Course syllabus available here.

PHIL 334: Ethical Theory

Course Description:

This class offers an introduction to some fundamental positions and arguments in normative ethics and moral philosophy. Course content is divided into five broad themes, and readings are scheduled accordingly, as per the table below. We begin by examining the three dominant accounts of the nature of moral duty, including not only their classical foundations but also some contemporary elaborations of those accounts and some of the most influential criticisms that they face.

The first account, consequentialism, explains moral duties in terms of the consequences of actions. Roughly, according to the account, you should always do what produces the best consequences. The second account, deontology, explains moral duties in terms of the intrinsic properties of actions, properties that actions have independently from their consequences. Roughly, according to this account, you should perform actions only of a certain type, independently from the outcomes that those actions bring about. The final view, virtue ethics, explains moral duties in terms of what the wise or good person would do.

We will be occupied by such questions as what is goodness? What is its relation to rightness? Can it be irrational to do what's moral? What does it mean to be a good person? Does doing what's right suffice for being good? We'll then turn to the question of whether we are the autonomous causes of our actions, whether that's consistent with a fully deterministic universe, and whether moral responsibility depends on that autonomy. We'll be occupied by such questions as what it means to have control over your actions and whether it's appropriate to blame or praise someone for actions that are, in various senses, beyond their control. We'll close by addressing recalcitrant doubts about whether there is a true moral theory and asking whether this should inform how we choose to act.

Course Objectives:

At the completion of this course, students will:

1. Identify central ethical questions and a number of historical approaches to those questions.

2. Develop the ability to assess the strengths and weaknesses of arguments in moral philosophy.

3. Learn how to succinctly formulate a philosophical position on a moral question, assess the prospects for that position, and anticipate and respond to objections to it.

4. Learn how to constructively discuss others assessments of philosophical arguments.

5. Sharpen one’s written and spoken communication and develop a lucid, succinct, and direct argumentative writing style.


I grade using this excellent rubric, by Micah Lewin. Roughly,

  • Grades in the C range represent performance that meets expectations;

  • Grades in the B range represent performance that is substantially better than the expectations;

  • Grades in the A range represent work that is excellent.

Attendance and Absences:

Attendance is expected and will be taken each class. You are allowed to miss 2 classes during the semester without penalty. Any further absences will result in point and/or grade deductions from the overall grade.

Absent students are responsible for all missed work, regardless of the reason for absence. It is also the absentee’s responsibility to get all missing notes or materials.

Academic Honesty Policy:

X University values academic integrity. Therefore, all students must understand the meaning and consequences of cheating, plagiarism and other academic offences under The Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures (see [appropriate website] for more information). The Code provides guidance about how to properly cite, reference, and attribute the intellectual property of others. Any attempt to deceive a faculty member or to help another student to do so will be considered a violation of this standard..

Electronic Devices Policy:

No laptops, cellphones, tablets, etc. are to be used during class. Those with extenuating circumstances should notify me via email ( to receive a special dispensation.

Late assignments policy:

All students have an automatic seven-day extension on all assignments -- no email requests are necessary to take advantage of this policy. No marks will be deducted during this period. No work will be accepted after this seven-day period without appropriate medical documentation or equally certain evidence of comparably excusing circumstances.