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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




Week 1:  Introduction to Ethical Theory -  The Moral Realism Debate


1/18 --  What is meta-ethics? What is Philosophy?


1/20 –  Peter Railton “Towards An Ethics That Inhabits The World”




Part One of The Course:  Was Ethical Theory Inhabiting the World?



Week 2 :  The Moral Problem and The Moral Realism Debate (Mapping the Terrain)


1/25      G.E.  Moore  from Principia Ethica  AND  Frankena “The Naturalistic Fallacy”)


1/27     Michael Smith The Moral Problem Chpt 2 




Week 3:  The Moral Realism Debate (Mapping the Terrain)


2/1   Michael Smith The Moral Problem Chpt 2


2/3  Stevenson “The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms”




Week 4:  The Moral Realism Debate (Mapping the Terrain)


2/8    Queer Properties and Disagreement, J.L. Mackie, "The Subjectivity of Values"

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).

2/12   Brink, "Moral Realism and the Sceptical Arguments from Disagreement and Queerness,"  Australasian Journal of Philosophy 62 (1984): 112-125.  Suggested Reading: Boyd “How to Be a Moral Realist





Week 5:  Internalism vs. Externalism:  Problems with Motivation


2/15 Explanation, Gilbert Harman, "Ethics and Observation"


2/17    Sturgeon “Moral Explanations 



Week 6: Internalism vs. Externalism:  Problems with Motivation


2/22 Externalism: 

Conceptual -> Brink Moral Realism and The Foundation of Ethics Chapter 3   

Empirical ->  Nichols “Is it irrational to be Amoral?”


2/24 Internalism: 

Conceptual ->   Michael Smith The Moral Problem Chpt 3


Suggested Reading:   Brink “Moral Motivation” A reply to Smith


Empirical ->  Kennett “Autism, Empathy and Moral Agency”




Part Two of the Course:  What Really Is The Moral Problem?


Week 7:  Ethical Theory and The History of Oppression, Defining RIGHT (?)


3/1  Marilyn Frye  “Oppression”


3/3  Iris Young “Political Responsibility and Structural Injustice”  & Sally Haslanger  “Structural Explanations”


Supporting Readings:


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 8: A More Engaged Ethical Theory?


3/8  Elizabeth Anderson “Social Movements, Experiments in Living and Moral Progress”


3/10  Anderson “The Quest for Free Labor”




Week 9:  A More Engaged Ethical Theory?


3/14   Kitcher Selections from “The Ethical Project” and “Moral Progress Chapter 1”


3/16  The Historical Approach:  Choose Abolition of Chattel Slavery OR Valladolid Debate



SPRING BREAK 3/19-3/27



Week 11:  The Historical Approach


3/29     Kitcher Chapter 1 and Results of Student Research


3/31     Results of Student Research



Week 12: Moral Progress


4/5  Kitcher Moral Progress Chapter 2


4/7  Kitcher Chapter 3 and Srinivasan reply “The Limits of Conversation”




Week 13:  Moral Progress


4/12 Neiman “Progress, Regress and Power” & Jaeggi “Progress as the Dynamics of Crisis”


4/14 Kitcher:  Response to Critics




Week 14:  The Moral Problem(s)


4/19  Re-read Railton “Can we have an ethics that inhabits the world?”



4/21 Shaffer Resisting Ethics Chapter 1



Week 15: Shaffer Resisting Ethics 


4/26   Shaffer Chapter 2


4/28   Shaffer Chapter 3

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