24.231 | Fall 2009 | Undergraduate



Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session


This will be a seminar on classic and contemporary work on central topics in ethics. The first third of the course will focus on metaethics: we will examine the meaning of moral claims and ask whether there is any sense in which moral principles are objectively valid. The second third of the course will focus on normative ethics: what makes our lives worth living, what makes our actions right or wrong, and what do we owe to others? The final third of the course will focus on moral character: what is virtue, and how important is it? Can we be held responsible for what we do? When and why?


The prerequisites for this course include one philosophy course.


There are no required texts for this course. Many of the readings may be found in the anthology:

Sher, George. Moral Philosophy: Selected Readings. 2nd ed. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt-Brace, 1995. ISBN: 9780155017559.

The rest are available as handouts.

Course Requirements


Attendance at every class meeting is required. In preparation for a session you must very carefully read the assigned material (there will rarely be more than 30 pages of reading per session, and there will often be less). I expect you to participate actively in class discussions.

Questions and Comments about Readings

You are required to post a question or a comment on the class discussion board about each assigned reading. Your question or comment can be short, but you must post it by 10 p.m. on the night before the class meeting for which the reading was assigned. (No postings will be required during the last week of class.)

In-Class Presentation

You will be required to give one in-class presentation (roughly ten to fifteen minutes long).


I will give out three short (approximately 1200 words) paper assignments over the course of the term—you must write any two of them (which one you skip is up to you). You will also be required to write a longer final paper (2000-2500 words). Specific paper topics will be distributed well in advance of each deadline. With prior approval, you can write on a topic of your own.

Late Work

Get your work to me on time. Any written work turned in late will receive a penalty of one-third of a letter grade per day (i.e. an A paper turned in one day late becomes an A-, an A- a B+, etc.). If you need more time to complete an assignment due to exceptional circumstances, talk to me about it well in advance.


Plagiarism constitutes serious academic misconduct, and can have severe disciplinary consequences. It’s also dishonest and unfair. I don’t want it ever to be an issue in this class. Whenever you are using someone else’s ideas in your paper, whether you are quoting directly or summarizing, you must provide citations. If you are using any information that isn’t common knowledge, tell your readers where you got it. If you’re not sure whether it’s common knowledge, cite your source. Unintentional plagiarism should not be possible—when in any doubt, always give a citation.


Short paper 1 15%
Short paper 2 15%
Final paper 30%
In-class presentation 10%
Posted questions and comments 15%
Class attendance and participation 15%


1 Introduction  
Part I: Meta-ethics
2-3 Non-naturalism  
4-5 Non-cognitivism Short paper 1 out in Ses #4
6-7 The epistemic problem for cognitivism  
8-10 Moral relativism Short paper 1 due in Ses #8 and short paper 2 out in Ses #10
Part II: Normative ethics
11-13 Goodness  
14-18 Rightness Short paper 2 due in Ses #14 and short paper 3 out in Ses #17
19-21 Distributive justice Short paper 3 due in Ses #21
Part III: Moral character
22-23 Virtue Final paper out in Ses #22
24-26 Free will and moral responsibility Final paper due in Ses #26

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2009
Learning Resource Types
Lecture Notes
Written Assignments
Presentation Assignments