Social Ethics and Political Thought (PHIL 170/001)

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Instructor: Iskra Fileva. This course meets Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8:00 – 9:15 a.m. in Caldwell 105.

Suppose Samuel is an authoritative father who attempts to impose his values and beliefs on his children. He allows no opinions diverging from his own expressed at the dinner table, and he attempts to stifle all dissent. We are likely to think that there is something ethically unacceptable about Samuel’s behavior, that what Samuel does is morally wrong. Why would we think this? Consider: if Samuel is not an authoritative father but a liar, we are, again, likely to judge his behavior to be ethically unacceptable. But lying is very different from being authoritative. Yet, we tend to think that it is wrong both to lie and to attempt to stifle the dissenting opinions of one’s children. What, if any, is the common property which lying and behaving in an authoritative manner have in common in virtue of which we deem both ethically unacceptable? Such questions are the subject matter of ethics. More generally, ethics is the study of the standards we use in judging actions to be morally right or wrong, as well as the standards we use in attempting to determine what the morally right thing to do is.

Now, suppose that Samuel is not an authoritative father, but an authoritative king. He allows no opinions diverging from his own expressed publicly, and he uses state force to stifle dissent. We are likely to judge the behavior of Samuel the King unacceptable as well. Why? What is wrong with being an authoritative king? It is the purpose of social ethics to answer questions such as the latter. More generally, social ethics is the branch of ethics which studies the standards of deliberation and moral evaluation we use in judging actions which involve individuals qua citizens, or involve individuals on the one hand and public officials on the other.

Social ethics is inextricably bound with political theory. Thus, suppose Samuel is an absolute monarch who is rather benevolent. He treats his subjects as well as he can, within the accepted societal structure, and he appears to be an otherwise admirable moral being. It may, nonetheless, be the case that there is something wrong with an absolute monarchy in principle. It may be that absolute monarchy is an unacceptable political arrangement, regardless of who the monarch is and what his moral character is. It is the goal of political theory to tell us whether this is so, and why. Political theory is the study of the political structure of society. A political philosopher seeks to determine what political structure is best for a society. If we want to know how to treat each other as citizens, we have to study social ethics in conjunction with political theory. This is what we will do in this course.

Iskra Fileva’s webpage