Introduction to Ethics

Department: Philosophy

Instructor: Emily Petkus
Prerequisites: None

Course Description

In our post-modern world, it is a near platitude that sentences involving moral concepts like “right,” “wrong,” “good,” and “bad” are true only relative to particular cultures or individuals. Since different cultures and individuals “have different moral codes,” we can at best talk about, for example, the “right for me,” or the “good for Westerners.” Outside of particular cultural contexts, or beyond the opinion of particular individuals, moral concepts are either false or without meaning. This course is geared toward assessing the overall plausibility of this received position. Our primary questions in taking up this task will include:

  • Is morality relative, and, if so, to what? Can there be moral progress? Or is there merely moral change? Is there a way of life that is objectively good for human beings? Or is the human good subjective? When, if ever, is it appropriate to criticize the cultural practices or moral beliefs of others? What does our awareness of differences between cultures imply about our political institutions?
  • Are some ways of forming moral beliefs better than others?

Course Goals / Learning Objectives

This course presents an exciting opportunity for students to engage with important ideas about foundational issues in ethics from a broader philosophical perspective. This is an opportunity few people enjoy before reaching college, but it is one that is geared at helping students to develop critical reasoning skills that are crucial for success at the college level.

In addition to engaging with subject matter that they often find deeply interesting, students taking this course will learn important analytical skills (e.g., basic logic and techniques of argument construction and evaluation). After a brief primer on basic logic, students will attempt to apply what they’ve learned by way of engaging deeply with and evaluating real philosophical arguments through reading assignments, class discussion, and debate. These are important skills in their own right, but our interest in learning them is because doing so will allow us to engage deeply with questions that we all have a stake in answering. A student who has recently finished taking this course, should have not only a basic understanding of philosophical methodology, but also a deeper understanding of the nature of moral discourse and human flourishing. This class is designed to give a brief overview of what is broadly known about philosophical ethics and how researchers in this field have confronted the problems that most matter in shaping the character of human life.

Topical Outline

Tentative Schedule of Topics (detailed schedule TBD)

Week 1

  • Introduction to Logic (Types of Arguments, Types of Fallacies)
  • Philosophical Best Practices
  • Exam
  • The Idea of Ethics
  • The Rich History of Ethics

Week 2

  • Globalization and the Fact of Moral and Prudential Difference
  • Relativism vs. Universalism
  • Film
  • Debate

Week 3

  • Judging Other Cultures
  • Field Trip
  • Justified Moral Belief and the Limits of Toleration
  • Essay

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