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GH 301: Ethical Theory

GH 301: Ethical Theory

What conditions (if any) could distinguish what is ethically right from what is ethically wrong? Is there anything that grounds the ethical judgments of thoughtful, moral people? Being good and doing what is right certainly seem important. We might still wonder, though: where exactly does moral value come from and what makes a right action morally right?

Ethical theory aims to provide answers to questions like these. According to some theories, doing the right thing depends on whether our actions ultimately have the best possible consequences. Other theories suggest instead that right action depends on things like moral consistency, moral integrity, and maintaining good intentions. Alternatively, some theories suggest that the good we do is a function of our moral character, the quality of our moral education, and acquired ethical insight.

This course introduces students to central examples of normative ethical theory. We explore prominent consequentialist, deontological, and virtue theoretic accounts of right action in some detail. Throughout the course, we also develop critical philosophical perspectives and engage central questions of contemporary metaethical discussion and debate. Is ethics grounded in something real and objective? When we distinguish right from wrong, are we acknowledging something natural and empirical? If not, then is there some special human moral intuition that gives us access to moral truths, or is ethics entirely something subjective? Throughout the course, students have an opportunity to explore and discuss varieties of moral nihilism and moral skepticism, along with key moral realist responses. We consider naturalism in ethics and investigate the views of ethical non-naturalists and moral intuitionists. Finally, the course explores linkages between moral epistemology and moral psychology.

The course is designed to provide students a comprehensive and historically sensitive overview of key concepts and important positions within contemporary ethical theory. (This is not a course in applied ethics issues. While practical concerns are never entirely absent from class discussion, our focus in this course is on normative theory and on contemporary metaethics.)

Coursework includes regular reading assignments, in-class discussion and debate, regular key concept quizzes and regular written commentary assignments. There is one midsemester paper assignment and one final paper assignment.

Instructor: Dr. Steven Harris

Please contact Dr. Harris if you have questions about this course.