PHILOSOPHY 102 (A): Ethics

Summer 1998

Mon. & Wed. 6:00 - 9:20 pm
208 Holland High School

Dr. Kelly Parker
Office: B3-200 Mackinac Hall
Phone: 331-3257 or 331-2114


Morality and the Moral Life

We all know that some of our thoughts and actions can be regarded as morally significant. Most people (but perhaps not all people, or not all people all the time) have an awareness of the difference between "good" and "bad," "right" and "wrong." This may be an internal awareness--a conscience, moral sense or intuition--that is difficult to put into words and which is not necessarily shared by others. This awareness may arise from the compelling force of external guidelines-such as a set of religious commandments, moral rules, or reasoned principles-that one seeks to fulfill or follow. Since such guidelines are knowable by others, one might also expect others to embrace them as well. For the purposes of this class, the principle that the goodness of some thoughts and actions can be judged according to some reliable internal or external standard will be referred to as "the principle of morality." One who seeks to think, act, and live according to some such standard is seeking to live "a moral life."

Ethics and Philosophy

Ethics can be understood as the systematic and artful examination of the principle of morality and of the idea of a moral life. There are many possible ways to approach such study. Psychologists might investigate the processes by which people develop moral awareness, with the aim of understanding (and perhaps affecting) human behavior. Social scientists might describe and compare the moral standards various people and cultures have in fact embraced, with the aim of understanding their similarities and differences. Members of a group that agrees on one authoritative moral standard might investigate its implications in specific situations, with the aim of understanding and teaching the finer points of how it could guide our own thoughts, actions, and lives. All of these approaches-and there are many possible variations-could be considered forms of ethical inquiry.

The approach to ethics adopted in this course is "philosophical." Philosophy is the activity of using reason to investigate the most fundamental questions of knowledge, reality, and value. No belief or assumption is too big (however authoritative or widely held) or small (however obvious or apparently insignificant) to be immune to philosophy's critical examination. If it's a position, it has some meaning and implications, and there must be some reasons for embracing it or rejecting it. Philosophy seeks to understand the meaning, implications, and reasons surrounding a belief or assumption.

"Philosophical ethics," then, asks fundamental questions about the meaning, implications, and reasons surrounding the moral principle and the various standards of morality that people might embrace. We do this by reading and discussing a variety of materials on ethics, and by discussing and writing on some of the fundamental questions that are raised.

Ethics as a General Education Course

PHI 102 satisfies General Education Program category "CGE/D: Critical Examination of Values and Ideas." The General Education student handbook states:

The purpose of this category is to recognize that we see the world through lenses, consisting of ideas and values. These lenses act as filters, letting some things through and keeping some things out. Lenses also impose focus, bringing some things sharply into perspective, while keeping others in the background. Courses in this category make it possible for you to develop an awareness of the lenses you wear and to evaluate these in light of values and ideas from other times and places.


  1. to become familiar with key terminology, ideas, and problems that characterize the tradition of ethical inquiry in the West
  2. to ask, answer, and examine the answers to fundamental questions about morality
  3. to apply insights and approaches drawn from the philosophical study of ethics in understanding selected contemporary moral issues


C. Sommers and F. Sommers. Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life: Introductory Readings in Ethics. Fourth edition. Harcourt Brace, 1997.

Other materials will be made available in class.


Class attendance and participation is necessary for you to receive full credit on discussion papers. See the section on Attendance below.

Topics and Structure

Specific readings from Sommers & Sommers, with a discussion question, will be assigned for each class.
Week 1. Introductions Ch. 1, Sommers & Sommers 
Instructor's sample presentation on a contemporary moral issue.
Week 2. Egoism and Relativism Chs. 3 & 6
Week 3. Rationalist Ethics: Kant & Mill Ch. 2
Weeks 4 - 6. The Ethics of Character and Virtue Chs. 4, 5, 7 & 8

In addition to our assigned readings in ethical theory, there will be a presentation and discussion of a contemporary moral issue during many classes. Chapters 9 & 10 in our text provide materials on several suitable topics (the treatment of elderly persons, divorce, world hunger, abortion, and the treatment of women). I trust that current newspapers and magazines will provide plenty of material for presentations on other topics.


Discussion papers help you comprehend the material assigned for each class session, and prepare the ground for productive class discussion. To make things run smoothly, we will follow some procedures.

I will provide a "Discussion Question" for each class. You will bring a typed answer to the Question to class. Type your name, the date, and the Question itself at the top of the page. The answer need not be very long-one double-spaced page should be fine in most cases.

In class, we will divide into groups. Each member of the group will read his or her answer to the others. Everyone gets an uninterrupted say here: no one is to make responses or comments until all members of the group have read their answers. After that, discussion within the group is wide open (within the bounds of civility).

After discussion, the groups will break up and we will allow some time for you to write a short addition to your discussion paper. You may want to make no change. In that case, write "No Change" at the top of your paper. You may want to make some addition or alteration, or delete something from your answer. Make such changes on your paper. On the other hand, you may want to do the whole thing over. In that case, write "MTB" at the top of the page (for "Missed the Boat") and plan to rewrite your discussion paper later.

We will reassemble to discuss the material as a class. When the time seems ripe, we will take a fifteen to twenty minute break. The break time may be used to finish your revisions, if needed. All discussion papers are to be handed in after the break. MTB papers will be returned to you before the end of class. MTB's are to be turned in, along with the rewrite, at the beginning of the following class.

In-class presentations on a contemporary moral issue allow us to apply what we're learning to topics of personal and/or social importance. Presentations will be given by groups of two, and each issue is to be presented only once. Please sign up in advance, and consult with the instructor about your presentation no later than the end of the class preceding your presentation date.

You should present a narrative case study that illustrates the topic's current relevance and supplies factual information pertinent to our understanding of the issue. You should identify the central ethical questions raised by the issue, utilizing the concepts we are studying. Finally, you should set the initial terms for our discussion by presenting at least two of the most plausible positions one might take concerning the questions you raise. You will be asked to turn in your notes for the presentation.

The final exam will consist of short-answer and essay questions. I will distribute a study guide for the final during the last week of class.


If you miss the part of class devoted to discussion questions, I will still accept your paper for that class. However, there will be a 3 point penalty assessed (one full letter grade), and there is no opportunity to rewrite the paper.

I cannot guarantee an opportunity to make up missed in-class presentations or the final exam.

We have 12 class meetings. More than one absence will result in a penalty of 5% off the final grade; more than three absences will result in an automatic grade of "No Credit" (F).

Grade Definitions

A Outstanding. Work and class participation display thorough mastery of material and genuine engagement with the subject-matter. Writing is exceptionally good. This grade is reserved for those students who attain the highest levels of excellence in thought and scholarship.

B Good. Work and class participation display accurate understanding of material. Writing is clear and free of mechanical errors.

C Fair. Work and class participation display basic grasp of material, though occasionally with significant misunderstandings or inaccuracies. Writing is acceptable.

D Marginal. Work and class participation display a grasp of the material adequate for credit, but the quality of work indicates lack of effort or aptitude. Writing is inadequate for college level work.

F Unacceptable. Excessive absences, assignments not completed, or assignments unworthy of credit. Cheating or plagiarism will earn an automatic F for the assignment and/or the course.

Numeric Grading Scale

A 10 B- 6 D+ 2
A- 9 C+ 5 D 1
B+ 8 C 4 F 0
B 7 C- 3

Important dates

Drop Deadline w/Full Refund FRI May 8, 5 pm
Drop Deadline w/75% Refund FRI May 15, 5 pm
Holiday: No Class Meeting MON May 25
Withdrawal Deadline FRI June 5
Final Exam WED June 17, 6 pm