Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Intro to Ethics Syllabus

Philosophy 0509-211-02

RIT Spring Term 2009
Mon./Wed. 12:00-1:50
Bldg. 12 (Business), Rm. 3225

Contact Information
Dr. Evelyn Brister
Office: Bldg. 17 (MicroE), Rm. 2541
Office Phone: 475-4291
Office hours: M/W 2-3:30. Also drop-in and by appointment.

Course Description
This course is an introduction to moral reasoning. We will survey important ethical theories and apply them to social problems. Throughout the course, we will be analyzing our own beliefs about responsibility, duty, justice, and the good life while we try to make our belief systems consistent. This course section is oriented around analyzing ethics in environmental sustainability.

Course Objectives
The principal goal of this course is for each student to become more aware of moral reasoning and to become more proficient at evaluating and producing sound moral arguments.

The aims of the course include the following:
a. To be able to identify moral arguments, which is reasoning intended to convince someone that an action is right or wrong.
b. To develop the ability to critically evaluate the assumptions and values which ground such arguments.
c. To practice supporting moral arguments with coherent, relevant, and sound reasons.
d. To communicate thoughts clearly and precisely.
e. To become familiar with the history of ethical thought in the western tradition.
f. To learn about pressing moral questions concerning environmental issues.
g. To come to see yourself as an active part of your community, with rights and responsibilities.

1. Bill McKibben, Deep Economy, Holt, 2007.
2. Louis Pojman, Moral Philosophy: A Reader, Hackett, 2003.

The primary goal of the class is to gain skill in reading and thinking critically and systematically about moral issues. We will approach moral reasoning from two directions. From the perspective of the past, we will learn about ethical theory. For millennia, philosophers have developed systems of ethical reasoning to answer questions about which actions are right, which actions are wrong, and how we can tell. We will read short excerpts from historical texts and learn the general outlines of important ethical theories. From the present and with an eye to the future, we will discuss moral problems we face as individuals and as a society. We will use ethical theory to clarify these problems and to suggest solutions.

Most class time will be either lecture or discussion, with a few small group activities and, rarely, short videos. I place a high value on interesting discussion, and the key to a good discussion is to come to class prepared. Preparation requires having completed the assigned reading, and it requires more. Good preparation requires anticipating what ought to be discussed and what questions need to be addressed.

30% Homework: Argument Outlines (three at 10% each)
5% Ethical Experience Project Plan
20% Ethical Experience Project
20% Preparation (almost daily comment/question)
10% Participation
15% Final Exam (or Paper)

Homework — Three “simplified” argument outlines, each up to one page in length, are due this quarter. I will provide you with a format and example. Homework is due in class and in printed, not electronic, form.

Ethical Experience Project — Ethics is the theoretical study of what is “good,” “right,” and “just.” There is no denying that there is a subjective component to making ethical judgments, in part because we best understand other people’s viewpoints when we have some shared experiences with them. Because the focus of this course is on the ethical problems we face in environmental decision-making, a significant part of the grade is based on a self-defined project to extend your relevant experience and to evaluate the usefulness of this experience to moral judgment. The project will require you to 1.) engage in a relevant project outside of class (I will provide some ideas) and 2.) to write a 3- to 5-page report and evaluation. Sample projects include volunteering for an environmental organization or a food bank, shopping at the Public Market and cooking a meal with local foods, or visiting the zoo to find out about their conservation programs. Early in the quarter I will collect a short statement of what you intend to do for your project.

Preparation — Reading assignments are due before coming to class. Since discussion is the medium through which philosophy is practiced, it is essential that we are all prepared to take full advantage of the time during class. At the beginning of a class meeting, I will collect a brief comment or question that you have on the day’s reading. It may be as short as a sentence or as long as a paragraph. These will be graded as excellent, satisfactory, or unsatisfactory. What you write should demonstrate that you have read and thought about the day’s assignment. I hope that these will provide the foundation for interesting discussions.

Participation — Dialogue and reflection are key components of philosophy: we share ideas with others and then use their critique to improve our arguments. For this reason, informed and reflective discussion is central to the success of our class.

I will be a discussion facilitator. Although I will frequently be a participant as well, my ideal would be a discussion that is lively and considerate and does not require my involvement to keep going. Skills that I emphasize include:
• speaking up in support of your moral beliefs;
• remaining respectful of others;
• being open-minded about the possibility of altering a belief;
• inviting others to engage in dialogue, and supporting their chance to express themselves even when they disagree with you; and
• keeping the discussion focused and on topic.
I will attempt to help a number of people speak each time we hold discussion.

Final Exam — Our final exam is scheduled for Wednesday, May 20. The exam will take no more than 1 hour, so we will not meet until 9am on that day. The final exam is cumulative and will emphasize ethical frameworks. Those students who prefer written work to exams or who have scheduling conflicts may write a term paper instead of the exam. I will distribute the paper topic a week before the paper is due. Final papers must be dropped off at my office (printed format!) before the exam.

Missed assignments — I do not accept late discussion comments under any circumstances. I will accept late argument outlines, but with hefty deductions which start immediately after the due date. You may replace one missed commentary or add 10 points to an outline grade by doing one of the following assignments.

Option 1: Attend a philosophy lecture or another relevant public lecture. Philosophy lectures are listed on the philosophy department webpage (, and I will announce them in class. I will sometimes announce other relevant lectures. If you know of one, then please inform the class. In addition to attending the lecture, write a one or two page analysis of it, in which you 1.) summarize the lecture topic and 2.) evaluate or critique one of the speaker’s arguments. The idea is for you to engage with the speaker’s ideas, not just tell me whether their talk was appealing to you. There will be a full-day philosophy conference on sustainability taking place on May 1.

Option 2: Write a letter to the editor of a newspaper (or news magazine), presenting a moral argument in letter form. (Past students have had their letters published!) If you submit a letter to the editor of a newspaper by e-mail, please include me as a Bcc. Look at the “Letters to the Editor” page for examples of style and topic, but keep in mind that not every published letter is an argument! I will evaluate your letter as an argument.

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