The Moral Point of View


INSTRUCTOR: Daniel Alvarez


SCHEDULE: Monday, Wednesday, Friday
1:00 PM – 1:50PM

Course Description

Have you ever wondered if there is an objective right and wrong? I am sure you have, but most of us tend to regard this question as either unanswerable, or subjective, or relative to a particular culture. There is no question that to speak of moral facts almost sounds like an oxymoron; only scientific facts are fact, objective, and not dependent on anyone’s say so. But why this prejudice against moral objectivity? This prejudice is puzzling when considering in our everyday life we react very strongly when we feel someone has done something wrong, either to us or to other; and when we are sure that torturing babies is morally wrong, along with many other heinous acts that we have no trouble in immediately identifying as morally wrong.

If you are intrigued by these questions, then this course is for you.

In IDH 3035 we will look at the four ethical (actually, metaethical, but more about this later) theories that are considered the most influential today: NATURALISM, KANTIANISM, CONSEQUENTIALISM, and DIVINE COMMAND. As a representative of Naturalism, we will mainly focus on the two thinkers, John L. Mackie and W. V. Quine, both of whom were strong critics of moral objectivity as understood in by the classical tradition from Plato to Kant. We will read Mackie’s “The Subjectivity of Morals,” and Quine’s “On the Nature of Moral Values.”

John Mackie (d. 1980)

W. V. Quine (d. 2000)

For a study of the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant there is no better introduction to his thought than the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1788). In this rather short treatise (compared with his theoretical works) Kant revolutionized the field of moral philosophy, which we will study in part. For Kant morality is based on Rational a priori principles (foremost of which is the “Categorical Imperative”), and not on experience. Morality for Kant is objective—universal and not dependent on accidents of culture and human psychology, and least of all on the good or bad consequences of our actions.

Immanuel Kant

Christine Korsgaard

Although famous for his Critique of Pure Reason (1787), he would still be important for his ethical works even he had not written the Critique. As perhaps the major defender of a Kantian approach to ethics, we will look at selections from Korsgaard’s important Tanner Lecture, “The Sources of Normativity” (1992). For Consequentialism (also known as Utilitarianism) there is still no greater or better guide that co-originator of this ethical Theory, John Stuart Mill (d. 1874), in his concise but masterful expostion of Consequentialism, Utilitarianism. As we will see, Kant is the great enemy of any kind of ethics dependent on the consequences of our actions, and Mill was likewise equally critical of Kant’s view.

John Stuart Mill

For the DIVINE COMMAND VIEW a most interesting defense comes from the contemporary American philosopher Robert Merrihew Adams. In his “Divine Command Modified” Adams offers quite an interesting apology for a view that sees morality as necessarily grounded in the commands of a loving God, or there is no morality at all. Kant and Mill are strong critics of Divine Command, even though Kants ethics is in harmony, <i>mutatis mutandis</i>, with the morality implicit in the Christian tradition.

Robert Merrihew Adams