Korsgaard and Her Critics

Prof. Patrick Frierson


Office Hours (Olin 194):  Tuesday, 4-5, Wednesday 10-noon, and by appointment.


This course is designed to be an advanced course in ethical theory, focused on the most important moral philosopher alive today, Christine Korsgaard.  We will read her books together along with criticisms from some of her most important interlocutors.  While the books are challenging, they are written clearly, and I hope to spend most of our time discussing the arguments they present rather than simply trying to figure out what each is saying.  In this course, you will be expected to think philosophically, rather than merely learning about philosophy.  In addition, you will be part of a small community (our class) actively discussing issues that are being hotly discussed by a much wider philosophical community.  And you will get to see how philosophers today do ethics.



Participation:  Participation is the most important part of this course.  I expect you to come to every class having read the material and thought carefully about it.  You should be ready to participate actively in discussion.  Participation does not officially contribute a percentage of your final grade, but I may significantly adjust final grades based on participation.  Also, while I don’t want to overload us with emails, I’d encourage you all to continue our discussions – or start new ones – over email.  I won’t respond to every email, but I’ll be attending to the ongoing discussion.  (I can set up a listserver for this, or we can just use reply-to-all.)


Responses (30% of final grade):  For each reading, you should email me a brief (1-2 page) response, including the following: (a) a brief statement of the main point of the reading, (b) a summary of the argument used to establish that main point, (c) a reference to the most important passage in the reading and a brief explanation of why that passage is so important, (d) questions you have about the reading (i.e. stuff you don’t understand), and (e) at least one key objection to or extension of arguments or positions in the reading.  Over the course of the semester, you must turn in 10 of these.  These are due by 5 PM on the day we will discuss the reading.  Because the purpose of these is to enrich our discussion, there are no extensions.  The purpose of these responses is to ensure that you are on top of your reading and to make me aware of specific difficulties you are having with it. 

The responses will receive a check-plus, check, or check-minus.  A check means that your paper shows solid engagement with and comprehension of the text.  A check-plus shows that you have dramatically exceeded my expectations for a Whitman student and have written a truly exceptional short response.  The best way to get a check-plus is to combine a clear and concise summary of the main argument of the reading with an original and insightful objection to or extension of that argument (along with, of course, a good passage and explanation of that passage).  You should not expect to get check-pluses regularly.  They are given only for extraordinary responses.  A check-minus will be given to any response that fails to show basic comprehension of the text, or fails to engage thoughtfully with the issues in the text, or includes grammatical or spelling errors, or fails to address one of the five points – (a) through (e) – mentioned above.

10 checks is a B.  For every check-plus you receive, your grade will improve by 1/3 grade point.  Thus to get an A for this portion of the grade, you need 3 check-pluses.  Every check-minus lowers your grade by 1/3 grade.  A missed paper lowers your grade by 2/3 grade.  (Thus if you turn in only 9 papers, or 10 papers that include 2 check-minuses, you get a C+.)


Short Paper (10% of final grade):  Due October 10.  This paper should reflect a serious engagement with Christine Korsgaard’s Sources of Normativity.  By the time of this paper, we will have read her arguments, at least four important critics, and her responses to those critics. You can offer sustained objection to her argument, defend an objection offered by one of her critics, or extend her argument in a significant way.  The primary purpose of this paper is to give you an opportunity to do a significant piece of written work early in the semester.  My comments on this paper will give you a sense of what I will expect on your seminar paper and final paper.  This paper should be at least 1200 words.


Book Review (10% of final grade):  Book Selection Due October 3.  Book Review Due November 28.  Each of you should choose one book that we will not read as a class.  Former Tanner Lectures (like Sources of Normativity) provide excellent candidates for this, and some of these – e.g. Joseph Raz’s The Practice of Value – even have comments by Korsgaard.  You should write a 2000-3000 word book review of this book.  The review should include a substantial explanation of the overall argument of the book, including discussion of how it relates to Korsgaard.  You should also include one or two significant objections, challenges, or extensions of the argument.  These book reviews will be collected, copied, and distributed to your classmates.  The purpose of this book review is threefold.  First, it will expose you in depth to an ethical theory different from Korsgaard’s.  Second, it will give you at least some exposure to several other ethical theories, through the reviews of your peers.  And finally, it will develop your ability to read and digest challenging works in contemporary ethical theory on your own.  For some good examples of philosophical book reviews, see the reviews at http://ndpr.nd.edu/.


Seminar Paper (15%):  During the middle third of the semester, each student will have the opportunity to write two papers engaging with the material for particular weeks. We will spend at least half of each of those class periods discussing the seminar paper(s) for that week.  This paper provides an opportunity to try out possible final paper theses and get feedback from the class.  The seminar papers should be 1500-2500 words.  They are due at 9 am on the Monday before we discuss them in class.  At present, I have significantly cut back on the additional reading during these weeks to accommodate your writing (and reading of each others’ work).  We will revisit this when we get to mid-semester, and if you wish, I will add some relevant additional material.


Response and discussion leading (5%): During two of the weeks when you are not writing a paper of your own, you will be the “respondent” for a paper by one of your peers.  You should prepare a short response to their paper, laying out what you take the main thesis and line of argument to be, and raising at least two points that either criticize the paper or extend it in a new direction.


Final Paper (30% of final grade):  Due on the last day of class.  The final paper should be a substantial piece of original philosophical work that interacts with Christine Korsgaard’s work.  It is appropriate to do additional reading beyond the texts in the course, but this is not necessary.  You should think of this paper as a “mini-thesis.”  The paper must show a thorough understanding of any arguments in Blackburn or Korsgaard that relate to the topic about which you chose to write.   In addition, you must present your own ideas and defend them with appropriate and effective argument.  The final version of this paper should be 3000-6000 words.  I strongly encourage you to turn in a rough draft of your final paper (the draft due date is the Monday after Thanksgiving Break by 9 am).  The purpose of this paper is to give you the opportunity to develop your own views about an important issue in contemporary ethical theory and to engage in a sustained philosophical defense of those views.


Accommodations: If you are a student with a disability who will need accommodations in this course, please meet with Antonia Keithahn, Assistant Director of Academic Resources: Disability Support (Memorial 326, 509.527.5767keithaam@whitman.edu) for assistance in developing a plan to address your academic needs. All information about disabilities is considered private; if I receive notification from Ms. Keithahn that you are eligible to receive an accommodation due to a verified disability, I will provide it in as discreet a manner as possible.



Christine Korsgaard, Sources of Normativity, Cambridge University Press,

ISBN: 978-0521559607

Christine Korsgaard, Self-Constitution, Oxford University Press, ISBN: 978-0199552801

Christine Korsgaard, Fellow Creatures (available online here)




Aug. 29

Introduction. Sources, pp. 1-5

Sept. 5

Sources, pp. 7-48.


Russ Schafer-Landau, "Precis of Moral Realism: A Defense," Philosophical Studies 126 (2005): 263-267.


Nicolas Wolterstorff, Justice, Chapter Fifteen (“Is a Secular Defense of Human Rights Possible?”, available for Whitman students at http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.whitman.edu/stable/j.ctt7sgfp


Robert Adams, "A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness." (Optional: Students may read at least one criticism of Shafer-Landau in Philosophical Studies 126 (2005): 269-311 and his "Replies to Critics" Philosophical Studies 126 (2005): 313-329. The above link on "Precis" has links to all of these articles. If you do read one of these criticisms, please email me by the beginning of the day on Monday, letting me know which criticism you read or plan to read.)

Sept. 12

Sources, pp. 49-89.


Annette Baier, “Hume, The Woman’s Moral Theorist?”


Bernard Williams, “History, morality, and the test of reflection,” in Sources, pp. 210-18.


J. S. Mill, Utilitarianism, entire.  (You can skim much of this, but read chapters three and four a bit more closely.)

Sept. 19

Sources, pp. 90-125, 128-9


Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, entire.  (Focus on Parts One and Two, and especially his argument for and analysis of the categorical imperative.)


Christine Korsgaard, “Kant’s Analysis of Obligation: The Argument of Groundwork I,” The Monist 72 (1989): 311-40.


John Rawls, “Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory,” Journal of Philosophy 77 (1980): 515-72.


Hilary Kornblith, “What Reflective Endorsement Cannot Do,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 80 (2010):1-18.

Sept. 26

Sources, pp. 90-129, especially 125-8.


Bernard Williams, “Persons, Character, and Morality”


Nell Noddings, Caring, chapter 2.


Barbara Herman, “Integrity and Impartiality,” Monist 66 (1983): 233-50

Oct. 3

Sources, pp. 135-66.  Book review selections due.

Oct. 10

Sources, pp. 167-258. Short Paper due.

Oct. 17

Self-Constitution, pp. 1-44.  Seminar Paper Writer: Becca Gainsburg

                                              Respondent: Peggy Li

Oct. 24

Self-Constitution, pp. 45-80  Seminar Paper Writer: Kiana Henny

                                               Respondent: Becca Gainsburg

Also read Sarah Buss, “Autonomous Action: Self-Determination in a Passive Mode”, available here.

Oct. 31

Self-Constitution, pp. 81-158  Seminar Paper Writer: Nikolaus Kennelly

                                                 Respondent: Mira Engel

Nov. 7

Self-Constitution, pp. 159-206  Seminar Paper Writer: Peggy  Li

                                                  Respondent: Nikolaus Kennelly

Nov. 14

Self-Constitution, pp. 207-214.  Seminar Paper Writer:  Mira Engel

                                                    Respondent: Kiana Henny

Reviews of Self-Constitution (TBD)

Nov. 28

Fellow Creatures, entire.  Seminar Paper Writer: Kiana Henny


Book Reviews Due.

Dec. 5

Topic and Readings TBD.