PHIL 163.001 – Practical Ethics

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Instructor: Geoffrey Sayre-McCord. This course meets M 5:00 – 7:30 p.m. in AL 207, with a recitation on Fridays.

This seminar in in moral theory is an integral part of the Robertson Scholars Program and a crucial expression of the Program’s commitment to *ethical* leadership. At the heart of the course are readings from a few of the best books ever written on moral theory: Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals and Mill’s Utilitarianism. These four books have had an incredible impact on western culture. Over the semester, however, we will be studying them not as influential historical documents but as living contributions to an on going search for an understanding of morality. Thus, the arguments and views presented in the books will be our focus, not their impact through history. Our ultimate aim is to gain a greater appreciation of the nature and demands of morality.

The course is framed by two very general questions that we all, in effect, ask and answer in living our lives, though often not self-consciously: (1) What really matters in life? and (2) What is involved in answering (1)? In general, worries about the second question arise from worries about the first; and answers to the second usually lead us to answers to the first. In fact, the questions are really far more entangled than they are distinct. So we won’t be taking the questions in order; instead we will jump back and forth between the two. In coming to grips with these two very general questions we will focus on three fundamental, but slightly more specific, questions: (i) What does morality demand? (ii) Under what conditions are we responsible for our success or failure in living up to these demands? and (iii) What connection is there between our being moral and our living a good (satisfying, fulfilling) life? The first calls for a theory of morality, the second requires a theory of moral responsibility, and the third asks for an answer to an age-old question: why should I be moral? We will, pretty much, be taking these questions in reverse order.

This course is reserved for first-year Robertson Scholars.