Course Syllabus

Philosophy 102

Contemporary Moral Problems
Spring Quarter 2011


Course Description:             Ethics, along with Aesthetics, comprises Value Theory – one of the three major areas of study in modern analytic philosophy (the others being Epistemology and Metaphysics). Ethics divides further into three branches: Meta-Ethics, Normative Ethics, and Applied Ethics. While all areas of ethics are generally concerned with the normative questions of how to act and what is good, the three branches explore separate levels to those queries. At the bottom (and least abstract) is Applied Ethics which focuses on the acts themselves – evaluating what is appropriate and not appropriate to do, either as an individual (whether it is moral for a mother to get an abortion for example) or as a society (should we make it legal for people to be able to get abortions). Normative Ethics deals with the justifying principles behind our ethical judgments – the different answers we give to the question: what is ethically significant? To continue our example, Normative Ethics would ask if getting an abortion is wrong, what is it that makes it wrong? Furthest up the ladder is Meta-Ethics which seeks to understand what we mean when we make ethical judgments (semantics) and what the relationship is between ethics and the world (metaphysics). Meta-Ethics would ask the question, what is happening when someone judges that getting an abortion is wrong? This course will make its way through all three areas, addressing some of the most significant contributions to each. Taken together, Ethics studies one of the more peculiar aspects that arises in our experience of the world: that things can have meaning and value and also that we are the kinds of beings who are explicitly sensitive to such dimensions.


Instructor:                  Tim Linnemann

Division Office: 425-564-2341

Text:                           All readings will be available electronically. I will be emailing attachments with the reading selections which you can then print at your discretion.


Objectives & Outcomes: This class aims to accomplish two things. First, to familiarize you with some of the most prominent ethical thinkers (those contemporary and the classical moral philosophers they build upon), their ideas, and the tensions those ideas exert on each other. Second, this class attempts to develop your ability to navigate and discuss ethical questions, quagmires, and conflicts. Thus, class time will be split between discussion and lecture, with most days involving both. Attendance and participation in discussion are important aspects to this class and will be incorporated into your final grade. A short journal entry on the material also will be expected on Mondays at the start of class. In addition, there will be three short essay take-home tests to conclude each of the three sections of the course material.


Grading:                     Attendance/Participation         20%

                                    Journal Entries                                    25%

                                    Short Essay Tests (3)             55% (28% apiece)


Journal Entries:        Each week you will be asked to write a short 1-2 page response on the topic being discussed during class that week. The journals are intended to be a forum for you to explore your ideas regarding the issues under consideration and have some practice in articulating them in an argumentative style. These are informal and will be graded only on a simple plus/check/minus system. Journals are due at the start of class on Mondays. The journals and class discussion go hand-in-hand and I will be trying to cater discussions to the interests I see students expressing. I am willing to comment on journal entries if students are interested – however, I will refrain unless requested to do so. If you would like feedback, just make a note at the top of the journal and I’ll be happy to share my thoughts.


Short Essay Tests:   As we complete each section of the course there will be a short take home test assigned on the material we covered in that section. Most of the essay questions will involve presenting, in your own words, the contributions of one of the philosophers we have read, or comparing and contrasting a couple of them. I will always include at least one question that will require you to take a position in response to a claim made in the reading and support that position with arguments. However, these tests are primarily focused on evaluating your ability to demonstrate understanding of the material. I prefer tests to be turned in to me electronically via email.


Class Participation:  I am making participation part of your final grade to emphasize the importance of philosophic engagement in its social dimension. Many of the issues in ethics are not just about the relationship between an individual and their conception of the good but are also of a broadly social concern. Whether this is expressed in federal or state laws or the codes of social conduct in our communities, the implications of the way we think about ethics and morality can have consequences for many people, and the way in which we justify these practices as much concerns each other as ourselves. I will be striving to create a classroom atmosphere where these debates can be pursued productively and comfortably, but I will need your help in realizing this project. Three things will be of particular advantage: mutual respect as a standard for discussion, careful listening, and critical engagement.

For our purposes, respect must not be a conclusion, but rather a premise. Disrespectful engagement is unprofessional and unphilosophical regardless of whether it is offensive. As an example, to consider a certain line of thinking is indicative of a lack of intelligence does nothing to provide a reasonable argument for why we should consider such reasoning philosophically problematic. The disrespectful attitude does nothing to add to the debate (whatever else it does contribute).

            Careful listening and critical engagement are very closely connected. To properly respond to an idea, one must first understand it as thoroughly as possible. But just understanding the point of someone’s idea is also not enough – we must analyze its virtues and deficiencies. Our discussions will always be oriented toward gauging the strength of proposed resolutions to ethical conundrums, and in as much as we will contribute ideas of our own, we will be assessing how well our attempts fare as well. When engaging in this way with one another an open audience is as crucial as a critically invested audience – respect helps prepare us for both.

Topics and Reading Assignments




Introduction to the Course:

     What does Ethics concern?

     A Little Bit of Logic


Epectitus, A Manual for Living




Consequentialism and Utilitarianism


John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism



Kantian Deontology and the Categorical Imperative


Immanuel Kant, Grounding for a Metaphysics of Morals



Virtue Ethics


Essay Test #1 assigned

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (Books I, II, and X)





Essay Test #1 due







Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion”


Don Marquis “Why Abortion Is Immoral”


Competence and Surrogate Decision Making


Essay Test #2 assigned



Allen Buchanan and Dan Brock, “Standards of Competence”


Dan Brock, “Surrogate Decision Making for Incompetent Adults:  An Ethical Framework”





Classical Reflections on the Nature of Morality and Our Relation To It


Essay Test #2 due


Plato, Euthyphro


Plato, Republic (selections from Book II)



Internal and External Reasons


Thomas Nagel, “Moral Luck”



Moral Realism


Essay Test #3 assigned

Russ Shafer-Landau, Moral Realism (selections)


Essay Test #3 due