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Course Review – Property and Liability MOOC from Wesleyan

In the interest of full disclosure, Wesleyan’s Richard Adelstein (who teaches the just-completed Coursera MOOC on Property and Liability) is the close friend of someone I consider my philosophical mentor. Which is why I was so interested in taking this course in a subject that seems far afield from the study of philosophy.

Property and Liablility MOOC from Wesleyan and Coursera, John Locke

John Locke via Wikimedia

[Editor’s note: This is the second review we’ve published on this course. For another take, see Rozalia Zeibecki’s earlier review.]

And as I learned, Professor Adelstein turns out to be one sly educator. For while his course is ostensibly about economics and law (and one of the few MOOCs suitable for someone interested in a pre-law concentration), by the time I completed his class it dawned on me that he had provided a full-fledged philosophical system that can be used to evaluate not just who owns what, but how to answer age-old questions regarding morality and justice.

The course begins by laying out two historic views of property. The first comes from John Locke who claimed that ownership (which he listed alongside life and liberty as an “inalienable right”) consisted of possession, use and disposition (i.e, that property rights included my ability to hold, use and/or get rid of whatever constitutes “my property”).

In contrast, the Utilitarian tradition associated with Jeremy Bentham envisions a host of rights – potentially owned by different people – all attached to the same piece of property.

To take an example from class, we may think that we own our own homes and can do what we want within them, so long as we don’t break the law (by opening a pizza parlor in a residential neighborhood, for example, or snorting cocaine in the bathroom or building atomic weapons in the basement). But if we look at this situation through a Benthamite lens (one which reflects the Utilitarian principles that undergird modern property law), it turns out that the town actually “owns” a particular property right associated with that house (the right to open a pizza parlor there), which it exercises negatively by denying us the right to perform this activity in “our” home.

Similarly, the state and federal government “own” the right to take illegal drugs or build atomic weapons in our homes, property rights they exercise negatively by denying us the ability to do these things without “paying” for those rights (in the form of fines and jail time).

Once you make this leap (which is 101 stuff to any property lawyer, but new to many of the rest of us), then you suddenly have a vocabulary to discuss every aspect of justice.

For example, we can look at crime as consisting of a criminal taking the property of an individual (by stealing someone’s car for example) while also violating different property rights of others (including the right we all have to to feel safe). In which case, fear and moral outrage suddenly become forms of property to which we can attach a value which the criminal is liable to pay back. This explains why most prosecutions are made in the name of “the people” (i.e., those who have had their peace-of-mind property right taken from them) and not just in the name of the person whose actual physical property was swiped.

Far from turning every discussion of subjects like ethics and morality into dry number games, Adelstein’s approach allows him to illustrate principles using examples that are far more real world than the extreme or contrived counterfactuals normally used to challenge philosophical theories. To cite one more example from the class, Adelstein’s economic analysis of the plea bargain system provides far more perspective on how this new (and extra-Constitutional) branch of justice evolved than would an abstract debate between followers of John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant.

At a recent lunch with that aforementioned philosophy buddy, he commented that a month doesn’t go by when he doesn’t ponder something he’s thinking or writing about in light of what he learned from Adelstein 30-odd years ago. And no matter how much further my own One Year BA degree in philosophy dives into the work of folks from Aristotle to Rorty, I expect to look at many of the real-world philosophical challenges I face in the years to come through the lens of what Richard Adelstein taught in this course.


Editor’s note: This guest post is from Jonathan Haber at Degree of Freedom, who is tracking his progress in trying to learn in just twelve months everything he would if enrolled in a four year liberal arts BA program and using only free resources.  Along the way he is writing reviews of courses he completes, some of which he generously allows us to republish here. To get all of Jonathan’s MOOC reviews, and more, be sure to sign up for the weekly Degree of Freedom Newsletter.


Jonathan Haber (19 Posts)

Jonathan Haber is a Boston-based writer and educational specialist whose Degree of Freedom project is experimenting with whether it's possible to learn everything you would get from a four year liberal arts degree in just twelve months using only free educational resources. You can follow his progress at