Teaching‎ > ‎

PHIL 120: Introduction to Ethics

PHIL 120: Introduction to Ethics                                                                                                                                       

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 others and ourselves.  Throughout the class we will be reading both historical and contemporary philosophical texts, the purpose of which will be to help you critically and thoughtfully engage with issues and concepts that are relevant to your life (or will be in the future).  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 the world and how we should live in it.

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.  Although this is an introductory level class, it will be difficult.  You will have to work hard to do well in this class. 

In this course we will explore different normative models, including: utilitarianism, Kantian deontology, virtue ethics, Existentialism, and Rossian deontology.  Along the way we will apply those models to various issues that you are faced with every day, including your treatment of non-human animals, sexual promiscuity, how you ought to regard nature, choices you make as a consumer, the perils of acting morally, and whether we ought to give to the poor.

Required Course Materials:

 There are two assigned books for this course:

“Moral Theory” by Mark Timmons

“The Little Prince,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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.  I will send emails to the class frequently.  If you prefer that I use some email address other than your St. Mary’s address, you should let me know immediately.

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 110 possible points you can earn (although it is extremely unlikely that anyone will earn anything close to that many).

Here is the breakdown of the assignments:

First paper                                                                    25 points

Second paper                                                               25 points

Short papers                                                                 25 points (5 points each x 5 = 25 points)

Quizzes                                                                          28 points (4 points each x 7 = 28 points)

Class Participation                                                        7 points


                                                                                          110 Total Possible Points                       


You must write and turn in the two long papers in order to pass the class.  The long papers are opportunities for you to try your hand at writing philosophy.  They should be 5-7 pages in length, typed, with standard fonts and margins.  The first paper will be on utilitarianism or Kantian deontology.  The second paper will be on one of the normative models that we study and how it deals with global poverty. 

  • 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.
  • Your long papers should be submitted by email.

 The short papers should be 2-3 pages in length, typed, with standard fonts and margins.  Your job will be to offer some critique of the secondary article we will cover in a particular unit. 

  • Again, your critique must take into account what we discuss in class.

 For all of your short papers, you must turn in stapled hard copies at the beginning of class on the day they are due. 

  • I will not accept electronic versions of your short papers except in cases of emergency.  Emergencies do not include printer problems or forgetfulness.


The quizzes will be short and in class, on the primary text we will cover in the coming week.  They may be multiple choice, short answer, or short essay.


 You are not required to talk in class, but students who are active participants will receive up to 7 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 around 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 quizzes and on 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). 

  • Because there are so many available points that can be earned over the course of the semester, I will not accept late assignments or offer make-ups for the quizzes. 

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 Tuesdays from 1-4 and by appointment.  My office is Margaret Brent 204.

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 Center

 "The Writing Center, located in the Library Annex, offers free consultations for student writers at all levels and in all disciplines. No matter what you're writing and no matter where you are in the writing process (generating ideas, drafting, revising or proofreading), the peer tutors in the Writing 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.  I encourage you to use the Writing Center as much as possible. You can make a one-time or weekly 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-related topics.”

Topic and Assignment Schedule                                                                                                                     

Week 1 - Introduction and Utilitarianism

Introduction and Course Overview

“Utilitarianism” – p. 1-17 – Mill

                Quiz 1 (on Mill)

“Classical Utilitarianism” – Timmons (Chapter 5)

Week 2 – Utilitarianism and Animals

“Puppies, Pigs, and People: Eating Meat and Marginal Cases” – Norcross

Selection from “Eating Animals” - Foer

Short Paper 1

Week 3 - Kantian Deontology

“Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals” – Chapter 1 - Kant

Quiz 2 (on both Kant readings)

“Groundwork,” Chapter 2 – Kant

“Kant’s Moral Theory” – Timmons (Chapter 7, especially sections 1-7)

Short Paper 1 Due

Week 4 – Kantian Deontology and Consent

“Between Consenting Adults” - O'Neill

Writing Workshop

                  Short Paper 2

Week 5 – Virtue Ethics

Selection from “Nicomachean Ethics” – Aristotle

Quiz 3 (on Aristotle)

First Long Paper Assigned 

“Virtue Ethics” – Timmons (Chapter 9)

                  Short Paper 2 Due

Week 6 – Virtue Ethics and Environmental Ethics

“Environmental Virtue Ethics,” – Hursthouse

Short Paper 3  

Week 7 - Existentialism

“Existentialism is a Humanism” – Sartre

“The Myth of Sisyphus” – Camus

“Death” - Nagel

Quiz 4 (on Sartre, Camus, and Nagel)

First Long Paper due in class

Short Paper 3 Due 

Week 8 – Existentialism and “The Little Prince”

“The Little Prince” – Saint-Exupéry

                  Short Paper 4

Week 9 – Rossian Deontology

“The Right and the Good” - Ross

                Quiz 5 (on Ross)

Short Paper 4 Due

Week 10 - Rossian Deontology and Moral Luck

“The Moral of Moral Luck” – Wolf

“In Defense of International Sweatshops” – Maitland

Short Paper 5

Week 11 – Consumer Ethics

“Wrongful Beneficence” – Meyers

Consumer Ethics Presentations

Short Paper 5 Due

Week 12 – Global Poverty and What we Owe to the Poor

“Famine, Affluence, and Morality” – Singer

Quiz 6 (On Singer, Audi, and Slote)

“Kantian Intuitionism” – Audi

“Famine, Affluence, and Virtue” – Slote

Second Long Paper Assigned 

Week 13 – Global Poverty and What we Owe to the Poor

Singer, Audi, and Slote, continued

Week 14 – Genetic Sequencing (Students’ Choice!)

“Implications of Prenatal Diagnosis for the Human Right to Life” - Kass

                  Quiz 7 (On Kass, Purdy, and Sandel)

“Genetics and Reproductive Risk: Can Having Children Be Immoral?” - Purdy

“Mastery and Gift” - Sandel

Week 15 – Drug Use and Conclusion (Students’ Choice!)

“Why We Should Not Use Some Drugs for Pleasure” - Edwards                     

                  Quiz 8 (On Edwards) optional, replacement quiz)

“Commencement Address” – Wallace

Second Long Paper Due