Philosophy 581A: Authority: Political and Scientific

Instructor: John Beatty
Section: 002
Term: 2
Meets: Thursdays 2:00-5:00pm

We use the same term when we refer to political authority and scientific authority. And in spite of obvious differences, they do resemble each other in key respects. Most notably, both suggest broad contexts in which we should defer to others rather than think for ourselves. In this regard they raise similar concerns, like: How is deference to either sort of authority consistent with the very basic moral obligation to take responsibility for our own choices and actions? And is authority of either sort consistent with democratic (especially deliberative democratic) ideals?

In addition to considering various ways in which political and scientific authority can be compared and contrasted (and the implications of these similarities and differences), we will also consider how they relate in practice–how they may reinforce each other, or oppose one another–in different forms of government. We will examine these questions in the light of contributions to political philosophy, social epistemology, history and philosophy of science, and science and technology studies, with concrete case studies (including AIDS and climate change). Students from the sciences, and from across the humanities (not just philosophy), are welcome.


  • Comtean positivism, “Enlightenment” and “the Enlightenment project,” science and modernity
  • de facto vs. de jure authority, and authority vs. advice
  • deferring to commands and deferring to beliefs
  • domains of authority (with reference also to religious authority)
  • the influence of scientific authority on political authority, and vice-versa
  • epistemic conceptions of democracy, and the place of expertise within a democracy
  • challenging authority (both political and scientific)
  • trust, transparency and authority (both political and scientific)
  • consensus and authority (both political and scientific)
  • deliberation and authority (both political and scientific)
  • representation, delegation and authority (both political and scientific)
  • case studies: AIDS, climate change (others still under consideration)

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