PHIL 462.001 – Contemporary Moral Philosophy

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Instructor: Alex Worsnip. This course meets W 1:00 – 3:30 p.m. in CW 213.

This class will be a survey of metaethics. In contrast to normative ethics, which asks questions about what we morally ought to do, metaethics asks questions about those questions (hence, ‘meta’). In particular, it asks: are there right and wrong answers to moral questions at all? If so, how could we know what they are? What, if anything, makes moral claims true or false? When we make moral judgments – as we all do whenever we judge that we have been treated unfairly, that we have obligations and duties to those around us, and so on – what kind of state of mind are we in, and does this state of mind commit us to thinking that there are objective moral facts? Could moral truth be ‘relative’, and what would this mean? We will survey some of the most important attempts to answer these questions in the contemporary literature. The course will be structured around the classic debate between “realists,” who hold that there are mind-independent moral truths, and “anti-realists,” who hold that there are not. In Part 1 of the course, we’ll look at some initial motivations and arguments for realism, as well as different varieties of it (naturalist, minimalist, and robust). In Part 2, we’ll look at a series of (putative) problems for realism, including epistemological problems concerning explanation, evolution, disagreement, and expertise; metaphysical problems concerning supervenience and “weirdness”; and problems concerning the explanation of the authority and motivational power of moral judgments. Finally, in Part 3, we’ll survey a number of anti-realist views, including error theory, non-cognitivism, expressivism, constructivism, and relativism. Readings may include work by Simon Blackburn, David Enoch, Allan Gibbard, Christine Korsgaard, Sarah McGrath, Michele Moody-Adams, Thomas Nagel, Peter Railton, T.M. Scanlon, Mark Schroeder, and Sharon Street, among others.

The course is designed as an “advanced introduction.” Thus, it will presuppose familiarity with the methods and writing style of analytic philosophy, but not any background knowledge of metaethics specifically. Since this is a 400-level course with both undergraduate and graduate students, I will do some lecturing through the material, but there will also be lots of time for discussion. Graduate students with a lot of prior background in metaethics might find the course too introductory at times, but it would be ideal for those interested in learning more about the field, as well as for those considering taking the ethics bibliography exam who would like to get a head start on learning the metaethics component of it (our readings overlap with the bibliography considerably). Undergraduate enrollment is by instructor permission; the course would be most appropriate for undergraduate philosophy majors with a good number of philosophy courses under their belt, including at least one course in ethics and at least one course in so-called “theoretical” philosophy (i.e. metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of language, or philosophy of mind), but I will consider requests from non-majors with a compelling reason to enroll. Please note that although the course catalog officially states that undergraduates must have previously taken PHIL 362 to take this course, this prerequisite will not be enforced – not least because PHIL 362 has not been offered in the last two years.

 

Please note: This course counts toward the “value theory” distribution requirement for PHIL grad students.

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

Prerequisite (for undergraduates): 2 PHIL courses, including 1 in value theory.