PHIL 153   Ethics                                                      Fall 2017

Syllabus – keep handy for reference

Dr. Aeon J. Skoble
341 Tillinghast, x2460
Email:     Web:
Office hours: M 10-11, TR 11-12, or by appointment

Text: Ethics (custom reader), Cahn and Markie, eds. (Oxford)

Overview and objectives:
Ethics, or moral philosophy, is that branch of philosophical inquiry concerned with concepts of right and wrong action and character.  This course is a survey of the central issues and major theories in the philosophical study of morality. We will consider topics such as: What are values? What makes right acts right? Why be moral? What matters more, principles or consequences? What is virtue? Are there objective moral standards? How are morality, custom and religion connected? What is justice? What is the good life?  Students will learn how to apply critical reasoning and reflection to issues which often provoke strong disagreement.  We will be analyzing and discussing philosophical arguments on all facets of these issues.  These are questions which you probably have already put at least some thought into, but you will likely find this course challenging, in the sense of being obliged to confront questions you have not already dealt with in a rigorous way, or in the sense of having your intuitions and  presuppositions subjected to scrutiny.  By studying the logical foundations of the various arguments on all sides of these issues, you should (1) get a better sense of what constitutes a satisfactory answer to them, (2) have a better idea of the relation between facts and values, as well as develop a facility with the language of moral discourse, (3) experience a marked improvement in critical reasoning skills, especially in terms of reasoning well in moral argument, and (4) develop an appreciation for philosophic inquiry as an important element of a liberal arts education that entails lifelong learning in the search for wisdom.

First, you are required to do all the assigned readings prior to class, so as to be able to comment on them if called on, and to ask intelligent questions about things you didn’t understand or things that merit further discussion.  Besides the readings in your textbook, there may be additional readings and videos posted on-line, or made available via class handouts. 
Second, you are required to attend the class.  A large portion of the learning that will go on is a function of the unique real-time dynamic of a college class.  The word “attend” here connotes attentiveness, not merely presence.  Hopefully you will find the class sufficiently exciting that you will prefer not missing it, and will come prepared and alert, but in any case, absences in excess of three will result in reduction in your grade, as will disruptive behavior or excessive lateness.  If you do have to miss class, it is your responsibility to get the notes, and any announcements or additional assignments, from a classmate.
Third, there will be two midterm exams weighted 30% each and a comprehensive final exam weighted 40%, subject to the adjustments noted above.
Fourth, try to observe some of the ground rules of civilized society: Anything with an off switch should be off (as should, ideally, hats), eat and drink quietly and discreetly, don’t read the newspaper or do homework for another class, don’t go to sleep.  You are not to use your phone or laptop during class.  Disruptive behavior will result in your being asked to leave.  Conversely, constructive participation will be rewarded.  Please be attentive to the distinction between criticizing an idea and personal attacks.  Disagreement is productive, angry fighting is not.

Statement on Open Discussion of Controversial Issues: This course deals with issues that are always provocative and controversial. A requirement of the class is a willingness to listen to and debate others’ points of view and a commitment to freedom of expression. There is no requirement to accept any view, but toleration is crucial. If you are not comfortable with lively and vigorous debate in which your views will be challenged and in which you may freely challenge others’ views (including the professor’s), you should not take this class. The willingness to engage in critical examination and critical re-thinking of what you think you know and what others think they know to be true is a central prerequisite for the class. There will not be any “trigger warnings” in this class. The phrase “I’m offended” indicates an emotional state, not an argument. If you are easily offended, please do not take this class.

The basic outline for the course will be as follows, subject to change as necessary:

Sept 7 – Introduction to course, discussion of syllabus
Sept 12-14 – Taking ethics seriously (handout)
Sept 19-21-  Why be moral?  (selections from ch. 1; ch. 9)
Sept 26-28  Morality and religion; natural law (selections from ch. 1; ch. 3, ch. 4)
Oct 3  (no class 10/5) - continued

Oct 10 -  First midterm exam
Oct 12 -17 (no class 10/19) - Rationalist constructivism (ch. 6)

Oct 24-31 (no class 11/2)  - Utilitarianism; Contractarianism (ch. 7, 8, 10)
Nov 7- tbd
Nov 9 – second midterm exam
Nov 14-16 – Moral Sense/Scottish Enlightenment (ch 5; handout)
Nov 21-30 - Virtue ethics (ch 2, 11, 12)
Dec 5-7 – applications of moral theory to practical problems
Dec 12– last day of class; review for final exam
Dec 19, 8:00 AM – final exam