PHIL 163.001 – Practical Ethics

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Instructor: Rob Willison. This course meets W 5:00 – 7:30 p.m. in GM 035 with a recitation on Fridays.

In early 1941, Viktor Frankl, an eminent Jewish psychiatrist, faced a terrible decision. He’d received an offer of an immigration visa from the American Consulate in Vienna—his last chance to escape Nazi-occupied Austria. Leaving, however, would have meant abandoning his aging parents. The question beset him: “Could I really afford to leave my parents alone to face their fate, to be sent, sooner or later, to a concentration camp, or even a so-called extermination camp? Where did my responsibility lie? Should I foster my brain child, logotherapy, by emigrating to fertile soil where I could write my books? Or should I concentrate on my duties as a real child, the child of my parents who had to do whatever he could to protect them?”

I hope that none of you will ever face such an awful decision. Nonetheless, each of your lives will enact a series of answers to deep ethical questions like the ones Frankl posed. This course, the Colloquium in Ethics for the Robertson Scholars Leadership Program, is about how to answer such questions consciously and honestly. What does it mean to live a good life? What do we owe to one another, to our fellow animals, to our environment, and to ourselves? How do these deep human concerns fit into our larger theoretical and emotional understanding of the universe we inhabit? We’ll investigate these questions in conversation with the giants of the Western philosophical tradition: Plato, Kant, Bentham, Nietzsche, Mill, King. We’ll sharpen our understanding with the help of some of the leading figures in contemporary ethics: Kwame Anthony Appiah, Christine Korsgaard, and Susan Wolf (for example).

The course is divided into four units. In Unit 1, on metaethics, we’ll ask about the metaphysical basis of morality. Are moral laws built into the fabric of our universe, like we sometimes believe physical laws are? Or are they the inventions of human beings? Does morality vary from culture to culture, or are some moral rules universal? If such rules exist, how can we come to know what they are? In Unit 2, on moral theories, we’ll examine different systems for distinguishing right from wrong. Does moral action consist in always doing what will bring about the “best” consequences? Or does morality sometimes require that we do our duty regardless of the consequences? What is the nature of moral integrity? In Unit 3, on applied ethics, we’ll apply what we’ve learned in the first two units to some of the pressing moral problems of our own time. When, if ever, are we obligated to disobey the laws of our own state? Is it wrong to capture, confine, and kill other animals in order to eat them? When, if ever, are we morally obligated to treat someone on the basis of her social identity (race, gender, sexual orientation); and when, if ever, should we treat her merely as an individual, without reference to the broad social categories to which she belongs? What, if anything, do we owe to the poor and destitute across the globe? What obligations do we have to “preserve” our environment, and to whom are such obligations owed? We’ll conclude, in Unit 4, on ethical meaning, by asking what, if anything, makes life worth living.

This course is reserved for first-year Robertson Scholars, and co-convenes with Duke.