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Philosophy 314: Ethical Theory

Ethical Theory is the study of how one can and should (or cannot and should not) understand and justify ethical judgments. Here are some examples of ethical judgments, from the clearly moral to what possibly lies outside of ethics: 'It is wrong to torture babies for profit'; 'Setting cats on fire for personal amusement is not to be done'; 'Bill is a pig-headed creep'; 'We don't do that sort of thing, young person’; 'You shouldn't pass out at your department party'; 'It is rude to burp loudly without apologizing'. The following are some metaethical questions we might ask about these judgments. What do they mean? Are they true or false? If they are true or false, in virtue of what? If they are true or false, can knowledge of them be had? How, or why not? If they are not true or false, what status do they have? If they are not true or false, can some of them be justified and others not? How, or why not?


The goal of the course is to explore the answers that have been given to these questions by influential writings in metaethics, so that everyone in the course is prepared to explore some problem(s) in metaethics independently.

The majority of the course will be spent studying two approaches to understanding the most pressing current problems in ethical theory. We will spend the last part of the course studying the topic of Moral Progress, which engages both approaches.

Course Schedule

Please Note: I am providing this tentative course schedule merely as a courtesy. It should not be construed as a commitment to keep strictly to the plan outlined below. To remain up-to-date on changes, you must attend class regularly and consult the website.






Week 1 Introduction to Ethical Theory – The Moral Realism Debate


Thurs Jan. 18

Introduction, syllabus, etc. What is meta-ethics? What is Philosophy?






Week 2 The Moral Realism Debate (Mapping the Terrain)



Tues. Jan 23


Peter Railton “Towards An Ethics That Inhabits The World”



Thurs. Jan. 25

Michael Smith The Moral Problem Chpt 2  (Background G.E.  Moore  from Principia Ethica  AND  Frankena “The Naturalistic Fallacy”)







Week 3 The Moral Realism Debate (Mapping) & Begin Emotivism


Tues. Jan. 30

Discuss Michael Smith The Moral Problem Chpt 2   Quiz 1



Thurs. Feb. 1

Stevenson “The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms”






Week 4  Compare Moral Realism and Emotivism


Tues. Feb. 6

Michael Smith “Moral Realism” Graded In-Class Activity 1


Thurs. Feb. 8

Harman “Ethics and Observation” Is relativism an option? Quiz 2





Week 5  Defending Moral Realism


Tues. Feb. 13  

Sturgeon “Moral Explanations”



Thurs. Feb. 15

Mackie “The Subjectivity of Values”  Whither Nihilism?  Quiz 3


Predecessors include Nietzsche and Mackie's earlier article, "A Refutation of Morals," Australasian Journal of Philosophy (1946).


Successors include Joyce, The Myth of Morality (2001). Joyce goes through error theory to fictionalism; for a different route to fictionalism, see Kalderon, Moral Fictionalism (2005).





Week 6 Moral Psychology and The Moral Realism Debate


Tues. Feb. 20

Externalism  Brink Moral Realism and The Foundation of Ethics Chapter 3  



Thurs. Feb. 22 Michael Smith The Moral Problem

Short Reflection Paper #1 Due







Week 7 Debating in Class:  Best Arguments For and Against Moral Realism?


Tues. Feb. 27  

Brink “Moral Motivation” A reply to Smith, List Brink’s Reply to Smith Chpt 3


Thurs. Feb 29

In Class Debate/Discussion.  (Where are we in the class?)  Graded In Class Activity 2




Week 8 Structural Oppression as the Basis for Ethical Theory




Tues March 5

Marilyn Frye “Oppression”  (What is Oppression?)  Quiz 4


Thurs. March 7

Iris Young “Political Responsibility and Structural Injustice”




Week 9 Structural Opression as the Basis for Ethical Theory


Tues. March 12

Sally Haslanger  “Structural Explanations”



Thurs March 14

What questions did the previous readings raise?  Chose one source below and identify what one would do for further Meta-Ethics research.



1.Ann E. Cudd, Analyzing Oppression (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2006), (available at Oxford Scholarship Online).

2. Sally Haslanger, Resisting Reality. Social Construction and Social Critique (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp. 311-338.

3. Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice. Power and the Ethics of Knowing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), chapters, 1 and 7 (pp. 9-29, 147-169).

4. Catharine MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1989)  (Note: chapters 8, 9, 12 extensively discuss rape).

5. Elizabeth Anderson, The Imperative of Integration, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010)

6. Iris Young Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton University Press, 2012)








Week 10 Moral Realism Debate:  Arguments for and Against


Tues. March 19  

Utilizing the above readings identify the best argument for and against

Short Reflection Paper #2 Due



Thurs. March 21

Utilizing the above readings identify the best argument for and against










Week 11 Ethics Without Value:  Epistemic Locality NO VALUE NO NIHILISM


Tues April 2   

B. Burkhart “Indigenizing Philosophy Through the Land” Chapter 5


Thurs. April 4








Week 12  Topic Determined By Student Interest (Progress, Indigenous Meta-Ethics, Moral Psychology)


Tues. April 9  Burkhart Continued  No Value No Nihilism??  Quiz 5


Thurs April 11   Anderson Lindley Lecture

Short Reflection Paper #3 Due






Week 13 Topic Determined By Student Interest (Progress, Indigenous Meta-Ethics, Moral Psychology)



Tues. April 16


Thurs. April 18   

Graded In Class Activity 3 Due




Week 14 Topic Determined By Student Interest (Progress, Indigenous Meta-Ethics, Moral Psychology)


Tues. April 23

 Quiz 6


Thurs. April 25

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