Topic outline

  • Course Introduction

    This course will introduce you to the basic concepts and methods of moral and political philosophy. Its primary focus is on the development of moral reasoning skills and the application of those skills to contemporary social and political issues. Although the course is organized around the central concept of justice, it uses this notion as a point of departure for discussing a wide range of philosophical topics and perspectives. Topics range from the value of human life, the moral standing of the free market, and the notion of fundamental human rights, to equality of opportunity, the legality of same-sex marriage, and the conditions for a moral community. In order to investigate these topics, this course makes extensive use of Professor Michael Sandel's video lecture course on justice, delivered at Harvard University in 2009. In addition to these lectures, you will study a number of important moral and political philosophers, including Plato, Aristotle, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, and John Rawls. Supplementary readings will include texts from contemporary philosophers, such as Robert Nozick, John Finnis, Alasdair MacIntyre, and others, as well as news articles and primary source texts regarding important legal decisions. By the end of the course, you will have gained a detailed understanding of the philosophical issues involved in many contemporary debates in the public sphere, as well as a refined sense of your own moral and political positions and intuitions.

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  • Unit 1: Murder, Morality, and the Value of Human Life

    Everyone - whether they realize it or not - has some beliefs about the differences between right and wrong, or good and bad. We use these beliefs to guide our behavior, judge the behavior of others, and decide on laws and punishments in our society. Sometimes, however, situations arise that force us to call our moral beliefs into question and to debate the truth about moral behavior with our peers. It is usually the really difficult cases, in which the right thing to do is difficult to decide, and cases which divide people against one another in their opinions, that bring the differences in our moral intuitions into focus and force us to clarify our moral principles.

    In this unit, we will investigate some notoriously difficult and divisive moral dilemmas involving justice, rights, and the value of human life. We will also introduce the moral theory of utilitarianism, see if it can help us decide about the right thing to do, and inform us of how to produce a just society.

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  • Unit 2: Rights, the State, and the Free Market

    So far, we have only considered theories of just action that base their criteria for justice on an action's consequences. Utilitarianism, as we have seen, provides a convincing justification for many of our moral intuitions, but even its more refined versions, such as the theory advanced by John Stuart Mill, start to seem unsatisfying once we realize that they reduce moral decisions to detached, rational calculations. If we want a completely adequate theory of just action, we need to consider an alternative approach to justice and morality, one that promises to succeed in precisely the ways that utilitarianism fails. This approach is captured by the political and economic position of libertarianism, which understands morality and justice as rooted in the natural rights of individual human beings. Consequences matter, of course, but they are always secondary to considerations of natural rights. 

    In this unit, we will become familiar with several arguments involving the individual citizen's relationship to the state. Plato, in the dialogue known as the Crito, gives arguments that claim the individual does not have a right to defy his or her government. In contrast, contemporary proponents of libertarianism - much as Milton Friedman and Robert Nozick - as well as the eighteenth century wellspring of rights-based political philosophy - such as with philosopher John Locke - uphold individual rights and liberties. John Locke argues that the contract we have with our government can always be rescinded. In order to evaluate the appropriateness of libertarianism, we will also consider several cases in which rights and consequences come into conflict with one another.

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  • Unit 3: Morality, Markets, and Immanuel Kant

    John Locke and the libertarian philosophers he inspired hold that justice and morality are a matter of respecting the fundamental rights that all individuals hold in common - life, liberty, and property (including the property of one's self). Libertarians like Milton Friedman argue that these principles are incompatible with the government placing restrictions on the free market. But what happens when the market itself brings our rights into conflict with one another? 

    In this unit, we will examine several case studies in which individual rights are disputed, and we will consider whether these cases provide sufficient reason to doubt the libertarian position. We will also introduce the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant, which - although difficult in its formulation - presents a convincing alternative to both utilitarian and libertarian theories of morality and justice.

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  • Unit 4: John Rawls's Theory of Justice

    In the 1970s, the late philosopher John Rawls put forward what is widely considered to be the most important contemporary theory of justice. Rawls's theory is a clever update of the traditional social contract approach, but its starting point, rather than the natural rights of individuals, is the deceptively simple idea of fairness. Who would disagree with the proposal that a just society should be a fair one? 

    As we shall see in this unit, Rawls's theory is both convincing and controversial. We will begin with Thomas Hobbes, one of the most well-known proponents of social contract theory in the history of philosophy. For Hobbes, life before the social contract, or life before government, is "nasty, brutish, and short.” Hobbes makes this claim, because he finds that human nature itself tends towards selfishness and cruel treatment of others, especially without a contract with a government that keeps the peace and punishes those who break contracts. Rawls has a somewhat more positive view of human nature: he is an advocate of political liberalism, and his political philosophy conflicts with many popular contemporary ideas and ideologies. Therefore, we will be looking at issues of equality in society and the questions of whether certain social goods - such as income, education, and opportunity - should be redistributed in order to ensure fairness.

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  • Unit 5: Ethics and Politics of Virtue

    Prior to any of the theories we have considered so far, most accounts of what it is for a person to be moral, or for a society to be just, centered on some conception of virtue. The most famous proponent of virtue as the basis for living a good human life and creating a good state is Aristotle. Although recently, a growing number of philosophers, as well as moral and political theorists, have been returning to the concept of virtue as an antidote to what they interpret as an over-emphasis on individual rights and freedoms and a neglect of community and tradition in political thought since the Enlightenment. But can we as a society come to agree about what living virtuously means? 

    In this unit, we will examine Aristotle's theory of a society organized on the basis of virtue, as well as some modern communitarian extensions of his general line of thought. We will contrast Aristotle's notion of virtue with the existentialist concepts of will to power (as in Friedrich Nietszche) and radical freedom and radical responsibility (as in Jean-Paul Sartre). We will see how these theories bear on the topics of slavery, patriotism, and same-sex marriage.

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  • Course Evaluation Survey

    Please take a few moments to provide some feedback about this course at the link below. Consider completing the survey whether you have completed the course, you are nearly at that point, or you have just come to study one unit or a few units of this course.

    Link: Course Evaluation Survey (HTML)

    Your feedback will focus our efforts to continually improve our course design, content, technology, and general ease-of-use. Additionally, your input will be considered alongside our consulting professors' evaluation of the course during its next round of peer review. As always, please report urgent course experience concerns to contact@saylor.org and/or our Discourse forums.

  • Final Exam

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