Meta-Ethics (Fall 2014)

Contemporary Ethical Theory: Meta-Ethics

PHIL 306-01 | ID 11161 | TR 2-3:20 | Room: Craig-Lee 153 | Fall 2014

Course Syllabus

Instructor: Dr. Aaron Smuts | | 219 Alger Hall


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 many 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]

There are three recommended books:

  1. Russ Shafer-Landau. Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? (Oxford, 2003). ISBN-13: 978-0195168730. [WHGE]

  2. Stephen Darwall, Allan Gibbard, and Peter Railton (Eds). Moral Discourse and Practice: Some Philosophical Approaches. (Oxford, 1996). ISBN-13: 978-0195096699 [MDP]

  3. Andrew Lawrence Roberts. The Thinking Student's Guide to College: 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education. (U Chicago P, 2010). ISBN-13: 978-0226721156

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


There will be two different forms of coursework: (best 20 out of 25) 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 and closed-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 (30%) + late-term exam (30%) + final exam (30%).

Attendance Policy: Come to Class

Although I record every class meeting, attendance is required. 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. (I'm not in the business of excusing absences. So I don't need a note from your doctor. But please talk to me if something major comes up that dramatically effect your attendance.)

Tardiness Policy: Come on Time

If you are more than 5 minutes late, I will not accept your daily quiz and you will be marked absent. Come to class on time. If you are more than 10 minutes late, you will not be admitted to class.

Leaving Early Policy: Don't Leave Early

No matter the reason, if you leave early, I will not accept your daily quiz and you will be marked absent. It doesn't matter if you have a court date, a doctor's appointment, or if you have to get to work. If you leave early, you will be marked absent.

Classroom Etiquette Policy: Be Courteous

Pay attention; don't have distracting side conversations with other students; don't read newspapers or do crossword puzzles in class; don't sleep; don't text; don't sigh loudly with displeasure. This kind of behavior is disruptive. Be civil. Be courteous. This isn't high school. If your behavior is disruptive, I will ask you to leave. If I have to ask you to leave twice, you will receive an F in the class.

Laptop Policy: Don't Use Laptops

Laptop use is prohibited. The same goes for tablets, smart-phones, and even dumb-phones. Consider this rehab for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and inane social media addiction. You should print the articles posted on Blackboard and bring them to class.

*Phones should be put in your bag or purse. Don't try to text under the desk. Just don't do it.

Academic Honesty: Be Honest

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. Anyone caught cheating will be given a failing grade in the course. I am also required to report you to the Vice President of Academic Affairs. But I would report you even if it was optional. Plagiarism is a serious offense.

Class Schedule

* The readings for each class are nested under the date. You should do the readings before class. There will be a quiz every class after the first meeting.

Topic I: Overview and Introduction

  • C1: (T: 9/2) Overview of Meta-ethics

    • Readings

      • Shafer-Landau, "Part 1 - The Status of Morality" Chs.1-2 [WHGE, pp.1-13]

    • Further Reading

      • Darwall, Gibbard, and Railton, "Toward a fin de siecle Ethics" [BB]

      • Shafer-Landau and Cuneo, "General Introduction" [FE, pp. 1-5]

  • C2: (R: 9/4) Skepticism

    • Readings

      • Shafer-Landau, "Part 2 - Arguments Against Skepticism" Chs.3-7 [WHGE, pp.15-33]

      • Midgley, "Trying Out One's New Sword" [BB]

  • C3: (T: 9/9) More Problems with Skepticism

    • Readings

      • Shafer-Landau, "Part 2 - Arguments Against Skepticism" Chs.8-11 [WHGE, pp.34-54]

  • C4: (R: 9/11) Morality, God, and Science

    • Readings

      • Shafer-Landau, "Part 3 - Moral Objectivity Defended" Chs.16-18 [WHGE, pp.85-117]

  • C5: (T: 9/16) Arguments for Skepticism

    • Readings

      • Shafer-Landau, "Part 3 - Moral Objectivity Defended" Chs.19-20 [WHGE, pp.118-136]

  • C6: (R: 9/18) An Alternative Taxonomy

    • Readings

      • Huemer, Preface and Introduction [EI, ch.1]

      • Schroeder, "The Problems of Metaethics" [BB]

Topic II: Expressivism

  • C7: (T: 9/23) Emotivism

    • Readings

      • Ayer, "Critique of Ethics and Theology" [FE, ch.3]

    • Further Reading

      • Schroeder, "The Noncognitivist Turn" [BB]

      • Stevenson, "The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms" [BB]

  • C8: (R: 9/25) Expressivism

    • Readings

      • Schroeder, "Expressivism" [BB]

    • Further Reading

      • Blackburn, "How to be an Ethical Anti-Realist" [FE, ch.4]

      • Horgan and Timmons, "Nondescriptivist Cognitivism" [FE, ch.5]

  • C9: (T: 9/30) Problems with Non-Cognitivism

    • Readings

      • Huemer, "Non-Cognitivism" [EI, ch.2, pp.17-30, 44-47]

  • CXX: (R: 10/1) **CLASS CANCELLED**

Topic III: Error Theory

  • C10: (T: 10/7) The Classic Statement

    • Readings

      • Mackie, "The Subjectivity of Values" [FE, ch.1]

    • Further Reading

      • Joyce, "The Myth of Morality" [FE, ch.2]

Topic IV: Subjectivism and Constructivism

  • C11: (R: 10/9) Relativism

    • Readings

      • Harman, "Moral Relativism Defended" [FE, ch.7]

  • C12: (T: 10/14) Divine Command Theory

    • Readings

      • Wielenberg, "God and Morality" [BB]

  • C13: (R: 10/16) Problems with Subjectivism

    • Readings

      • Huemer, "Subjectivism" [EI, ch.3]

Topic V: Reductionism

  • C14: (T: 10/21) The Open Question Argument

    • Readings

      • Moore, "The Subject Matter of Ethics" [FE, ch.35]

  • C15: (R: 10/23) Analytic Reductionism

    • Readings

      • Huemer, Reductionism [EI, ch.4, secs.4.1-4.3, pp.66-83]

    • Further Reading

      • Boyd, "How to Be a Moral Realist" [FE, ch.12]

  • C16: (T: 10/28) Naturalism

    • Readings

      • Railton, "Moral Realism" [FE, ch.13]

  • C17: (R: 10/30) Synthetic Reductionism

    • Readings

      • Huemer, Reductionism [EI, ch.4, secs.4.4-4.6, pp.83-96]

  • CXX: (T: 11/4) **CLASS CANCELLED: Election Day**

Topic VI: Moral Knowledge

  • C18: (R: 11/6) Ethical Intuitionism

    • Readings

      • Huemer, "Moral Knowledge" [EI, ch.5]

    • Further Reading

      • Bambrough, "Proof" [BB]

  • C19: (T: 11/11) Prima Facie Duties

    • Readings

      • Ross, "What Makes an Action Right?" [BB]

      • McNaughton, "An Unconnected Heap of Duties" [BB]

  • C20: (R: 11/13) Intuitionism

    • Readings

      • Audi, "Intuitionism, Pluralism, and the Foundations of Ethics" [FE, ch.31]

Topic VII: Moral Disagreement

  • C21: (T: 11/18) Disagreement

    • Readings

      • Huemer, "Disagreement and Error" [EI, ch,6, pp.128-141]

    • Further Readings

      • Stevenson, "The Nature of Ethical Disagreement" [FE, ch.28]

      • Brink, "Moral Disagreement" [FE, ch.29]

  • C22: (R: 11/20) Disagreement

    • Readings

      • Huemer, "Disagreement and Error" [EI, ch,6, pp.141-158]

      • Shafer-Landau, "The (Un)Importance of Moral Disagreement" Ch.14 [WHGE, pp.67-74]

Topic VIII: Moral Motivation and Moral Reasons

  • C23: (T: 11/25) Externalism and Internalism

    • Readings

      • Smith, "The Externalist Challenge" [FE. ch.17]

  • CXX: (R: 11/27) **CLASS CANCELLED: Thanksgiving**

  • C24: (T: 12/2) The Moral Problem

    • Readings

      • Smith, "What is the Moral Problem?" [BB]

    • Further Reading

      • Huemer, "Practical Reasons" [EI, ch.7]

  • C25: (R: 12/4) Moral Reasons

    • Readings

      • Shafer-Landau, "Moral Reasons" Part I [FE, ch.24]

  • C26: (T: 12/7) Moral Reasons

    • Readings

      • Shafer-Landau, "Moral Reasons" Part II [FE, ch.24]

Topic IX: The Status of Realism

  • C27: (R: 12/11) Other Objections

    • Readings

      • Huemer, "Further Objections" [EI, ch.8]

    • Further Reading

      • Huemer, "Conclusion" [EI, ch.9]