent to which we have a responsibility to obey the law, and when we might (or must?) in good conscience disobey or disregard it. Here we begin with a classic argument for obedience given by Socrates in Plato’s dialogue Crito where Socrates argues that he must remain in prison and suffer execution because he has both a duty as an Athenian to obey, and also because he has taken certain actions over the course of his life which imply that he has agreed to obey the law.

Our last meeting considers three classic texts spelling out the times when Socrates’ arguments might not hold, all of which are set within the particular American problem of race and slavery. In this session, we’ll consider Henry David Thoreau’s argument for civil disobedience and Martin Luther King’s updating of that argument in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Finally, we’ll look at Malcom X’s attempt to address the limits of the civil disobedience argument.