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Affluence & Assistance

Philosophy 380: Seminar on Affluence & Assistance
Spring 2009
TTh 2:00-3:50 PM
Morse-Ingersoll 207

Professor: Matt Tedesco
          Phone: 363-2146

Office Hours: TTh 12:00-1:00, MW by appointment
          Office: Morse-Ingersoll 210


1) Shelly Kagan, The Limits of Morality (Oxford UP, 1989)

2) Peter Unger, Living High & Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence (Oxford UP, 1996)

3) Garrett Cullity, The Moral Demands of Affluence (Oxford UP, 2004)

4) Dean Chatterjee (ed.), The Ethics of Assistance: Morality and the Distant Needy (Cambridge UP, 2004)

The Class:

Roughly a quarter of the world’s population lives on less than a dollar a day.  Children are among those most impacted by this economic reality: more than 10 million children under the age of five die annually, nearly all from poor countries and most from preventable causes such as diarrhea and pneumonia.  Most of us do very little about this, while at the same time we devote our comparably vast economic resources to things like video games, DVDs, and vacations to Walt Disney World.  This seminar will be a philosophical investigation of the demands of morality, with a particular eye to the uncontroversial empirical facts of the world around us.  Our ordinary moral beliefs tell us that there is no particular problem with buying an Xbox at Best Buy, even while that money could instead have provided oral rehydration therapy to hundreds of children whose deaths are likely and perhaps even imminent.  We shall see whether or not our ordinary morality is defensible in this respect. 

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 important literature in contemporary ethics, students should expect to develop their analytic and evaluative skills through both in-class discussion and a range of writing assignments, and to develop their research skills through the composition of a term paper.


Your grade in the class will be determined as follows:


You will write a term paper of approximately 15-20 pages (4500-6000 words) on a topic of your choosing, presumably connected with one or more of our class readings from the syllabus.  This paper is due no later than Thursday, April 30th in class.  In most cases, your paper will involve a substantial critical discussion of one of our class readings, or else of some other philosophical work related to our class readings.  Your paper is expected to engage multiple philosophical sources, and you are expected to attend to any relevant philosophical literature outside of our syllabus.  If you would like to turn in a draft for comments, you must get that draft to me no later than Tuesday, April 14th.  Further details about this paper will be passed along as the semester progresses.


You will complete an in-class mid-term exam, worth 20% of your overall class grade, administered on Thursday, March 5th.  In it, you will be asked to compose one or more essays directly addressing the material that we have covered in the first half of the class.


You will be responsible for sending weekly response e-mails to me throughout the semester.  These e-mails should be at least 350 words in length. More than mere reactions, these e-mails should provide enough detail to reflect a serious and thoughtful engagement with our readings.  Beyond the word count, there are two important rules to keep in mind for this assignment: first, the e-mails must be received before we discuss the reading in class, and second, you can turn in no more than one per week.  The primary purpose of these e-mails is to ensure that you come to class having thought carefully about the material under discussion for the day; a secondary purpose for this assignment is to help you begin to think about potential term paper topics.

Your responses will not be evaluated for correctness, though you will receive no credit if they fall short of the minimum word length, or else if they fail to be sufficiently thoughtful.  If you successfully complete thirteen (one for each week, excluding the first and last), you will receive an A for this portion of your grade.  For each one not successfully completed, 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 meeting; any response e-mails sent afterwards will count for the next week.

You will need to adhere to three rules in formatting your response e-mails.  First, the subject of your e-mails should include the number of the response.  Second, don’t send any attachments; your response e-mail should be the text of the e-mail itself.  And third, don’t include other business (questions about assignments, requests for a meeting, etc.) in your response e-mails; send all of that stuff as a separate correspondence.


One important distinction between seminars and other classes is the way that seminars place an especially high premium on dialogue and interaction.  Student participation is essential to a well-functioning seminar, and in this spirit, you will be expected to make frequent thoughtful contributions to class discussion.  If you are concerned about your ability to meet this requirement, you ought to plan as a rule of thumb to try to make at least one contribution to every class discussion.

Some necessary components for satisfactorily fulfilling this participation requirement are being present in class for our meetings, having read the material for the day, and being an active and alert listener to the ongoing discussion.  Students who miss more than two class meetings, or who have a tendency to be otherwise disengaged from the discussion, should expect a substantial penalty on this portion of their grade.  And, of course, attending class and being alert are not sufficient for satisfactory participation; students who attend regularly but who very seldom speak should expect an F on this portion of their grade.

Note that, as a matter of class policy, laptop computers will not be allowed to be used in class.  If you believe you have a compelling reason to be exempt from this policy, please see me to discuss the matter.

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.  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 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.

1/20: Class introductions
          Black,, “Where and Why are 10 Million Children Dying Every Year?” (Lancet 361, 2003)
          Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” (Philosophy and Public Affairs 1.3, 1972)

Kagan’s The Limits of Morality
1/22:  Ch.1, “Against Ordinary Morality” (1-46)
1/27:  continued
1/29:  Ch. 3, “Doing Harm” (83-127)
2/3:    Ch. 4, “Intending Harm” (128-182)
2/5:    Continued
2/10:  Ch. 7, “The Appeal to Cost” (231-270)
2/12:  Ch. 8, “The Negative Argument” (271-330)
2/17:  Ch. 9, “The Positive Argument” (331-385)

Unger’s Living High & Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence
2/19:  Ch. 1, “Illusions of Innocence: An Introduction” (3-23)
2/24:  Ch. 2, “Living High and Letting Die: A Puzzle About Behavior Toward People in Great Need” (24-61)
2/26:  Ch. 3, “Living High, Stealing and Letting Die: The Main Truth of Some Related Puzzles” (62-83)
3/3:    Ch. 4, “Between Some Rocks and Some Hard Places: On Causing and Preventing Serious loss” (84-118)
          Ch. 5, “Between Some Harder Rocks and Rockier Hard Places: On Distortional Separating and Revelatory Grouping” (119-132)
3/5:    EXAM


3/17:  Ch. 6, “Living High and Letting Die Reconsidered: On the Costs of a Morally Decent Life” (133-157)

Cullity’s The Moral Demands of Affluence
3/19: Ch. 1, “The Life-Saving Analogy” (7-15)
          Ch. 2, “An Argument from Beneficence” (16-33)
3/24: Ch. 5, “The Extreme Demand” (70-89)
          Ch. 6, “Problems of Demandingness” (90-107)
3/26: Ch. 7, “Impartiality, Fairness, and Beneficence” (111-127)
          Ch. 8, “The Rejection of the Extreme Demand” (128-146)
3/31: Ch. 9, “Permission” (147-166)
4/2:    NO CLASS
4/7:    Ch. 10, “Requirement” (167-186)
          Ch. 11, “Overview” (189-204)

Chatterjee’s The Ethics of Assistance: Morality and the Distant Needy
4/9:    Arneson, “Moral Limits on the Demands of Beneficence”? (33-58)
4/14:  Kamm, “The New Problem of Distance in Morality” (59-74)
4/21:  Lichtenberg, “Absence and the Unfond Heart: Why People are Less Giving than They Might Be” (75-97)
4/23:  Miller, “Moral Closeness and World Community” (101-122)
4/28:  O’Neill, “Global Justice: Whose Obligations?” (242-259)
4/30:  Pogge, “’Assisting’ the Global Poor” (260-288)

5/5:   Class conclusions