Course Syllabus

Seminar on Social Morality


Class Meetings

Monday/Wednesday/Friday 9-9:50am 


Kyle Swan | Department of Philosophy | California State University, Sacramento | Mendocino Hall 3030 | 6000 J Street | Sacramento, CA 95819-6033 |

Office hours are MW 12-2pm.


From the catalogue:

Topics include: animal rights, abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide, poverty, race, gender, same-sex marriage, war and humanitarian intervention, environmental ethics, ethics of science or technology, and other advanced topics in bioethics. Note: This course can be repeated once for credit if the second iteration focuses on a different specific topic within Ethics.


It's great, of course, to be moral. But moralists can be difficult to be around. As Kurt Baier wrote, “Moral talk is often rather repugnant. Leveling moral accusations, expressing moral indignation, passing moral judgment, allotting the blame, administering moral reproof, justifying oneself, and, above all, moralizing – who can enjoy such talk? And who can like or trust those addicted to it?” 

Baier is talking about an area of moral philosophy that some call social morality. Social morality is the set of moral rules that structures social interaction. It's the part of morality where one person or group of people address themselves to another, directing them in what they must do or avoid doing. In this way social morality is different from the part of moral philosophy that investigates the Good, or the question of what makes for the ideal form of life. It's one thing to investigate and even to come to a conclusion about this kind of question. But it's another thing to make a demand to another that they must pursue it, or some aspect related to it. 

So we'll spend the semester on questions related to the social aspects of morality: What are the contours and limits of social morality? What justifies the demands people level against each other? What are the uses and mis-uses of social morality? How (if at all) is social morality related to normative ethical theory, meta-ethics, and accounts of moral responsibility? Finally, we will examine instances of social morality applied: censorship, privacy, forgiveness, patriotism, law, etc. 

Course Objectives and Outcomes

By the conclusion of this course, it should be true that students (1) understand what is distinctive to social morality, (2) analyze and evaluate various social rules and practices that we (attempt to) hold others accountable to, and (3) identify an account of when it is permissible to do so. You will need to give evidence of your ability to understand, analyze, evaluate, and identify in your writing and contributions to class discussions.

Class procedures and expectations

A word of caution (enticement?): this is an advanced-level philosophy seminar. Most of our class time will be open Socratic roundtable discussions of assigned readings, rather than me lecturing at you. It is therefore essential that you (1) come to class (2) having done the reading, and (3) with something to say. That doesn’t mean you have to have a brilliant original analysis of the text or a knock-down argument against ideas presented therein. A question is something to say, too. Good questions will critically engage the readings by probing ideas that you find surprising or ones that clash with your presuppositions. In any case, you need to show up ready to actively engage with the text. If that sounds interesting and exciting to you, then this should be a very rewarding class. If not, then you might want to look elsewhere.


All required readings are available here in the course Canvas site. 

See schedule in the Modules section.


Please do not plagiarize or cheat. Your work will be examined and evaluated by Turnitin for plagiarism and the use of online bot text generators. Violators at a minimum will be marked with a zero on the assignment. Multiple and/or flagrant violations will lead to me assigning a failing grade for the course and initiating disciplinary action through the Office of Student Affairs. Familiarize yourselves with the University’s Academic Honesty Policies and Procedures document (see below).

Your final course mark is based on the following:

  • Short analyses (4 x 5pts = 20pts)

These written assignments should be short (1-page) versions of an analytical essay (see below). They should be based on assigned readings that you are not presenting orally (see below). 

In these short analyses, the summary section should be very brief -- just enough to establish the focus of your critique or evaluation. Here, I recommend following the method of successive elaboration. Following this method should help to avoid writing poor, surface-level, generic summaries. The most common way of writing a poor summary is to simply restate a number of things in the assigned reading. But I don’t want a listing of things in the reading; rather, I want you to identify the key idea in it and explain the argument(s) for that idea. Focus. Go for depth of explanation, rather than breadth of coverage.

Due dates: Submit on the day that we discuss your target article. I will accept no more than two in a given month.

  • Presentations (2 x 5pts = 10pts)

Most class meetings will begin with an introductory presentation by a student. The purpose of these presentations is not to provide a comprehensive overview of the material assigned for that class. Rather, your assignment is to start a conversation. You should aim to provide a brief summary of the material – enough to remind fellow students of the key points. In addition, you should also do something to spark some critical thinking about the material. Ask a question (or two) about it. Draw a comparison or contrast. Attempt a short criticism. Wrap things up at around 10-15 minutes. Think of the presentation as an oral version of a short analysis (above).

Due dates: sign up for your presentations in the modules section.

  • Analytical essay improvement (10 points).

I will provide you with an essay generated by  ChatGPT that I would rate in the "D" to "C-" range. Your assignment is to submit an improved version of it. You may (but don't have to) use a text-bot (like ChatGPT) to generate the improved analysis.

Due date: Nov 27

  • Participation (at least 20pts)

Because you will learn philosophy by practicing it in conversation with others, you should attend class and be a regular participant in classroom discussions. Earn participation points by (1) coming to class (2) having done the reading, and (3) with something to say. Individual assignments will range in value from 1-3 points. 

  • Analytical Essay (25pts)

The structure should follow that described here: The final essay should be between 2000-2500 words. It may be an expanded version of one of your short analyses or presentations.

Present and elaborate the argument, explaining how it is supposed to work in the “Summary” section. Evaluate its success, developing an argument that undermines or defends it, in the “Critique” section. Try to think of the summary section as setting out the key argument you are targeting in your thesis. It’s the argument you will analyze or evaluate in the “Critique” section of the essay. The summary should be focused on only that which is relevant to your analysis and evaluation. The most successful Analytical Essay will be a tightly focused examination of a significant issue raised in one of the course readings. 

Due date: Dec 8

  • Final exam (15pts)

This is composed of questions requiring short essay (one paragraph) responses. It will be closed-book (no books, notes or study aids will be permitted) and held according to the University final exam schedule.

Grading scale:

93 and above = A

90-92 = A-

87-89 = B+

83-86 = B

80-82 = B-

77-79 = C+

73-76 = C

70-72 = C-

67-69 = D+

63-66 = D

60-62 = D-

59 and below = F

Technical Assistance

It is crucial to seek help when you can’t access Canvas or you have difficulty with your computer settings or browser:

  • For technical assistance and LMS support, contact the IRT Help Desk.
  • Please see the LMS Student Guides here, to learn more about specific Canvas functions: Canvas Student Guide

Incomplete Grades

Incomplete grades will not be allowed for this class. If you think you may not be able to finish the work in the course, it would be best if you dropped the course before the final withdrawal date.

University Policies

Late Work

There will be no make-up exams or assignments available. If you miss an exam, or homework/posting due date, a grade of “0” will be recorded without exception. Plan your travel and personal events around your schoolwork, not vice versa. If you have an emergency, please notify me immediately if this affects your coursework or attendance.

Academic Honesty

Students are responsible for knowing policy regarding academic honesty. For more information, visit: Academic Honesty Policy.

Sacramento State Policy and Procedures for Accommodating Individuals with Disabilities Statement

Sacramento State seeks to comply fully with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Students requesting accommodations based on a disability must be registered with the Services to Students with Disabilities Services to Students with Disabilities located in Lassen Hall 1008 ( 916)-278-6955).

Here is a link to the Accessibility within Canvas statement.

Add/Drop Policy

If you do not log in and complete all coursework during the first week, you will be dropped from this course by the instructor. It is essential that you stay on track in an online course so you don’t fall behind. Students are responsible for knowing the University policy, procedures, and schedule for dropping or adding classes: Schedule Adjustments (Adding or Dropping)

Email Policy

All Sac State students are responsible for checking their Sac State email account for official communications. While students may elect to redirect messages sent to their official Sac State email address to another address, those who redirect their email to another address do so at their own risk.  

Student Support Services

The Reading and Writing Center is where students can receive assistance in writing and editing their own work. You may also utilize the Smarthinking Online Tutoring tool for writing through the link to the left. 

Tutoring Services

Peer Advising and Tutoring (PARC) offers free advising and tutoring services to all students on campus. 


Academic Advising Center offers mandatory freshman and transfer orientation, mandatory freshman advising, and general education and graduation requirement advising for all students.


The Registration Office can guide you through all your registration information. 


Student Health and Counseling Services support the wellbeing of Sac State students. 

Course Summary:

Date Details Due