Intro to Moral Theory


Required Texts: (1) The Ethical Life ed. Russ Shafer-Landau, 2nd edition

Other texts will be made available on Blackboard.

Course Description

Like any area in philosophy, moral theory starts by asking questions. Moral theory is particularly interesting since it examines important questions that everyone encounters no matter who they are or what they do. Morality is integral to human life. Most of us assume that morality is something real and we want to do the right thing. But how can we explain what ultimately makes it right? And if we can explain this, would the explanation help us make decisions in moral dilemmas? These are some of the question we’ll be addressing in our section on normative ethics. However, if we take a step back, we may question our assumption that morality is real altogether. Is morality something that has been constructed by culture and nothing more? We’ll examine questions like this in our section on metaethics. Moral theory also pursues a significant question that most of us have encountered in moments of personal reflection: How should I live my life? What makes a life go well? We’ll be investigating this issue in our section on well-being. Moral theory also examines more concrete moral issues that are relevant to what becomes law. For example, climate change and the catastrophic effects that may come in its wake have made the importance of certain ethical issues more salient. What is the moral status of the natural environment? Do we have an obligation to future generations; if so why? We’ll be looking at more concrete issues like these in our section on applied ethics. If you’re particularly interested in a topic in applied ethics, feel free to suggest it to me.

Course Goals

I’ve designed this course with two goals in mind. The first is to help us get a better grasp of the questions that moral theory addresses, how we can go about answering these questions, and understanding the answers some philosophers have given. The second goal is to help us develop certain beneficial skills. Critical thinking is the paramount skill that philosophy exercises and we’ll be improving this by deciphering complex texts and evaluating the arguments in these texts in discussion and the paper assignment. Writing a good argumentative paper is challenging. The process of doing this, however, will not only help improve your writing ability, it will also help develop the skills needed to analyze complex ideas and come to a well reasoned conclusion about them. Verbalizing complex ideas and arguments can often be even more challenging than writing them out. Class discussion and presenting drafts of your paper will work to improve this ability.

Grading and Requirements

You are responsible for coming to class prepared to discuss the text. This means reading the material closely. You are required to write one paper. This should be 5 – 6 pages (around 2500 words). Hard-copies of a draft must be handed into me no later than 7-31. On this day you will be giving short presentations of your draft. Each presentation will be followed by a Q&A. Use this as an opportunity to make improvements on your drafts. I will then hand back your drafts with comments by 8-4. You will have a chance to improve your draft for a better grade, which must be handed in by 8-7. I will provide paper topics, however you are welcome to write on a topic of your own as long as you talk to me about it and I approve it. The final exam will involve both multiple choice questions and short answer questions. There is no midterm exam. I will give twelve random short answer quizzes at the beginning of the class that address the reading assigned for that day. I will drop your lowest two grades. Engagement consists in class participation, in-class assignments, and your presentation.

Engagement: 10%

Quizzes: 25%

Final Exam: 25%

Paper: 40%


Do not use cell phones for any purpose during class. Please be respectful during class discussion.

Late papers will not be accepted unless there are extenuating circumstances. Please make a note of the due dates listed in the schedule.

Statement of Academic Integrity:

The Syracuse University Academic Integrity Policy holds students accountable for the integrity of the work they submit. Students should be familiar with the Policy and know that it is their responsibility to learn about instructor and general academic expectations with regard to proper citation of sources in written work. The policy also governs the integrity of work submitted in exams and assignments as well as the veracity of signatures on attendance sheets and other verifications of participation in class activities. Serious sanctions can result from academic dishonesty of any sort. For more information, see Academic Integrity Office,

Cheating or plagiarizing on any assignment will result in a zero for that assignment.

Students with disabilities:

Students who are in need of disability-related academic accommodations must register with the Office of Disability Services (ODS), 804 University Avenue, Room 309, 315-443-4498. Students with authorized disability-related accommodations should provide a current Accommodation Authorization Letter from ODS to me. Accommodations, such as exam administration, are not provided retroactively; therefore, planning for accommodations as early as possible is necessary.

Regarding Faith Tradition Observances:

Please notify me by the first week of classes if and when you will be observing any religious holiday(s) that would interfere with your attendance and/or test dates, so accommodations can be made. This can be done by filling out a notification form through MySlice.

Week 1: Introduction T 9/1: Reasoning and Argumentation


Week 2: Moral Relativism T 9/8: Harry Gensler, “Cultural Relativism” (ch17)

TH 9/10: J.L. Mackie, “The Subjectivity of Values” (ch16)

Week 3: Moral Objectivism; Well-being T 9/15: Jean Kazez, “Necessities” (ch5)

TH 9/17: Chris Heathwood, “Faring Well and Getting What You Want” (ch4)

Week 4: Well-being T 9/22: John Stuart Mill, “Hedonism” (ch2) & Robert Nozick, “The Experience Machine” (ch3)

TH 9/24:

Week 5: Divine Command Theory T 9/29: Peter Singer, “The Singer Solution to World Poverty”

TH 10/1: Plato, “Euthyphro” (ch6)

Week 6: Utilitarianism T 10/6: J. S. Mill “Utilitarianism” (on BB)

TH 10/8: Harriet Taylor, “The Enfranchisement of Women”

Week 7: Kantian Ethics T 10/13: Immanuel Kant, “The Good Will and the Categorical Imperative” (ch9)

TH 10/15: MIDTERM!!

Week 8: Pluralism T 10/20: Jorge Valadez, “Pre-Columbus Philosophical Perspectives”

TH: 10/22: W.D. Ross, “What Makes an Action Right?” (ch11)

Week 9: Contractarianism T 10/27: Thomas Hobbes, “Leviathan” (ch10)

TH 10/29: Continue “Leviathan”

Week 10: Applied Issues T 11/3: M.L.King, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” (ch35)

TH 11/5: John Harris, “The Survival Lottery”

Week 11: Virtue Ethics T 11/10: Aristotle, “Nicomachean Ethics” (ch12)

TH 11/12: Continue “Nicomachean Ethics”

Week 12: Feminist Ethics T 11/17: Hilde Lindemann, “What is Feminist Ethics?” (ch13)

TH 11/19: Michael Sandel, “The case against Perfection”

Week 13: T 11/24: no class (thanksgiving break)

TH 11/26: no class (thanksgiving break)



Week 15: T 12/8: Chuang Tzu, selection from “The Book of Chuang Tzu” (on BB)

TH 12/10: Course Review