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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.
Last updated: 4 August 2020