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Jurisprudence: Introduction to the Philosophy of Law

Discover the philosophical underpinnings of the law, from making legal arguments to our moral obligation to obey the law.

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Study jurisprudence with the experts at the Surrey Centre for Law and Philosophy

On this course, you’ll explore the theory and nature of law from a philosophical perspective.

As you get to grips with key arguments and positions in the philosophy of law, you’ll learn how legal arguments are impacted by an understanding of the relation of law to morality.

You’ll be introduced to theories around how the law operates, its relation to economic incentives, and questions about the law’s treatment of contemporary social issues.

Professionals who must develop arguments for clients can apply jurisprudential thinking when they find themselves representing clients whose issues are legally uncertain.

This course will develop your understanding of how to use the philosophy of law to support the formation of legal arguments when the law runs out.

When the legal authorities supporting a specific point are exhausted, a firm grasp of the theory behind law can help practitioners argue their points from a more basic perspective.

Under the guidance of academics at the University of Surrey School of Law, you’ll be encouraged to develop your own conclusions about whether law is dependent upon morality.

This course is created and led by academics with extensive experience teaching and writing on jurisprudence from the renowned Surrey Centre for Law and Philosophy (SCLP).

You’ll gain expert insights from Professor of Legal Philosophy, Dennis Patterson; Professor in Moral and Political Philosophy, Veronica Rodriguez-Blanco; Senior Lecturer, Christopher Taggart, and SCLP Co-Directors, Dr Kenneth Ehrenberg, Reader in Public Law and Legal Theory, and Dr Hrafn Asgeirsson, Reader in Philosophy and Law.


  • Week 1

    An unjust law is no law at all?

    • Getting started

      In this activity you'll find out about the value of studying the philosophy of law and what to expect when studying the course.

    • Introduction to Week 1

      Here, we'll start by seeing what you think about the nature of law.

    • Introduction to strong and weak natural law

      In this activity you'll explore natural law – the theory that holds there must be a close connection between law and morality or reason. In its strong version, an unjust law can't be a law at all. But does this make sense?

    • Classic legal positivism

      Legal positivism is the view that what the law is and what the law ought to be are separable because the validity of a law doesn’t depend on it being moral. Classic legal positivism says that this is because law is like a command.

    • Modern legal positivism

      Modern legal positivism also seeks to reject natural law. It does this by explaining that law is a social fact, but without relying on the idea that law is a set of orders to be followed because of habits or predictions.

    • Reviewing the theories

      All these theories have competing ideas about the nature of law and the conditions it must meet to be counted as law. Which seems most correct to you? Is there a practical difference among them?

  • Week 2

    Guilty mind: neuroscience and responsibility

    • Introduction to Week 2

      In this activity you'll find out about what to expect this week.

    • Neuroscientific evidence and philosophical issues of mind and brain

      In this activity you'll consider the use of neuroscientific evidence in courts - in this case from functional magnetic resonance imaging. You'll explore the reliability of this evidence and the philosophical issues it raises.

    • Law and insanity

      In this activity you'll explore criminal responsibility in cases where the accused may have a brain abnormality or a mental illness.

    • Murder and sleepwalking

      In this activity you'll explore criminal responsibility in cases where the accused may have been sleepwalking at the time of the crime. How credible is this defence? And how similar is it to the insanity defence?

    • Addiction and responsibility

      In this activity you'll explore criminal responsibility in cases where the accused has an addiction to drugs. You'll consider how neuroscience helps us understand addiction and whether brain scans are useful evidence in court.

    • Child killers

      In this activity you'll explore how the law functions in relation to the age of criminal responsibility. You'll do this in by reading and reflecting on a famous case, Roper v Simmons [2005].

    • Review of Week 2

      In this activity you will review and reflect on the week.

  • Week 3

    Why should I be responsible for my inadvertent actions?

    • Introduction to Week 3

      In this activity you will hear about this week's theme – how inadvertent actions can be considered in relation to responsibility from both a moral and a legal perspective.

    • The puzzle of inadvertent actions

      In this activity you will test your own intuitions about responsibility for inadvertent actions by engaging with two puzzling scenarios.

    • The moral and legal responses to responsibility for inadvertent actions

      In this activity you will explore the differing moral and legal responses to Scenarios 1 and 2. You will then bring the knowledge gained from this week's study to make a judgement on a fictional case of inadvertent actions.

    • Week 3 review

      In this activity you will review and reflect on this week.

  • Week 4

    Law and economics

    • Introduction to Week 4

      In this activity you'll find out what to expect this week.

    • Exploring normative reasoning

      In this activity you'll be introduced to the idea of moral or 'normative' reasoning and begin to start using it.

    • Two types of normative reasoning

      In this activity you'll learn about two different types of normative reasoning – consequentialism and 'non-consequentialism'.

    • Consequentialist reasoning and the law

      In this activity you'll begin to see consequentialist reasoning at play in the context of a real legal case.

    • Contract law: which promises should be contracts?

      In this activity you will see how the economic analysis of law approach can be used to theorise about which promises should be contracts. You will compare this approach to the traditional rights-based approach to this question.

    • Week 4 review

      In this activity you will review and reflect on this week.

  • Week 5

    Law and contemporary social issues

    • Introduction to Week 5

      In this activity you'll find out what to expect this week.

    • Consent and law and morality

      In this activity you will consider the case of Brendan McCarthy, R v BM, and what this tells us about consent, autonomy and the limits of the law.

    • The problem(s) of sexual harassment

      In this activity you will look at the theory behind the law on sexual harassment and see how the law works in the real world. This will reveal the relevance of theory to practical issues such as law enforcement.

    • Course review

      In this final activity we review the course, consider the skills you've gained, and reflect on the course's big question – the relevance of theory to practising law.

When would you like to start?

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Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Explore the concept of responsibility in law in relation to inadvertent actions.
  • Reflect critically on how judges can guide citizens in their actions and the avoidance of negligent or inadvertent actions.
  • Explain the difference between consequentialist and non-consequentialist normative reasoning.
  • Describe the ‘economic analysis of law’ approach to what the law should be like and why.
  • Compare and contrast the economic analysis of law to a traditional, rights-based approach.
  • Discuss fundamental questions regarding the limits of law, with an emphasis on consent and autonomy.
  • Reflect on how morality, law, and enforcement relate to each other in the context of contemporary social issues.
  • Evaluate the uses and limitations of neuroscientific data in courts.
  • Explain the relationship between neuroscientific data and legal responsibility.
  • Explore the relationship between law and morality.
  • Explain basic jurisprudential positions and how to use them to assess arguments about how to apply and reform the law.
  • Debate moral and legal scenarios using normative reasoning.
  • Compare and contrast four key theories in legal philosophy: strong and weak natural law, and classic and modern legal positivism.

Who is the course for?

This course is designed for anyone curious about how the philosophy of law can impact legal decision-making.

It will be especially useful for current or prospective undergraduate law students looking to gain a basic understanding of the theories underlying law and legal systems to supplement or prepare for their studies.

What software or tools do you need?

Youtube videos feature in some steps of this course

Who will you learn with?

I teach public law & legal philosophy at the University of Surrey and am the Co-Director of the Surrey Centre for Law and Philosophy.
I received a JD from Yale and a PhD in philosophy from Columbia.

I am very interested in legal philosophy and especially the intersection of law and neuroscience. My book 'Minds, Brains, and Law' is a general introduction to the field.

Veronica Rodriguez-Blanco is Professor in Moral and Political Philosophy (Jurisprudence) at the University of Surrey. Her research is located at the intersection of practical reason and law.

Dr Hrafn Asgeirsson (PhD, USC) is Reader in Philosophy and Law at the University of Surrey, School of Law and co-director of the Surrey Centre for Law and Philosophy.

I am a Senior Lecturer at the University of Surrey School of Law.

Who developed the course?

University of Surrey

The University of Surrey is a global community of ideas and people, dedicated to life-changing education and research. Surrey empowers students for personal and professional success by providing exceptional teaching and practical learning.


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