Moral Dimensions of Power: An annotated syllabus


We are quite familiar with many of the obvious ways in which power operates: a campus police officer confiscates a case of beer, a professor assigns grades, one boxer defeats another, someone lifts a heavy object, a commuter avails herself of a secret shortcut, and the like. Are these forms of power “the same”? Who has power? Are there constraints on what one may do with one’s power, however it is constituted? This is the subject matter of my course, “Moral Dimensions of Power.”

Overview of the course

I’ve taught several versions of this course since 2002 or so. Its first incarnation was as “The Moral Dimensions of Wealth and Power,” which was a surprisingly popular course.1 Much of the same material appeared as “Social Philosophy” at Pitt-Johnstown and as “Moral Dimensions of Power” at Washington and Lee. This syllabus reflects the totality of material that I’ve taught plus some material that I’ve been interested in and had queued up but lacked the time to use.

The course covers themes I’ve been exploring in my (unpublished) scholarly work during the last few years: determining the extent and manner in which power, institutions, and norms create persons. The class has three sections:

  1. Philosophical analyses of power: accounts of power provided by Friedrich Nietzsche and Michel Foucault.
  2. Applications of these analyses: examining the how the insights of Nietzsche and Foucault play out in various contexts. Topics that we look at include wealth, gender, race, ability, size, discourse, classrooms, and software distribution.
  3. Understanding transgression: in the shortest of the three sections, we start to think about how one might go about resisting morally problematic institutions and forms of power.

Much of the material from my “Queer Theory” and “Technologies of Self” courses would also be appropriate for parts (2) and (3) of this course. One could construct a course that raises questions about the concept of “the natural” and the nature of medicine by combining sections from “Moral Dimensions” (i.e., gender, ability, and size), “Queer Theory” (i.e., intersex and trans identities), and “Technologies of Self” (i.e., an understanding of the self as a product of technological interventions). In some sense, this is how I teach my “Medical Ethics” course—though I tend to use quite different texts in that context.

I have also included links to media and suggestions for films where I think there is relevant and helpful material.

  1. “Surprisingly” because I had a reputation as bit of a hardass when it came to grades, and “popular” in the sense that it was perpetually over-enrolled and was selected as a “must take” class by The Hoya