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Instructor: Jennifer Morton. This course meets W 2:00 – 4:30 p.m. via remote synchronous (RS) instruction.

Course Title: The Moral Psychology of Poverty

Graduate Course Distribution Category: Value

Description: In this course, we will consider whether poverty should play a role in how we assess an agent’s moral psychology. In the Victorian era, poverty was seen as a fitting consequence of the profligate and irresponsible nature of the poor. The poor were thought to be less intelligent, less able to control their impulses, and more subject to vices than those who were better off. Fortunately, this way of understanding poverty has fallen out of favor, but a lacuna has been left in its stead. Should the fact that an agent lives in poverty be relevant to our assessment of her moral psychology?

Social scientists have suggested that at least some of the desires, beliefs, and deliberation of those who are in poverty are distinct and that this plays a casual role in their condition, not as a natural consequence of the poor’s failed character, but rather because poverty can itself lead to attitudes and reasoning that are counterproductive. This phenomenon is often referred to as a poverty trap. Understanding poverty traps requires, as economist Esther Duflo notes, “a theory of how poverty influences decision-making, not only affecting the constraints, but by changing the decision-making process itself” (Duflo, 2006, p. 376). I take this to be a project not only for social scientists, but for philosophers interested in human agency.

In this course, we will think through the philosophical side of this debate. Though the focus of the course will be on poverty, we will also discuss how different dimensions of oppression (race and gender) play a role in an agent’s moral psychology. The course will be divided into three sections looking at—desires/preferences, beliefs, and reasoning. In section I, we will look at a subsection of the voluminous literature on adaptive preferences (e.g. Elster, Cudd, Nussbaum, Khader, etc.) and at some of the economics and social science literature on ‘poverty traps’ (e.g. Duflo, Appadurai). In Section II, we will turn to recent debates in epistemology on moral encroachment and race (e.g. Rima Basu, Mark Schroeder, Sarah Moss) and some empirical work on stereotype threat and implicit bias. And in Section III, we will turn to work on deliberation and poverty (e.g. Mullainathan and Shafir, Duflo, Morton). This course is interdisciplinary in nature. Students from other departments are welcome, though I will assume some familiarity with core concepts in moral and political philosophy.

For a precis of the sort of themes we will cover in the course, see


PHIL graduate students: Please refer to our Handbook (page 6, #9) for information regarding distribution requirements.

Permission of the instructor is required to enroll in this course. PHIL grad students are exempt from this enrollment requirement.