What makes an action ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? Is it related to the amount of pleasure or pain caused, how an action accords with universal laws, or or for reasons stemming from some other, perhaps divine, source? In this course, students will examine some of the major ways philosophers have tried to tackle questions of morality and ethics over the centuries, and will ask whether it is even possible to devise a universal theory of ethics.
The course begins with a look at divine command theory, perhaps the oldest school of ethical thought, which states that what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is purely dependent on what a deity states it to be. It then moves on to discuss utilitarianism and the thought of Jeremy Bentham, who placed pleasure and pain at the heart of moral decisions. We then explore deontology and the thought of Kant, who attempted to find universal laws of morality and ethics, and conclude by asking whether or not such overarching theories of morality are even possible to find and apply. Perhaps, instead, experience of the world and acting upon such experience is what counts.
During this course, students will…
By the end of this course, students will be able to…
It is sometimes said that if God does not exist, everything is permitted. The idea behind this is that without some ultimate standard, morality becomes a mere matter of opinion. According to Divine Command Theorists, actions are right if God commands them and wrong if he forbids them. In this lecture, we’ll discuss the merits of this view as well as some serious problems with it. Even if we think God exists, the idea that morality is dependent on God can lead to some unfortunate consequences.
According to utilitarians like John Stuart Mill, we don’t need God to lay down the ultimate standards of morality. Instead, actions are right if they make people happy and wrong insofar as they cause them pain and suffering. This is an attractive theory, and offers a good explanation of what went wrong in the sad case described above. In this lecture, we’ll examine whether it stands up to more sustained philosophical scrutiny.
Immanuel Kant wanted us to see things differently. According to him, pleasure and pain do not have much to do with morality. Instead, actions are right if they place us in the right sorts of relations with ourselves and others. In fact, he thought that morality could be summed up by just one rule: Act only on those maxims that you can also will to become a universal law. In this lecture, we’ll be asking what Kant might have meant by this ‘categorical imperative’, and whether it really solves the problem.
Over the course of these lectures, we will have seen a number of problems with attempts to find a common principle that explains morality. Some contemporary philosophers have become so impressed by the problem that they have claimed there is no such principle. At first glance, this might look like giving up. But the suggestion that morality is fundamentally resistant to principles will take us back to one of the most innovative and influential thinkers in the history of Western philosophy: Aristotle.
|Course Pre-requisites||Advanced level of EnglishAn interest and enthusiasm for critical thinking and philosophical thought!|
|Course Level||For students thinking of applying for philosophy-related subjects at university|
|Prior Knowledge||No prior knowledge is required to take this course, just enthusiasm for the subject.|
|Workload||4-6 hours (further independent study is encouraged)|