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Introduction to Ethics

Philosophy 21001; 14075/section 004; 7:00-9:30 p.m. T R; BOW 220; Jeffrey Wattles, instructor


            This course examines virtues, duties, and ways of relating that are involved with living in truth, beauty, and goodness. The student will learn some of the history, questions, and methods of Western philosophical ethics, including philosophy’s methods of logical reasoning. We study classics of Aristotelian, Kantian, and utilitarian ethics (focusing on virtues of character, moral reason's way to discern duty, and acting for the good of the whole). In addition, we sample feminist and other current thinking. The course also features experiential education in a project in which theory and practice interweave.

            Diversity element: Philosophy helps us assess intellectual diversity—no matter to what extent that diversity is a function of gender, race, class, culture, or other variables in the human family. Regarding diversity it is suggested that we affirm our common humanity, seek to understand relevant differences, and appreciate the unique personality of each individual we meet.  This class considers religious as well as non-religious versions of our principal theories, some feminist ethics, and Chinese Confucian and Jewish traditions of the golden rule.  This course satisfies Kent State University's diversity requirement.

            Texts: Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle, ISBN: 0-87220-464-2; Ethical Philosophy, Immanuel Kant, ISBN: 0-87220-320-4; Utilitarianism and Other Essays, John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, ISBN: 0-14-043272-8.

Evaluation.  Evaluation is based on participation (10 points): We are a community of inquiry, and our interaction has a life of its own; so you are expected to attend regularly, be on time (including after the break), have the reading done, and be ready to participate.  Good attendance is the threshold that gets you a C.  Beyond that threshold, participation largely means taking initiative to make contributions—questions and comments.  More than four absences may affect the grade.  If you miss seven classes, how can I pass you?  Second, there are various written assignments (60 points total).  The projects facilitate growth by nudging you to let your study illuminate your experience and vice-versa.  If you feel you have a reason to request an alternative to any of the projects, please speak with the instructor.  One more thing about the papers.  Writing is so important for your future role; English well used is important for our world, especially when so much communicating is mediated by machines; and it is a vital skill that school sometimes fails to teach.  If I don’t fuss about writing, you should see what some folks hand in!  So I fuss, and I generally get quite decent writing.  Thus papers must be well written to receive a C or above.  It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the Writing Center’s services and its website: http://dept.kent.edu/english/WritingCent/writngcenter.htm .  Speaking of communication, the University obliges you to check your Flashline e-mail address.  If I have messages to send to the whole class, e.g., about changing a syllabus assignment, or keeping in touch in the case of an emergency, I will use those addresses.  Third, there are three quizzes (including the final--10 points each), mostly multiple-choice; later quizzes will touch on material covered in earlier quizzes.

            My office hours are MTWR, 9:30-45 and 2:00-3:00 (Bowman 320H) and by appointment (330-672-0276; e-mail: jwattles@kent.edu).

            For the course website go to http://www.personal.kent.edu/~jwattles/whatphil.htm

Additional materials are posted at http://www.personal.kent.edu/~jwattles/classes.htmFor web links (but don’t forget the library), there’s the American Philosophical Association

http://www.apa.udel.edu/apa/asp/guides.asp.  Rather than simply going to Google, consider academic sites: http://www.searchedu.com/ (now one of the Google search engines).  There’s also the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/

In accordance with University policy, if you have a documented disability and require accommodations to obtain equal access in this course, please contact the instructor at the beginning of the semester or when given an assignment for which an accommodation is required.  Students with disabilities must verify their eligibility through the Office of Student Disability Services (SDS) in the Michael Schwartz Student Services Center (672-2972).

The Philosophy Department Grievance Procedure for handling student grievances is in conformity with the Student Academic Complaint Policy and Procedures set down as University Policy 3342-4-16 in the University Policy Register.  For information concerning the details of the grievance procedure, please see the Departmental Chairperson.

Schedule of Activities

I.  What does it mean to live the golden rule?

Diverse approaches to the golden rule and some problems of religious ethics

Week 1, Tuesday, June 16.  Arthur Nash: How can the golden rule linked with religious idealism be applied in the evolutionary environment of business.  Is the New Testament golden rule mired in extremes of self-interest and unrealistic idealism, or are there alternate possible readings of the texts that answer those concerns?  What reply is possible to Plato’s dilemma for an ethics centered on the concept of the will of God?

Thursday, the 18th.  Read the chapters on the golden rule in Confucian and Jewish traditions: http://www.personal.kent.edu/~jwattles/goldrule.htmHand in two pages (typed, double-spaced) on what it means to live the golden rule, including some account of your experience of doing so during the past two days plus some reference to Jewish or Confucian tradition.


II.  What does it mean to live as a person of excellent character?

Week 2, Tuesday 23rd.  Aristotle’s theory of types of friendship and a feminist reading of Aristotle.  Happiness and excellence of character (Read Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book I.  In addition, print out the webnotes on Aristotle and read approximately a third of that document, through the notes covering the first five chapters of Book III—plus the notes on Book IX on friendship, equality and asymmetry in relationships, and on the question of sexism.

Thursday 25th.  Finish Book III: courage and self-mastery regarding the pleasures of taste and touch.  Read the relevant webnotes including the notes on Book VII on pleasure and temperance.

Week 3, Tuesday 30th.  Justice and intellectual virtues (read Book V and the web notes to Book VI.

Thursday, July 2nd.  Book X, chapters 7-9.

Week 4, Tuesday 7thPaper due, quiz.  Introduction to Kant.  The debate between virtue ethics and the ethics of moral principle.


III.  What does it mean to live on the basis of principles of moral reason?

Thursday 9th.  Kant, Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals, Section I.

Week 5, Tuesday, 14th.  Section II

Thursday, 16th.  Section II, continued.

Week 6, Tuesday 21st.  Read the web notes on the Metaphysics of Morals.

Thursday 23rd. Read the web notes on Kant’s writings on history

Week 7, Tuesday July 28thHand in paper 2, and take quiz 2.  Then, after the break, we begin a new unit.


IV. What does it mean to live for the long-term good of the whole?

Thursday, 30th.  John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, chapter II.  In addition, read the web notes on Utilitarianism (the link is on the classes page).

Week 8  Tuesday, August 4.  Chapters I, III, V.

Thursday, 6.  Final paper and quiz.


Project on Character Growth in Conversation with Aristotle


            Before beginning any project, please consult this document: http://www.personal.kent.edu/~jwattles/papers.htm

The first project is to choose a virtue (or, as you may discover, an interrelated complex of virtues) and pursue growth in a philosophically thoughtful way.  Since the time available is short, expectations are adjusted accordingly, and it is the sincerity of your engagement in the various aspects of the project that will shine.  In other words, do your best, but don’t strain for any dramatic advancement.

Virtues set forth by Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas are discussed in class, but it is not necessary to pick one of these.  Chose one that would help you.

Here is the structure to follow in your paper.  Be sure the divisions are clear to the reader.

I.  Experience report.  In the first three pages, tell what you did during the project period, and what happened as you took steps to cultivate the virtue of your choice.  What type of situation does your virtue address?  What type of action does it call for?  Define the virtue you are working on.  The definition should not be so broad as to include things that would not belong, and not so narrow as to exclude things that would belong.  (40%)

II.  Aristotelian commentary.  The second part of the paper is a two-page commentary on your narrative from the perspective of Aristotle.  Try to find at least three passages where Aristotle says something relevant to your experience.  Use brief quotes, followed by your interpretation of the meaning, and show how the quote you selected relates to your experience.  You may also use the webnotes for this purpose as well as the text.  (50%)

Writing counts 10% unless it is quite poor, in which case it counts more, as discussed in class and indicated on the syllabus.

The paper is to be typed, double-spaced, proof-read, and it is due Tuesday, July 7.



Levels of quality in the experience report.

D or F: Experience reported bears little or no connection to the ethical theory under examination.  The report is full of chatty details without focus or philosophic import.  The writer gives no evidence of having actually engaged in the project, and the paper looks like a rush job, a last- minute attempt to fake effort.

C:  The experience and the understanding of the experience presented in the report are conventional, without communicating a sense of adventure, inquiry, probing, or discovery.

B:  The report gives evidence of genuine inquiry and describes the experience in ways that set up the dialogue with Aristotle.

A:  The experience report has everything required for a B and in addition shows sustained and sincere engagement in the project.  The report expresses insights in a fresh way.


Levels of quality in the constructed commentary.

D or F: The commentary shows poor grasp of Aristotle.

C: In those cases where the text included the relevant material, the commentary relies on the instructor’s notes for summarizing the text rather than on a fresh reading of the text.  (In this case, much of the relevant material is not included in the text, and reliance on the webnotes is normal.)  Points are few; they are made very briefly and without any penetrating observations.  There is no attention to issues raised in class.

B: The commentary makes judicious use of brief quotations, and comments appropriately on their relevance.

A: In addition to the achievements mentioned for a B, the commentary shows an excellent and original use of the text and webnotes.



Projects, privacy, and choices

Over the years, most students, after perhaps some initial hesitation and uncertainty, launch headlong into the project and have a very positive experience. 

Maximum growth comes from tacking our front-burner issue—the aspect of our character that most needs attention.  In some cases, however, this may not be advisable, and there is no pressure to do this.  One may be in a psychologically sensitive time and feel that this is just not the right time to confront a certain issue.  The choice is up to the student.

One may prefer not to share a particular issue in writing with the instructor.  I heed professional standards of respect for the confidentiality of what is submitted, but there may be aspects of your experience that you will describe only in general terms or not at all.  The choice is up to the student.

In some cases, for the purposes of this project and this class, one may choose to focus more on issues that are less personal, less central.  One does need to find some aspect of character growth to work on, however.  It is always possible to propose a different project altogether and to discuss an alternative with the instructor.

            Be sure to read the fuller statement of guidelines, “Writing Papers”—the first link on the my “classes” webpage.


Project on living adjusted highlights of Kantian ethics

             The experiential adventure of this project is to put Kantian ethics into practice.  Adjust his principles if you need to so that they fit with what you can honestly feel good putting into practice in your life.  Here are the three sides of the assignment (corresponding with the three major formulations of the categorical imperative).


            Act on universalizable maxims.

            Conduct yourself with superb respect for self and others.

            Contribute to progress toward an advanced civilization.


We will explore the meaning of Kant’s ideas about these topics in class.  As you put these adjusted ideas into practice, you will take notes from day to day, so that you have a fund of experience—already analyzed and related to the passages in Kant (and the web notes) that you find relevant, so that you will have a comparatively easy job when the time comes to write the project report. 

Slow gradual steps forward are most of the time what is really possible; suddenlys are rare.  Don’t pressure yourself to try produce anything that will sound like a home run on paper.  If your experience seems ordinary, reflect well and learn as much as you can.  Locating and addressing your front-burner challenge, however, has high leverage for your growth, but be wise if you are considering focusing on such an area: http://www.personal.kent.edu/~jwattles/papers.htm (see the project principles).

            The report should have an approximately two-page experience report on each of the three phases of the assignment (do not submit separate mini-papers, but—with clear demarcations between the sections—include everything in the same document).  The experience report focuses on your experience of putting these principles into practice during the project period.  For the first one, you’ll need to state the ethical maxims on which you acted (including situation type, action-type, and motive).  Give details on how you applied Kantian teachings, difficulties encountered, discoveries made, and progress noted.  If you want to write more than two pages, you are welcome to do so.

            Finally, construct a two-page commentary on what you have written from the perspective of Kant, using a few brief quotes and explaining their meaning and their relevance to your experience report.

            Evaluation: 50% for the experience report, 40% for the Kantian commentary, and 10% for writing (unless the writing is very poor—see the syllabus).




The project is to put utilitarianism into practice for the duration of this unit (as much as you can without compromising your personal convictions).  The aspect of utilitarianism that is assigned is just this: Live for the good of the whole.  Consider the long-term, high quality happiness of all directly or indirectly affected by what you do.  Live to make this world a better place for us all.  Note: many of our actions immediately affect only a small number of people; in such cases, they (together with those indirectly affected) are the whole group in question.

            The paper should have the following structure.

1.      Write a unified narrative of your experience during this project (three pages or so).  There should be some overall point to which the episodes contribute. 

2.      Write a two-page evaluation of your Part I experience in a commentary constructed from the perspective of J. S. Mill.  Include brief quotations (you may use the web notes as a source) along with explanations of their meaning and their relevance to your Part I experience.

3.      Write your own one-page philosophical response to the Part II commentary, providing reasons to agree or disagree with Mill.

 Evaluation is based upon evidence of sincere and persistent involvement (yes, the time available is brief), an accurate and relevant understanding of Mill, and quality of reasoning in your the following factors, and the quality of the writing.



Thomas Aquinas' method of philosophical reasoning

            One of philosophy’s central skills is reasoning.  The Department of Philosophy offers courses on informal logic (Principles of Thinking) and formal logic, both of which are strongly recommended.  In this course we take two steps into that area.  First, note the (informal logic) web document on argument analysis.  Second, the model of reasoning to be used primarily in this course was developed during the medieval period on the basis of Aristotle’s attempt to respond to a full range of arguments on a particular topic.  The most prominent representative of this way of reasoning is Thomas Aquinas.  Thomas is a Christian theologian, so some of his considerations fall outside the scope of philosophy, but it is worth noting that he does not appeal to scripture to prove a point, but only to illustrate a point in the course of his reasoning.

In his vast work, the Summa Theologica, Thomas sets forth a rational system with reasoned answers to every important philosophical and theological problem of his time.  He also organizes his discussions in a very detailed and carefully thought out sequence, so that each “article” can be small, relying on the work of the previous ones, and contributing to the basis of what follows.  To imitate Thomas in this regard, write down all the questions related to your chosen topic and break down complex questions into their simplest components.  Then arrange those simplest questions in a logical sequence as best you can.  Then begin by answering one or more of these questions, one by one.

How does one write out the answer to a particular question?  First, state the question as clearly as possible.  Next, write down the most important objections to the answer you will defend (think of objections arising out of popular culture, out of diverse opinions around the world, opinions based on various interpretations of relevant sciences, and based on various theologies and philosophies).  Then (after a brief indication that the objections are not the whole story), set forth in a couple of paragraphs the reasoning behind your answer.  Then show how your reasoned answer contains the resources to reply to the objections; for each answer to which the reply is not totally obvious, make is clear in a few sentences why your answer in fact handles the objection.

            The Summa Theological is available online at http://www.newadvent.org/summa/ .  It is organized into three great parts: the first part (“prima pars”), the second part, and the third part. 

The second part, central for ethics, is divided into two:

·       The first part of the second part (prima secundae, 1a 2ae), which includes discussions of human acts, emotions, and habits, and

·       The second part of the second part (secunda secundae, 2a 2ae), which includes discussions of particular virtues—faith, hope, and “charity” (love), plus prudence (practical wisdom), justice, courage, and temperance (self-mastery in pleasure).

In order to have a model to guide you in your writing, you will need to read a few of these articles.  Always remember, there is no pressure to agree with any particular position that Thomas advocates.  The point is to learn this method of careful and thorough reasoning.  There are limits to thinking carried out this way, but we do well to acquire some of this skill before we seek to go beyond it. 

To see the values of this method by asking this question: What happens in debates where one or more aspects of this method are overlooked?