Philosophy | Introduction to Ethics
P140 | 3361 | Robbins


Moral philosophy (or "ethics") in the first instance examines the very general
question of how one ought to live.  Moral concepts, such as virtue, rightness,
duty, obligation and justice, figure importantly in our discourse both about
ourselves and the political and social institutions through which we relate to one
another. The job of the moral philosopher is to clarify such concepts so that we
may better understand both what it is we are doing when we apply them to
particular acts, persons or institutions (e.g. when we criticize a policy as unjust or
an action as dishonest) and how it is possible that such concepts may influence
(or fail to influence) our conduct.

This course will be organized around the concept of equality, a notion which
plays an especially prominent role in the moral ideas implicit in our culture.
Indeed, it is widely felt that no moral philosophy with a credible claim to our
allegiance can afford to ignore this important ethical ideal.  The importance of this
notion is reflected in the fact that the two major traditions in modern moral
philosophy both base their claims to our acceptance on an interpretation of
equality.

The first, which has its origins in the British tradition of moral philosophy going
back to Hobbes and Hume, seeks to explain moral concepts in terms of the
notion of happiness, or well-being.  In the most influential version of this tradition,
the principle of equality with which it operates enjoins that everyone's interests
be accorded equal treatment.  The second approach, which hearkens back to
Kant, attempts to base moral concepts in our capacity to direct our own lives and
set our own ends.  For this approach, equality is most naturally understood as
equality of entitlements to the rights, resources and liberties needed for the
exercise of this capacity.  We will ask whether either of these approaches is
adequate to our contemporary moral and political experience.

Readings for the class will include John Locke's Second Treatise on
Government, David Hume's An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, John
Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism and The Subjection of Women, Kant's Groundwork of
the Metaphysic of Morals and John Rawls' A Theory of Justice.