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This issue of CDTL Brief is the second of a two-part Brief that features the teaching practices of the 2005/2006 Annual Teaching Excellence Award (ATEA) winners.
September 2007, Vol. 10 No. 4 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Teaching the Weightier Matters of the Law
Dr Tan Seow Hon
Faculty of Law

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Matthew 23:23, English Standard Version)

I borrow the preceding quotation out of context, where Jesus chided the scribes or teachers of religious law for rigidly adhering to lesser provisions of the law by returning to God a tenth of even the most trifling produce of their land, whilst ignoring the more important commandments of justice, mercy and faithfulness. As a teacher of legal philosophy who challenges my students to think about law’s connection (or lack thereof) with justice, morality, truth and the like, I have always liked the reference to the “weightier matters of the law” in the quotation, because that is what I think I am promoting an awareness of, even though the law, as most know it, cannot be neglected.

I teach a compulsory first year module, LC1002B “Introduction to Legal Theory (B)” and an upper year elective, LL4404 “Jurisprudence”. In both courses, I get students to examine fundamental questions about the enterprise of law: its nature, purpose and function, its legitimacy, how it interacts with other social phenomena such as morality and politics, and the potential that law has to transform society by influencing morals or changing existing power relations.

As philosophical readings are generally tougher or more abstract than cases and statutes, and as the average Singaporean preparing to practise law may not have as much an incentive to put her heart into this subject when she does not see its immediate relevance to her job in future, much is needed to spark students’ interest. I try, particularly in my first year course when students know too little law to appreciate broad sweep descriptions of the law by legal philosophers, to engage students through the discussion of some of the most polarising issues in today’s world—laws relating to the practice of abortion and to homosexuality.

While every good philosopher has an awareness of her personal worldview, my mission is not to impart my own worldview, but to challenge students to formulate theirs, usually by employing the Socratic techniques of the dialectic and the elenchus. I hear what my students have to say on a particular subject, and put to them further questions to elicit what turns out to be an elaboration of the same subject. I then challenge my students about any possible contradiction of the first opinion evinced by their responses to my further questions, and in so doing help them assess their commitment to their first judgment, or reformulate it where necessary. The most interesting discussions have revolved around the issue of whether laws must be just before we can call them laws, and whether controversial moral viewpoints may be enforced by law.

I have discovered that one of the most important things to bear in mind for a teacher of a course in which people hold many differing viewpoints, is to ensure that those who perceive themselves as dissenting, whether from the majority of the class or the teacher, would be comfortable enough to speak up. I learnt this through a fairly hard way when I personally found it hard to express a view that was against the liberal orthodoxy at Harvard where I studied. In conducting my own classes, I try to provide a congenial environment in which the student feels valued even as her viewpoints are challenged.

Harvard law professor Roberto Unger, whose works we study in “Jurisprudence”, ended one of his earlier books with the following:

Within its province, philosophy is sovereign. But this province is limited, and the experience of running up against its limits is indispensable to our knowledge of it. When one thinks philosophical problems through, one comes at last to the outer frontiers, politics and religion, at which the philosopher’s pride is cast down, and other kinds of striving come to the fore. When philosophy has gained the truth of which it is capable, it passes into politics and prayers—politics through which the world is changed, and prayer through which men ask God to complete the change of the world by carrying them into His presence and giving them what, left to themselves, they would always lack. (Unger, 1976, p. 294)

In the end, in the face of challenges, I remind myself why I teach the subjects I teach. I want students to engage not just their minds, but their hearts, and to come up with their own theory about the legal process, and decide what role they will play in it in future. Philosophical musings are only the baby steps; I do not want students to stop with them. Philosophical conclusions must translate into politics and religion in the figurative senses of these words—politics in the sense of practical changes in the world in which my students will work, and religion in the sense of their personal worldviews which impact the conduct of their lives. Awakened to the weightier matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness—my hope is that my courses play a part in the moral transformation and development of professional identity of my students. As I believe that every student can be awakened, I teach as if every student can be interested.

Happily, I have had students reporting to me that they suffered from withdrawal symptoms when my courses were over. A few found themselves debating about whether law was necessarily connected with morality till 3 am on their holiday trip to Tioman after their examination. Another recently emailed me to share about how particular episodes of “Star Trek” made her think of some issues we discussed in class. Yet others have told me of how they smile knowingly to each other when something in other courses reminds them of particular legal philosophers.

I would like to believe, and as a teacher I must teach with the hope, that years down the road, both whilst in professional practice as well as when all the companies regulations and rules of evidence (no offense to my colleagues!) are forgotten, the weightier matters will remain close to my students’ hearts and will be a light unto their path.


Unger, R.M. (1976). Knowledge and Politics. New York: The Free Press.

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Inside this issue
Teaching the Weightier Matters of the Law
Plus est en vous
Joining the Dots
Teaching: A Learning Process for Both the Teacher and Student Alike
My Contributions to the International Mission for Pharmacy Education
The First Few Moments