Ethics Core Course Proposal

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Ethics Core Course Proposal

1. Course Description

This course on Introductory Ethics engages the Year Three Question: "Caring and Doing: What principles characterize a well lived life?," by challenging students to understand the nature of ethical thought and behavior. It follows the core course description for Ethics:
In the Ethics course students will learn to understand, apply, and critique multiple ethical theories, traditions and modes of ethical analysis. They will develop their moral imagination by exploring and explaining the reasons humans should care about the needs and interests of others (i.e., persons, communities, creatures and creation). Students will learn to understand and practice justice by acknowledging and honoring the rights and responsibilities of all and will learn to apply moral principles and insights to a variety of realistic settings and cases. Students will develop their critical thinking and communication skills by learning to analyze and resolve complex moral problems in respectful dialogue with those holding other perspectives and positions. Additionally, students will learn to explain their moral commitments and judgments to a range of audiences, while acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of their own position and others' positions.

2. Core Learning Outcomes

Learning Outcomes: At the completion of this course, students will be able to:

  1. argue persuasively why each of us is responsible for having ethical concerns about and commitments to the good of others.
  2. resolve moral problems consistently drawing on resources (e.g., conceptions of human nature and the human community) of one or more of the ethical theories or traditions studied.
  3. respectfully advocate for their critically assessed moral commitments and perspective within a diverse community.

3. A general overview of the course topic and approach

The research questions chosen for this Ethics course include:
  1. What is the nature of ethics? What is the origin and ground of values?
  2. How are moral values related to other kinds of valuing that humans engage in?
  3. What is the good life?
  4. What kind of theory is a moral theory?
  5. How is our psychology related to our moral valuation and behavior?
  6. What are the major theoretical approaches to ethics?
  7. What is justice?
  8. What are our obligations to others in need of assistance?
  9. How does our ethics affect our politics?
In the context of a philosophy course, these questions call for both in-depth study and the integration and development of basic constructs of knowledge (especially for ethics, anthropology, politics, theory of ethical culture) and values for addressing the questions with a consistent and well-grounded philosophy. The course is not divided into discrete units, but addresses the following main areas of knowledge and reflection related to moral values:
  1. Metaethics
  2. Standard philosophical ethical theories (virtue ethics, utilitarianism, deontology, etc.)
  3. Anthropology of moral sentiments and emotions
  4. Theories of justice
  5. The nature of moral disagreement & politics
  6. Numerous applied topics, especially obligations to the poor, climate change, globalization.
The approach to the research questions for the course involves both study and active engagement of the student with the material in relation to their own beliefs and values from their own moral experience to their awareness of ethical and social justice problems raised by contemporary society and the problems facing local and global communities. Students will have opportunities to develop practical positions on many theoretical and applied problems. Course activities in my courses normally include collaborative and small group learning, lecture, student presentation, peer review of student scholarship, and writing and assessment of writing. Course activities unique to this course include options to evaluate one's morality from many standpoints, including 1st person relationships with others and 3rd person public policy issues.

4. Any required texts or other materials.

The current reading list for the course based on Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind and numerous articles. Film documentaries are used for some applied topics. Here is a partial course bibliography:
  • Ariely, D. (2012). Why We Lie. Wall Street Journal. New York.
  • Aristotle. "Nichomachean Ethics, Books 1-3." Retrieved August 19, 2010, from Internet Clasics Archive.
  • Bloom, P. (2013). Just Babies, Random House.
  • Cooper, D. Chapter 1: Introduction to Philosophical Ethics. New York, St. Martin's Press.
  • Cooper, D. Chapter 5: Cognitive and Moral Development. New York, St. Martin's Press.
  • de Waal, F. (2006). Morally Evolved: Primate Social Instincts, Human Morality, and the Rise and Fall of "Veneer Theory". Primates and Philosophers. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press: 1-59.
  • Eco, U. (2002). "When the Other Appears on the Scene." Cross Currents 52(3): 19-30.
  • Haidt, J. (2006). Chapter 1: The Divided Self. The Happiness Hypothesis: finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. New York, Basic Books: 1-22.
  • Haidt, J., Ed. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York, Pantheon.
  • Korsgaard, C. M. (2006). Morality and the Distinctiveness of Human Action. Primates and Philosophers. S. Macedo and J. Ober. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press: 98-120.
  • Sachs, J. (2005). Chapter 15, "Can the Rich Afford to Help the Poor". The End of Poverty. New York, Penguin.
  • Sandel, M. (2007). Justice: A Reader, Oxford.
  • Sandel, M. (2009). Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do?, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Singer, P. Rich and Poor.
  • Singer, P. (2002). Chapter 1: A Changing World. One World. P. Singer. Australia, Yale University Press.
  • Singer, P. (2002). Chapter 2: One Atmosphere. One World. P. Singer. Australia, Yale University Press: 14-50.
  • Singer, P. (2006). Morality, Reason, and the Rights of Animals. Primates and Philosophers. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press: 140-161.

5. The Grading Scheme

As in most of my courses, I offer students a mix of required and optional elements for them to customize in their grading schemes. I believe this approach allows me to optimize accountability and rigor along with motivating student interests.
Required elements for the course include:
  • reading quizes (10-15%)
  • short assignments (1-2 page practice analyses) - some of these involve peer assessment using peerceptiv. (15-30%)
  • an integrative term paper (which, in this case, two critical analysis papers), (25-35%) and
  • a final exam -- currently 3 short essays using notes and readings (20-30%).
Optional assignments include:
  • student presentations (formal or informal),
  • book groups (informal),
  • short term research (formal)
  • journals (informal)
Percentage ranges for optional assignments constrain informal work to 25% of the student's grade.

6. Response to questions

  • What activities and assignments will you use to support/pursue the core course/designation learning outcomes? Explain how specific course components (learning activities and assignments) explicitly support the learning outcomes specified for that course/designation. These activities may support other outcomes as well, but your emphasis should be on the core course outcomes, since you are asking to have the course approved as part of the core.
  • The same set of learning activities support all three learning outcomes. These include: Lecture, discussion, short and medium answer essays, peer review of student work, and extended critical analysis papers will support this learning outcome. Learning activities are organized sequentially to develop student abilities from reading knowledge to final papers and essays incorporating philosophical methods for analyzing ethical problems. In particular, each learning outcome will be supported in the following way:
1. Argue persuasively why each of us is responsible for having ethical concerns about and commitments to the good of others.
First answer: Learning about standard ethical theories and the basis of ethics in human evolution and culture will form the basis of addressing this learning outcomes.
Second answer (10/23): On reflection, I think a more responsive answer would be that I do not directly address this learning outcome, but I have good reason to think it is accomplished. There are zero resources in the course to support any other result. Traditional relativism, of the sort that you occasionally hear philosophy teachers complain about, never really arises in my courses. That might be because a naturalist approach is in a better position to not only align ethics with a model of health and thriving but also to acknowledge the natural variation of norms within populations and cultures.
2. Resolve moral problems consistently drawing on resources (e.g., conceptions of human nature and the human community) of one of the ethical theories or traditions studied.
First Answer: This learning outcome is supported by the course's focus on meta-ethics, theories of justice, and contemporary moral psychology, which gives students resources for addressing applied moral problems. Most classes connect with one or more moral problems, using multiple theories. Later classes offer extended engagement with moral problems affecting human communities, such as poverty, climate change, food ethics, and globalization.
Second answer (10/23): The "content" section of my assignment rubric [1] is the focus for discussion and assessment of the student's use of resources. This could include the use of a particular theory, but would more likely involve integrating diverse resources, including traditional philosophical ethical theories.
3. Respectfully advocate for their critically assessed moral commitments and perspective within a diverse community.
First Answer: A major focus on the main text in the course is on moral disagreement, the diversity of moral and political commitments, and the basis in our psychology of our moral commitments.
Second Answer (10/23): On this one, I'll stick with my first answer. A major focus of naturalistic ethics, and Haidt's approach in particular, is to treat ethics as an evolved capacity in social species to integrate diverse viewpoints for the purpose of flourishing. Respect for others is pretty much baked into the model. In writing critical analysis papers, I follow the typical practice of asking students to consider opposing views and how to respond to them.


  • How will you know (assess) whether your students are achieving these outcomes? Describe how the students’ achievement of the core course learning outcomes will be assessed. We are not looking for a comprehensive assessment plan but rather a description of the criteria that will be used to evaluate student work on the assignments described above. These criteria may be tied to grading but should allow you, the instructor, to reflect on whether students are achieving the learning outcomes.
  • I take a fairly standard approach to building student capacities and expression in relationship to learning outcomes. We beginning with basic reading comprehension and an appreciation of general philosophical methods. As we build course content and as students gain experience with large and small group discussion, they also start to write small analyses of problems and review each others' writing. Student also receive feedback from my evaluations of their work. The course culminates in longer and more synthetic written work which directly engages the learning outcomes above.