HUM 400: Ethics, Fall 2022

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)


Link to Sign-Up Sheet for Student-Led Discussion Days (Groups of 3): 8:00 a.m. class

3:30 p.m. class

Discussion Days Instructions

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

Problem? Question? Something not working on the site? Email me:

Course Home



  hours  minutes  seconds


Essay Exam #1 is due!

  • Monday, October 3: Taoism & Confucianism

                                                                            • Wednesday, September 28: Buddhism, Taoism & Confucianism

                                                                              Homework for Friday: Read Striking a Balance (left), Confucianism (pp. 167-193) and take Quiz 7

                                                                              Today’s article (8:00 class only): “Robot Priests Can Bless You, Advise You, Even Perform Your Funeral,” Sigal Samuel, Vox, 1/13/20

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

                                                                              We’re looking 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, however, 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!”

                                                                            • Monday, September 26: Polytheism–Hinduism

                                                                              Homework for Wednesday EISRT, Section B: Buddhism, part 1a. On Being a Buddhist (pp. 61-4); part 6 (in entirety, pp. 91-6). AND Striking a Balance, “Taoist Ethics or Ethos?” p. 136-149 and take Quiz 6.  

                                                                              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.

                                                                    , an AI that tracks text-based incidents of “Hinduphobia”

                                                                              Today’s article: “A Dharma Perspective on AI and Faith,” by Rajiv Malhotra,, 4/8/21

                                                                              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).

                                                                            • Painting of Abraham, father of many nations, by Il Guercino (1591-1666) Public Domain

                                                                              Wednesday, September 21: Judeo/Christianity and Islam Discussion

                                                                              Homework: none

                                                                              Today’s article: “AI’s Islamophobia Problem,” Vox, 9/18/21

                                                                              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?

                                                                              The Commandments or Prohibitions in Islam, from Al

                                                                            • Friday, September 16: Revelatory Ethics: Judeo-Christianity

                                                                              Today’s article:

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

                                                                              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.

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

                                                                              Wednesday, September 14: Revelatory Ethics

                                                                              Homework for Friday: none, but check out the first discussion article (8:00 a.m section only):

                                                                              “AI and the Importance of Genesis in Understanding Humans,” Irish Times, 7/3/20

                                                                              Ethics 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.

                                                                              Today’s discussion reading: “Is Artificial Intelligence a Threat to Christianity?”, The Atlantic, 2/3/17

                                                                            • Monday, August 12: Revelation and AI

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

                                                                              Today’s article: “Can Religion Guide the Ethics of AI?”

                                                                              Some questions:

                                                                              “What does it mean to be human? Are we users or are we beings?”

                                                                              “Tech is a stereotypically secular industry in which traditional belief systems are regarded as things to keep hidden away at all costs. A scene from the HBO series ‘Silicon Valley’ satirized this cultural aversion: ‘You can be openly polyamorous, and people here will call you brave. You can put microdoses of LSD in your cereal, and people will call you a pioneer,’ one character says after the chief executive of his company outs another tech worker as a believer. “But the one thing you cannot be is a Christian.'”

                                                                              Why do you think this is? What type of metaethical foundation lies under this sentiment?

                                                                              Tech companies will “analyze” the issue of religion and AI, for example, adopt religious lingo to describe their work, or hire “divinity consultants,” but is this the best they can do?

                                                                              “Who needs God when we’ve got Google?” the article asks.

                                                                              “At the end of the day, A.I. is just a lot of math. It’s just a lota lot of math,” one tech worker told me. It is intelligence by brute force, and yet it is spoken of as if it were semidivine.”

                                                                              Have humans substituted technology for God? Have you?

                                                                              “…is it affecting my soul at all, the fact that I’m able to do this thing that previously only God could do?” 

                                                                              Can we know too much? Can we try too hard?

                                                                              “There’s cautionary stuff here for me,” Mr. Boettcher said. “You’re getting into people’s memories. You’re getting into the way that they think about the world, some of the ethical positions that they take, how they think about their own lives — this isn’t an area that we want to let algorithms just run and feed people based on whether they … click on the ads next to this stuff.”

                                                                              Why is this a problem?

                                                                            • Friday, August 9: Relativism/Subjectivism Discussion

                                                                              Homework: none

                                                                              Today we’ll talk 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 will also discuss the differences between–and the paradoxes inherent to–moral realism and relativism.

                                                                              Quick review:

                                                                              Realism: The view that morality is objective, that “there are mind-independent facts about ethics that are true and binding, even if we have beliefs to the contrary.” (ITPE, 6-7)

                                                                              Descriptive Relativism: “Moralities and ethical codes are radically different across cultures–and we can observe this.” (ITPE, 7)

                                                                              Metaethical Relativism: “No standard exists beyond a culture to prescribe good or bad behavior. Thus, culture is king. […] moral truths are actually only true relative to specific groups of people.” (ITPE, 7-8)

                                                                              Normative Relativism: “…because no objective, independent standpoint from which to evaluate ethical codes exists, no culture can justifiably say that its morality is objectively superior.” (ITPE, 8)

                                                                              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?

                                                                              Today’s article: “AI-Generated Art Won A Prize. Artists Aren’t Happy,” New York Times, 9/2/22

                                                                              Q: Is it morally wrong to use AI to generate art and then expect it to have the same creative status as an original painting? Why or why not?

                                                                              Q: How would the different schools of moral relativism interpret this use of AI?

                                                                              Q: Would a metaethical relativist find it fair to allow an AI painting to compete with an “original” painting in a contest? Why or why not?

                                                                              Q. A moral realist in favor or AI-generated art might argue that those who don’t approve of it are simply lacking in knowledge about how it’s made. What do you think of this?

                                                                            • Wednesday, August 7: Dilemma Day!

                                                                              “Congratulations!” To see this and many more trolley problem memes, go here.

                                                                              Homework for Friday (same as last week’s–my mistake):

                                                                              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 

                                                                              Final vote on semester topic!

                                                                              Final discussion group formation. Sign up!!

                                                                              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.

                                                                              What is the right thing to do?

                                                                              Take a poll.

                                                                              What is/are the ethical situation(s)? Why is this a dilemma?

                                                                              What stands to be gained or lost in the situation presented? And who are the potential “winners” and “losers”–aka “stakeholders”?

                                                                              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?
                                                                            • Current situation in Russo-Ukraine War (from

                                                                              Friday, September 2 : Discussion about Discussions (Zoom)

                                                                              Homework: 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 Wednesday.

                                                                              Semester topic pick–vote here

                                                                              The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University has a handy pdf 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.

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

                                                                              1. Read once for basic comprehension.
                                                                              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!
                                                                              5. Today’s article for discussion: “Russia’s Occupation of Nuclear Plant Gives Moscow a New Way to Intimidate,” New York Times, 8/30/22
                                                                                • Some say that “All is fair in love and war.” Should “normal” rules governing right and wrong be suspended during wartime? Why or why not?
                                                                                • It was incredibly effective for Putin to use the Ukrainian nuclear plant to shield his troops, but is it ethical? On what moral grounds would you base your answer?
                                                                                • The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriach Krill, has endorsed the Russian invasion of Ukraine, saying, “We have entered into a struggle that has not a physical, but a metaphysical significance,” a war that involves “eternal salvation.”  (U.S. Institute of Peace). How does this justify what Putin is doing?
                                                                                • What are the ethical obligations of the rest of the developed world, in this matter? Do direct stakeholders (e.g. Poland, the EU) have different ethical obligations than indirect stakeholders (the U.S., for one)?
                                                                            • Wednesday, August 31: Choosing a Topic for the Semester

                                                                              Homework: none

                                                                              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, Library!)

                                                                              Did you know that you have a free educational subscription to the New York Times? Let’s get you set up with that.

                                                                              Google News is also good.

                                                                              Here are some topics from past classes: Drones, The Melting Arctic, E-Cigarettes, The Deepwater Horizon Disaster, Concussions in the NFL, Covid.

                                                                              Let’s crowdsource a topic here.

                                                                            • Monday, August 29: Welcome!

                                                                              Homework: Please review the syllabus and this website and take Quiz 1 on its contents by the start of class on Friday (9/2).

                                                                              I’m Dr. Chisholm (pronounced CHIZZ-um). You can call me “Dr. C.” Here’s a short video in which I introduce myself:

                                                                              In this ethics course, we won’t be spending our time together in the traditional lecture–>take notes format. Instead, we will discuss and debate articles that I’ve collected on the topic of the semester (TBD by you)–and you will read and be quizzed on the reading material outside of class. This is called a “flipped classroom,” and the format allows us to treat our thrice 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 the course syllabus, which is obviously full of important information. There is also a sign-up link for Student-Led Discussions, and a handout explaining how to do these underneath.

                                                                              Under this 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 this 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

                                                                              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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