Bioethics (Fall 2011) - Syllabus


PHIL 261-01 | ID 11207 | TR 10:00-11:50 | Room: Craid-Lee 050 | Fall 2011

Course Syllabus

Instructor: Dr. Aaron Smuts | | office hours: 219 Alger Hall, 12:00-12:30 TR


Is medical research on human subjects a form of exploitation? Should people be allowed to sell their organs? Is abortion murder? Should we treat depression with drugs? Just what is a mental disorder? Are psychopaths morally responsible? These are a few of the question that we will explore in this class. This is just a small sample of the issues discussed in bio-medical ethics.

In addition to the core issues of human subject testing, organ selling, and abortion, in the last third of the semester we will explore some of the fascinating problems in the recent field of neuroethics. Here we will ask about the nature of mental illness, the morality of psychopharmacology, and the use of performance enhancing drugs. Finally, we will discuss the ethics of transhumanism—a theory advocating radical enhancement through biotechnology.

This course is not designed to provide decisive answers to all the tough problems that face health professionals. Rather, the principal goal of the course is to improve our ability to think critically about moral problems. We will see to what extent it is possible to provide reasons for considered moral judgments.


There are three required texts for this course:

  1. Helga Kuhse (Editor), Peter Singer. Bioethics: An Anthology (Blackwell Philosophy Anthologies). Wiley-Blackwell; 2 edition (March 27, 2006). ISBN-10: 1405129484. [KS]
  2. Russ Shafer-Landau. The Ethical Life: Fundamental Readings in Ethics and Moral Problems. Oxford, 2009. ISBN-10: 0195377699. [EL]
  3. Russ Shafer-Landau. The Fundamentals of Ethics. Oxford, 2009. ISBN-10: 0195320867. [FE]

I will post numerous additional readings on Blackboard. [BB]


There will be two different forms of coursework: (best 20 out of 27) daily quizzes and three take-home examinations. I will give a short quiz at the beginning of each class that will require one or two sentence answers. The quizzes are closed-book, but open-note. The bulk of your grade comes from the take-home exams. All assignments must be completed to pass the course.

Quizzes (10%) + first exam (25%) + late-term exam (30%) + final exam (35%).

Attendance Policy

If you miss 6 or more classes, you will receive a 0 for your quiz grade. If you miss 12 or more classes, you will receive an F for the course. (There are no excused or unexcused absences. But please talk to me if something major comes up that dramatically effect your attendance.)

Academic Honesty

Plagiarism—claiming someone else’s ideas or written work as your own—will not be tolerated. The tests are not collaborative. All sources must be cited. Outside research is not forbidden, but none of the assignments ask for sources outside the assigned readings. Anyone caught cheating will be given a failing grade in the course. I will also request that you be expelled from the college.

Class Schedule

(There will be a quiz every class on the required reading for that day.)

  • Week 1
    • C1 (8/31) Introduction
      • Hope, "A Tool-box for Reasoning" [BB]
      • Shafer-Landau, "Introduction" [ch.1, FE]

Topic I: The Status of Morality

    • C2 (9/2)
      • Midgley, "Trying Out One's New Sword" [EL]
      • Shafer-Landau, "Ethical Relativism" [ch.19, FE]
  • Week 2
    • C3 (9/7)
      • Nussbaum, "Judging Other Cultures: The Case of Genital Mutilation" [BB]
    • C4 (9/9)
      • Mackie, "The Subjectivity of Values" [EL]
      • Shafer-Landau, "Moral Nihilism" [ch.20, FE]
  • Week 3
    • C5 (9/14)
      • Bambrough, "Proof" [EL]
      • Shafer-Landau, "Ten Arguments Against Moral Objectivity" [ch.21, FE]

Topic II: Human Subject Testing, Organ Donation, and Patient Autonomy

    • C6 (9/15)
      • Willrich, Pox (chs. 1&2) [BB]
      • Jenner, "Development of the Smallpox Vaccine" [BB]
  • Week 4
    • C7 (9/21)
      • "The Belmont Report" [BB]
      • Elliott, "Guinnea Pigging" [BB]
    • C8 (9/23)
      • Scheper-Hughes, "The Global Traffic in Human Organs" (report) [BB
  • Week 5
    • C9 (9/28)
      • Radcliffe-Richards, "The Case for Allowing Kidney Sales" [KS]
    • C10 (9/30)
      • Elliot, "Amputees by Choice" [KS]
  • Week 6
    • C11 (10/5)
      • How to write a philosophy paper.

Topic III: Abortion

    • C12 (10/7)
      • Noonan, "An Almost Absolute Value in History"
  • Week 7
    • --- (10/12) NO CLASS – Columbus Day
    • C13 (10/14)
      • Stott, "Does Life Begin Before Birth?"
      • Harthshorne, "Concerning Abortion: An Attempt at a Rational View"
  • Week 8
    • C14 (10/19)
      • Marquis, "Why Abortion is Immoral"
    • C15 (10/21)
      • Manninen, "The Metaphysical Foundations of Reproductive Ethics"
  • Week 9
    • C16 (10/26)
      • Thomson, "A Defense of Abortion"

Topic IV: Neuroethics

    • C17 (10/28)
      • Horowitz and Wakefield, "The Loss of Sadness" [BB]
  • Week 10
    • C18 (11/1)
      • Wakefield, "The Concept of a Mental Disorder" [BB]
    • C19 (11/3)
      • Whitaker, Ch.3 "The Roots of an Epidemic" [BB]
      • Whitaker, Ch.4 "Psychiatry's Magic Bullets" [BB]
      • Whitaker, Ch.5 "The Hunt for Chemical Imbalances" [BB]
      • {Optional: Kirsch, Ch.2 "The 'Dirty Little Secret'" [BB]}
  • Week 11
    • C20 (11/9)
      • Elliott, "The Tyranny of Happiness" [BB]
      • Homer, Iliad (book 5) [BB]
    • C21 (11/10*)
      • Freedman, "Aspirin for the Mind" [BB]
  • Week 12
    • C22 (11/16)
      • Levy, "Changing our Minds" [BB]
    • C23 (11/18)
      • Levy, "The Presumption Against Direct Manipulation" [BB]
      • {Optional: Greely, "Towards Responsible Use of Cognitive Enhancing Drugs" [BB]}
  • Week 13 (Thanksgiving Break: No Class)

Topic V: Transhumanism

  • Week 14
    • C24 (11/30)
      • Kass, "Ageless Bodies, Happy Souls" [BB]
    • C25 (12/2)
      • Fukuyama, "Transhumanism" [BB]
      • Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future (excerpt) [BB]
  • Week 15
    • C26 (12/5)
      • Bostrom, "In Defense of Posthuman Dignity" [BB]
    • C27 (12/7)
      • Agar, "Whereto Transhumanism?" [BB]