PHIL 4310-20th Century Metaethics (fall 2016)

Charlie Kurth                                                       Class: Mondays, 1:00-4:00pm

  Email: ckurth [at] wustl [dot] edu                       Office Hours: Wednesdays 11:30am-1:00pm, and by app't

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

Course Overview

In this course, we will explore recent work on moral realism (and normative realism more generally). Moral realism is the view that takes moral properties and facts to be mind-independent -- independent in the sense of not being the product of our thoughts, attitudes, conventions, or institutions. As we will see, moral realism comes in a variety forms. Naturalistic versions, for instance, maintain that moral properties are no different than ordinary natural properties (e.g., the basic properties of science). Non-naturalists, by contrast, take the moral domain to be importantly distinct from the natural properties and facts--they're sui generis entities.

In the last several years, there has been increased interest in realist metaethical accounts -- especially non-naturalistic versions. One of our principle projects will be to look at some of this recent research and assess its prospects and problems. To do this, we will explore a range of traditional metaethical issues concerning moral metaphysics, moral epistemology, and moral psychology. Moreover, though our focus will be on moral realism, our critical investigation will introduce us to competing metaethical views: expressivism, error theory, and constructivist proposals.


T. M. Scanlon, Being Realistic About Reasons (available from the Campus Bookstore)

Alex Miller, Contemporary Metaethics (available from the Campus Bookstore) [Recommended]

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. To give you some guidance, I will provide weekly reading questions. While you are not required to write up answers to these questions, you should come to class prepared to talk about them.

Reading Responses (40%).

Throughout the course, you will write four brief critical response essays: one response piece for each of the course's four sections (see below). That constraint aside, you are free to choose which reading you write about and you can use the reading questions as guide for your response papers. These essays should be approximately 500-600 words long (standard formatting).

In your response paper, you should do two things: (i) summarize an argument from the selected reading, putting it into standard form (i.e., explicitly lay out the argument's premises and conclusions) and then (ii) raise a question about or, better, objection to the argument you've presented.

The essays are to be emailed to me by noon on the Sunday before the relevant Monday class meeting. The readings for Aug 29 are not eligible for reading responses.

Long Paper (50%).

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 (double spaced, standard formatting). Though you are free to choose the topic for your long paper, you must get your paper topic approved by me before you start working on your draft.

You will need to turn in a draft of your paper by noon on Monday, December 12. I will provide you with feedback by Friday, December 16 (hopefully earlier). The final version of the paper will be due at noon on Tuesday, December 20. You should email both your draft and your final papers to me.

While your draft needn't be a highly polished piece, the more developed it is, the better the 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. Late papers may be subject to a grade penalty.
  • 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.


Accommodations based upon sexual assault: The University is committed to offering reasonable academic accommodations to students who are victims of sexual assault. Students are eligible for accommodation regardless of whether they seek criminal or disciplinary action. If you need to request such accommodations, please direct your request to Kim Webb (, Director of the Office of Sexual Assault and Community Health Services.  Ms. Webb is a confidential resource; however, requests for accommodations will be shared with the appropriate University administration and faculty.  The University will maintain as confidential any accommodations or protective measures provided to an individual student so long as it does not impair the ability to provide such measures.

Bias Reporting: The University has a process through which students, faculty, staff, and community members who have experienced or witnessed incidents of bias, prejudice or discrimination against a student can report their experiences to the University’s Bias Report and Support System (BRSS) team.  See:

Mental Health: Mental Health Services’ professional staff members work with students to resolve personal and interpersonal difficulties, many of which can affect the academic experience. These include conflicts with or worry about friends or family, concerns about eating or drinking patterns, and feelings of anxiety and depression.  See:

Tentative Schedule of Readings and Assignments

Course Introduction & Overview

Aug. 29:

  • Read syllabus
  • Kurth, "A Puzzle, a Project" 
  • Moore, "The Subject Matter of Ethics” (sections 5-15)
  • Mackie, "The Subjectivity of Values" (section 6 is optional)
  • Miller, Contemporary Metaethics, Chap 2, 6 [recommended]

Sept. 5

  • No Class: Labor Day

Part 1: Naturalistic Moral Realism

Sept. 12

  • Brink, "Moral Realism and the Sceptical Arguments from Disagreement & Queerness"
  • Railton, "Moral Realism"
  • Kurth, "What Do Our Critical Practices Say about the Nature of Morality?"
  • Miller, Contemporary Metaethics, Chap 9.1-9.6 [recommended]
  • van Roojen, Metaethics, Chap 11.1-11.4 [recommended]

Sept. 19

  • Schroeder, "Realism and Reduction"
  • Manne, "Internalism about Reasons" 

Sept. 26

  • Parfit, On What Matters, excerpts
  • FitzPatrick, "Skepticism about Naturalizing Normativity"

Part 2: Anti-Realism-Critiques and Alternatives

Oct. 3
  • Korsgaard, Sources of Normativity, Chaps. 3-4

Oct. 10

  • Blackburn, Spreading the Word, excerpts 
  • Gibbard, "The Reasons of a Living Being"
  • Blackburn, "Supervenience Revisited" [recommended]
  • Miller, Contemporary Metaethics, Chap 4-5 [recommended]

Oct. 17

  • No Class: Fall Break

Oct. 24

  • Street, "A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value"
  • Weilenberg, "On the Evolutionary Debunking of Morality"

Part 3: (Quietist) Non-Naturalist Realism

Oct. 31
  • Scanlon, Being Realistic, Chap 1
  • McPherson, "Against Quietist Normative Realism"
Nov. 7
  • Scanlon, Being Realistic, Chap 2
  • Schroeder, "The Price of Supervenience"

Nov. 14

  • Scanlon, Being Realistic, Chap 3
  • Dreier, "Can Reasons Fundamentalism Answer the Normative Question?"

Nov. 21

  • Scanlon, Being Realistic, Chap 4
  • Kelly & McGrath, "Is Reflective Equilibrium Enough?"
  • Clarke-Doane, "Objectivity and Reliability" [recommended]

Part 4: Better Alternatives?  

Nov. 28

  • Street, "Mind-Independence without the Mystery" [focus on Sec 1-6]
  • Gibbard, "How Much Reailsm?"
  • Dreier, "Quasi-Realism and the Problem of Unexplained Coincidence" [recommended]

Dec. 5

  • Foot, "Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives"
  • Manne, "On Being Social in Metaethics"

Dec. 12 -- Drafts due

Dec. 20 -- Final paper due (at noon)