Course Syllabus

PHIL 152.01 Recent Ethical Theory    Spring 2021      

Meetings: Monday, Wednesday 1:30-2:45pm. See Zoom meeting links

Instructor: Prof. Kyle Swan

Contact: Canvas message

Office hours: Monday, Wednesday 12-1pm. See course announcement for Zoom invite

Reasonable Accommodation

If your circumstances require accommodation or assistance in meeting the expectations of this course, please let me know as soon as possible. You may need to provide documentation to the University office of SSWD (in accordance with the University policy outlined here:

Course Description

From the catalogue: Major topics in ethical theory with attention to their contemporary formulation, including such topics as utilitarianism vs. rights-based theories and the dispute over the objectivity of ethics. 


We will focus on three general kinds of debate in the area in ethical theory called meta-ethics. Meta-ethics is a discussion of the nature of ethics. It investigates second-order questions about ethics, rather than first-order questions about whether some action is right or wrong.  

1. The first concerns the nature of morality and normative authority: Why should I care about morality (or moral properties, if they exist)? Or, why should I care about moral claims? Do they have motivating force, or any kind of claim on me and what I do? What reason do I have to do moral things?   

2. The second topic concerns the metaphysics and epistemology of morality: Do moral judgments have descriptive content? Do moral properties exist? If so, what can we know about these properties? What are they like? Are they reducible to any more basic category of properties? 

3. The third topic concerns the connection between value and action in decisions people make about what to do and how to live their lives. What is the connection (is there one?) between how moral philosophers answer questions in 1 and 2 above and our social/moral practices? Can these practices provide any insight to the moral principles that are reflected in prominent normative ethical theories (like utilitarianism, virtue theory, Kantianism, etc.)? 

Objectives and outcomes

By the conclusion of this course, it should be true that students (1) understand the metaphysical, semantic, epistemic, biological and psychological issues that are relevant to moral theorizing and are able to (2) apply this understanding to make sense of our moral practices, (3) analyze current problems and controversies and (4) evaluate proposed solutions to them. You will need to give evidence of your ability to understand, apply, analyze and evaluate in your writing and contributions to class discussions. 


All required readings are pieces available as links or .pdf documents in Canvas. The schedule is below.

Class procedures and conduct

You must come to class each scheduled meeting prepared to discuss the assigned readings in an intelligent and informed way. This requires you to have read and thought about all materials assigned for that meeting. Moreover, you should expect to be required at each scheduled class meeting to put these preparations on display as an active participant in the lectures, discussions, and activities. Please avoid disrupting class meetings and other ways of being rude. This means that you should generally have your video running during our Zoom meetings.


Please do not cheat. If you do then at a minimum you 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 (here:

Your final grade is determined by how many total points you earn, with these grade thresholds: 93 points=A, 90 points=A-, 87 points=B+, 83 points=B, 80 points=B-, 77 points=C+, 73 points=C, 70 points=C-, 67 points=D+, 63 points=D, 60 points=D-, and F = all scores less than 60 points.

There are these ways of earning points (see "Assignments" link):

1. Be an active and thoughtful participant in class meetings. (20 possible points)

Someone who earns all these points would:

  • Demonstrate familiarity with the readings;
  • Offer original and thoughtful ideas and perspectives;
  • Connect with ideas from other classes or something in the broader community;
  • Share relevant experiences;
  • Pose good questions; and
  • Take stands and defend them with references to readings and experiences.

I will assess this in a variety of ways in class throughout the semester. I may ask for a summary and/or response related to the assigned reading or some other activity or “thought question” that requires you to engage with the course material. These aren’t announced ahead of time. You’re either in class to earn the point, or you aren’t.

2. Write 3 short (about 1000 words) analytical essay assignments (15 possible each = 45). There will be weekly essay prompts. Generally, the prompt will be "write an analytical essay based on one of the reading assignments from the week." You must choose 3 of them to write. You will have exactly 2 weeks from the date the prompt is announced to submit the essay. Your first essay must be in response to a prompt from Part I of the course. Your second essay must be in response to a prompt from Part II of the course. Your third essay must be in response to a prompt from Part III of the course. You can submit essays early, but I will not accept them late. 

Your essay assignments will be vetted through Turnitin in Canvas. Here is the CSUS policy regarding Turnitin: 

“Consistent with Sacramento State’s efforts to enhance student learning, foster honesty, and maintain integrity in our academic processes, instructors may use a tool called Turnitin to compare a student’s work with multiple sources. The tool compares each student’s with an extensive database of prior publications and papers, providing links to possible matches and a ‘similarity score’. The tool does not determine wither plagiarism has occurred or not. Instead, the instructor must make a complete assessment and judge the originality of the student’s work. All submissions to this course may be checked using this tool. You may choose to submit papers to Turnitin assignments without identifying information included in the paper (e.g. name or student number). The system will automatically show this information to faculty in your course when viewing the submission. Turnitin services are now integrated in the Assignment function of Canvas. More information is available here” 

I also recommend the use of the Smarthinking tool for your paper assignments. Smarthinking is a FREE on-demand, live person, writing assistance service provided by Pearson Publishing. This allows students to submit their written work and receive constructive feedback to improve their writing, typically within 24 hours. It is available as a link at the top of the main Canvas page.  

Your papers should be presented relatively free of spelling and grammatical errors. I will assign marks based on the cogency of your analysis in your response to the prompt. Spelling and grammatical errors will also affect your grade if they are frequent enough to become distracting. In addition to the Smarthinking report, the following resources will be useful: 

Writing guidelines

Grading standards

How to analyze a philosophical essay

3. Answer questions on a scheduled final exam based primarily on readings and classroom lectures/discussions. (35 possible points)

Exam is TBA

Schedule (see the reading list in "Modules" folder):





Jan 25

Course overview and introduction


27, Feb 1

Is morality authoritative?

David Hume, A treatise on human nature (selections)

Philippa Foot, Morality as a system of hypothetical imperatives 

3, 8

Where could moral authority come from?

Bernard Williams, Internal and external reasons 

Michael Smith, Realism

10, 15


A.J. Ayer, Critique of ethics and theology 

Allan Gibbard, Wise choices, apt feelings (excerpt)

17, 22

Error Theory

John Mackie, Ethics: inventing right and wrong (excerpt) 

Richard Joyce, Darwinian ethics and error 

24, Mar 1

Evolutionary biology

Thomas Nagel, Ethics without biology

Herbert Gintis, et al., Explaining altruistic behavior in humans 

Christina Bicchieri, Norms of cooperation

3, 8

Constructivism: relativistic, and Kantian

Gilbert Harman, Moral relativism defended

Kyle Swan, How I learned to stop worrying and love moral relativism

Christine Korsgaard, The sources of normativity (excerpt)

10, 15

Ethical non-naturalism and Secondary-property realism

G.E. Moore, Principia ethica (excerpt)

John McDowell, Values and secondary qualities

17, 29

Ethical supernaturalism

Stephen Clark, God’s law and morality 


Richard Joyce, Theistic ethics and the Euthyphro Dilemma 

Kyle Swan, In which I compare myself to God


Ethical naturalism

Janice Dowell, What is ethical naturalism? 

Apr 5, 7

What can we justify to each other?

P.F. Strawson, Social morality and individual ideal 

Gerald Gaus, Social morality

12, 14

The problem of moral luck

Thomas Nagel, Moral luck

Bernard Williams, Moral luck

Joel Feinberg, Problematic responsibility in law and morals

19, 21

Blaming people 

P.F. Strawson, Freedom and resentment

19, 21

For crying out loud, enough with morality already

Susan Wolf, Moral saints

26, 28

On moralism

Julia Driver, Hyperactive ethics

Julia Driver, Moralism

May 3, 5

On minding your own business

Karen Stohr, Minding others' business

Gerald Gaus, On the difficult virtue of minding one's own business

10, 12

What matters to us?

Thomas Nagel, The absurd 

Thomas Nagel, The fragmentation of value





Course Summary:

Date Details Due