The Moral Point of View


INSTRUCTOR: Daniel Alvarez


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

Course Description

Most metaethical views can be subsumed under one of four major approaches: Kantian, Consequentialist or Utilitarian, Naturalistic, and Divine Command.

NATURALISM: Working within the post-Darwinian naturalistic consensus, John Mackie (d. 1981), among others, defends subjectivism from a naturalistic perspective that sees ethics or morality as something we human beings have “invented.” Although no less a naturalist than Mackie, W. V. Quine (d. 2000) suggest in his one article on ethics that naturalism is not devoid of resources that can yield a measure of practical objectivity and normativity, although not the kind of absolute, trans-cultural, transcendent objectivity that thinkers from Plato to Kant insisted any view that claims the status of morality must have.

KANTIANISM: Kant (d. 1804) argued, on the contrary, that we are moral agents who have rational insight into an objective realm of values that transcends our animal or biological nature. Although sympathetic to moral objectivism and offering a distinctly non-naturalistic approach to ethics, David Wiggins (b. 1933) and Hilary Putnam (d. 2016) offer a defense of what I call “soft” objectivism, something below the “hard” objectivism of Kant, but beyond the subjectivism of Mackie (whom Wiggins challenges directly). Whether the Wiggins-Putnam view will get any traction remains to be seen.

CONSEQUENTIALISM: In the second half of the 19th century John Stuart Mill (d. 1873) proposed, against Kant, a defense of objectivism he called Utilitarianism (or Consequentialism), that appealed to the consequences of our actions as the decisive element in morality, without reliance on any kind of rational intuition. Because Utilitarianism comports quite well with a post-Darwinian evolutionary naturalism and scientific empiricism, Utilitarianism has come to stand today as the major alternative to Kantian and other forms of naturalistic ethics.

DIVINE COMMAND: Lastly, despairing of Reason in an age dominated by scientific naturalism, some thinkers like Robert Merrihew Adams (b. 1937) have argued that a Divine Command ethics is the only way to overcome subjectivism or moral nihilism. To these thinkers Kantian rationality has proved to be a failed god, and Utilitarianism is far from delivering a firm and truly objectivist ethics. Merrihew Adams goes as far as arguing that either morality is based on the commands of a loving god, or there is not morality at all.

In IDH 3035, we will examine the following influential instantiations or variations of these four approaches to ethics: DIVINE COMMAND: 1) Callicles’ “Might Makes Right,” 2) Merrihew Adams’ “Modified Divine Command,” 3) Hastings Rashdall, “The Moral Argument for God’s Existence”; ethics; KANTIAN: 4) Kantian ethics; CONSEQUENTIALISM: 5) Mill’s Utilitarianism; NATURALISM: (6) Max Stirner’s Ethical Egoism, (7) Ethical Relativism, (8) John Mackie’s Moral Subjectivism, (9) W. V. Quine’s Naturalized Ethics; CONTEMPORARY REJECTIONS OF SUBJECTIVISM AND NATURALISM: (10) W. D. Ross, (11) David Wiggins, and (12) Hilary Putnam.

William Frankena’s Ethics will provide us will a useful roadmap through the terrain of the varieties of views populating the ethical landscape, as well as familiarizing us with some of the key technical lexicon the discipline (e.g. rule-utilitarianism, act-deontology, teleology, intuitionism, and the like).

Required Texts:

William Frankena, Ethics, 2nd edition. ISBN 0132904780

John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism. ISBN 9780872206052

Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. ISBN 9871107401068

Required Readings available on Canvas:

John L. Mackie, “The Subjectivity of Morals,” early version of chapter 1 of Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong.

W. V. Quine, “On the Nature of Moral Values” (on Canvas).

Folke Tersman, “Quine on Ethics” (on Canvas).

Callicles, “Might Makes Right” (on Canvas).

Max Stirner, selection from The Ego and its Own (on Canvas).

Rosaldo Renato, “The Headhunter’s Rage” (on Canvas).

David Wiggins, “Objectivity in Ethics: Two Difficulties, Two Responses” (on Canvas).

W. D. Ross, selection from The Right and the Good (on Canvas).

Hilary Putnam, “Objectivity and the Science/Ethics Distinction” (on Canvas).

John Locke, on Natural Law (selection on Canvas).

Thomas Aquinas, on Natural Law (selection on Canvas).

Hasting Rashdall, argument for Divine Command (selection on Canvas).

Robert Merrihew Adams, “Divine Command Modified” (on Canvas).

Supplement to Robert Merrihew Adams Divine Command Theory (on Canvas).


John Rawls, “Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory.”

_________, “The Independence of Moral Theory.”

Christine Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity.

Thomas Nagel, “Value,” selection from Mind and Cosmos: Why the Neo-Darwinian Naturalistic Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.

Thomas Nagel, The Limits of Objectivity.

J. P. Moreland, “Review of Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Slouching Towards Theism” (Divine Command).

Martin Heidegger, “Only a God Can Save Us” (Interview).

Jean Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism