Ethical Theory

Philosophy 220: Ethical Theory

Fall 2014

TTh 12:00-1:50 PM

Morse-Ingersoll 209

Professor: Matt Tedesco


            Phone: 363-2146

Office Hours: W 10:45-12:00, and by appointment

            Office: Morse-Ingersoll 210

The Class:

The purpose of this course is to understand and critically engage the major theories in normative ethics, both in their classical sources and in the development of those theories by contemporary moral philosophers. We will do so by tracing three major “threads” in ethical theory: the Kantian thread, the utilitarian thread, and the Aristotelian thread. Our treatment of these threads will not be chronological. Instead, we begin in the modern era, where we will look at some of the original sources of the theories, as well as how contemporary defenders of each theory have developed our understandings of those theories over time. We then return to the Aristotelian thread in the same way that it re-emerged in the 20th century, after having largely been left aside for many centuries—as a fundamentally different alternative to the major modern ethical theories. Our last unit of the class will introduce a selection of problems, issues, and other developments that have been important to discussions of ethical theory in contemporary philosophy.

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 issues and arguments 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 and submit three short (1250-1750 word) papers in this class, to be submitted on our course Moodle page. These papers will not be research papers; rather, they will be focused analytical and evaluative writing exercises aimed at critical engaging one or more of the reading selections from our syllabus. Paper topics and details (regarding specific guidelines and expectations) will be passed along as the semester progresses. For you to receive a passing grade in the class, all three papers must be satisfactorily completed.


There will be a take-home final exam in this class, due on our assigned final exam time slot (7-10 PM) and submitted via Moodle on Monday, December 15th. No exams will be accepted once that final exam time slot ends, so please plan accordingly as you complete your work for the semester. This exam will be a written exam, aimed at identifying and discussing the meaning and importance of passages from some of the reading selections from our syllabus.


You will be responsible for posting weekly text responses to me in Moodle throughout the semester. These responses 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 assignment you’ve selected to discuss (presumably something on the schedule for our next meeting). The second paragraph and beyond should contain your response to the reading. Here, you should be critically engaging some aspect of the reading: what was particularly interesting, convincing, problematic, confusing, etc.? Your text responses 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 text response must be a minimum of 350 words in length; the word count must be included in the text response. This word count is merely a bare minimum; text responses may, and frequently do, exceed this number. Text responses that fail to seriously engage the reading, including those that fail to reach the minimum word requirement, will receive no credit.

Text responses 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 meeting; text responses for each week will therefore close precisely at noon on Thursday and will not be accepted afterwards. Plan your time accordingly. There is no good reason for anyone to receive less than an A on this 20% of your overall grade.

These, then, are the key principles to keep in mind about text responses: one per week, on a reading selection that we have not yet discussed in class.

These text responses serve a number of purposes. Most importantly, they help ensure your critical engagement with the text throughout the semester. You should regularly be reviewing your text responses after our class discussions, to see how your understanding of the text has developed; in this respect, they provide for you a way to track your engagement with the material. They also 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 text responses in class, sometimes generally, but also sometimes by referencing particular text responses. I will do my best to use discretion, but please let me know in text responses if there are details in it that you would prefer not to reveal to the rest of the class.

Given the volume of text responses that I will be receiving from all of you, you should not expect regular feedback on individual text responses. I may, however, respond to individual text responses intermittently throughout the semester.


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. This means that I expect every student to contribute to our ongoing class discussion throughout the semester. I recognize that class participation comes more naturally and comfortably to some students than others. If you expect this requirement to be difficult for you, then plan accordingly—no one is exempt from this expectation. 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 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). Also, as a rule of thumb, expect to have your class grade lowered by one-third for each class missed beyond one week of absence (so penalties begin to accrue on your third absence). Be sure to save your absences for days of illness, and other days where missing class is unavoidable. This penalty for excessive absences is not insignificant: it should signal to you the importance in this class of being present, and being prepared, every time.

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

I am ordinarily opposed to the use of laptop computers and tablets in class. The reason for this is straightforward: the classroom is a place for community conversation, and for a variety of reasons, laptops and tablets can hinder conversation. However, given that all of our reading selections are electronic, and given that I would like you to have the reading selections with you in class, I will allow the use of laptops and tablets in class solely for the purpose of accessing our class readings. Please do not abuse this privilege.


 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 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.

If you have a disability and need accommodations, contact the Learning Enrichment and Disability Services Office located on the 2nd floor of Pearsons Hall. The office can be reached by phone at x2572 or by email at For accommodations in this class, you must bring me an Accommodation Verification Letter from the Director of that office and we will then discuss how to meet your needs. Contact that office promptly; accommodations are not retroactive. Be aware that I cannot make special accommodations without direction from the LEDS office.

All reading assignments are available electronically. Most are posted on our course Moodle page; others are available online via hyperlink.


8/26:     Class introductions


The Kantian Thread

8/28:     Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785)

9/2:       Kant, continued

9/4:       Korsgaard, “The Right to Lie: Kant on Dealing with Evil” (1986)

9/9:       Korsgaard, “Fellow Creatures: Kantian Ethics and Our Duties to Animals” (2004)

9/11:     Rawls, “Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory” (1980)

9/16:     Rawls, continued

The Utilitarian Thread

9/18:     Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapters 1, 2, and 4 (1863)

9/23:     Mill, continued

            PAPER 1 DUE

9/25:     Smart, “Extreme and Restricted Utilitarianism” (1956)

9/30:     Nielsen, “Against Moral Conservativism” (1972)

10/2:     Hare, “What is Wrong with Slavery” (1979)

10/7:     Brink, “Utilitarian Morality and the Personal Point of View” (1986)

The Aristotelian Thread

10/9:     Wolf, “Moral Saints” (1982)



10/23:   Stocker, “The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories” (1976)

            PAPER 2 DUE

10/28:   Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Books I & II (all), III.i, VII.ii-iii (350 BCE)

10/30:   Aristotle, continued

11/4:     Nussbaum, “Virtue Ethics: A Misleading Category?” (1999)


Feminist Ethics

11/6:     Held, “Feminist Transformations of Moral Theory” (1990)

Distinctions: Doing/Allowing, Intending/Foreseeing

11/11:   Quinn, “Actions, Intentions, and Consequences: The Doctrine of Doing and Allowing” (1989)

11/13:   Quinn, “Actions, Intentions, and Consequences: The Doctrine of Double Effect” (1989)

            PAPER 3 DUE

Future (Possible) People

11/18:   Parfit, Reasons and Persons Part IV: “Future Generations” (1984)

11/20:   Parfit, continued

The Trolley Problem

11/25:   Thomson, “The Trolley Problem” (1985)

12/2:     Thomson, continued

Intuitions and Moral Methodology      

12/4:     Singer, “Ethics and Intuitions” (2005)


12/9:     Class conclusions

12/15:   Final exam due (7-10 PM)