1. Handbook
  2. Subjects
  3. Ethical Theory
  4. Print

Ethical Theory (PHIL20008)

Undergraduate level 2Points: 12.5On Campus (Parkville)

You’re viewing the 2019 Handbook:
Or view archived Handbooks


Year of offer2019
Subject levelUndergraduate Level 2
Subject codePHIL20008
Semester 1
FeesSubject EFTSL, Level, Discipline & Census Date

How should one live? What makes an action right or wrong and how can we tell which actions are which? Can critically engaging with what philosophers say about these questions make you a better person, or a moral expert?

This subject is divided into three parts, with a part devoted to each of the three main families of ethical theories. We start by looking at John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, or the view that actions are “right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” and go on to consider the views of contemporary heirs to this tradition. Some object that utilitarianism delivers counter-intuitive verdicts and can, if the calculations turn out right, support seemingly repugnant actions. This worry leads naturally to an investigation of Kantian ethics, which puts good will rather than good consequences at the heart of its analysis of right action, and argues that reason is key to moral judgment and action. Some object that Kantianism does not acknowledge the centrality of emotion in our moral lives. The virtue ethics tradition, a tradition with roots in both Ancient Greece and China, seems well equipped to address these concerns. But can it provide sufficient guidance about what to do when we are in moral quandaries? As we examine each of these main approaches, we ask ourselves what we want from an ethical theory. Are we hoping to find a decision procedure that would simplify moral choice, a framework for identifying considerations that matter in making moral decisions, or do we want something more ambitious but more elusive, such as a conception of what it is to live a good life?

Intended learning outcomes

Students who successfully complete this subject will:

  • understand the main approaches to the nature of morality, including understanding the historical antecedents to important contemporary approaches to the nature of morality;
  • be able to charitably reconstruct arguments from classic philosophical texts and evalutate their strengths and weaknesses;
  • become more able to defend, and not just coherently state, one's own position with regard to controversial questions in normative ethics;
  • have acquired a background for one'w own further philosophical reflection on morality;
  • work individually, and in groups, to create and test arguments.

Eligibility and requirements





Non-allowed subjects


Recommended background knowledge

Code Name Teaching period Credit Points
PHIL10002 Philosophy: The Big Questions
Semester 1
PHIL10003 Philosophy: The Great Thinkers
Semester 2

Core participation requirements

The University of Melbourne is committed to providing students with reasonable adjustments to assessment and participation under the Disability Standards for Education (2005), and the Assessment and Results Policy (MPF1326). Students are expected to meet the core participation requirements for their course. These can be viewed under Entry and Participation Requirements for the course outlines in the Handbook.

Further details on how to seek academic adjustments can be found on the Student Equity and Disability Support website: http://services.unimelb.edu.au/student-equity/home



Take home exam

  • 2000 words
During the examination period50%

Hurdle requirement

Hurdle requirement: Hurdle Requirement: Students must attend a minimum of 75% of workshops in order to pass this subject All pieces of written work must be submitted to pass this subject Note: Assessment submitted late without an approved extension will be penalised at 10% per day. After five working days late assessment will not be marked. In-class tasks missed without approval will not be marked.
Throughout the semesterN/A


  • 2000 words
Mid semester50%

Dates & times

  • Semester 1
    CoordinatorKaren Jones
    Mode of deliveryOn Campus — Parkville
    Contact hours18 hours - 1 x 90 minute workshop and 90 minutes of online material each week
    Total time commitment170 hours
    Teaching period 4 March 2019 to 2 June 2019
    Last self-enrol date15 March 2019
    Census date31 March 2019
    Last date to withdraw without fail10 May 2019
    Assessment period ends28 June 2019

    Semester 1 contact information

Time commitment details

170 hours

Additional delivery details

it is recommended that students enrolling in this subject have completed a first year philosophy subject, however this is not a requirement.

Further information

  • Texts

    Prescribed texts

    Sahfer-Landau (ed) Ethical Theory: An Anthology (Blackwell 2007). This book will be available from the University bookshop at the start of semester.

  • Breadth options
  • Available through the Community Access Program

    About the Community Access Program (CAP)

    This subject is available through the Community Access Program (also called Single Subject Studies) which allows you to enrol in single subjects offered by the University of Melbourne, without the commitment required to complete a whole degree.

    Entry requirements including prerequisites may apply. Please refer to the CAP applications page for further information.

  • Available to Study Abroad and/or Study Exchange Students

    This subject is available to students studying at the University from eligible overseas institutions on exchange and study abroad. Students are required to satisfy any listed requirements, such as pre- and co-requisites, for enrolment in the subject.

Last updated: 21 September 2019