This is an intermediate course in ethics, originally designed for undergraduates reading philosophy at the University of Oxford.
As the title of the course, ‘ethics’ is used as a catch-all label. What is called ‘ethics’ is a vast (and, especially nowadays, quite heterogenous) subfield of philosophy. One standard way of dividing it is into four categories:
- first-order or normative ethics, centring around the question what actions, rules, characters, lives, states of affairs (etc.) are morally good or bad, right or wrong, praiseworthy or blameworthy, virtuous or vicious, pleasurable or displeasurable (etc.);
- metaethics, concerned with issues in metaphysics, epistemology, philosophical psychology, philosophy of mind and action, and philosophy of language, that arise with respect to concepts deployed in normative ethics, e.g. goodness, voluntariness, and reasons;
- applied ethics or ‘practical’ ethics, addressing various social, legal, political, educational, technological, personal and interpersonal (etc.) issues more or less directly and specifically than normative ethics typically does;
- history of ethics, interpreting and assessing classic works in ethics.
This reading list contains eighteen topics. While some of the topics do not fall neatly under any one of the four categories above, it is fair to say that this course focuses heavily on metaethics. This is largely because of my own research specialism, but also because I do believe that reflection on metaethical issues should be a propaedeutic to sound thinking about normative and applied ethics.
History is essential to ethics too, as it is to most other subfields of philosophy; however, as things stand, topics in the history of ethics are studied under papers on historically significant philosophers. The closest one comes to doing history in the present course is with topics nos. 13 and 14, which are on some Humean or Kantian themes. The majority of readings are from the past several decades.
For Oxford students, there is now a separate paper on practical ethics (FHS 128) they can offer. There are lectures throughout the academic year on normative ethics and metaethics.
Typically, my students select seven or eight topics and write an essay on each, weekly in the course of an eight-week term. Students working on seven rather than eight topics spend two weeks on one of them, and this should be a correspondingly more ambitious project (not necessarily twice as long, but certainly at least twice as good!), and perhaps should come nearer the end of the term.
There is much freedom on the student’s part to choose which topics to study. The eighteen come in nine very loose pairs—the paired topics are somehow closely related, so that if you are studying less than half of the topics, it would probably be advisable not to study two from any of the pairs.
The topics can be studied in any order. One suggestion for an eight-week course would be to do three topics from nos. 1–6, two or three from nos. 7–12, and two or three from 13–18. This makes for a quite well-rounded syllabus.
- Virtue ethics
- Ethical knowledge
- Response-dependence (value)
- The self
- Others (friends and strangers)
- Humean/Kantian themes (A): practical reason
- Humean/Kantian themes (B): morality
- ‘Moral philosophy’
- Life and death