Metaethics is concerned with the metaphysical and epistemological status of moral thought – i.e., thought about what one ought or ought not to do, or about what is good or bad – and with the language we use to communicate such thoughts to others. Important metaethical questions include: “Can moral thoughts be true or false?”, “Are there any objective moral values?”, “If there are moral values, can we have knowledge of them?”, and “Are moral values and facts reducible to non-moral facts?” The overall aim of the course is to familiarize you with the main issues and positions in contemporary metaethics, and to put you in a position where you can give reasoned arguments for your own views on the central questions.
The course begins with two questions to which many positions in the 20th and 21st century metaethics may be seen as responding. The first is G. E. Moore’s famous ‘open question’ argument purporting to show that moral properties (e.g., good) cannot be defined in a non-moral way (e.g., maximizing people’s happiness). One can indeed meaningfully ask: ‘OK, that action has the property of making people happy, but is it morally good?’ The second is what Michael Smith calls the ‘moral problem’, that is, the problem of reconciling the apparent objectivity of moral judgements, viz. their representing a mind-independent reality, with their apparent practicality, viz. their ability to explain action under the plausible assumption that if moral judgments motivate us to j, they do so because we desire j-ing.
The course assesses various reactions to both questions. Non-cognitivists, represented by Ayer and Blackburn, emphasize the practicality of moral judgement, and deny that moral thought and moral language even aim to pick out real properties in the first place. Saying ‘Bullfighting is wrong’ simply expresses one’s negative attitude to bullfighting, in much the way that saying, ‘Down with bullfighting!’ does. Error-theorists, represented by Mackie, say that moral thought aims to picks out real properties. But they also say that there are no suitable properties for our moral thoughts to pick out. So, our moral judgments are, strictly speaking, false even though practically useful. Moral realists say that moral thoughts aim to pick out real properties, and that they often succeed. Dispositionalism and Constructivism are alternative approaches that can be developed in both subjectivist and objectivist directions. Considerations from epistemology, metaphysics and philosophy of language are all relevant in making sense of, and deciding between, these different positions.
There will be a two-and-a-half-hour class each week. Each class will consist of a seminar in which we will discuss the assigned reading of the day. It is expected that students study the assigned texts carefully in advance, prepare a summary and discussion questions. Attendance is obligatory. The assigned texts will be available online.
If the situation requires it, the teaching plan may be adapted for virtual teaching and any modification will be promptly communicated to the students.
Intended Learning Outcomes:
The aim of the course to familiarize participants with the main issues and positions in the contemporary metaethical debate, and to put them into a position where they can begin to defend a view of their own.
More specifically, this includes:
- understanding the main positions in the metaethical debate of the 20th and 21st century.
- understanding most of the key notions and arguments used in this debate.
- practicing the competent application of these notions in a philosophical debate.
- developing the ability to articulate one’s own position in this debate (at least provisionally), and to defend it in argument.
This contributes to the following competences promoted by the APhil master programme:
- The competent use of the terminology, concepts and methods used in contemporary analytic philosophy, and their employment in the argumentative defense of a position.
- The ability to identify the current state of a particular philosophical debate, and form a reasoned view, even if provisional, about it.
- The ability to conduct a philosophical discussion (orally and in written form), by putting forward, for example, general arguments or specific examples, in support of one’s position.
- The ability to work independently as well as in a team, in an international context.
- The independent and creative application of one’s knowledge to new problems, i.e. the ability to employ knowledge and abilities acquired in one area in order to address new problems or problems in different areas.
- Develop the ability to conduct philosophical research in an independent and autonomous way (as is required, for example, in pursuing doctoral studies).
The seminars will take place each week starting from week 2. They will involve discussion in small groups, focused on the assigned reading.
What do I need to do to prepare for the seminar?
Before each seminar, you are required to:
- read the paper
- complete your assignment
- bring a copy of the paper and of the assignment to the seminar
What is the assignment for the seminar?
The assignment involves two parts.
- One or more questions that you have about the paper. Questions can be specific or general, and of any kind (about something that you don’t understand, something that you think doesn’t work, etc.)
- A written exercise about the paper you read. This needs to be (1) 200 words or more (no worries if it’s a little bit less!); (2) demonstrate that you have read and understood the paper, and (3) serve as a point of reference to the discussion in class. What you write in the assignment is totally up to you. It can be a summary of the paper, but it can also be a critical discussion of one of its sections or of a minor question it raises. It can be written as a micro-essay, or simply as a list of bullet points that summarize the paper. But it can also be something more creative: a fake review or report, a story, or a creative piece of writing – as long as you satisfy condition (1), (2) or (3) listed above. Be creative if you feel like it, or stick to a short summary of the article if you prefer a more traditional approach.
Deadline for the assignment: the night before each seminar
These exercises are worth ~50% of your final mark.
Your final examination will involve the redaction of a short essay. You will be required to prepare an original piece of work under 3000 words. Potential essay topics include any of the subjects discussed during lectures and any of the seminar readings, and towards the end of the course I will provide you with some sample questions to help you to identify a topic for your essay.
Students have the right to a half-hour tutorial to discuss their essay plans. Tutorials will take place 2-3 weeks before the essay deadline (available slots will be communicated in due time). You will need to send me a draft or outline of the essay at least 3 days (72 hours) in advance of the meeting. No tutorial will be granted to students failing to do so.
Essays must be submitted electronically, by sending them to [teresamatosferreira AT ub.edu]
The university has a strict policy on plagiarism and unfair means. Please refer to this link for more information on this.
Tutorial Meeting Arrangement: Last lecture
Draft for Tutorial (lecturer): 3 days (72 hours) in advance of the meeting
Final Essay Submission Deadline: TBA (around mid-December
The final mark will be based on active participation in the seminars, the practical exercises, and the final essay.
Class participation and class exercises ~50 %.
Critical essay: ~50 %
Re-evaluation (in January):
Online oral exam: 40 % (on the “mandatory texts" assigned during the module; date to be arranged with the instructor).
Critical essay: 60 % (The paper can be a substantially revised version of the paper submitted in June, or a new paper on a new topic)
In order to be entitled to re-evaluation, a student who fails the course has to get at least 3.
(1) Stanford Encyclopedia Entry on the topic (accessible introduction):
(2) ‘Toward fin de siècle ethics: some trends’, Darwall, Gibbard and Railton. The Philosophical Review Vol. 101, No. 1, Philosophy in Review: Essays on Contemporary Philosophy (Jan 1992), pp. 115-189. (More challenging introduction)
Preliminary Syllabus with readings for class:
Week 1 – Overview of Metaethics
(Reading at least (1) above, preferably (1) and (2))
Week 2 – The Open Question Argument
Moore, G. E. (1903). Principia Ethica, Cambridge UP: chapter 1.
Week 3 – Smith’s Central Problem
Smith, M. (1994) The Moral Problem, Blackwell: chapter 1.
Week 4 – Simple Non-cognitivism
Ayer, A. J. (1946). Language, Truth and Logic (Rev. ed.), Victor Gollancz.: chapter 6.
Week 5 – Cognitivism without realism
Mackie, J. (1977). Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Penguin: chapter 1.
Week 6 –Subtle non-cognitivism
Blackburn (1985) Spreading the Word, OxfordUP: chapter 6.
Week 7 – Cognitivism with realism
Peter Railton (1986), ‘Moral Realism’, The Philosophical Review, Vol. 95, No. 2, pp. 163-207
M. Scanlon (2003) ‘Metaphysics and Morals’. Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association Vol. 77, No. 2 pp. 7-22
Week 8 – Dispositionalism
Lewis, D. (1989).‘Dispositionalist Theories of Value’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 63: 113-137.
Week 9 – Internal vs. External Reasons I
Williams, B. (1980). ‘Internal and External Reasons’, In R. Harrison (ed.), Rational Action, CambridgeUP.
Week 10 – Internal vs. External Reasons II
Foot, P. (1972). ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’, The Philosophical Review 81(3): 305-316.
Week 11 – Realism and Evolution
Street, S. (2006) ‘A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value’, Philosophical Studies, 127: 109-166 (selected parts).
CB6 – Students should be able to critically understand central texts in field of Meta-ethics in a way that puts them in a position to develop and apply original ideas.
CB9 - Students should be able to communicate their knowledge and their arguments to specialized audiences in a clear and articulate way.
CG2. Students should be able to design, create, develop and undertake new and innovative projects in their area of interest.
CG3. Students should be able to engage both in general and specific discussions in the domain of meta-ethics. They should be able to conduct a philosophical discussion (orally and in written form), by putting forward, for example, general arguments or specific examples, in support of one’s position.
CG4. Students should be able to work both independently and in a team, in an international environment.
CG5. Students should be able to identify methodological errors, rhetorical, conventional and uncritical assumptions, vagueness and superficiality.
CE1. Students should be able to critically engage with the concepts and methods of contemporary Meta-ethics practice the competent application of these notions in a philosophical debate in meta-ethics
CE2. Students should be able to identify the core arguments and theories of contemporary meta-ethics.
CE4. Students should be able to assess the writings of leading contemporary philosophers in the field meta-ethics.
CE5. Students should be able to identify and critically engage with the current state of a particular philosophical debate, and form a reasoned view, even if provisional, about it.
CE7. Students should be able to critically use specialized terminology in the field of meta-ethics.