Normative Ethics

PHIL 4315: Normative Ethics (Spring 2011)

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

  Email: ckurth [at] wustl [dot] edu                       Office Hours: Wed 2:30-4:30pm, and by app't

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

Course Overview
It seems a truism that the moral point of view is an impartial point of view. But is the truism true? In this course, we will investigate this question by exploring recent work in normative theory. Our aim will be to use questions about impartiality to get a better understanding of central issues in normative ethics.

    The first part of the course explores some of the challenges faced by standard accounts of moral impartiality. To get started, we can ask what it means to say that morality is impartial. The standard response maintains that morality is impartial in the sense that it sees all individuals as having equal moral worth. But here we start to find trouble. For one, different moral theories understand ‘equal moral worth’ in different ways. Worse, the most prominent accounts—those of standard consequentialist (utilitarian) and contractualist (Kantian) moral theories—run in to serious problems making sense of our commonsense thoughts about what morality can reasonably demand of us. In particular, they don't seem to recognize the moral value that we place in the personal projects and relationship that give meaning to our lives.

    The fact that the standard ways of understanding moral impartiality have such highly counter-intuitive implications has prompted two general lines of response. The first (advocated by virtue theorists, feminists, and others) rejects the claim that morality is impartial—at least in the strong sense that we find in many consequentialist and contractualist accounts. The second strategy (favored by those working in the consequentialist and contractualist traditions), seeks to provide an alternative way of understanding how morality can be impartial—one that is moderate enough to accommodate the intuition that there is nothing wrong in giving preference to one’s friends, family, and projects. We will investigate these strategies in the second and third parts of the course.


Partiality and Impartiality, Brian Feltham & John Cottingham eds. (REQUIRED, available from the Campus Bookstore)

Human Morality, Sam Scheffler (REQUIRED, available from the Campus Bookstore)

What We Owe to Each Other, TM Scanlon (RECOMMENDED, available from the Campus Bookstore)

Selected readings available on the course web site


This course will have two 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. I will provide
    with reading questions to help you engage with the readings and so prepare to participate in class discussions.
  • Reading Responses (35%).
    Throughout the course, you will write seven 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 1-2 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 Sunday before the relevant Monday class meeting.
  • Long Paper (55%).
    The longer paper assignment invites you to explore some of the topics that we discuss in the course. You paper
    should be approximately 15 pages long. You will submit a draft in class on Monday, April 23 (our last class). I will provide you with feedback by Friday, April 27. The final version of the paper will be due at 3:30pm on the exam date (Friday, May 4). I will provide you with possible paper topics at the end of March. 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. 

        Possible paper topics available here.


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 and courtesy. Abuse of these courtesies may lead to penalties.
  • Statement of Academic Integrity. Upon arrival at Washington University, you signed a statement indicating that you have read and 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; ignorance will not be an excuse. If you have any questions, feel free to talk to me.

Tentative Schedule of Readings and Assignments

Peter Singer's article offers a paradigmatic example of an extremely demanding moral theory--if Singer is right, then we are morally obligated to make tremendous sacrifices to help others. Bernard Williams' piece offers a classic argument that robustly impartial moral theories--theories that entail extreme moral demands--can't be right.

Jan 23:

Part 1. Impartial Moral Theories and the Personal Point of View

As we've seen, concerns about impartial morality can be raised against standard versions of both consequentialist  and contractualist moral theories. In this section of the course, we take a closer look at how these views understand what it means for the moral point of view to be impartial. We will also investigate the extent to which these views can address the concern that an impartial morality is too demanding.

Reading Question available here.

Jan 30:

  • Brink, "Utilitarian Morality and the Personal Point of View"

Feb 6:

  • Brink, "Impartiality and Associative Duties”

Feb 13:

  • Scanlon, What We Owe, Chap 4, sections 1-5

Feb 20:

  • Scanlon, What We Owe, Chap 5

Feb 27:

  • Cottingham, "Impartiality and Ethical Formation" in P&I
  • Otsuka, "Saving Lives, Moral Theory, and the Claims of Individuals"
  • Gaus, "The Demands of Impartiality and the Evolution of Morality" in P&I [recommended]

Part 2. Partial Morality: Prospects and Challenges

If standard consequentialist and contractualist accounts have trouble making room for personal projects and special relationships, then perhaps we should reject the idea that morality is impartial. But what would this mean? What might a partial morality look like and how plausible would it be?

March 5:
  • Friedman, "The Social Self and the Partiality Debates"
  • Noddings, Caring, Ch 1: Why Care about Caring?, Ch 4: An Ethic of Caring

March 12:

  • No class--Spring break
March 19:
  • Friedman, "The Practice of Partiality"
  • Kolodny, "Which Relationships Justify Partiality?" in P&I

Part 3. Reconciliation Projects
If both standard impartilialist moral theories and partialist alternatives are unsatisfactory, what alternatives might there be? In this final part of the course, we explore some recent attempts to develop a normative theory that can dissolve (or negotiate) the tension between our competing impartial and partial intuitions.

March 26:
  • Scheffler, Human Morality, Chap. 1 [pp. 3-9 only]; Chaps. 2, 4-5
April 2:
  • Scheffler, Human Morality, Chaps 6-8
April 9:
  • Broad, "Self and Others"
  • Darwall, "Responsibility and Relations" in P&I
  • Scheffler, "Relationships and Responsibilities" [Recommended]
April 16:
  • Scheffler, "Morality and Reasonable Partiality" in P&I

April 23:
  • Outline