HUM 400: Ethics, Spring 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 via CSUMA Library (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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Our Last Zoom Meeting (Wednesday, May 5)

  • May 5, 2021

    Questions about Essay Exam #3? Due Date: Tonight @ 11: p.m. Submit it here.

    Questions about Personal Essay? Length: 3-5 (double-spaced) pages. Due Date: Monday, May 10 @ 11:00 p.m. Submit it here.

    Graded Assignments

    Short, Multiple Choice, Open Note Reading/Vocabulary Quizzes (17)25%
    Essay Exams (3)45%
    Attendance, Zoom Discussions15%
    Personal Essay 15%
    The “lowdown”
  • May 2, 2021: Wrapping Up

    Dear HUM 400 Students,

    It’s the last week of class! I can’t believe how quickly it’s gone by! I hope you have enjoyed your time with me this semester.

    I’ve decided to skip the ethics of technology module (and quiz #18), as you have two papers due in the next ten days, and we have our final Zoom class on Wednesday. I would rather you spend your time working on the last two big grades for the class.

    I’m a little late with getting your Essay #2 back, but should have it wrapped up by tomorrow night. I will send grades out then, and you will have time to complete any missing quizzes before I shut them all down for good.

    Please come to our last Zoom meeting ready to talk about the Lifeboat Dilemma, Garrett Hardin, Peter Singer and Onora O’Neill. I will go over my explication of Essay Exam #2, and answer any questions you have for the end of the semester.

    See you on Wednesday!

  • Wednesday, April 28: Paper #3 and Personal Essay Prompts

    Essay Exam #3:

    Length: one single-spaced page, max (as usual). Due Date: Wednesday, May 5 @ 11: p.m. Submit it here.

    Prompt: Watch or read President Joe Biden’s speech to Congress tonight and answer the following questions:

    1. Apply Garrett Hardin’s concept of “the tragedy of the commons,” to a goal of the American Jobs Plan (for example, replacing 100% of the lead water pipes in the country). Would the AJP make sense to Hardin? Why or why not?
    2. Elon Musk is really mad that Biden wants to tax him at a higher rate in order to strengthen the Affordable Care Act. On a flight to the Bahamas, where he plans to relocate his entire business empire, he sits next to Peter Singer (ok, pretend Musk flies on commercial planes), and complains loudly. What might Singer say to him, and why?
    3. In theory, would the Universal Declaration of Human Rights support Biden’s ideas? Why or why not?
    4. Rewatch Richard Wolff’s video and tell me what kind of socialist is in the White House right now.

    Personal Essay

    Length: 3-5 (double-spaced) pages. Due Date: Monday, May 10 @ 11:00 p.m. Submit it here.

    Prompt: Describe the ethical frameworks that have resonated most with you this semester. How has thinking about ethics helped you navigate This Crazy Year, 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.

  • “I’m Garrett Hardin, reincarnated as a dolphin. Do you have a moment to talk about overpopulation?”

    April 25, 2021: The Ethics of Helping Those in Need (Humanitarian Aid)

    Housekeeping: Essay Exam #3 and the personal essay will be assigned here on Wednesday, April 28. Please check this page on that date (in the evening) for this information.


    This week’s topic asks whether or not helping others in need should be mandatory or optional, or whether it’s even ethical at all.

    A perfect case study for this question is happening right now. India is experiencing a horrifying surge of cases of Covid-19 and lacks vaccines; the U.S. has a surplus of vaccines, but until recently, wouldn’t help.

    There are many rational, self-serving reasons why it’s a good idea for the U.S. to give away some of its vaccine stockpile, including joining other world superpowers in a new global vaccine diplomacy.

    The chapter that I’ve assigned this week (see below) begins and ends with the assumption that giving to people in need is an ethical act, and most people, to some extent, would agree with this. However, not all people…and not all ethicists agree. For example, here’s a famous dilemma about a lifeboat:

    A ship with 100 people on board sinks in open ocean.  25 people, including you, manage to get into a lifeboat and 75 are in the freezing water.  The nearest island is two weeks away, if the sea and wind conditions are perfect.

    –If only 25 are onboard the lifeboat, there is enough food for a month, and everyone is almost sure to survive.

    –The lifeboat can hold 50 max, but with that many passengers, the rations will last only two weeks.

    –The lifeboat will sink when more than 50 people get in (depending on the weight).

    –The people in the water are sure to die.

    If you were in the lifeboat, and you were in charge, what would you do?  And why?

    Using this dilemma, ecologist-cum ethicist Garrett Hardin argues that when the rich help the poor, it doesn’t actually help either. Please read his rationale here, as part of this week’s work.

    This week’s other reading focuses on three thinkers, two of whom (Singer and O’Neill) are fairly straightforward. Singer is a rights-based utilitarian; O’Neill is a duty-based Kantian. But whither Thomas Pogge? The book explains their differences by talking about negative vs. positive duties, but I’m not convinced that you need to remember this. Instead, remember this: Pogge blames the wealthy directly for causing the plight of the poor. It is like blaming the people in the lifeboat for the original shipwreck, even if they had nothing directly to do with it. To Pogge, aid is not about generosity; it’s something that is owed to the impoverished. As a relatively privileged American, how do you feel when you are told that you must help the poor?

    The chapter assigned for this week glosses over this important document: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UHDR), which was drafted during the Cold War by a fledgling United Nations. Please read its provisions, because though they are not legally binding in the USA, they have been an important cornerstone of international law, as well as an aspirational set of ethics for many countries around the world.

    This week’s work:

    Read Garrett Hardin’s essay.

    Then read Chapter 7 in Widdows’s Global Ethics, “Global Poverty,” p 149-163, and familiarize yourself with the UDHR. Take Quiz #17.

    We’ll talk more about the lifeboat during our Zoom discussion next week!

  • Stolen from this website, which stole the quote from cartoonist Walt Kelly

    April 18, 2021: The Ethics of War (The Just War Theory)

    When, if ever, is it ethical to inflict bodily harm on another? People have wondered this for centuries, since they’ve also been killing each other for that long. The Just War Theory, which is the subject of this week’s study, is what you end up with when you want to feel better about using your fists instead of your words. Seriously. There are so many ethical injunctions against taking a life, both on rational and revelatory grounds–it’s obviously a big no-no–but humans tend to do it anyway.

    Maybe the best we can do is a. try really hard not to kill others, and b., if we have to, determine which kind of killing is worse and which is better, and then try to stick to the better? Some of the questions that the JWT attempts to sort are “Can I start a war if I feel like it?” and “If I can, can I wipe my enemy’s country off the map?” and “Do civilians count?”

    Pacifists, who hold the absolute view that all killing is bad would reject the JWT from the get-go, and political realists (different from philosophical realists) hold that ethics has no place in international relations, that power and self-interest…ahem, trump concerns about right and wrong, so fire away, guilt-free….

    Further complicating things, any in-depth exploration of the criteria for a just war reveals how subjective and squishy the assumptions underpinning them are. For example, how do you determine (and who gets to determine) “legitimate authority” in a civil war? If you are going to legitimize a right-wing militia, then don’t you also have to legitimize its left-wing counterparts? Where does that leave the actual government? In a civil war, how would we know who is on which side, who is a combatant, and who is a civilian? Can you imagine trying to figure out who to shoot in a civil war that starts tomorrow?

    A tougher question is determining just cause/right intention, say, in a civil war. Though the righting of wrongs is usually considered an ethical reason to enter into conflict, how “wrong” does the wrong have to be? Concepts like “personal liberty,” “preserving tradition,” “racial injustice” or “social welfare” must be weighed and ranked accordingly. Again, who gets to decide this? Any good postmodernist would remind us that those with authority bring their grand narratives to the table: whether they privilege, say, the individual (e.g. capitalism) over the group (e.g. socialism), or rationalism (e.g. science) over revelation (e.g. religion) will show up in their ruling. We are already seeing this battle taking place in our highest court of law.

    It’s so much easier when it’s country v. country, being judged by powerful others. (And when it’s not your country, to be sure. ) At any rate, one question behind the question of just/unjust war is deontological: what happens when some people stop following the rules that define an entire civilized nation? Can you stop following them, too? What happens when we all stop? If I can just pick up a gun and shoot you and you me, then what happens to “us”? Who is “us,” again?

    Today, at least in HUM 400, let’s continue to use our minds instead of our fists and try to stay civilized.

    For the week: please read Chapter 8 of Global Ethics (link in left margin), pgs. 173-192 (skip the “Humanitarian Intervention” section: we’ll read that next week). Then take Quiz #16 (it’s a long one).

    Finally, this is a reminder that Essay Exam #2 is due Wednesday at 11:55 p.m., as well. Don’t forget!

    It’s a Zoom week, and I want to hang back a bit in politics for Wednesday’s discussion: check out this pre-election opinion on how vaccines might best be administered. Read it a few times: it’s a little hard to understand the first time through. Weirdly enough, the author is Canadian. To you, is his idea ethical? Bring your educated opinion to class on Wednesday. See you then!

  • April 12, 2021: Political 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 are now 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 chosen to risk 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.

    We will talk more about political ethics in our Zoom discussion next week, but for now, please do the following:

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

    Day 2: Essay Exam #2. One-page maximum, due Wednesday, April 21 @ 11:55 p.m. Please submit it here.


    This article lists a number of possible scenarios for vaccination “passports” in the U.S., which I’ve summarized here:

    • Mandatory vaccine passports for anyone going to school or work, traveling, or participating in high-risk social activities outside of the home (e.g. movies and restaurants).
    • Mandatory vaccine passports for anyone going to school or working in a public setting. 
    • No mandatory vaccine passports, but a privately offered (at a cost) vaccine passport option, allowing those to travel or participate in high-risk social activities outside of the home.
    • No mandatory vaccine passports, but a government-provided (free) vaccine passport option, allowing those to travel or participate in high-risk social activities outside of the home.
    • A ban on all forms of vaccine passports, both mandated and optional, public or private.

    Explain which scenario each of the following might get behind (or which option might be the least offensive to them), and why:

    1. A postmodernist
    2. A virtue ethicist
    3. An egoist
    4. A utilitarian
    5. A contractarian
  • April 4, 2021: Political Ethics, Part I

    Small housekeeping notes: Essay Exam 1 grades will be emailed tomorrow. Essay Exam 2 will be assigned next week.

    Who’s Afraid of Karl Marx? From

    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.

    When you’re done with the readings & video, please take Quiz #14.

    Don’t forget, we are ZOOMing this week: What do you think a postmodernist would make of this British social distancing ad?

    From the Guardian newspaper
  • March 28, 2021: Postmodernism

    Housekeeping: By now, you should have received your quiz grades. Please let me know if you did not receive an email from me over the weekend. I will be closing quizzes 1-10 and Essay Exam #1 tomorrow (Monday, March 29) at 11:55 p.m. No make-ups will be allowed after that.


    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 only be 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 Cesar Chavez Day!

  • March 21, 2021: Rationalism & Alternatives to Rationalism

    Day 1: Kantian Deontologism & Feminism

    This week is split: first, we will finish our look at rationalist ethical theories by looking at deontologism and its quest for categorical imperatives. Then we will shift to new paradigms in ethics. What if rationality isn’t the be-all, end-all of the ethical world? What if those theories purport to be universal, but actually better serve the needs of just a portion of the human population? Read on and see.

    Day 1: Read ItPE, Chapter 6: Kantian Deontology. 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.

    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.

    Day 2: Feminist Ethics (or Alternatives to Rationalism, part 1)

    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.


    Finally, it’s a Zoom week! One ethical question I’d like you to consider for our discussion is, “Would it be ethical to make the Covid-19 vaccine mandatory for all Americans?” Read this to learn about the legal precedent for mandatory vaccinations in the U.S., and consider the inherent dilemma: how does one weigh our country’s strong preference for personal autonomy against the need to protect the masses (especially the entire at-risk population)?

    Be sure to consider the rationalist frameworks we’ve been looking at recently, as well. Which would be more in favor of mandatory vaccinations? Which would not? What about you? What do you think?

    See you on Wednesday!

  • March 14, 2021: Rationalism (P.S. Essay Exam #1 is due tonight! Please submit it here.)

    Leonard Nimoy, the original Mr. Spock

    Hello everyone! It was nice Zooming with you all last week, and I deeply appreciate that some of you turned your cameras on. The degree to which you laugh at my jokes helps me gauge the tone of the class (really!), and if I can’t see your face, I have no idea how I’m doing. So thanks.

    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.

    Day 1: 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. Please look at the different types of utilitarianism in chapter 5 and take Quiz 9.

    Day 2: 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

  • March 7, 2021: Virtue Ethics (Humanism)

    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.

    Remember, we’re Zooming on Wednesday!

    For our Zoom session, please read the following articles. Two claim that Confucian or Buddhist culture are behind the more successful pandemic outcome in East Asia. The last asks the reader to consider grounding his/her approach to Covid-19 in Taoist principles.

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

    February 28, 2021: Revelatory Ethics, Part III

    Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism

    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!”


    Day 1. 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) Read to page 149 and take Quiz 6.

    Day 2. Confucianism: Read the chapter on Confucianism in Striking a Balance (pp. 167-193), then take Quiz 7.


    Essay Exam #1: (Please use the readings–not just my weekly overviews–to support your answers)

    One page, single-spaced max!!! You don’t need to retype the questions if it will save you space. Due Sunday, March 14 @ 11:59 p.m.

    Submit your exam here.

    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–awkard!–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. A Buddhist priest and a Taoist sage come to her bedside: what might they say to her, and why?

  • 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.

    Week 4: February 21, 2021

    Housekeeping: A few students don’t seem to be looking at the calendar on the syllabus page: it clearly indicates that this class only meets face-to-face on Zoom every other Wednesday. I’ve now put a countdown clock at the top of the page that will remind anyone still wondering.

    Revelatory Ethics, Part II

    Day 1. 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).

    For homework, please read Ethical Issues in Six Religious Traditions (link on left):

    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.

    Day 2: It’s a Zoom week! For our class, make sure you have read the Jewish and Christian Covid-related links from last week, but also look at this article: just like some Christians, some Muslims and Hindus are afraid that the Covid-19 vaccines are made with ingredients forbidden by their religions. What does one do when survival depends on violating a religious belief? We’ll talk about this on Wednesday. See you then!

    Bonus reading: Here is a list of widely debunked Covid remedies. Some are pitched using religious rhetoric, some are not.

  • Week 3: February 14, 2021 (Happy Valentine’s Day!)

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

    Revelatory Ethics, Part I

    Day 1: Read Chapter 2 of Introduction to Philosophy: Ethics (ITPE) and take Quiz 3

    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.

    This week 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.

    Day 2: Read, in Ethical Issues in Six Religious Traditions (EISRT), Section D: Judaism, Subsections 1. Religious Identity and Authority (5 pages), and 6. Questions of Right & Wrong (4 pages).

    Section E: Christianity, Subsections 1. Religious Identity and Authority (10 pages) and 6. Questions of Right & Wrong (5 pages).

    Then, 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.

    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.

    • Week 2: February 8, 2021
    • Hi students! Reminder: Make sure you subscribe to this page (link on last week’s note)!
    • There are some pretty complicated concepts in Chapter 1 of Introduction to Philosophy: Ethics, which you’ll read this week for homework (link is to the left). The idea of metaethics (the ethics employed in making ethics) will give you a headache. Every ethical framework is created with assumptions about the nature of ethics…which is itself an ethical framework…which is itself created with assumptions about the nature of reality…. You could burst your brain trying to find a starting point. We just say “metaethics” to indicate that it provides a foundation for another ethical framework. If you like this sort of thinking, you might be a philosopher! (If you don’t, you’re probably like most people.) The most important distinction in this lesson is between realism and relativism (the three forms). Make sure you get those straight before you take Quiz 2.
    • Your responses to the contemporary ethical topic you’d like to look at this semester were almost equally split between the choices I gave you! There was no clear winner, so I’m going to combine the three (I think they’re all related, anyway!)
    • We are Zooming on Wednesday, at 12:30 or 1:30 (depending on your section), so please read “The Truth about Kids, School, and Covid-19,” in last month’s Atlantic Monthly (the Zoom link is on the left). Think about metaethical assumptions behind the open-the-schools vs. the don’t-open-the-schools arguments. I will call on random folks to answer questions; if it’s evident that you haven’t read the article carefully, I may mark you absent for the day. Be warned! See you on Wednesday!


    Welcome to HUM 400: Ethics for spring, 2021! I’m Dr. Chisholm (pronounced CHIZZ-um). Here’s a short video in which I introduce myself:

    I’ll be posting on this page every Sunday night (usually late, since I’m a night owl), with news, lectures, readings and homework for you to complete throughout the week. Please make sure to subscribe to this site so you get an reminder email every time I update:

    Important links are listed in the left margin of this page. First, there’s a link to a sign-up sheet for my office hours, which are on Tuesday mornings. You can sign up for any week in the semester using this button. If you’d like to make an appointment for another day or time, send me an email or text me at the phone number on the syllabus. NOTE: This week, you can drop in on Tuesday, 2/2 (10:00-noon) without an appointment, if you have any questions. Just click the button!

    Under that is a permanent link to our Zoom room (it will also get you to office hours).

    Under these two buttons is the course syllabus, which is full of important information. For your first assignment for the class, please review it and this website and take Quiz 1 on its contents.

    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.

    Finally, though this course will be taught 100% remotely, we will be meeting on Zoom every other week on a scheduled class day for mandatory discussion of the week’s topic (see syllabus for those dates). Overall, this course will be about 80% asynchronous and 20% synchronous.

    Remember, take the syllabus/website quiz! 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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