University of Kansas, Spring 2003
Philosophy 161: Introduction to Ethics, Honors

Class notes: introduction

The following notes correspond roughly to what we cover, including at least a portion of what I put on the board or the screen, in class. In places they may be more or less comprehensive than what we actually cover in class, and should not be taken as a substitute for your own observations and records of what goes on in class.

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  1. introduction to the subject matter of the course
    1. areas of philosophy (You do not need to memorize this section—it’s just to help you get oriented.)
      1. moral philosophy, or ethics: the study of right and wrong, or of how we ought to live, or of what people’s duties and obligations are
      2. metaphysics: the study of things such as what exists, what it is for one event to cause another, etc.
      3. epistemology: the study of knowledge, when a belief may be regarded as knowledge and not just conjecture or opinion, etc.
      4. philosophy of language: the study of what makes words have meanings, how words refer to things in the world (if they do), etc.
      5. philosophy of mind: the study of what mental states are, how they differ, how they represent the world (if they do), etc.
      6. philosophy of science: the study of what makes something a science, how scientific theories are confirmed, etc.
      7. philosophy of religion: the study of God, whether God exists, faith, etc.
      8. logic: the study of correct reasoning
      9. others (aesthetics, political philosophy, etc.)
    2. areas of moral philosophy, or ethics (from S. S.)
      1. applied ethics: the branch of ethics devoted to the study of specific ethical issues, such as whether cloning is all right or whether we are morally obliged to treat animals better than we do. Sometimes this branch of ethics is associated with the idea of “case studies.”
      2. normative ethics: the branch of ethics devoted (mostly) to the development of moral theories: theories that specify, in brief and general terms, what actions, policies, institutions, etc., are morally acceptable
      3. meta-ethics: the branch of ethics devoted to explaining what we are doing when we make moral judgments or engage in moral debates. Meta-ethicists try to give accounts of such things as the meaning of moral terms and the grounds of moral judgments.
  2. introduction to the mechanics of the course
    1. A third of the course will be spent on each of the three branches of ethics (in reverse order from above).
    2. Class meetings will mostly be a mixture of lecture and discussion, with occasionally some other activities as well.
    3. The purpose of discussions is not to air our opinions. That will inevitably happen, but hopefully only as a byproduct of (1) trying to understand the material under discussion and (2) exploring the considerations that might support or undermine positions under discussion. These are the real purposes of discussions.
    4. Requirements: two papers, two tests, a final exam, class participation, and attendance (which I take to include punctuality).
    5. The syllabus and other course documents are online, accessible via links from my home page: Among the documents available are my lecture notes, the underlined portions of which I’ll put on the board in class when I lecture.
  3. EMP, preface (pp. ix–x)
    1. There are some fields, such as physics, in which there is a large body of material that competent theorists or practitioners all agree is right. Of course, physicists have some disagreements among one another—there is still stuff to be figured out that different physicists have conflicting opinions about—just as historians do not all agree on exactly what happened in certain times and places in the past, and just as economists do not all agree on what the best account of economic activity is. But in all of these fields, there is a lot of fairly uncontroversial material.
    2. Philosophy is not like this; in philosophy there is very little that is uncontroversial. So in this course we will be exploring many conflicting views. None of them will be presented as the “truth”; rather, for the most part, we’ll seek to understand the reasons for and against them. Ultimately, you must try to decide for yourself what views have the strongest reasons in support of them; my job will be to help you to identify and weigh those reasons.
  4. group exploration of EMP, chapter 1: “What Is Morality?” (adapted from work by R. M.)
    1. Groups of four persons each are formed. We’ll call these initial groups the base groups
    2. The members of each base group get acquainted, and each person in each base group takes one of the following parts of chapter 1, so that each group has coverage of the whole chapter, with no overlap among individual members.
      1. sections 1.1 and 1.2
      2. section 1.3
      3. section 1.4
      4. sections 1.5 and 1.6
    3. The base groups split up, and study groups are formed. Each study group is constituted by individuals from different base groups, all responsible for the same part of chapter 1.
    4. Each study group begins by taking some time to read the material. Then, the members of the study groups collectively answer, in discussion, the questions below that correspond to their part of the chapter:
      1. sections 1.1 and 1.2: introduction and the case of Baby Theresa
        1. What does Rachels mean by the notion of “the ‘minimum conception’ of morality” (p. 1)?
        2. What was wrong with Baby Theresa?
        3. What ethical controversy regarding her arose?
        4. What argument in support of the proposal to transplant her organs does Rachels describe?
        5. What arguments against the proposal does Rachels describe?
        6. What does Rachels seem to think of these arguments?
        7. What do you think of Rachels’s assessment of these arguments and of the case as a whole?
        8. Are there any things that Rachels says that are puzzling (either in terms of content or in terms of motivation)? Can you solve these puzzles?
      2. section 1.3: the case of Jodie and Mary
        1. What was wrong with Jodie and Mary?
        2. What ethical controversy regarding them arose?
        3. What argument in support of the operation does Rachels describe?
        4. What argument against the operation does Rachels describe?
        5. What does Rachels seem to think of these arguments?
        6. What do you think of Rachels’s assessment of these arguments and of the case as a whole?
        7. Are there any things that Rachels says that are puzzling (either in terms of content or in terms of motivation)? Can you solve these puzzles?
      3. section 1.4: the case of Tracy Latimer
        1. What happened to Tracy Latimer?
        2. What arguments against her father’s action does Rachels describe?
        3. What does Rachels seem to think of these arguments?
        4. What do you think of Rachels’s assessment of these arguments and of the case as a whole?
        5. Are there any things that Rachels says that are puzzling (either in terms of content or in terms of motivation)? Can you solve these puzzles?
      4. sections 1.5 and 1.6: reason, impartiality, and morality
        1. What are Rachels’s two reasons for claiming that mere feelings are not a good moral guide?
        2. What does Rachels mean by having reasons for one’s moral views?
        3. What does Rachels say is involved in reasoning well about morality?
        4. What does Rachels say is involved in being impartial?
        5. What does Rachels think the “minimum conception of morality” is?
        6. What guidance in making moral decisions does the minimum conception of morality provide? What questions does it leave unanswered?
    5. The base groups re-form and each member of each group describes his or her findings to the other members of his or her group. 
  5. EMP, chapter 1: “What Is Morality?”
    1. section 1.1: “The Problem of Definition”
      1. the idea of the minimum conception of morality: what just about everyone agrees on, as far as morality is concerned, despite whatever disagreements people may have about morality 
      2. the point of considering some specific cases: to identify some features of this “minimum conception of morality”
    2. section 1.2: “First Example: Baby Theresa”
      1. transplantation or not?
      2. An argument is a set of statements, one of which is understood to be the conclusion, and the others of which are understood to be premises, with the premises being offered as supporting, or providing reasons for, the conclusion.
      3. for transplantation: benefits (to other babies)
      4. against transplantation: it’s “using” the baby. (But does it matter if she is “used,” if her autonomy is not violated?)
      5. against transplantation: wrongness of killing. (But is killing always wrong? And might it be claimed that the baby is already dead?)  
    3. section 1.3: “Second Example: Jodie and Mary”
      1. surgery or not?
      2. for surgery: save as many as possible
      3. against surgery: sanctity of human life
    4. section 1.4: “Third Example: Tracy Latimer”
      1. killing justified or not?
      2. in defense: quality of life
      3. against: wrongness of discriminating against the handicapped. (But is it really discrimination, or a reasonable distinction?)
      4. against: slippery slope (unverifiable predictions?)
    5. section 1.5: “Reason and Impartiality”
      1. The three cases illuminate a couple of things about moral reasoning—a couple of views that seem to be common to all of the positions and arguments considered above.
      2. First, moral judgments must be backed by good reasons (in contrast to, say, judgments of taste). Good reasons can be separated from bad ones by being careful about the facts of a case, but this is not sufficient: people can agree on all the facts but still reach different moral judgments.
      3. Second, moral judgments must be impartial—that is, they must count everyone’s interests equally. This component may be seen as following from the first, since seem to be no good reasons for not being impartial in one’s moral judgments.
    6. section 1.6: “The Minimum Conception of Morality”
      1. These “lessons” from the three cases furnish the ingredients for a basic characterization of morality: Morality is the effort to guide one’s conduct by reason while giving equal weight to the interests of each individual who will be affected by one’s conduct (p. 14).
      2. Note: this is not a definition, but Rachels’s view of what any reasonable theory of morality must say. Most theories of morality do say this; but there is a lot of disagreement in regard to what reasons are good ones and in regard to what impartiality really amounts to.
      3. As a result, this minimum conception of morality ends up providing very little guidance in making moral judgments. To see this, note that just about everyone on both sides of the controversies discussed in this chapter would agree with it (i.e., would agree that moral judgments must be based on reason, and must be impartial). Rachels, of course, realizes this; he isn’t touting the “minimum conception of morality” as the answer to all our moral questions. Rather, his point (indeed the point of the whole chapter) is to see whether there is some core of morality, common to partisans on opposite sides of various issues. He finds that there is such a core; but that since it is common to folks with such disparate views, it can’t be expected to settle much.
    7. true or false?
      1. When Rachels gives his account of the “minimum conception of morality,” he acknowledges that he‘s saying something pretty controversial, like most things in philosophy.
      2. People who endorse Rachels’s account of the “minimum conception of morality” will typically agree on what should be done in cases such as those discussed in this chapter.
      3. People who endorse Rachels’s account of the “minimum conception of morality” may well disagree on what it means to guide one’s conduct by reason, or to give equal weight to everyone’s interests.
      4. Rachels could have used non-medical examples, indeed a whole different set of examples, to come up with his “minimum conception of morality.”
  6. acknowledgements:
    1. R. M. = Russell Marcus
    2. S. S. = Sigrún Svavarsdóttir