Ethics Syllabus

Whitman College - Fall 2007
Mitch Clearfield

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Course Description

The word ‘philosophy’ derives from Greek words meaning ‘love of wisdom’. So philosophy attempts to determine some of the deepest truths about our existence and the reality around us.

What distinguishes philosophy is not just the issues that it addresses, since some of these are also addressed by other fields (like science and religion). What is distinctive about philosophy is the way in which it attempts to answer those questions: through reason. Philosophers attempt to justify their views with arguments, laying out the strongest reasons in favor of their positions and responding to the strongest objections against them.

Ethics is the branch of philosophy that considers what is right and wrong, good and bad in human activities – in short, it tries to determine how we ought to live. In this course, we are going to use philosophical reasoning to examine what is a good or bad life, which actions we ought or ought not to take, and how answers to those questions affect how society ought or ought not to be structured.


Goals of the Course

The ultimate goal of the course is to help you refine and articulate your own moral viewpoint.
More specific goals toward achieving this include:

  1. To gain an understanding of the issues and concepts of moral reasoning.
  2. To explore some of the most important ethical theories in the history of Western philosophy.
  3. To develop an appreciation of the relation between ethics and other theoretical and empirical inquiries.
  4. To enhance the abilities to read, think, and write clearly in a philosophical way.
  5. To sharpen general interpretive and analytical skills.

Class Format

Our class meetings will primarily focus on discussion of the readings and the larger issues related to them. I will sometimes also present important background or related views. As much as possible, however, students will have a chance to apply and evaluate the ideas that the texts present, and to propose and consider alternatives. In order to achieve our ultimate goal for the course, it is essential that each student actively engages the material.

Pet Peeve

No dozing in class! It is extremely rude toward those who are speaking, and tends to dampen the energy and involvement of the group as a whole. Research shows that someone dozing off hardly retains anything anyway. So, if you find yourself that drowsy, you should simply go home and nap instead of coming to or staying in class. If I see anyone dozing off, I’ll interrupt class and ask that person to leave.

Texts to be Used

A good dictionary (you can't understand the readings if you don't know what the words mean!)

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Irwin, 2nd edn. (Hackett)
Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Ellington (Hackett)
Bentham and Mill, Utilitarianism and Other Essays (Penguin)
Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (U. of California Press)

There are several additional readings that are on electronic reserve ("e-reserve"), available here. These are password-protected, to restrict access only to those in the class.


  1. I will often distribute important announcements, reminders, and clarifications through e-mail. It is your responsibility to check your account every day.

  2. There is also an e-mail list-server set up for the class, which you should feel free to use. Messages sent to phil127a_07fa<AT> will be forwarded to everyone in the class.

  3. This syllabus and a variety of other useful and/or entertaining stuff can be found through the class website:


Summary of Requirements and Grading

Participation — 20% of your total grade
Our class meetings will primarily focus on conversation about the readings and the larger issues that they address. You are expected to be an active and productive participant in our conversations. To do this, you must carefully read (and sometimes re-read) the assigned texts before class, and come to our meetings with questions and ideas to discuss. There will occasionally be more specific assignments for you to complete. You are also expected to be a productive and contributing member of your research group. More details about expectations and grading standards are available here.

Response Papers — 40% of your total grade
As we are examining the different views about ethics, it is important for you to reflect on the ideas presented and to develop your own thoughts. About once each week (as indicated on the schedule) you will articulate and develop your views on the material in a brief essay. More details are available here.

Research Project & Term Paper — 20% of your total grade
During the course of the semester, you will work with a small group of students to become the resident experts on a particular concrete ethical issue. You will research the major philosophical approaches to your topic, as well as any other relevant factual and theoretical background. Throughout the semester, we will be drawing connections between the more general theories that we’ll be focusing on as a class and the particular topic that you’re researching. The last two weeks of class will be devoted to discussion of your research topics, led by each group.
At the end of the semester, each student will submit a complete, free-standing essay in which you articulate and defend a thoughtful, well-grounded position on your topic.
Possible topics include: genetic engineering & eugenics, abortion, world poverty & hunger, capital punishment, euthanasia & physician-assisted suicide, nuclear deterrence, and the treatment of non-human animals. More details will be provided as the semester progresses.

Oral Examination — 20% of your total grade
During the final exam period, I will conduct a brief (30 minute) oral examination of each student. The exam will be comprehensive, and may cover any of the material that we’ve read or discussed this semester. The focus will be on the general ethical theories and approaches, although we may also touch on issues relating to the particular research topics. This one-on-one conversation will give you the best opportunity to demonstrate that you have understood, synthesized, and reflected on the theories and ideas that we’ve examined throughout the semester. More details will be provided toward the end of the semester.

** NOTE **
You cannot receive a passing grade for the course if:
- You miss more than 8 class meetings, for any reason.
- You miss more than 3 response papers, for any reason.
- You miss or fail the oral exam.


Academic Honesty

All of the work that you submit in this course must be entirely your own. Of course, you can seek help in a variety of ways as you prepare your papers. So it is permitted for you: to consult additional readings, to search for material on the internet, to discuss your ideas with other students, to exchange notes with other students, and to read and to discuss drafts of each other’s papers. But it is not permitted for you to use someone else's words or ideas in your written work without giving proper acknowledgment.

Plagiarism will not be tolerated in any form. You have signed a statement indicating that you understand and will abide by the College policy on plagiarism. Any student caught plagiarizing will automatically fail the course, and may be expelled from the College. For more details, see the Student Handbook.

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