Introduction to Ethics                                                                  Syllabus




FINAL ESSAY DUE TUESDAY JULY 3 by 4:00 pm; please email your exam to me ( 

Each of the 4 answers should be a minimum of 400 words; please include a word count.





Note: required books include Mill, Utilitarianism and Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (both available in the bookstore)

Optional but recommended book: James Rachels, Elements of Moral Philosophy (any edition, but the later the better).




1)    Introductory material: What is ethics?  What is a norm? How do we study norms?


Reading: "The Euthyphro Dilemma," Wikipedia ( read everything up through "Responses to the Dilemma"; the rest is optional.


Key ideas: Descriptive versus prescriptive/normative knowledge, the variety of norms governing human behavior; norms governing science; objections to the Divine Command theory (especially the Euthyphro Dilemma); cultural relativism & the Eskimos.

Questions for comprehension:  What is a norm?  How does prescriptive knowledge differ from descriptive?  What are examples of different kinds of norms?  What kinds of norms govern science?  


2)  The Five Theories of the source of Moral Norms:

1. The Divine Command Theory

2. Cultural Relativism

3. Subjectivism

4. Darwinism

5. Natural Law


Key ideas: The Euthyphro Dilemma as applied to CR & Subjectivism; the Darwinist explanation of altruism (kin selection, reciprocal altruism, group selection); Natural law, axioms, and deductive method.

Questions:  Why does the Euthyphro Dilemma apply to some theories but not others?  How does the Darwinist attempt to explain altruism?  What is the role of self-evidence in Natural Law and mathematics?

Optional Reading on Evolutionary Ethics:

Optional: further information on the evolution and morality debate:


3)   Egoism; Social Contract Theory


Key ideas: Social Contract theory, the state of nature, self-interest, the Prisoner's Dilemma.  Natural law.

Two versions of egoism:

1. Psychological egoism: people act only in self-interest. (descriptive version)

2. Ethical egoism: the theory that people should be self-interested.  (normative version)

Questions: Is morality a matter of enlightened self-interest?  Are moral rules deductive or inductive (necessary or probable)?  Is Natural Law theory unscientific?  Why is ethics so much more controversial than mathematics?


4)   Egoism and the question: Why be moral?

      Social Contract theory: it is in your self-interest to be moral.

      Natural Law: the question leads to a dilemma.

             Solution: reject the question.




5)      Utilitarianism

    Reading: Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapter 1 & 2

       Key ideas: Greatest Happiness Principle


6)    Utilitarianism: Objections

                       Swine Objection, Quality of happiness, Impossible Calculation, Sadist objection, end justifies the mean, Experience Machine.

7)  Kant and deontology

Reading: Kant, Groundwork Section I

Key ideas: Two versions of Categorical Imperative: Universal Law, Humanity as an End; autonomy as the basis for morality; duty as acting under a representation (consciousness) of the law; Trolley versus Transplant cases; the problem of lying to save a life.


Optional reading: Rachels on Kant and absolute moral rules.

8)   Double Effect

The Doctrine of Double Effect is a supplement to Kant's theory of deontology

Double Effect: When your action will cause bad effects as well as good, the action can only be permissible if those bad effects are merely foreseen, but not intended as a means or as an end; AND the bad effects are not disproportionate to the good effects.

Key ideas: intended versus foreseen harm

9) Feminist Criticisms; Moral Pluralism

Moral Pluralism: moral theory that holds there are multiple competing incommensurable values.

Moral Monism: Moral theory that holds there is only one ultimate value (e.g. for Mill it is happiness, for Kant it is autonomy).


10)  Applying moral theory: the problem of self-defense

The Unjust Attack, Necessity, Proportionality, Imminence rules; the reasonableness requirement.  Culpable Aggressor, Innocent Aggressor, Culpable Bystander, Innocent Bystander.

Self-defense and "Castle Doctrine":

Massachusetts law:   Chapter 278 Section 8a: Killing or injurying a person unlawfully in a dwelling; defense

"In the prosecution of a person who is an occupant of a dwelling charged with killing or injuring one who was unlawfully in said dwelling, it shall be a defense that the occupant was in his dwelling at the time of the offense and that he acted in reasonable belief that the person unlawfully in said dwelling was about to inflict great bodily injury or death upon said occupant or upon another person lawfully in said dwelling, and that said occupant used reasonable means to defend himself or such other person lawfully in said dwelling.  There shall be no duty on said occupant to retreat from such person unlawfully in said dwelling."


Theories of self-defense:

Instinct; Utilitarianism; Kantian; Rights Forfeiture; Necessity; Pluralism; Double Effect.

Reading: Aquinas on self-defense

For more materials on self-defense and double effect, click here


11)    Punishment: Is it Morally Justified?

         Punishment theories: 1) Deterrence justification = utilitarianism

                                                    2) Retributive: the Desert Principle

                                                    3) Double Effect

Reading:   1) Kant on punishment:

                2) Mill on capital punishment (1868) speech on capital punishment; can be found in Utilitarianism, or go here:


12)  Punishment: retribution as revenge, vindication of victims 



13)  War: What is it good for? 

Just War Doctrine:

 jus ad bellum (justice of going to war)

  jus in bello (just fighting in war)

Michael Walzer on proportionality:

 Hiroshima bombing:

Readings:  1)


Israel-Palestine conflict: 1)



14)  Animal Rights; Abortion

Reading: Jeff McMahan on eating animals: