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PHIL 430-Current Topics in Ethical Theory: Constructivism (fall 2012)

Charlie Kurth                                                       Class: Wednesdays, 4:00-7:00pm

  Email: ckurth [at] wustl [dot] edu                       Office Hours: Mon 4:00-6:00pm, and by app't

  Office phone: 314-935-4753                             Office Location: Wilson 112

Course Overview
This seminar will involve an in-depth exploration of moral constructivism—roughly, the view that takes moral and evaluative facts, rules, reasons, etc. to be the product of things like our beliefs, attitudes, and institutions. Constructivism is interesting because it seems particularly well-placed to capture the objectivity and normativity that characterize our moral discourse. In fact, it’s in part because of this that there has been a surge in recent work that develops constructivist proposals.

As part of our investigation, we will look at accounts from Kantian constructivists as well as those who develop non-Kantian alternatives—e.g., ideal observer accounts, sentiment-based views, and proposals that take morality to be a kind of social convention. Looking at these accounts will allows us to explore a set of inter-related questions in ethical theory and moral psychology—questions such as: What is constructivism, and why is it plausible? In what way is morality objective and how can we best explain the forms of objectivity that we associate with our moral discourse? What is a moral judgment and how should we understand the connection between moral judgment and moral motivation? To what extent can we explain moral normativity from a naturalistic perspective?


Philip Kitcher, The Moral Project (available from the Campus Bookstore)

Jessie Prinz, The Emotional Construction of Morals (available from the Campus Bookstore)

Selected readings available on the course web site


This course will have three graded components:

  • Class Participation (10%).
    This course is structured as a seminar. So you will be expected to come to class prepared to discuss the assigned readings. 

  • Reading Responses (30%).
    Throughout the course, you will write five brief critical response essays. Y
    ou are free to choose which readings you write about and can use reading questions as guide for your papers. These essays should be approximately two pages long, and should raise a question or objection to some part of the assigned reading. For example, your essay could start by briefly summarizing a particular claim (or argument) from the assigned reading; you could then raise an objection to this claim. Alternatively, you could identify an argument that you do not understand and explain why it has you puzzled. Not only will these response essays help prepare you for class discussion, but they should also help you start thinking about possible topics for the long paper. The essays are to be emailed to me by noon on the Tuesday before the relevant Wednesday class meeting.
  • Long Paper (60%).
    The longer paper assignment invites you to explore some of the topics that we will discuss in the course. You paper
    should be approximately 15 pages long. You will need to write a brief paper proposal (details to come) and submit it to me by Wednesday, November 21. You will then turn in a draft of your paper in class on Wednesday, December 5 (our last class). I will provide you with feedback by Monday, December 10. The final version of the paper will be due at 3:30pm on Monday, December 17. I will provide you with possible paper topics in November. If you would like to explore a different topic, you will need to talk with me before hand. While your draft needed be a highly polished piece, the more developed it is, the better comments I will be able to give you. Turning in a cursory draft may result in a grade penalty. 


In order to help ensure a successful class, please heed the following rules and policies:

  • Due Dates. Baring unusual circumstances, the due dates  on the syllabus are non-negotiable. If you think you have reason to miss an assignment, it is best to inform me well in advance.
  • Classroom Environment. Please arrive to class on time. All cell phones must be turned off during class. Texting is not permitted. Most importantly, treat your classmates with respect. Abuse of these courtesies may lead to penalties.
  • Statement of Academic Integrity. Upon arrival at Washington University, you signed a statement indicating that you understand that you will abide by the University's Academic Integrity Policy (available here). In this class, you will be expected to honor that commitment. This means that all work presented as original must, in fact, be original; the ideas and contributions of others (be they quotes, summaries, or paraphrases) must be appropriately acknowledged. You are responsible for (re)familiarizing yourself with these policies. If you have any questions, feel free to talk to me.

Tentative Schedule of Readings and Assignments

Course Introduction & Overview

Wed., Aug. 29:

Humean Constructivism

Wed., Sept. 5:

Wed., Sept. 12:

Wed., Sept. 19:

Kantian Constructivism 

Wed., Sept. 26:

Wed., Oct. 3:
Ideal Observer Views
Wed., Oct. 10:

Convention and Social Practice Based Views

Wed., Oct. 17

  • Wong, Natural Moralities, Chap. 2: Pluralistic Relativism.
Wed., Oct. 24
  • Kitcher, Sections 1-3, 5-7, 10-11, 13-17, 21-23, 25, 27

Wed., Oct. 31

  • Kitcher, Chaps 5-6

Wed., Nov. 7

  • Kitcher, Chaps 7 & 9

Sentiment Based Subjectivism

Wed., Nov. 14

  • Prinz, 'Preamble' and Chaps 1-2

Wed., Nov. 21

  • No Class—Thanksgiving holiday
  • Paper proposals Due
Wed., Nov. 28
  • Wiggins, "A Sensible Subjectivism?" (emailed to you)
  • Blackburn, excerpts
  • Prinz, Chap 3

Wed., Dec. 5

  • Prinz, Chaps 4-5, 8
  • Drafts Due