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PHIL 430: Ethical Theories

PHIL 430: Ethical Theories 
Spring 2014
Updated: 1/20/14

Course Description:

In this course we will explore what it means to be moral and how we should evaluate the actions, intentions, and characters of moral agents. Specifically, we will study four normative models: consequentialism, Kantian deontology, virtue ethics, and Rossian deontology, considering what each view claims individuals owe in response to global poverty. We will go on to complicate those judgments by thinking about what it means to be complicit, either actively or passively, in the production or continued maintenance of global poverty. In other words, in the first half of the semester we will ask what we owe to each other in an ideal world. In the second half of the semester we will ask what we owe to each other in a non-ideal world that is shot through with structural injustice.

Throughout the class we will be reading both historical and contemporary philosophical texts. However, this is not a merely academic exercise where we will only study what others have thought. Instead, in this course you will be joining an active and ongoing effort to better understand that it means to be a moral agent in the world. Along the way we will come to better understand what moral philosophers do, how they do it, and why. That will entail using and refining your ability to effectively think, listen, argue, read, and write. Philosophical answers are not merely opinion, and are not easily found. This is an upper division class with a prerequisite requirement of two other courses in philosophy; I’ll be expecting a lot from you.

Required Course Materials:

There are three assigned books for this course:

Ethical Theory – Russ Shafer-Landau
Responsibility for Justice – Iris Marion Young
Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
The Elements of Style – Strunk and White (recommended)

Additionally, many assigned readings, as well as the syllabus, will be available on the class Blackboard page, which you can access by going to blackboard.smcm.edu All of the additional readings will be in .pdf format. You will be required to print at least 30 pages (in order to turn in your short long papers). If you plan to print the .pdfs I will provide, you will have to print considerably more. You should plan for this accordingly.

Course Requirements:

Your grade will consist of a collection of points you can earn over the course of the semester. Although your grade is out of 100 points, there are 105 possible points you can earn (although it is unlikely that anyone will earn that many). Here is the breakdown of the assignments:

First paper 25 points
Second paper 25 points
Short papers 50 points (5 points each x 10 = 50 points)
Class Participation 5 points
105 Total Possible Points


You must write and turn in two long papers in order to pass the class. They should be 12-15 pages in length. In writing the long papers your job will be to explain and critically engage a particular philosophical position. Your papers must be informed by both our class discussion and relevant assigned texts. That means, for instance, that if you raise an objection that we defeat in class or that an author considers (but that you ignore) you will not be given credit for that objection. Your long papers should be submitted by email.

The 10 short papers should be three pages in length. Your job in each will be to critically and philosophically engage all of the week’s readings. There are 14 eligible weeks in the semester, so you should pick and choose which papers or weeks you want to take off. You may write more than 10 short papers and I will count the 10 best grades towards your final grade. I will accept late papers turned in within one week of their due date with a 1 point penalty.

You should keep track of your grades over the course of the semester. You should also hold on to your short papers to be able to double-check grades with me at the end of the semester should there be a discrepancy between your records and mine. For more on how I will grade both your short and long papers, see “Writing Papers for PHIL 321” on Blackboard.


You are not required to talk in class, but students who are active participants will receive up to 5 extra points towards their final grade.
That does not mean that if you talk a lot you will receive any participation points. Instead, your job is to productively contribute to the class discussion, which will sometimes mean asking good questions, and other times will mean providing answers to my questions or your colleagues’ questions.
All students should be respectful of each other, of the authors, and of me at all times. Failure to do so will negatively affect your final grade.
If you choose to sleep, text, play on your laptop, or otherwise fail to engage with the class discussion, you should not expect to receive any participation points.


You are not required to come to class; I do not take attendance. However, doing so will most likely dramatically improve your chances of doing well on your papers. Since I do not take attendance you need not tell me why you have missed or will miss class (although you certainly may if you wish). If you routinely arrive late to class that will count against your earning a full participation grade.

Office Hours

I strongly encourage you to come and meet with me during my office hours or by appointment if you are having trouble with the class. I also just simply like talking about philosophy and getting to know students, so I would be glad to have you stop by even if you feel comfortable with how you are performing in the class. My office hours are Wednesdays from 3-5 and by appointment. My office is Margaret Brent 205.

Students with Disabilities

If you qualify for accommodations because of a disability and anticipate needing to make use of them, please contact me early in the semester so that we can work together to help you succeed in the course. Additionally, my office is on the second floor. If you are unable or prefer not to climb stairs, please let me know and we will arrange to meet elsewhere.

The Writing and Speaking Center

"The Writing and Speaking Center, located in the Library Annex, offers free consultations in writing and speaking for students at all levels and in all disciplines. No matter what you're writing and no matter where you are in the process (generating ideas, drafting, revising or proofreading), the peer tutors in the Center can assist you. These tutors are friendly students and also excellent writers with special training as writing consultants. They would not grade or correct your papers; instead, they'd coach you and help you become a better writer. Similarly, the tutors are also trained to help you plan and practice presentations and other speaking assignments. I encourage you to use the Writing and Speaking Center as much as possible. You can make a one-time or repeating appointment with the Center by visiting their website, www.smcm.edu/writingcenter, and clicking 'Schedule an Appointment.' At the same website, you can find helpful resources on many writing- and speaking-related topics."

What Does a Philosopher Look Like?

Like many disciplines in the academy, philosophy has historically been dominated by white men. Stereotype threat is a psychological phenomenon that causes people to underperform in a discipline in the face of a stereotype that says that “people like them” aren’t good at that discipline. As a result, the stereotype becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Luckily, it is also the case that telling students that there are no actual differences in performance in a class can defuse the anxiety that the stereotype creates and subsequently undermines those tendencies to underperform. (For evidence of both, see Stereotype Threat and Women’s Math Performance” by Spencer, Steele, and Quinn, available on Blackboard.) The stereotype that says that only white men can be good philosophers is false. For more on this, visit:


On Seeming Smart

Related to that point, regardless of whether you’ve studied philosophy prior to this course, you might often find yourself feeling intimidated by the way philosophers write or talk. This might be because philosophy, like all disciplines, employs its own jargon and concepts that you either might not have encountered before, or that you might have seen used differently. Jargon can be useful, but it can also be used to exclude people and make them feel like they don’t have a place in the conversation. Don’t feel that way and don’t be intimidated! If you don’t know what a term means, ask for a definition (or look it up). If you don’t know how a concept is being used, ask for clarification. For a very helpful essay that speaks to this (among other important things) see “On Being Good at Seeming Smart” on Blackboard or visit:


Reading and Discussion Schedule:
(readings marked with an [e] can be found on Blackboard)

Week 1 – Jan 21-23 – Reasons and Rationality
Normative Concepts – Parfit [e]
Rationality – Parfit [e]

Week 2 – Jan 28-30 – Consequentialism
Utilitarianism – Mill
Extreme and Restricted Utilitarianism - Smart
The Consequentialist Perspective - Shaw

Week 3 – Feb 4-6 – Consequentialism and Poverty
Famine, Affluence, and Morality – Singer
A Critique of Utilitarianism – Williams [e]
The Experience Machine – Nozick

Week 4 – Feb 11-13 – Kantian Deontology
Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals – Kant
Kant’s Formula of Universal Law – Korsgaard

Week 5 – Feb 18-20 – Kantian Deontology and Poverty
Kantian Approaches to Some Famine Problems – O’Neill
A Theory of Justice - Rawls
“Assisting” the Global Poor – Pogge [e]

Week 6 – Feb 25-27 – Aristotelian Virtue Ethics
Nicomachean Ethics – Aristotle
Non-Relative Virtues - Nussbaum
Normative Virtue Ethics – Hursthouse

Week 7 – Mar 4-6 – Aristotelian Virtue Ethics and Poverty
Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism – Nussbaum [e]

Week 8 – Mar 11-13 – Rossian Deontology
The Right and the Good – Ross
An Unprincipled Morality – Dancy
An Unconnected Heap of Duties? – McNaughton
    First Long Paper Due – March 14 by 11:59 p.m.

Week 9 – Mar 18-20 – Spring Break!
    No Class!

Week 10 – Mar 25-27 – Agency, Responsibility, and Blame
Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person – Frankfurt [e]
Freedom and Resentment – Strawson
On Being and Holding Responsible – Smith [e]
    WGSX Colloquium

Week 11 – April 1-3 – Complicating “Poverty” and Complicity
The Moral of Moral Luck – Wolf [e]
Does Poverty Wear a Woman’s Face? – Jaggar [e]
Introduction – Young

Week 12 – April 8-10 – Responsibility for Justice
    No Class April 1 – Advising
Chapters 1 and 2 - Young

Week 13 – April 15-17 – Responsibility for Justice
Chapters 3 and 4 - Young

Week 14 – April 22-24 – Responsibility for Justice
Chapters 5, 6, and 7 - Young

Week 15 – April 29 - May 1 – Ender’s Game
Ender’s Game - Card
    Second Long Paper Due – May 9 by 11:59 p.m.