Philosophy | Introduction to Ethics
P140 | 6135 | Caldwell
Perhaps no area of study is as important, pervasive in everyday
life, and difficult, as is Ethics. Ethics is the branch of
Philosophy that attempts to answer the following sorts of
questions: “Is so-and-so a duty that I must perform?” “Is such-and-
such action permitted?” , “In what sort of way should I live my
life?”, “What kind of personal character should I develop?” More
importantly, Ethics carefully scrutinizes the answers that people
give to these questions. The vast majority of people may all agree
that “Murder is wrong” is a true statement, but 10 different people
might give 10 different arguments/reasons WHY it is the case
that “Murder is wrong” is true. As we shall see in the course, not
all of these arguments are good ones.
We will look at several ethical theories that have been developed
over the past 2,300 years to attempt to answer some of the above
questions. These include, but are not limited to, Moral Relativism,
Divine Command Theory, Consequentialism, Deontological ethics,
Virtue ethics, and Sartreian ethics. We will read the works of both
historical and contemporary writers.
Many Introduction to Ethics classes finish the semester by
getting ‘down and dirty’ in some applied areas—discussing issues
such as abortion, euthanasia, and animal rights. Though these
issues will undoubtedly come up over the span of the course, I would
like to—provided we have enough time—get ‘down and dirty’ in another
area: Meta-ethics. Metaethics goes to the very foundations of
ethical theory, asking whether or not we are actually discussing any
sort of real ‘objective’ truth when discussing ethical theories, or
if we are simply ‘expressing ourselves.’ Are ‘rightness’
and ‘wrongness’ properties in the world in the same way ‘length’
or ‘mass’ are? Are they more akin to the psychological phenomena of
love or consciousness? Or are they simply ways of saying ‘Yay!’
and ‘Boo!’. (‘Yay kindness! Boo murder!’).
Your grade will be a composite of 2 or 3 exams, one term paper, and
class participation. I will likely have occasional short homework
assignments and/or reading quizzes that will count under the heading
of ‘class participation.’ I do not take attendance; we’re all
adults—the more you put into the class the more you will get out.
No previous philosophical experience is required. This class, after
all, is in part an attempt to introduce you to philosophical
thinking. That being said, you will be expected to think
rigorously, write rigorously, and do the readings.
I enjoy this topic and expect it to be a fun class. If you have any
questions about the course, please feel free to email me at
The only required text for the course is “Ethics: History, Theory,
and Contemporary Issues” by Steven M. Cahn and Peter Markie. I may
provide other readings through oncourse.