15.269B | Fall 2002 | Graduate

Literature, Ethics and Authority


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 2 hours / session

Course Description

We will supplement our readings in imaginative literature with brief excerpts from important works in the tradition of philosophical ethics (by Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant). These texts are also of classic stature, parts of the repertoire of educated argument about the sources and legitimate aims of executive authority and valuable points of reference in conversations about ethics in professional life. The readings also include excerpts from texts concerned with the nature of corporate leadership and brief case studies reflecting the ways in which common ethical dilemmas typically arise in the course of corporate management.

The aim of the course is not to strengthen the student’s ethical character or to provide a set of handy decision-procedures for ethical conduct but rather to develop familiarity with the ins and outs of a fair range of ethical concepts, to whose use in judgment, it is assumed, everyone is already committed. The governing view behind the selection of materials to be read and discussed is that our characters are already ethical to the core, but that our arguments with ourselves about rival courses of action are perplexed by the unsystematic nature of the ethical principles to which all of us in large measure subscribe. Our course of study takes as its assumption that ethical principles are unsystematic by nature. This goes to explain why decision-procedures for ethical conduct are unavailing. In brief, since our ethical commitments do not “add up”, the need to honor one principle (or set of principles) in our conduct frequently entails betraying another. The readings and discussion aim at exploring the extent to which this condition can be made tractable, drawing largely upon the two main traditions of philosophic ethics in Western culture-the one that deals with ethical values, the other with duties and the satisfaction of obligations.

Course Format

The subject meets once a week for two hours. Each session begins with a lecture of varying length, but usually running for twenty-minutes to half an hour, although the lectures of the first two meetings will be somewhat longer. The rest of the session is devoted to class-discussion of the materials assigned for the session. There are no break-out sessions, but groups of students will be appointed from time to time to present a view of some of the materials during the last twenty minutes of the session. Participation in discussion is essential to the life of the class and the force and cogency of students’ remarks will have a marked influence on grades. Much of the grade will also depend upon the quality of the two written assignments required by the course: a mid-term paper (running from five to seven pages) and a final paper (running from ten to twelve pages). The papers will each deal with some aspect of the readings and discussion; topics may be invented by the students but an extensive list of suggested topics will be circulated two weeks in advance of each paper’s due date for those students who require it.


Our meetings will follow the course outlined but each week’s meeting will determine how much of the unit under discussion will be completed during its session and how much carried forward into the next meeting. It is assumed, in other words, that some units will take more than one session (although never so much as two) and some will take less. Indented authors and titles indicate materials subsidiary to the main readings. The readings will average 60 pages per week.