Metaethics - PL595

Location Term Level Credits (ECTS) Current Convenor 2018-19 2019-20
Canterbury Autumn
View Timetable
5 30 (15)







What makes it the case that certain actions, such as stealing and sharing, have ethical value? Are ethical values such as goodness and badness, compassion and cruelty, mind-independent ethical properties, properties that exist no matter what anyone thinks, desires, aims at and the like? Or are there no such ethical properties at all and when we call something good we are just expressing our emotions and feelings about a nonethical world? Are there any other positions available?
This course is designed to introduce you to some of the most exciting and interesting philosophical literature in recent years, which brings together ethics and metaphysics with a little epistemology and philosophy of language. The first half of this course will examine (what are often called) "metaethical" questions such as those above. We will then move on to discuss debates concerning moral psychology and motivation. When one says 'charity-giving is good' is it a matter of necessity that one will be motivated to some extent to give to charity? Or is it possible for one to make such a judgement and have no motivation at all (and for such a judgement to count as a legitimate moral judgement)? At the end we will see how these questions concerning psychology are integral to the earlier debates of metaphysics. Throughout, we will be examining these questions and issues by looking at work by authors from the start of the twentieth century (e.g. G. E. Moore) and by more recent writers (e.g. Simon Blackburn, Allan Gibbard, J. L. Mackie, John McDowell and Michael Smith).


This module appears in:

Contact hours

2 hour lecture and 1 hour seminar each week for 10 teaching weeks


Also available at Level 5 (PL569)

Method of assessment

100% Coursework

Preliminary reading

We will use two books mainly:

Arguing about Metaethics (eds.) Andrew Fisher and Simon Kirchin
An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics by Alex Miller

Also recommended:

Foundations of Ethics (eds.) Terence Cuneo and Russ Shafer-Landau
Moral Vision by David McNaughton

See the library reading list for this module (Canterbury)

See the library reading list for this module (Medway)

Learning outcomes

All students, Levels 5 and 6:

The aim of this course is to explore some difficult philosophical literature concerning some of the most fascinating ideas in twentieth century philosophy.

By the end of this course students should be able to:

(1) Outline the following positions, say why one might be motivated to adopt them, discuss arguments ranged against them and show understanding of how the strengths of one might depend on the weaknesses of another:
(a) Naturalism and nonnaturalistic versions of moral realism
(b) Noncognitivism
(c) Error theory
(d) Moral relativism

(2) Analyze how different accounts of moral motivation cope with different types of psychological make-up, and show understanding of how metaethics relates to issues regarding moral motivation.

(3) Connect the debates in (1) and (2) to some other areas of concern, such as minimalism about truth and response-dependence.

This module will contribute to the aims of the Philosophy Programme by enabling students to find out about and discuss one of the central areas of philosophy – namely moral philosophy (A2). The module will allow students to practise their analytical and critical skills whilst considering some of the most interesting material in philosophy. (See all of section B, and, particularly, C2, C5, C6, C7, C8 and C9.) It will also give them practise of working on their own and in groups, thus enabling them to take their analytical and critical skills to situations that they will encounter once they have left the University (all of D, and see 12 below).

In addition, Level 6 students will approach the material in this module at a higher level and in a more critical fashion than Level 5 students. Level 6 students will be expected to write and discuss whilst paying attention to articles, books and ideas, commensurate with advanced undergraduate study.

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