Introduction

Introduction

The course is divided into three units, each of which explores assumptions and concepts that shape the discursive space in which questions about law and violence are raised and arguments given.

Unit One raises the issue of legitimate violence, specifically whether we can, and why we desire to, morally distinguish between the violence of the state and non-state violence. Is there a natural right to punish that we transfer to the state when we form a political community? If so, what does this imply about the natural characteristics and moral capacities of human beings? Can the state use violence against its own citizens because the state is, as it were, the “parent” of the citizen, and thus has a right over the citizen to punish just as the parent punishes the child? If it can, then what must the state be that it can be persuasively figured as a biological parent? Are all claims to legitimacy bankrupt because they are just a mask for domination by the rich and powerful? If they are, does this make it easier to justify non-state, say revolutionary, violence? But is that violence legitimate? Why or why not?

In Unit Two, we turn to texts that argue for a necessary relationship between law and violence, as well as texts that examine that relationship in the context of punishment in Singapore. The violence of law is, however obvious, or however legitimate, often forgotten or repressed. The texts in this unit all bring that violence to the forefront of their analyses of law. How does violence complicate the relationship of law to judgment (the work of judges) and justice? If law must employ violence, does this mean there is something wrong with law, something “rotten” in the law? Or is the fact of legal violence of no more interest than the fact that doctors often hurt their patients in order to make their patients healthy? Finally, how do the ideas raised in the first two units play out in the case of Singapore and its use of the death penalty and corporal punishment?

The focus of Unit Three will be less on arguments for what makes certain kinds of punishment legitimate and others illegitimate than on arguments concerning our “real motives” in punishing. Is punishment, for example, a way for an injured party to be compensated for loss through the “pleasure” of seeing another suffer, as Nietzsche argues? Does the purpose and justification as punishment change along with changes in the place, purpose and justification of sovereignty, as Foucault claims? What ideas about responsibility and agency are assumed in various justifications or explanations of punishment? What is the origin of, and why is there, a desire to punish wrongdoing?

Most of the texts in this course are philosophical or theoretical. They deal with fundamental issues in the philosophy of law and political philosophy and are rigorous attempts to problematize and understand the place of legal violence in our lives. Although familiarity with political philosophy and philosophy of law is not a necessary prerequisite for this course, sustained close reading and careful thinking and writing are. If you take seriously the claims of the texts we read, by the end of this course you should be able to think more critically about the place of law and its violence in modern political societies.