Washington and Lee University, Spring 2002
Philosophy 101: Problems of Philosophy
Ben Eggleston—EgglestonB@wlu.edu

Paper Assignment no. 1

Your assignment is to write a paper of about 5 pages (double-spaced, 12-point type) on either (1) one of the following topics or (2) some other topic that you would like to propose to me (in which case, just let me know, and we can discuss it).
  1. In his chapter on cultural relativism, James Rachels objects to the cultural-differences argument on the grounds that in areas of thought other than morality (such as geography), we do not take differences in belief as strong evidence that there is no truth of the matter in question; instead, we take it as evidence that at least some of the people whose beliefs we are considering are mistaken about the matter in question. Write a paper in which you (1) explain the cultural-differences argument, (2) explain Rachels’s objection to it, and (3) reply to Rachels’s objection, on behalf of cultural relativism, by arguing that Rachels is wrong to regard morality as similar to, or analogous to, areas of thought that he compares it to (such as geography).
  2. At the end of section 3.5, and in sections 3.6 and 3.7, Rachels describes and provides an extended example of an approach to moral judgment that, he says, has the great virtue of showing how there can be proofs of ethical truths. He offers this approach as a response to the emotivist view of ethics, and to subjectivist views generally; but he does not indicate how an emotivist would reply to this approach. Write a paper in which you (1) explain the approach to moral judgment that Rachels proposes and (2) reply to it on behalf of an emotivist. In replying to it from the perspective of the emotivist position, you should make clear both (a) what the view of emotivism is and (b) how a proponent of that view would react to, and criticize, the approach to moral judgment that Rachels proposes.
  3. Cultural relativism and emotivism have some similarities, but also differ in many important ways. Write a dialogue between a cultural relativist and an emotivist in which the two characters dispute the relative merits of their two views. A good dialogue between the two will make clear (1) the meanings of these views, (2) how they differ, and (3) how each view’s defender would try to persuade the defender of the other view that he or she ought to drop his or her current view and adopt the other one.
  4. Rachels is not very sympathetic to cultural relativism, simple subjectivism, or emotivism. Write a paper in which you explain the meaning of one of these theories, explain one of Rachels’s objections to it, and offer the most effective response to that objection that you can think of.
As you choose your topic and write your paper, note that a large part of your grade will be determined by the extent to which what you say in your paper goes beyond what’s in the book, and does not merely repeat or rephrase what’s in the book. In doing this you are welcome to use other resources, but you certainly do not need to do so, and you should not feel any pressure or expectation to do so. You should, though, as I said, feel obliged to write a paper that pursues whatever topic you choose to write about further and in more depth than that topic is developed in the book. (As I said on the syllabus, while the tests will mainly test your knowledge of what you’ve read, the two papers will manifest your ability to articulate, and to present arguments for, your own views.) For this paper there are two due dates:
  1. The first due date is for peer reading of (and commenting on) papers. You are to bring to class on Thursday, May 2, or Friday, May 3 (depending on which section you are in) two copies of your paper. Then you and two of your classmates will form a group of three and will read and comment on each other’s papers. You should bring to class two copies of as final and polished a version of your paper as you can manage, so that your peers will have the opportunity to read and comment on your best work.
  2. The second due date is for turning in the final version of your paper to me. Final copies of all papers will be due on Monday, May 6, at 8 a.m. If you’re in the M-W-F section of the course, you can just bring it to class; if you’re in the T-Th section of the course, you can bring it to my office (Newcomb 25) or leave it in my mailbox. Late papers will be penalized 3 percentage points per day (or part of a day, starting at the due date and time) late. As indicated in the syllabus, your grade for this paper will determine a quarter of your course grade.