Philosophy | Introduction to Ethisc
P140 | 6134 | Houser
“Everyone will readily agree that it is of the highest importance to
know whether we are not duped by morality” –Emmanuel Levinas
This seems right. We’d like to be moral—but we don’t want to be
duped! But avoiding dupery in the case of morality is a tricky
business; for when we set out to ask our most basic moral/ethical
questions (“What is the source of moral obligation?” and “What, in
particular, am I morally obligated to do/not do?”) there seem to be
at least two corresponding ways we might be duped.
(i) First, we might be wrong in supposing there ARE common and
compelling ‘right’ answers to our moral questions.
(ii) Second, we might be wrong about HOW TO GET the right answers
to moral questions.
In this course (Phil.140: Introduction to Ethics) we will begin by
considering (i)—i.e. by considering views which challenge the notion
that there is a single (or even multiple) set/s of ‘right’ moral
answers to get at/discover. These views call into question
traditional ‘anchors’ of morality; all try to influence/alter and/or
undermine, in widely varying ways, what we think about the nature of
moral authority as such—how it arises, what it rests upon, and
whether it is able to command.
Troubles with—or at least some potentially troubling implications of—
some of these views will motivate a change in tactics (ii): to
concede we can give really right or really wrong answers to moral
questions and to ask what the correct standards are for determining
which answers to moral questions are right. E.g. Is moral authority
based on rules everyone can follow? (“Never torture!”)? Or does it
rest upon calculations about how to help the maximum number of
persons (“You should torture the bomber if doing so will enable you
to disarm the bomb he has set in the crowded schoolyard.”)? We will
find, in entertaining various real-world ‘practical’ scenarios, that
these different standards for what makes a response morally right
can give us very different answers about what we should do in a
Given world enough and time, we will close the course with a brief
introductory look at some of the basic issues surrounding the
relation between moral/ethical right and political rights.
Throughout the semester we will certainly give some air time
to ‘lesser’ figures, and will not be shy about dragging in classical
and contemporary literature and film to lend concreteness to certain
abstract ethical points. That said, the course will be centered upon
works and authors which are ‘canonical’—or at least historically
central to ethical discussion. But please note: this course is not,
at the end of the day, a history course, in which you will excel
simply by memorizing who said what, when. If, six months after our
last meeting, you can recall verbatim what Plato, Nietzsche, Kant,
Hume, Mill, James, and others had to say, Bravo! Yet if the names of
the greats eventually escape you, but you find yourself better able
-ascertain unspoken presumptions about morality which underwrite
-apply different moral criteria and recognize when they are being
-more clearly and quickly see where others with alternative moral
views are coming from, and
-better anticipate objections to your positions from others (or
yourself at different times)...
...in short, if, when we are done, you are better at giving reasons
for your ethical stances and/or better understand where such
reasoning must end, then you will have proved a fine student, and
this course will have done its job.