Soci 124: The Good Society (2020)

University of California-San Diego
Winter 2019-20
Friday 12:00-2:50, SSB 101

Lane Kenworthy
Office hours: F 9:00-11:00, SSB 472

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This course examines the history and performance of key policies and institutions in the United States and other rich democratic countries. The course aims to help you answer the following questions:

  • In thinking about what a “good society” would consist of, philosophers, social scientists, policy makers, and ordinary citizens point to liberty, democracy, prosperity, economic security, opportunity, community, safety, health, and happiness, among others. How can we decide which of these, if any, to prioritize?
  • What evidence should we use in judging whether one society is better than another?
  • How much progress have humans made? On which outcomes?
  • What are the causes of progress?
  • Is material advance (economic growth) a means to the good society, an end in itself, both, neither?
  • Have people’s beliefs and preferences gotten better over time? If so, why?
  • What institutions and policies are most conducive to liberty, democracy, prosperity, economic security, opportunity, community, health, happiness, and other desirable features of a modern society?
  • To what extent are there tradeoffs? For instance, can policies and institutions reduce poverty only by restricting liberty?
  • Are there grounds for thinking that institutions or policies not yet tried would do better than the best ones currently in existence?


Some of the course readings are accessible via links in the schedule below. There are four required books. The first three can be purchased from the UC San Diego bookstore or another bookseller or accessed via the library.

  • Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Viking, 2018
  • Ronald F. Inglehart, Cultural Evolution, Cambridge University Press, 2018
  • Lane Kenworthy, Social Democratic Capitalism, Oxford University Press, 2020

The fourth book is available via the course Canvas page.

  • Lane Kenworthy, Would Socialism Be Better?, book draft, 2020

You’ll also need an iclicker, which you can purchase at the campus bookstore.


All readings are to be done before class (except week 1).

Week 1
Jan 10

  • Lane Kenworthy, “What Is a Good Society?,” The Good Society. LINK
  • Lane Kenworthy, “How Do We Know?,” The Good Society. LINK


Week 2
Jan 17
Pinker 1

  • Pinker, Enlightenment Now, chs. 1, 3-10.

Week 3
Jan 24
Pinker 2

  • Pinker, Enlightenment Now, chs. 11-18.

Week 4
Jan 31

  • Inglehart, Cultural Evolution, Introduction and chs. 1-6.


Week 5
Feb 7
Social democratic capitalism

  • Kenworthy, Social Democratic Capitalism, chs. 1-4.

Week 6
Feb 14
Social democratic America

  • Kenworthy, Social Democratic Capitalism, chs. 6-8.


Week 7
Feb 21
An end to poverty

  • Erik Olin Wright, “What Is Socialism?,” 2017. LINK
  • John Roemer, “Socialism Now?,” Janus Lecture Series, Brown University, 2017, 33 minutes, watch from the beginning to 33:30. LINK
  • Kenworthy, Would Socialism Be Better?, chs. 1-3. Available via the course Canvas page.

Week 8
Feb 28
Health care for all, full employment, faster economic growth, and shared prosperity

  • Kenworthy, Would Socialism Be Better?, chs. 4-7. Available via the course Canvas page.

Book assessment due: Friday, March 6, 12:00pm

Week 9
March 6
True democracy

  • Kenworthy, Would Socialism Be Better?, chs. 8-9. Available via the course Canvas page.

Week 10
March 13
“There is no alternative”

  • Wolfgang Streeck, “How Will Capitalism End?,” New Left Review, 2014. LINK
  • “The Systemic Roadblocks to Climate Acton,” The Next System Project, 2019. LINK
  • Jonathan Chait, “Is Naomi Klein Right That We Must Choose Between Capitalism and the Climate?,” New York Magazine, 2015. LINK

Exam week
Research paper due: Wednesday, March 18, 2:30pm.


Here’s what you should get from this course:

Approaching issues scientifically (this is often called “critical thinking”). Many of the issues we’ll look at are front-and-center in popular discussion, journalistic coverage, and political debate. This discussion would be better, and more helpful to policy makers, if it were more informed by science. Approaching an issue scientifically means, among other things, considering empirical evidence rather than relying mainly on theory or ethical beliefs, looking for data rather than anecdote(s), looking for multiple sources of evidence (“If hypothesis A were true, what else would we expect to observe?”), and thinking about whether some types of evidence are more useful, and thus should be weighted more heavily, than others.

Asking important questions. For any issue or topic, there are multiple questions we might want to answer. Many are of interest, but some are more important than others.

Understanding argument and evidence. For each class day, you will do one or more readings in advance. In class you’ll be quizzed on the information in the reading(s). Focus on the question(s) being posed, the answer(s) given, the key pieces of evidence, and the way the author reasons from the evidence and other considerations (laws, ethical views, etc) in reaching a conclusion.

Dealing with complexity and incomplete information. The issues we’ll examine are big and complicated. Scientists have struggled to understand the nature of the problem(s), to identify the main cause(s), and to figure out the most useful solution(s). The process is like detective work: seldom is the story simple and rarely do we have the exact evidence we’d need in order to be strongly confident about our conclusion, so we must ask an assortment of questions, use various types of data, and think systematically.

Spotting the progress. Social scientists and journalists often emphasize our problems and shortfalls. That’s helpful, because it spurs us to do better and (hopefully) helps us figure out how to do so. But it can also give us the impression that things are getting worse. Sometimes that’s accurate, but in other instances it’s misleading. In fact, in many areas of life things have been improving and we could be doing better.

Comfort with quantitative data. A generation ago there was a scarcity of numerical data. Now we have an abundance: data are everywhere. That’s a good thing, because data are key to answering important questions about society. You will encounter lots of quantitative data in this course, often in graphical form. If you aren’t already comfortable interpreting such data and reasoning from them, by the end of the course you should be.

Verbal communication. Class will include both lecture and discussion. I encourage all students to participate in the discussion.

Written communication. There are two written assignments. I expect your writing to be high quality. If you struggle with writing, you’re like virtually everyone else. Good writing usually comes from two things. The first is clear thinking. Writing isn’t just a way to express what you’re thinking; it’s a way to clarify your thinking. The second is extensive editing. Write a draft. Then edit it. Then edit it again. And again.

Concision. Information and opinion are plentiful these days, so brevity is a valuable skill. The writing assignments are short, so you’ll need to focus on the information and argument that is most relevant or useful.

Developing a good argument. The course materials and lectures are designed to expose you to ways of developing and conveying effective argument. Keys include focusing on a specific question, formulating a clear proposal or position, making use of relevant evidence, addressing potential objections and counterarguments, and communicating clearly.

Substantive knowledge. Last, but not least, the course aims to improve your understanding of the issues we cover.


The best available evidence suggests that college students learn more when not using laptops, tablets, or phones during class. If you want to take notes, use pen and paper. If you need an exception to this policy, please see me.


Course grades will be determined as follows. See below for details.

  • 40%: quizzes
  • 30%: book assessment
  • 30%: research paper

Each of these will be graded on a scale of 0 to 100. So your numerical course grade is calculated as: (quizzes x .40) + (book assessment x .30) + (research paper x .30).

Your letter grade for the course will be determined as follows:

  • 96.67 and above = A+
  • 93.34–96.66 = A
  • 90–93.33 = A–
  • 86.67–89.99 = B+
  • 83.34–86.66 = B
  • 80–83.33 = B–
  • 76.67–79.99 = C+
  • 73.34–76.66 = C
  • 70–73.33 = C–
  • 60–69.99 = D
  • below 60 = F

There will be no extra-credit projects or assignments.


Each day in class, beginning on our third class meeting, you will take two short quizzes on the reading(s) for that day, one during the first 80 minutes of class and the other during the last 80 minutes. Each quiz will have five multiple choice or true/false questions. You will answer the questions using your iclicker. There will be 16 quizzes; only your highest 13 grades will count.

Quiz grading: If you answer at least four questions, you will get 50 points (even if you have no correct answers). For each correct answer, you get ten additional points. So if you answer four or more questions, your grade is 60 with one correct answer, 70 with two correct answers, 80 with three, 90 with four, 100 with five.

You must register your iclicker with Canvas. To do that, go to, log in, choose this course, and click on “iClicker registration” in the menu on the left side of the screen. If you get a new iclicker at any point during the quarter, register it immediately.

For technical support with iclicker registration and use, contact Educational Technology Services.

You can take a makeup if you have to miss a quiz for any of the following three reasons: (1) holidays or special events observed by organized religions (for students who show affiliation with that particular religion), (2) absences pre-approved by the UCSD Dean of Students (or Dean’s designee), (3) extended illness (this requires a doctor’s note). If you miss a quiz for one of these reasons, contact me no later than the day of the quiz to schedule a makeup. I will need written verification of the circumstances.

You cannot take a makeup if you miss a quiz for any other reason. This includes faulty iclicker registration, forgetting to bring your iclicker to class, stolen or lost iclicker, iclicker malfunction, dead iclicker battery, needing to arrive late to class or leave class early, oversleeping, minor illness, transportation problem, family or friend’s special occasion, family problems, family illness, needing to study for another course, etc.

Two pieces of advice for the quizzes: (1) Evidence is important, but don’t get overly bogged down in detail — exact numbers, precise dates, and so on. (2) Don’t overthink the quiz questions. Don’t assume I’m trying to trick you.


Write a critical assessment of a book. What is its conclusion? Are its argument and evidence convincing? Why or why not?

The due date is listed in the schedule above. Choose from the following list:

  • Annie Lowrey, Give People Money: How a Universal Basic Income Would End Poverty, Revolutionize Work, and Remake the World, Crown, 2018
  • Tom Malleson, After Occupy: Economic Democracy for the 21st Century, Oxford University Press, 2014
  • Branko Milanovic, Capitalism, Alone, Harvard University Press, 2019
  • Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Harvard University Press, 2013
  • Robert Reich, Saving Capitalism, Knopf, 2015
  • T.R. Reid, The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care, Penguin, 2010
  • Hans Rosling, Factfulness, Flatiron Books, 2018
  • Bhaskar Sunkara, The Socialist Manifesto, Basic Books, 2019

Length: no more than 1,000 words.

Write clearly. And use proper grammar and punctuation (“I,” “me,” and contractions are fine). If you need help with writing, consider seeking assistance from the UC San Diego Writing and Critical Expression Hub.

Formatting: single-space, 12-point font size, 1-inch top and bottom margins and 2-inch side margins. List your word count (exclude footnotes) on the first page, along with your name and the date.

Sources and citations: You may draw on course readings and/or outside sources. Use footnotes (not a reference list or bibliography) to give credit to anyone from whom you borrow evidence or argument. The footnotes aren’t included in the word count. I’m not picky about the formatting of the footnotes, but include the author(s), title, and year rather than just an internet address.

The due date is listed above. A book assessment turned in late but within 48 hours of the deadline will be penalized 25 points (out of 100). A book assessment turned in more than 48 hours late, or not turned in at all, will receive a grade of zero.

Upload your book assessment on Canvas. Go to, log in, choose this course, and click on the “Book assessment” module. Emailed or hard copy book assessments won’t be accepted.

Submit the book assessment in a word processing program format (Google docs, Microsoft Word, Pages, etc.). Don’t submit it as a pdf document.

Don’t plagiarize. If you aren’t sure what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid it, see the UC San Diego Library’s guide to preventing plagiarism.

For some sample book assessments, see here and here.


What is the best economic system: American-style capitalism, Nordic-style capitalism, socialism, something else? Why?

Length: no more than 1,500 words.

Refer to relevant evidence. Opinion and logic are fine but insufficient. If you include charts and/or tables, put them at the end and don’t include them in the word count.

Address potential objections. What would a critic say are the weak points in your case? How do you respond?

For other details — formatting, sources and citations, due date, how to turn it in, and more — see the “Book Assessment” section.


Students are encouraged to share intellectual views and discuss freely the principles and applications of course materials. However, graded work must be the product of independent effort unless otherwise instructed. Students are expected to adhere to UC San Diego policy on academic integrity.


Students who need special accommodation or services should contact the Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD). You must register and request that the OSD send me official notification of your accommodation needs as soon as possible. Please meet with me to discuss accommodations and how the course requirements and activities may impact your ability to fully participate.


Information here, other than the grade and attendance policy, may be subject to change with advance notice, as deemed appropriate by the instructor.