Meta-ethics (Fall 2011) - Syllabus


PHIL 306-01 | ID 11222 | MW 9:30-10:50 | Room: Alger 106 | Fall 2011

Course Syllabus

Instructor: Dr. Aaron Smuts | | office hours: 219 Alger Hall, 12:00-1:0 TR


This course is an introduction to the major positions in the area of theoretical ethics known as meta-ethics.

We will not look at any applied ethical issues, such as the morality of abortion or capital punishment. Nor will we examine any theories about what makes an action wrong or right. Instead, we will explore questions such as: Do ethical claims have cognitive content, that is, do they state facts or is our moral discourse the mere expression of approval or disapproval? If statements such as “torturing the weak for sport is wrong” make factually evaluable claims, are any of these claims true, or are we in nearly constant error? Must moral judgments come with motivation to “do the right thing”?

The goal of the course is to introduce students to the major positions in one of the most active areas of contemporary philosophy.


There are two required texts for this course:

  1. Russ Shafer-Landau and Terence Cuneo (eds.). Foundations of Ethics (Blackwell, 2007). ISBN-10: 9781405129527. [FE]
  2. Michael Huemer. Ethical Intuitionism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). ISBN-10: 0230573746. [EI]

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


There will be ten 1 pagers, some simple quizzes, two take-home exams, and a term paper. The 1 pagers will typically be due at the start of class on Monday. These merely ask you to present an argument in no more than a page. You should define the key terms and formalize the important arguments in the reading. I don't need paragraphs. Do not evaluate the arguments here. The take-home exams ask you to explain arguments and objections. An explanation provides background details that a mere presentation does not. The exams will help you develop fundamental skills of exposition and competency with the subject. The term paper is your chance to go deeper into a problem. If should defend a clear thesis. It must take a stand on an issue. You should be working on your paper from the beginning of the semester. Start thinking about a topic now. You must turn in an abstract and an outline one month before the paper is due.

20% = First Take-home Exam

25% = Second Take-home Exam

10% = 10 (out of 13 possible) 1 Page Formalizations (for readings marked "à 1 Pager")

5% = 10 (out of 13 possible) Wednesday quizzes

5% = Term Paper abstract and outline (due one month before the paper)

35% = Term Paper (13-15 pages; 4,000-4500 words)

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 will dramatically affect 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

Topic I: Overview

  • Week 1
    • XX (M: 8/29) NO CLASS – Hurricane Irene
      • Background reading: Shafer-Landau, Fundamentals of Ethics, chs. 19-21 [BB]
      • {Optional: Darwall, Gibbard, and Railton, "Toward a fin de siecle Ethics" [BB]}
    • C1 (W: 8/31) An Alternate Taxonomy and Overview
      • Huemer, Introduction [EI, ch.1]
      • Schroeder, "The Problems of Metaethics" [BB]
      • Shafer-Landau and Cuneo, "General Introduction" [FE, pp. 1-5]

Topic II: Expressivism

  • Week 2
    • XX (M: 9/5) NO CLASS – Labor Day
      • Schroeder, "The Noncognitivist Turn" [BB]
    • C2 (W: 9/7) Emotivism
      • Ayer, "Critique of Ethics and Theology" [FE, ch.3] à 1 Pager
      • {Optional: Stevenson, "The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms" [BB]}
  • Week 3
    • C3 (M: 9/12) Contemporary Expressivism
      • Blackburn, "How to be an Ethical Anti-Realist" [FE, ch.4] à 1 Pager
      • Schroeder, "Expressivism" [BB]
      • {Optional: Schroeder, "The Frege-Geach Problem (1939-70)" [BB]}
      • {Optional: Gibbard, "The Reasons of Living Being" [FE, ch.6]}
    • C4 (W: 9/14) Another Expressivism
      • Horgan and Timmons, "Nondescriptivist Cognitivism" [FE, ch.5]
  • Week 4
    • C5 (M: 9/19) Recap
      • Huemer, Non-Cognitivism [EI, ch.2] à 1 Pager (on sec. 2.3)

Topic III: Error Theory

    • C6 (W: 9/21) The Classic Statement
      • Mackie, "The Subjectivity of Values" [FE, ch.1]
      • Shafer-Landau and Cuneo, "Introduction" [FE, pp.9-11]
  • Week 5
    • C7 (M: 9/26) Recent Error Theory
      • Joyce, "The Myth of Morality" [FE, ch.2] à 1 Pager
      • Shafer-Landau, "Moral Nihilism" [BB, first part of the chapter]

Topic IV: Subjectivism and Constructivism

    • C8 (W: 9/28) Relativism
      • Harman, "Moral Relativism Defended" [FE, ch.7]
      • Shafer-Landau and Cuneo, "Introduction" [FE, pp.79-83]
      • Shafer-Landau, "Ethical Relativism" [BB]
  • Week 6
    • C9 (M: 10/3) Divine Command Theory
      • Wielenberg, Command Failure Argument [BB] à 1 Pager
    • C10 (W: 10/5) Kantian Constructivism
      • Korsgaard, "The Authority of Reason" [FE, ch.8]
      • {Optional: FitzPatrick, "The Practical Turn" [BB, pp.662-8,677-81]}
  • Week 7
    • C11 (T: 10/11* Columbus Day swap) Recap
      • Humer, Subjectivism [EI, ch.3] à 1 Pager

Topic V: Moral Naturalism and Reductionism

    • C12 (W: 10/12) Analytic Reductionism
      • Moore, "The Subject Matter of Ethics" [FE, ch.35]
      • Huemer, Reductionism [EI, ch.4, secs.4.1-4.3, pp.66-83]
  • Week 8
    • C13 (M: 10/17) Naturalistic Moral Realism
      • Boyd, "How to Be a Moral Realist" [FE, ch.12] à 1 Pager
    • C14 (W: 10/19) Reductive Naturalism
      • Railton, "Moral Realism" [FE, ch.13]
      • {Optional: Lenman, "Moral Naturalism" [SEP]}
  • Week 9
    • C15 (M: 10/24) Synthetic Reductionism
      • Huemer, Reductionism [EI, ch.4, secs.4.4-4.6, pp.83-98] à 1 Pager

Topic VI: Moral Knowledge and Non-Naturalism

    • C16 (10/26) Ethical Intuitionism
      • Huemer, Moral Knowledge [EI, ch.5]
      • Bambrough, "Proof" [BB]
  • Week 10
    • C17 (M: 10/31) Intuitionism
      • Audi, "Intuitionism, Pluralism, and the Foundations of Ethics" [FE, ch.31] à 1 Pager
      • {Optional: Shafer-Landau, "Ethical Pluralism" [BB]}

Topic VII: Moral Disagreement

    • C18 (W: 11/2) The Argument from Disagreement
      • Stevenson, "The Nature of Ethical Disagreement" [FE, ch.28]
      • Brink, "Moral Disagreement" [FE, ch.29]
  • Week 11
    • C19 (M: 11/7) Accounting for Disagreement
      • Huemer, Disagreement and Error [EI, ch,6] à 1 Pager
      • {Optional: Haidt, "The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tale"}
    • (W: 11/9) - Columbus Day: No Class

Topic VIII: Moral Motivation and Practical Reason

  • Week 12
    • C20 (M: 11/14) Motivational Judgment Internalism
      • Smith, "The Externalist Challenge" [FE. ch.17] à 1 Pager
      • Smith, "What is the Moral Problem?" [BB]
    • C21 (W: 11/16) Reasons Internalism
      • Williams, "Internal and External Reasons" [FE, ch,22]
  • Week 13
    • C22 (M: 11/21) Reasons Internalism
      • Korsgaard, "Skepticism about Practical Reason" [FE, ch.23]
    • (W: 11/23) - Thanksgiving Break: No Class
  • Week 14
    • C23 (M: 11/28) Moral Rationalism
      • Shafer-Landau, "Moral Reasons" [FE, ch.24] à 1 Pager
    • C24 (W: 11/30) Anti-Rationalism
      • Foot, "Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives" [FE, Ch.21]
  • Week 15
    • C25 (M: 12/5) Anti-Humeanism
      • Huemer, Practical Reasons [EI, ch.7] à 1 Pager

Topic IX: Objections to Non-Naturalism

    • C26 (W: 12/7) Weirdness and Spookiness
      • Huemer, Further Objections [EI, ch.8]
      • Huemer, Conclusion [EI, ch.9]