PHIL 306: Contemporary Ethical Theory [Fall 2019]


Most of us have ideas about the answers to big moral questions—whether we should give money to charity, when it’s okay to have children, what it means to respect other people. But how do we know whether our answers to those moral questions are right? To solve this problem, philosophers have tried to develop ethical theories, ways we can systematically get the right answer to not just one but all our questions about morality.

In this course, we’ll discuss three very influential ethical theories: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. We’ll talk about the arguments philosophers have made in favor of those theories, we’ll apply those theories to real-life issues, and we’ll assess criticisms of those theories. We’ll conclude by asking whether those theories can really tell us what to do—what happens when being a good person conflicts with living a fulfilling life? Moral questions are complicated, and we won’t solve them all—but by the end of the course, you’ll be armed with the skills you need in order to decide how you ought to live your life.

By the end of this course, you will be able to

  • Explain how each ethical theory we study determines the right thing to do

  • Assess the arguments for and against each theory

  • Apply each theory to real-life situations

  • Argue, in discussion and in writing, for the theory you think is the closest to getting the right answers

  • Use that theory to make moral decisions in your own life