HUM 400: Ethics, Fall 2021

A tale from The Decameron, by John William Waterhouse

Why did I post this painting? Read about how the wealthy passed the time during the Black Death pandemic, in early 14th century Italy. (Link)

Open Access Textbook: Introduction to Philosophy: Ethics 

created by Frank Aragbonfoh Abumere, Douglas Giles, Ya-Yun (Sherry) Kao, Michael Klenk, Joseph Kranak, Kathryn MacKay, George Matthews, Jeffrey Morgan, and Paul Rezkalla; it is edited by George Matthews and Christina Hendricks, and produced with support from the Rebus Community. The original is freely available under the terms of the CC BY 4.0 license at

Online Textbook (requires login): Ethical Issues in Six Religious Traditions, by Peggy Morgan and Clive Lawton, Edinburgh University Press, 2007

Online Textbook via CSUMA Library (requires login): Striking a Balance: A Primer in Traditional Asian Values, by Michael C. Brannigan, Lexington Books, 2010

Online Textbook via CSUMA Library (requires login): Politics: Made Simple, by J.R. Thackrah, Heinemann, 1987

Online Textbook via CSUMA Library: Ethics & Capitalism, by John Douglas Bishop, University of Toronto, 2000

Online Textbook via CSUMA Library: Global Ethics: An Introduction, by Heather Widdows, Acumen, 2011

Glossary of Terms Used in This Course

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Course Home

  • December 7, 2021: Corporate Ethics

    Revised syllabus for the last four classes.

    Today’s slides.

    Homework for Thursday: Chapter 8 of Global Ethics, pgs. 173-192 (skip the “Humanitarian Intervention” section). Then take Quiz #16

    Essay #3 (due on Tuesday, Dec. 14 @ 11:55 p.m on BrightSpace):

    Read this article and answer the following questions in a single-spaced page:

    1. How would a follower of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” theory of capitalism justify CNN’s decision to (at first) ignore Chris Cuomo’s behind-the-scenes aid to his brother?
    2. How might a feminist criticize the Cuomos and CNN?
    3. How would a postmodernist’s criticism differ from a feminist’s in #2?
    4. What might a moderate socialist like Bernie Sanders recommended to ensure that this kind of situation doesn’t recur?

    Personal Essay (3-5 pages, double-spaced), due Thursday, December 16 @ 11:55 p.m. on BrightSpace)

    Prompt: Describe the ethical frameworks that have resonated most with you this semester. How has thinking about ethics helped you navigate this semester, or how might what you’ve learned help you through the remaining months before life (hopefully) goes back to normal?

    The use of first-person is fine. Please cite your sources consistently using the documentation style you are most comfortable using. Also, give a hoot and spell-check before you submit.

  • November 30, 2021: Economic Ethics, Part II. Capitalism

    We are looking at capitalism this week, with Covid-19 as a case study.

    During the pandemic, income inequality has widened in the U.S. The rich have become richer. After an initial crash in early 2020, the stock market has made incredible gains during Covid…for those who could still afford to invest. Demand for real estate in scenic, less-crowded places has skyrocketed because well-paid white-collar workers have been able to work remotely (has anyone tried to rent or buy a house in Tahoe or Joshua Tree lately? Yikes!). What about the rest of Americans? The poor have become poorer, despite sporadic stimulus payments by the U.S. government over the last year. Many have risked their health so they can continue to put food on the table; some, deemed “essential workers,” haven’t really had a choice. Such is life in a country where social safety nets are weak, where losing a job can also mean losing health benefits, and losing both can lead to homelessness.

    Are living conditions in such a high-stakes political environment ethical? For some individuals, yes.

    For one, capitalism is an egoist’s paradise! If self-preservation is the most ethical thing one can strive for, then by all means one should take full advantage of the situation! These examples are extreme, but the entrepreneurial spirit is an important part of the capitalist ethic.

    The New York Times takes a more measured “invisible hand” approach in lauding a seemingly symbiotic relationship between government and the private sector. This is the age-old argument that without the free market there is no incentive to work hard/fast: we should thank the profit-seeking biomedical corporations for developing our vaccines in record time.

    You will also notice contractarian roots in the capitalist ethical framework (often labeled as a “partnership”): if everyone honors the terms of a deal willingly, then it is by definition ethical.

    Homework: Read pgs. 1-25 (Chapter 1) and 91-100 (Chapter 3) in Ethics & Capitalism (link on left) and take Quiz #15.

  • Tuesday, November 16, 2021: Socialism & Communism

    Who’s Afraid of Karl Marx? from

    As you know, a cornerstone of Western politics is rationalism. Look how the world’s oldest democracy (once again, Ancient Greece) implemented the utilitarian principle of making the most people the happiest: by plunking pebbles into urns and seeing who had the most votes. Thomas Hobbes posited that a governing body is needed to stabilize social cooperation and to make honoring agreements (following the established rules/laws) a rational pursuit. John Locke set up the idea of a constitutional social compact, and Rousseau spiked it over the net by bringing democracy back in: let’s vote on who rules over us. Sounds reasonable, eh?

    Well, any good postmodernist would point out the historic voting restrictions based on race, gender, wealth, etc. in the U.S. and the myriad ways in which people are still being kept from voting, or their votes from counting, today. To a postmodernist, these efforts are meant to keep a powerful minority, well, in power:

    Notice anything odd, here?

    This week, we’re going to look at the ethical aspects of socialism and communism, two political systems (often conflated) that are often seen as antidotes to oligarchy. For an overview of these two systems, please read Chapter 7 (in its entirety) and Chapter 8 (just the sections on Marxism and socialism) of Politics Made Simple (link on the left) but please note that there is a lot of new vocabulary to learn, so take it slowly. If you are confused by the difference between the two systems (you will be!), check out the first half of this video (15 minutes) by Richard D. Wolff, a Marxist economist.

    Where it fits: socialism is a check on both laissez-faire capitalism and egoism. Its concern with the underdogs/minority groups of society (especially women) make it more palatable to postmodernists and feminists alike. Though Karl Marx wasn’t exactly anti-religion, he decried its use as a tool to pacify the powerless. (For this reason, Communist governments in the former Soviet Union and in China, during the Cultural Revolution, declared themselves to be atheistic countries and banned all religious practice for a time.) However, some say that Jesus Christ was the first real socialist, which puts an interesting–divine?–twist on things!

    At its heart, socialism is another humanistic, rationalist ethical theory with similar assumptions about human nature and predictability. The most gentle forms of socialism are largely utilitarian, as the intention is to benefit the common good, and when socialism is voted in (rather than imposed on people), it’s also contractual.

    Pure communism, however, is a whole different story, but I’ll let Dr. Wolff explain that.

    Read Politics Made Simple, Chapter 7 (in its entirety) and Chapter 8 (just the sections on Marxism and socialism) and take Quiz 14.

  • Tuesday, November 9, 2021: Alternatives to Rationalism: Postmodernism (& Essay Exam #2)

    For the last ten weeks, we’ve watched a 2000-year ethical wrestling match. During the “pre-modern” era (roughly, before 1500), religion had Western man in a headlock of divine command, but as time moved toward the Renaissance (1500-1700), the optimism and confidence of humanistic Greece returned and allowed us to slip out of religion’s grip and declare independence from god. This, in turn, spawned the Enlightenment Era (1700-1800s), with its emphasis on reason. Fast-forward 150 years, and we were nearing the end of a long period of full and unbridled scientific and technological power and progress. This “modern era,” defined as the time between 1800-1950 saw the industrial age, big, bloody wars (including WWI & WWII), and the first signs that the planet’s resources were rapidly depleting. Suddenly, some began wondering if rationalism needed to be checked.

    Is there a limit to rationalism? Postmodern (“after the modern”) philosophers think so. In the video below by citizen-historian Lewis Waller (his YouTube channel Here and Now is fantastic), the problem with the “grand narratives” [alternatively, “master narratives” and “metanarratives”] underpinning the modern era is that they “become structural, present themselves as eternal, universal, rigid. This sort of [realist] narrative can lead to an abuse of power by those that think they’re serving some universal truth. The kings, the Stalins, the Hitlers, the religious fundamentalists of the world always justify their actions by claiming to be the servants of some higher truth. So we need to heed these warnings, while thinking about opening spaces and narratives about the future that don’t claim to be the only truth. We need plenty of different futures.”

    Check it out:

    “I define postmodernism as incredulity [disbelief] towards metanarratives,” wrote postmodern philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, and this “anti-metanarrative metanarrative” is an assumption underlying postmodern ethics. To postmodernists, there is no such thing as absolute truth. The notion of truth is just an illusion, misused by people and special interest groups to gain power over others.

    Traditional authority is false and corrupt; it should be “deconstructed” in order to disempower it. Here’s a great little video on the Jacques Derrida, another French postmodern philosopher, that will tell you how it’s done.

    Postmodern ethics can be frustratingly anti-dogmatic, but has fair intentions:

    1. Morality is relative, so it can’t go beyond the personal. Morality is each person’s private code of ethics (without the need to follow traditional values and rules).
    2. All religions are valid, but the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ (for example) as being the only way to God are problematic.
    3. Postmodern ethics is pro-underdog: it defends the causes of historically disenfranchised groups (e.g. women, ethnic and racial minorities, LGBTQIA+).
    4. Postmodern ethics is pro-environment: it blames the powerful for the destruction of nature.

    One criticism often lobbed at postmodernism is that it’s a philosophy of subtraction, so it doesn’t have a lot to say about how to act after deconstruction ends (because that would be its own master narrative!). Below, writer David Foster Wallace complains that this vacuum has resulted in a proliferation of non-redeeming self-reference, self-deprecation, irony and cynicism. The video goes on to analyze some recent and current TV shows that you’ve probably seen. Ever wonder why some of those shows are sometimes funny and sometimes grate against your soul?

    Assignment for this week: Take Quiz 13. Happy Veterans Day!

    Essay Exam #2 prompt:

    Due: Thursday, 11/18, on Brightspace.

    In a one-page, single-spaced page, read President Biden’s remarks on his infrastructure bill and answer these questions:

    1. Would a utilitarian and social contract theorist support Pres. Biden’s plan? Explain why or why not.
    2.  “We just need a little breathing room — a little breathing room,” says Biden. Would giving the middle class a break work for a Kantian deontologist, as a categorical imperative?  Why or why not?
    3. How would Biden rate, from a virtue ethics standpoint? Does his plan aim for “the best possible life” for all Americans? Explain.

  • Tuesday, November 2, 2021: Alternatives to Rationalism–Feminist Ethics

    (P.S. Will post Essay Exam #2 prompt tomorrow–there were not enough hours in the day today. BRB.)

    By now, maybe you’re thinking, “Wow, this rationalism thing sure sounds sensible! Why don’t we hear about it more today?” I’ll tell you: because it only works when everyone behaves rationally. Consider the kid losing at checkers, who gets mad and upends the table. Or the leader of a country who can’t forget that the leader of another country insulted his father a long time ago…so invents a rationale for starting a war. How does rationalism endure under irrational conditions? (Spoiler alert: it usually gets its butt kicked.)

    Even when people know that an impartial, disinterested stance usually yields the best decisions, we often have trouble maintaining said stance. I might ask the first three people who arrive at my pizza party to vote on the kind of pizza to order…because I’m really hungry and know that their favorite is the same as mine! Or if I am rich enough to buy my son’s way into a college that he doesn’t have the grades for, I might opt for that out of blinding love, even if I know it’s unfair. We are often inconsistent, unscientific creatures, even though we don’t like to admit it.

    Aside from being frequently irrational, humans (most notably in positions of power) also have trouble giving all people equal status, especially when different groups have different needs, and when these groups don’t look or behave like them. Sometimes bias seems like an innocent oversight; other times, it’s downright insidious. Among other examples, racial profiling, gerrymandering, apartheid, and miscegenation laws distort notions of who deserves what in a group. (We’ll talk more about race next week.)

    You’ve probably noticed by now that we haven’t discussed a single female philosopher yet, and we’re almost halfway through the class. Coincidence? Is it possible that in 2000 years, there has never been a single woman with a good idea? Or could there be something else going on? This article (among many others) argues that the ancient Greeks–the founders of Western philosophy and ethics–also laid the foundation for centuries of misogyny, by viewing women (50% of the population!) as being incapable of comprehending/cultivating eudaimonia. In ancient Greece, philosophical discourse took place in public spaces where women weren’t allowed. Many women were illiterate; none could vote, own, or inherit land. Young girls were passed from father to husband, and were expected to procreate and raise children, not philosophize, make laws or contribute to the public good. Women’s names were forbidden to be mentioned in public (!), and women were expected to cover their face and neck when leaving the home. In ancient Greece, “the good life” was much “gooder” if you were a guy!

    The inimitable Mel Brooks

    In looking at later Western philosophers, feminist philosopher (yay!) Susan Bordo reveals that Age of Enlightenment luminaries such as Hegel and Descartes reinforced the Greeks’ misogyny by, among other things, associating men with the intellect/mind/spirit and women with the body/emotion. (Unbearable Weight, 4) Within this paradigm, privileging a concept like rationalism allowed these philosophers and their readers to both a. make it seem like dudes were better suited to be thinkers and b. categorically deny the validity of any thought by any woman. Even today, many ideas and opinions pitched to a seemingly “universal” audience only make sense if the viewer is a (usually straight, white) male with autonomy over his body and agency in his life choices.

    Feminist ethics came about, firstly, to point out that one by-product of all of this omitting and devaluing of women was that women were not “fully developing as people and citizens” (Wollstonecraft, qtd. in ItPE, 63). As it evolved, feminist ethicists began investigating neglected topics germane to women: “reproductive rights, domestic and sexual violence, paid maternity leave, and equal pay in the workplace.” (ItPE, 64) Finally, feminist ethicists became interested in the very aspects of women’s experience that historically had been delegitimized, especially those about care and connection with others. You’ll read about all of these things in Chapter 7 of ItPE. Please do this and take Quiz 12.

  • Thursday, October 28: Rationalism–Deontologism

    Here’s an explication of Exam #1.

    What if everyone just had to follow the rules, regardless of the outcome? This is deontologism and its quest for categorical imperatives.

    Once again, reason is key to figuring things out. In Immanuel Kant’s view, mankind can know the laws of the universe and derive universal rules for behavior, and is duty-bound to follow them. The catch is that the rules must apply to everyone, without exception…hence, the universality test: “What if everyone had to live by this rule?” (This is a more logical twist on the Golden Rule–if it only works for me, then it’s not universal. If it works for everyone, then its consistent with natural law, and is therefore ethical.) If universalization would lead to contradiction or negation of the original reason for making the rule (see ItPE for examples of this), then it shouldn’t be followed. Note that this has nothing to do with our feelings, or about good or bad. It’s about using logic to direct behavior, towards a common “kingdom of ends.” Kant is not a total robot, though. His concept of good will–which translates to me as “meaning well”– is an important key to making the right decisions.

    Kant’s second formulation of the categorical imperative is a riff on the first one: don’t treat people like things, like stepping stones to getting what you want. Treat them as though their wants and needs are equal to your own, and have the same value. That way, you can impartially determine the most ethical ways for all to behave.

    Homework for Tuesday: Read ItPE, Chapter 6: Kantian Deontology.

    Here’s a video that deftly handles the major aspects of Kant’s ideas about ethics, with some biographical info, too. Please do the reading/watching, and take Quiz 11.

  • March 14, 2021: Rationalism

    Leonard Nimoy, the original Mr. Spock

    This week we launch into rationalism, which is a continuation of the humanistic tradition: once mankind grabs authority away from religion, what tools does s/he possess to figure out the world? Rationalism is the belief that the exercise of “reason” underpins all of ethics/ethical behavior…as opposed to “superstition” or “emotion.” How are these things different? Rationalism is all about remaining calm, cool and collected while basically applying the scientific method to life: observe, hypothesize, test and build theories, rules, laws, political systems…. Mr. Spock, from Star Trek, is a great example of a pure rationalist: he claims to possess no emotion. (To Spock, emotion is why everyone on the Enterprise keeps getting into trouble. Of course, one of the biggest subtexts of this franchise is that no one wants to live in a purely Spockian universe; for one thing, there would be a lot less romance!) Proponents of rationalism assert that when people behave rationally, they also behave predictably; a belief in a common human nature is a foundational assumption.

    If you truly believe in rationalism, you can make great strides in science and technology (every major technological boom in the world came after some kind of commitment to rationalism–look it up), as the fear of God’s wrath is off of the table, and the messy noise of “emotion” is ignored. But what about ethics? Can we learn how to behave by looking at ourselves as a bunch of Spocks, and going from there? Well, actually, yes we can, and yes we have. Concepts like “the rule of law” and “democracy” are based on the assumption that if people are “rational,” they can actually get along without resorting to violence…wouldn’t that be cool? Great civilizations like Han Dynasty China, Ancient Greece and Renaissance Europe are called great because they were able–for a time–to maintain enough stability to build culture on top of subsistence. This can only happen when people put down their weapons and agree to find common ground.

    This week, we’ll look at three ethical theories with rationalist assumptions. You will no doubt recognize them, because all are very much in play in the U.S. today. You’ll read about two of the cornerstones of Western law and politics: Utilitarianism (Chapter 5 in ItPE) and Contractarianism (Chapter 4). Both of these theories aim to help people get along. We’ll also look at egoism, which is also a rationalist theory.

    Utilitarianism is all about being useful: its main tenet is that whatever makes the most people the most happy, is the most ethical. Hence: democracy! A good example of this is when a group orders a pizza. They ask, “What does everyone like?” and one by one, the toppings disappear, until, nine times out of ten, you end up with either pepperoni or cheese. If the majority of the group is neutral-to-happy with the result, then, to a utilitarian, the decision is ethical. Obviously, you can see the problems: many times, almost no one gets the exact pizza they crave, and the minority group who loves anchovies is out of luck. And then someone gets mad and refuses to pay their share….

    Other problems with utilitarianism include: the impossibility of quantifying happiness (for example, with pizza: is tasty-happy more important than healthy-happy? What about cheap-happy? Which is the most ethical choice–the yummy meat-lovers’ pizza, the gluten-free veggie or the half-off special?) Also, what determines the boundaries of the group? What if I only ask the three people who show up early to the pizza place to vote, even though ten are coming?

    When you judge an act by its end result, it’s called consequentialism; utilitarianism is a consequential ethical theory. How you get there is less ethically relevant than what is achieved.

    Egoism is all about self-interest. I guess it’s kind of true that we are always looking out for number one; ethical egoists want to legitimize this as a moral stance! (If you’re an Ayn Rand fan, you will relate.) Read about this at the beginning of Chapter 4; I’m curious how important egoism is to you…I’ll ask you about this later.

    Social Contract Theory comes from contractarianism. Essentially, Thomas Hobbes argued that human nature is kind of a sh*tshow when it doesn’t use reason. Basically, we are animals driven between fear and desire (more self-interest) until we die (yay!). However, if we engage our *awesome* reason, we “start to form social conventions based on mutual advantage,” or contracts. (ItPE, 41) If I have eggs and you have bacon, we can arrange a trade that makes us both happy. If everything is done according to our (mutually arrived upon) agreement, then it’s ethical.

    Social Contract Theory is bigger and broader: it has to do with the way people form agreements to live together in peace. We pay taxes to the government and agree to abide by its laws (thereby limiting our wealth and personal freedoms) in exchange for protection (the military, police, etc.) public resources (schools, universities, etc.) and national infrastructure (roads, bridges, etc.).

    The extent to which agreements are upheld is how you determine ethical status in contractarianism/ Social Contract Theory. What if I send over a carton of eggs, but you “forget” to send me some bacon? What if I agree to feed your pigs for a week, and then you refuse to pay me? What if I pay 15K in taxes, but the roads I drive on are falling apart? What if you move your business profits offshore in order to avoid paying income tax, but still take advantage of your city’s public education system? These are all violations of agreed-upon contracts, and are therefore unethical.

    Social Contract Theory creates systems of law and commerce that, in a perfect (rational) world, would give everyone a nice balance of interests. Unfortunately, there are problems. People do not always enter contracts on equal terms. What happens if I’m coerced into a crappy contract because I have no other choice? (Think of payday loans or rent-to-own furniture.) In contractarianism, justice doesn’t exist until a contract is signed, so god help you if you get a bad deal! What happens when someone is so rich, they can afford to ignore their contractual obligations, including those with their own government?

    Also, people not part of the contract are in a kind of ethical no-man’s land. Consider people who cross a country’s border illegally: they have no social contract in their new country, so a contractarian ethical framework can’t work. What about an unborn baby? Same.

    Here’s a quick, entertaining video that sums up contractarianism:

    Please read Chapter 4 and take Quiz #10

  • Tuesday, October 19, 2021: Dilemma Day!

    Feeling claustrophobic? from Psychology Spot

    An enormous rock falls and blocks the exit of a cave you and five other tourists have been exploring. Fortunately, you spot a hole elsewhere and decide to let “Big Jack” out first. But Big Jack, a man of generous proportions, gets stuck in the hole. He cannot be moved and there is no other way out.

    The high tide is rising and, unless you get out soon, everyone but Big Jack (whose head is sticking out of the cave) will inevitably drown. Searching through your backpack, you find a stick of dynamite. It will not move the rock, but will certainly blast Big Jack out of the hole. Big Jack, anticipating your thoughts, pleads for his life. He does not want to die, but neither do you and your four companions. Should you blast Big Jack out? (taken from BBC News)

    1. What is the ethical situation?
    2. What stands to be gained or lost in this situation?
    3. Who are the potential winners and losers?
    4. How would the different sides of the argument argue that their position is the “right” or “moral” one?
    5. Would the situation change if “Big Jack” were a woman? Or a pregnant woman? Or a child?
    6. Is it more important that the most people get out of the cave (consequentialism), or that whatever choice made is ethical (deontologism)?

    Homework: Read Chapter 5 of ItPE:  “Utilitarianism.”  Take Quiz 9

  • “With great power comes great responsibility.”
    Spider Man, Winston Churchill, or the French National Convention of 1793.

    Thursday, October 14, 2021: The Ring of Gyges

    What would you do if you suddenly had a superpower? Would you hide it, sell it, give it away, or become Robin Hood, Scrooge McDuck, Darth Vader or Wonder Woman? At some point, you might have to consider which ethical frameworks best support your new powers, since no one is going to be able to tell you what to do anymore.

    “Suppose now that there were two such magic rings, and the just put on one of them and the unjust the other; no man can be imagined to be of such an iron nature that he would stand fast in justice. No man would keep his hands off what was not his own when he could safely take what he liked out of the market, or go into houses and lie with any one at his pleasure, or kill or release from prison whom he would, and in all respects be like a god among men.

    Then the actions of the just would be as the actions of the unjust; they would both come at last to the same point. And this we may truly affirm to be a great proof that a man is just, not willingly or because he thinks that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one thinks that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust.

    For all men believe in their hearts that injustice is far more profitable to the individual than justice, and he who argues as I have been supposing, will say that they are right. If you could imagine any one obtaining this power of becoming invisible, and never doing any wrong or touching what was another’s, he would be thought by the lookers-on to be a most wretched idiot, although they would praise him to one another’s faces, and keep up appearances with one another from a fear that they too might suffer injustice.—Glaucon (bro to Socrates, Plato, Republic, 360b–d (Jowett trans.)”

    Issues that arise from such a “gift” (Frodo realized that having a superpower is also a burden) ask fundamental questions about the nature of mankind: Do we have the capacity to regulate our urges for self-preservation and personal gain when the world becomes our oyster? J. R. R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, didn’t think so, as his One Ring to Rule Them All caused its wearer to rot from the inside (See Gollum above–yuck).

    Q. If you came into possession of such a ring, how would your sense of personal ethics govern what you do with it? Is it ethical to possess such a power in the first place? Or can one “handle” such responsibility ethically? Here’s a question: If a doctor came to you with a truckload of pre-loaded Covid vaccine syringes, would you take it upon yourself to secretly vaccinate anti-vaxxers? Why or why not?

  • Tuesday, October 12, 2021: Virtue Ethics

    “All of Western philosophy is but a footnote to Plato.” Alfred North Whitehead. Image is detail from “The School of Athens,” by Raphael, between 1509-11. Public Domain

    The history of human thought often resembles a struggle to determine who makes the rules: a deity or a person. Those whose faith tells them that their God or gods know what is true or right are locked in ideological battle with those who feel that humans are well-equipped to figure things out on their own. Throughout the centuries each foundational assumption about truth has had its time in the sun, only to be vanquished by the other, and so on, and so on. The ancient, spiritual philosophies of the Asian continent were the first (that we know of) to detach themselves from revelatory/realist norms, and engage with the world independently, or humanistically. Almost at the same time, the pre-Socratic philosophers in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) began thinking along the same lines. Do you think it’s a coincidence that at least two major trade routes (both by land and sea) lay between them?

    What happens when one begins with the assumption that he or she has the capability to determine right from wrong, without supernatural help? Virtue ethics is one result (we’ll look at a few others later). Interestingly, virtue ethics (which began across the Adriatic from Turkey, in ancient Greece) bears as much a resemblance to Taoism/Buddhism/Confucianism as it does to the rationalist philosophies that come after it. As in Taoism/Buddhism/Confucianism, virtue ethics strives toward a kind of happiness-through-ethical behavior: what the Greeks call “eudaimonia,” their Eastern counterparts might call “wu wei” or “nirvana” or “superiority.” Each is a fluid state of well-being, nourished by virtue. As in the East, virtue ethics strives toward a balancing of extremes and finding a middle path to walk (the Golden Mean). As in Buddhism and Taoism (not Confucianism), virtue ethics resists laying down hard and fast rules for everyone: all three are comfortable with leaving it up to the individual to weigh in his or her own (rational) mind. Key virtues in virtue ethics are temperance, justice, and prudence…one also must be brave enough to put these virtues into play at all times.

    This week, please read chapter 3 in ItPE: “How Can I Be a Better Person? On Virtue Ethics”, and take Quiz 8.

  • Thursday, October 7, 2021: Quiz #7 & Essay Exam #1

    Homework for next week: Read the chapter on Confucianism in Striking a Balance (pp. 167-193), then take Quiz 7.

    Essay Exam #1 Prompt:

    Due Tuesday, October 18 @ 11:59 p.m. Please submit your essay to Brightspace, under the “Assignments” tab.

    1. Here are three examples of Abrahamic religious leaders (Christian, Jewish and Muslim) who wrote that Covid-19 is God’s punishment of a certain community for certain specific sins. Each of the three leaders then–awkward!–contracted the virus themselves. Following their own logic (if Covid is indeed a kind of divine retribution), which moral commandments (look at each faith) might these leaders be guilty of violating, and why?
    2. Read this article about Terris King, a Christian preacher attempting to convince an often skeptical/fearful congregation to get vaccinated against Covid-19. Explain whether Aquinas’s Natural Law Theory would support Mr. King’s approach. Why or why not?
    3. Read this short article by Vasanthi Hariprakash about her experience on a bus in India. Explain how the bus driver’s ambivalence about Covid-19 fits into the Hindu ethical paradigm.
    4. Imagine that a young woman is very ill with Covid, and it is looking likely that she will die. She is very angry about this. A Buddhist priest and a Taoist sage come to her bedside: How might each of their responses to her differ?
  • Tuesday, October 5, 2021: Revelatory Philosophy: Taoism & Buddhism

    The Vinegar Tasters (L-R Confucius, The Buddha, Lao Tzu), unknown, Public Domain

    We’re going to look at three traditions this week: one began in India (Buddhism–notice that the concepts of karma and dharma in Hinduism found their way into the Buddhist tradition) and two originated in China (Taoism and Confucianism). Now, we need to make a distinction, here: even though I’ve lumped these three traditions under the “revelatory” heading, they are a bit different from the religions we’ve looked at so far. First of all, though there are elements of deism in some sects of each tradition–for example, you can find temples all across Asia where Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha), Lao Tzu and Confucius are worshipped–in a broader sense, these three traditions behave much more like philosophies, or spiritualities, where nothing supernatural is required. Revelation is important, and each tradition has its “prophet,” but the real magic happens inside the mind. Ethical behavior is a key priority in all three traditions, but unlike in the Abrahamic religions, the motivation is not about pleasing a higher power, but about living in “harmony” with a very real universe. In Taoism, for example, when a problem arises, the Tao Te Ching advises people to see it as “a rock in a stream,” and “be like the water that goes around it.” Like Hindus, Buddhists hold dear the concept of karma, or “what goes around, comes around”; therefore, each action is taken with its consequence in mind.

    For Confucius (like Socrates, as you’ll see soon), the intentional practice of virtue is a lifelong pursuit, and though I wouldn’t quite call him a hardcore realist, he was definitely a “rules-for-everyone guy.” His practical, easy-to-implement teachings contrast with the paradoxical, esoteric poetry of the Tao Te Ching, and the seemingly harsh, ascetic aspects of Buddhism. Confucianism is foundational to the community and family-centric culture in most Asian countries, even today (seriously, the man had influence!).

    The image at the top of today’s page is of the three great leaders of Chinese philosophy/religion, after taking a sip of–eww–straight vinegar. Confucius and the Buddha each wear frowns: this is to signify that to each, life is…well, kind of a bummer. Buddhist scripture begins with the assumption that “all life is suffering,” and Confucius’s teachings claim that humans have the potential to become virtuous, but without proper spiritual guidance, could easily turn to vice. The only one who smiles after tasting the vinegar is Lao Tzu, the Taoist master, whose worldview is much cheerier: “You’re fine the way you are,” the Tao Te Ching reassures us: “Just go with the flow!”

    Awww, a Covid-safe statue of Kannon – the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy – at the Houkokuji Aizu Betsuin temple in Fukushima Prefecture. Reuters, 6/17/21.


    Buddhism: For background, check out the beginning of the Buddhism Wikipedia page (you don’t need to read about the different sects), then read EISRT, Section B: Buddhism, part 1a. On Being a Buddhist (pp. 61-4); part 6 (in entirety, pp. 91-6).

    Taoism: Read the chapter on Taoism in Striking a Balance (ebook–library link to left), but don’t bother with the beginning. Start at “Taoist Ethics or Ethos?” (p. 136-149) and take Quiz 6.

  • Thursday, September 30, 2021: Revelatory Ethics: Islam and Hinduism

    Dhanvantri, the Hindu God of Ayurveda (Health)
    A detail from a miniature painting in the Rajastani style, made by the artist LaLa in Udipur.
    The original uploader was F16 at Hebrew Wikipedia., CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

    Here’s a recording of a healing mantra (chant) to Dhanvantari. When chanted it is said by some to heal the coronavirus, or anything that ails one.

    Did you know that Muslims consider Jews and Christians to be part of their religious paradigm? Yes, these religions have a lot more in common than most people think. All three are monotheistic and revelatory (via a prophet or prophets); all three base ethical behavior on similar sets of commandments; and all view ethics through the lens of piety.

    Moving into polytheism, Hinduism is the closest we can get, but it’s not a completely accurate definition. EISRT says, “Unlike other world religions, Hinduism cannot be defined by a central authority or dogma deriving from one spiritual entity or one scripture. Hindus know the theistic concept of the one supreme deity, monotheism, and will often talk about God, while referring to a particular chosen Hindu deity. [See a list of Hindu deities here!] In practice, then, Hinduism is polytheistic and sectarian.” (354) Hinduism is one of the oldest world religions, and first introduced the concept of the interconnection of all things: gods/people/animals/trees/rocks work (we’ll see this next in Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism).

    No homework! Have a great weekend!

  • Tuesday, September 28, 2021: Revelatory Ethics: Judeo-Christianity

    We’ll look at Judeo-Christianity first, since we’re already thinking within a monotheistic framework.

    EISRT will outline some of the basic ethical tenets of Judaism and Christianity. Both share a part of the same holy text: The Bible. The Jewish God of the Old Testament is all about following His rules, notably in the Ten Commandments (see Glossary for a link to the list) handed down to Moses on Mt. Sinai. What happens to people when they don’t obey God’s commands? Divine retribution (e.g. expulsion from the Garden of Eden, flood), and possibly punishment after death. Once Jesus comes along in the Christian New Testament, a kinder, gentler side of the deity is revealed. Themes of love and forgiveness of sin set a new tone. You can see how Aquinas’s Natural Law Theory makes Christians feel that they are flawed, but loved parts of a divine machine.

    P.S. Here’s a vaccination prayer by a Jewish rabbi, who is following a classic Natural Law argument: God has given us the gift of reason, which allows us to discover how to heal ourselves; therefore, vaccines are ethical because they are an act of God.

    Most Christian churches are taking a pro-vaccine stance in the fight against Covid-19, including the Catholic Church, which historically has opposed vaccines derived from the cells of aborted fetuses. Rather than taking a “Divine Command”/Old Testament ethical argument, most are reaching for Jesus’s “love thy neighbor” message in the New Testament. Here is a sampling of viewpoints from American Christian religious leaders.

    Homework for Thursday:

    Section F: Islam, Subsections 1. Religious Identity and Authority, and 6. Questions of Right & Wrong

    Section A: Hinduism, Subsections 1. Religious Identity and Authority and 6. Questions of Right & Wrong.

    Then, take Quiz 5.

  • Thursday, September 23: Revelatory Ethics

    Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam, 1508-1512. Wikimedia Commons

    Life is so much easier when someone else lays down the rules for how to behave, because all one has to do is

    1. Respect the authority (metaethical assumption = The Authority Exists)
    2. Follow His/Her rules (metaethical assumption = Human Rules are Insufficient)

    When a code of ethics comes from outside of the individual–for example, when a deity hands down inscribed stone tablets on a mountaintop–we call it “revelatory.” Think of a game show, when the host pulls back a curtain to display the prize–surprise! Such is the mysterious, divine nature of religious ethics.

    Today we’re looking at the Western revelatory traditions of Judaism and Christianity, and two concepts that underlie them: Divine Command Theory and Natural Law Theory.

    First, we have Divine Command Theory and the famous dilemma (here’s a short video description) that results from it. This dilemma comes–like so many great things–from the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato. I won’t ask you to read Plato’s 2000-year-old original dialogue, but please check out this modern adaptation (watch with subtitles on–it goes fast) as a cute and creative way to not only understand the Euthyphro dilemma, but to get a sense of how Socrates vexed the people of Athens with his passive-aggressive rhetoric…known today as the Socratic Method. More on that later.

    A little more complex is Thomas Aquinas’s Natural Law Theory, which attempts to settle the dilemma by investing all of God’s creation with moral purpose from the get-go. God has given people the power of reason, so they can discover this moral purpose on their own…they don’t necessarily need to believe in God or know of Him at all to learn their moral purpose (though God still gets the credit for it!). In His divine omniscience, God knows how best to act, and He’s programmed us to imperfectly strive toward His ideals. If you’re confused, here’s a video that sums up the idea.

    Read Ethical Issues in Six Religious Traditions (EISRT), Section D: Judaism and Section E: Christianity. Take Quiz 4

  • Tuesday, September 21: Dilemma Day!!

    What’s an ethical dilemma and what are its characteristics?

    Today, we’ll look at one of the most famous and studied ethical dilemma: “The Trolley Problem”:

    There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two (and only two) options:

    1. Do nothing, in which case the trolley will kill the five people on the main track.
    2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

    Which is the more ethical option? Or, more simply: What is the right thing to do? (Wikipedia)

    What if:

    1. The one person on the tracks is your child?
    2. There’s no switch, but you can push a car onto the tracks with a lone driver inside?

    Homework: Read Chapter 2 of ItPE, “Can We Have Ethics Without Religion?  On Divine Command Theory & Natural Law Theory?” and take Quiz 3

    “Congratulations!” To see this and many more trolley problem memes, go here.
  • Thursday, September 16, 2021: Meta-ethics, Realism & Relativism

    Today we talked about meta-ethics: the ideologies beneath our ethical stances. These ideologies have their fixed rules and authority figures, and we are better-served when we acknowledge this. We also discussed the differences between–and the paradoxes inherent to–moral realism and relativism.

    Question: Where do you stand on the realism vs. relativism spectrum? Notice how you assign ethical praise or blame as you go through your day, and ask yourself what, if any, realist beliefs lie underneath? How do you handle those who make different ethical decisions than you?

    Readings for today:

    Vax Facts: San Diego Researcher Debunk 7 Common Covid-19 Vaccine Myths,” San Diego Tribune, 8/20/21

    Tennessee GOP Senator Hosts Summit of Vaccine-Skeptic Doctors in Legislative Building,” The Tennessean, 8/18/21

    A song that comes to mind:

    No homework: Have a great weekend!

  • Tuesday, September 14, 2021: Close Reading & Discussion

    Let’s talk about a close reading strategy for our discussion days:

    1. Read once for basic comprehension. Write a one-paragraph summary on the back of the paper. I’ll check in when you’re done.
    2. Number the paragraphs for easy reference during discussion.
    3. Read it again, marking the text as you go: underline key words/ideas, mark things you do or don’t understand, anything that seems to have an ethical or moral dimension.
    4. Let’s discuss. I have questions!

    Today’s article: “Why is Ca. Gov. Newsom Facing Recall? Frustration with Covid Orders Led to Election,” Associated Press, 9/13/21

    Ethical Questions from Today’s Class:

    1. Is the recall process ethical in a democracy? If the majority of voters approve a law that allows minority groups the opportunity to replace a majority-elected politician, is that ok? Should election laws be tweaked to prevent this Machiavellian loophole from being exploited?
    2. Should elites (the powerful, rich, super-smart, etc.) be allowed to violate rules that the rest of us have to follow?
    3. (Is it worse when elites violate rules that they themselves made up?)
    4. Was Newsom’s forcing people to lock down in the spring of 2020 an abuse of power, or an appropriate use of it?


    Read Chapter 1 of Introduction to Philosophy: Ethics (ItPE). Aren’t Right & Wrong Just Matters of Opinion?  On Moral Relativism and Subjectivism.” 

    Take Quiz 2  before class on Thursday.

  • Thursday, September 9, 2021: Framework for Discussion-Discussion

    • Attendance
    • Subscribe to this page!
    • Is your news biased? Here are two well-known media bias charts, which I’ll employ in presenting the most “centric” of articles for our discussions. Some of you may ask, “But couldn’t these interpretations of bias be biased themselves?” Of course they could! Bias is natural, and in small doses it doesn’t significally distort the evidence presented. It’s like dressing on a salad: it shouldn’t be the main ingredient of what you’re reading, but can add a lot of flavor to the experience.
    • (Our library has a handy page about avoiding bias when you are reading or conducting research. It’s actually a companion guide for EGL 220: Critical Thinking, but it’s useful for this course, too. Thanks, Margot!)
    • The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University has a handy infographic for “Ethical Decision Making,” and today we looked at just the first two steps: first, we must be able to recognize the ethical issue(s) in any situation. We should ask ourselves two questions: What stands to be gained or lost in the situation presented? And who, according to the author, are the potential “winners” and “losers”–aka “stakeholders”? The next step is to gather and verify as much evidence as we can to support claims from the different viewpoints involved (a good piece of writing always will provide sources). Only then can we most effectively consider what actions and outcomes might be right or wrong, and for whom.
    • Today’s Article of the Day is about the complexities involved in a Covid-19 vaccine mandate. The stakeholders are everyone, really, but different people have different gains and losses: for example, the 20-year-old student afraid of long-term effects of an unproven vaccine vs. the elderly person who would probably not survive if they were infected while unvaccinated. Whose viewpoint should be prioritized in this situation? And why? Stay tuned.
    • Review Quiz #1: Thanos…really?!!
    • Homework: None!

    If you just joined the class, scroll down and read my last entry/make sure to take Quiz #1 (link below).

  • Tuesday, September 7, 2021: Welcome!

    Welcome to HUM 400: Ethics!

    I’m Dr. Chisholm (pronounced CHIZZ-um). Here’s a short video in which I introduce myself:

    This course used to be 100% online, and I’ve learned a lot…so much that I want to keep all of the good stuff going. Therefore, though the format for this class will be live/face-to-face (knock wood that we won’t have to lock down again), we won’t be spending our live time together in lecture–>take notes format. Instead, we will discuss and debate articles that I’ve collected on the topic of the semester– ethically navigating a global pandemic–and you will read (and be quizzed on) the lecture material outside of class. This is called a “flipped classroom,” and the format allows us to treat our twice-weekly meetings more like a forum of sorts. Bring your coffee and get ready to engage in discourse!

    Please make sure to subscribe to this site so you get an reminder email every time I update (usually, once or twice a week):

    Important links are listed in the left margin of this page.

    First is a permanent link to my Zoom room, which will be where I hold my office hours.

    Under these two buttons is the course syllabus, which is full of important information.

    Under the syllabus are links to the textbooks for this course. These are all online, open source or library e-books (read: FREE) texts. All other reading or viewing materials will be linked within each weekly module. Links to each module’s lecture/readings/assignments will be posted on this page as we move through the semester. For each reading, there will be a multiple choice quiz using Google Forms (links will be posted each week). These quizzes are open-note, and you can take them as many times as you like. Only your highest score will be counted.

    Under the texts is a link to a glossary of mostly philosophical terms. I’ll be throwing these around a lot; plus, they’re pretty great words to know, in general. When these words appear on this site, I will highlight them.

    Under the glossary is a link to the rubric I’ll use to evaluate your essay exams. I’ll talk about my expectations for these exams later. Below that are links to my explications of the three essay exams from last semester, so you can get a sense of what I’m looking for when I’m grading.


    For your first assignment for the class, please review the syllabus and this website and take Quiz 1 on its contents.

    There’s a lot there! Don’t get left behind!

“Let this grisly beginning be none other to you than is to wayfarers a rugged and steep mountain.”
― Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron

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