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Ethical Theory

Philosophy 220: Ethical Theory

Fall 2011

TTh 10:00-11:50 AM

Morse-Ingersoll 209

Professor: Matt Tedesco



                Phone: 363-2146

Office Hours: W 1:00-3:30, and by appointment

                Office: Morse-Ingersoll 210

The Class:

The purpose of this course is to critically engage with some of the most important historical theories in normative ethics, both in their classical sources and in the development of those theories by contemporary moral philosophers.  As a philosophy class, our emphasis will be on the analysis of concepts and the critical evaluation of arguments.  Beyond gaining a familiarity with some of the core literature in ethical theory, students should expect to develop their analytic and evaluative skills through in-class discussion and a range of writing assignments.


Your grade in the class will be determined as follows:


You will write three short (4-5 page) papers in this class.  These papers will not be research papers; rather, they will be analytical and evaluative writing exercises.  Details (regarding specific guidelines and expectations) will be passed along as the semester progresses.  For you to receive a passing grade in the class, these papers all must be satisfactorily completed.


You will complete a final exam no later than Monday, December 19th at 7 PM (our assigned time during the finals period), to be submitted via e-mail.  On the exam, anything discussed in class or assigned as class reading is fair game for a question topic.  Note that these two will largely, but not entirely, overlap.


You will be responsible for sending weekly reaction e-mails to me throughout the semester.  These e-mails should be at least two substantial paragraphs in length.  The first paragraph should briefly summarize what you take to be the thesis, main point, or purpose of the reading being discussed.  The second paragraph and beyond should contain your reaction to the reading.  Here, you should be critically evaluating some aspect of the reading: what was particularly interesting, convincing, problematic, confusing, etc.?  Your reaction e-mails will not be evaluated for correctness, but they should demonstrate a serious engagement with the reading for class.  In order to help ensure that you are seriously engaging the material, each reaction e-mail must be a minimum of 350 words in length; the word count must be included in the reaction e-mail.  This word count is merely a bare minimum; reaction e-mails may, and frequently do, exceed this number.  Reaction e-mails that fail to seriously engage the reading, including those that fail to reach the minimum word requirement, will receive no credit.

There are two important rules (or sets of rules) to keep in mind for this assignment: timing rules and formatting rules.  First, the e-mails must be received before we discuss the reading in class, and you can turn in no more than one per week.  If you turn in thirteen (one for each week, excluding the first, last, and mid-term break) satisfactorily, you will receive an A for this portion of your grade.  For each one not turned in, this portion of your grade will decrease by one-third of a letter grade (so, turning in twelve earns an A-, eleven a B+, etc.).  For our purposes, each week ends at the start of our Thursday class; any reaction e-mails sent afterwards will count for the next week.

Second, you will need to adhere to four rules in formatting your reaction e-mails.  First, the subject of your e-mails should include both the number of the reaction and the name of the philosopher or philosophers to whom you’ll be responding (e.g., Reaction 1: Dworkin).  Second, don’t send any attachments; your reaction e-mail should be the text of the e-mail itself.  Third, don’t include other business (questions about assignments, requests for a meeting, etc.) in your reaction e-mails; send all of that stuff as a separate correspondence.  And fourth, be sure to include a word count in the body of the e-mail.

These reaction e-mails serve a number of purposes.  Beyond ensuring your critical engagement with the text throughout the semester, they give me a window into your reading of the text, which in turn directly informs my teaching.  I’ll have a sense of what you focused on in the reading, and what needs special attention in class.  I will also draw from the content of your reaction e-mails in class, sometimes generally, but also sometimes by referencing particular reaction e-mails.  I will do my best to use discretion, but please let me know in your reaction e-mails if there are details in it that you would prefer not to reveal to the rest of the class. 

Given the volume of reaction e-mails that I will be receiving from all of you, you should not expect regular feedback on individual reaction e-mails.  I will, however, be responding to you on at least two occasions: I will respond to your first reaction e-mail, to let you know that I’ve received it and whether it meets the criteria of the assignment, and I will respond at the middle of the term to provide feedback on the set of reaction e-mails I’ve received to that point.  I may also respond to individual reaction e-mails intermittently throughout the semester.  Beyond all this, you should regularly be reviewing your reaction e-mails after our class discussions, to see how your understanding of the text has developed.  


The final component of your overall class grade encompasses several different elements, including (but not limited to) class participation and classroom behavior in general.  This component is unique in that, unlike the other components, it is subjective.  Attendance, first of all, is mandatory, and students with excessive absences will be penalized, where excessive absences are understood as those over and above the equivalent of one week’s worth of class time.  In accordance with Beloit College policy, I expect everyone to come to class, and I furthermore expect everyone who comes to class to be alert and ready to participate.  Participation also is mandatory.  Though this requirement is most commonly met by making positive contributions to in-class discussion, it may also be met through e-mail communication or office visits that demonstrate a serious engagement with class material beyond the assigned reaction e-mails.  Elements of class activity that may negatively impact your grade include disruptive behavior (e.g., engaging in side-conversations with others, ringing cell phones) or visibly obvious detachment from the class (e.g., reading outside material such as the newspaper or work for other classes, sleeping).  Exceptionally strong class activity may raise your overall grade by one-third (e.g., if your final grade is a B, it may be raised to a B-plus), while poor class activity may lower your overall grade by at least one-third (e.g., from B to B-minus or lower).  As a rule of thumb, expect to have your class grade lowered by one-third for each class missed beyond one week of absence.

Note that, as a matter of class policy, laptop computers will not be allowed to be used in class.  The reason for this is straightforward: the classroom is a place for community conversation, and for a variety of reasons, laptops hinder conversation.  If you believe you have a compelling reason to be exempt from this policy, please see me to discuss the matter.  Given the electronic nature of the reading assignments in this class, I will allow a general exception to this policy solely for the use of accessing the class readings.

If a situation of prolonged absence is unavoidable, please make sure to contact me about it.  Be aware that I will normally request proper documentation should such a circumstance arise.


What follows is the plan for the semester as I see it now.  Reading assignments should be completed before the class that they’re assigned, where the days listed in parentheses signal when I expect us to begin discussing the article in question.  Note that this schedule is tentative; we may deviate from it as the semester progresses and class discussion takes on a life of its own.  If changes are required, they will be announced in class.

Note that there are no assigned books to be purchased for this class; instead, all readings are available on-line.  Where no website is listed for a reading, it can be found on JSTOR.  I will frequently be referring to the text itself in class discussion, so I strongly urge you to bring the reading assignments to class.

If you have specific physical, psychiatric, or learning disabilities and require accommodations, please provide the appropriate documentation to me from the Learning Enrichment and Disability Services office early in the semester so that your learning needs may be effectively met.  Be aware that I cannot make special accommodations without direction from the LEDS office.

Week 1 (8/30 – 9/1)


Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973)


Week 2 (9/6 – 9/8)

Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785)


Week 3 (9/13 – 9/15)

Korsgaard, “The Right to Lie: Kant on Dealing With Evil” (1986)

Korsgaard, “Fellow Creatures: Kantian Ethics and Our Duties to Animals” (2004)


Week 4 (9/20 – 9/22)

Rawls, “Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory” (1980)

9/22: PAPER 1 DUE

Week 5 (9/27 – 9/29)

 Mill, Utilitarianism (1863)


Week 6 (10/4 – 10/6)

Smart, “Extreme and Restricted Utilitarianism” (1956)

Nielsen, “Against Moral Conservativism” (1972)

Week 7 (10/11 – 10/13)

Hare, “What is Wrong with Slavery” (1979)


Week 8 (10/25 – 10/27)

Brink, “Utilitarian Morality and the Personal Point of View” (1986)

Norcross, “Good and Bad Actions” (1997)

10/27: PAPER 2 DUE

Week 9 (11/1 – 11/3)

Thomson, “The Trolley Problem” (1985)

Week 10 (11/8 – 11/10)

Quinn, “Actions, Intentions, and Consequences: The Doctrine of Doing and Allowing” (1989)

Quinn, “Actions, Intentions, and Consequences: The Doctrine of Double Effect” (1989)

Week 11 (11/15 – 11/17)

Singer, “Ethics and Intuitions” (2005)


Wolf, “Moral Saints” (1982)

Week 12 (11/22 – 11/24)

Stocker, “The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories” (1976)

11/22: PAPER 3 DUE


Week 13 (11/29 – 12/1)

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Books I & II (all), III.i, VII.ii-iii (350 BCE)


Week 14 (12/6 – 12/8)

Nussbaum, “Virtue Ethics: A Misleading Category?” (1999)

Held, “Feminist Transformations of Moral Theory” (1990)

Week 15 (12/13)


12/19 (7 PM): FINAL EXAM DUE