• Course Introduction

        • Time: 49 hours
        • Free Certificate
        This course introduces the basic concepts and methods of moral and political philosophy. We focus on the development of moral reasoning and how to apply these ideas to contemporary social and political issues. Although the course is organized around the concept of justice, we will discuss a wide range of philosophical topics and perspectives.

        We explore the value of human life, the moral standing of the free market, the notion of fundamental human rights, equality of opportunity, and the conditions for a moral community. We make extensive use of Michael Sandel's lecture series on justice, which was delivered at Harvard University in 2009.

        In addition to these lectures, we study several moral and political philosophers, such as Plato, Aristotle, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, and John Rawls. We also examine the contemporary thinkers Alasdair MacIntyre, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, news articles, and primary source texts on important legal decisions. By the end of the course, you will have a better understanding of the philosophical issues involved in many contemporary debates in the public sphere, and a refined sense of your own moral and political positions and intuitions.

        First, read the course syllabus. Then, enroll in the course by clicking "Enroll me in this course". Click Unit 1 to read its introduction and learning outcomes. You will then see the learning materials and instructions on how to use them.

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

        Everyone has some ideas about the difference between right and wrong, 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 situations arise that force us to call our moral beliefs into question and debate the truth about moral behavior with our peers. It is usually the difficult cases, where people are divided about the right course of action, that bring the differences in our moral intuitions into focus and force us to clarify our moral principles.

        In this unit, we investigate some notoriously difficult and divisive moral dilemmas involving justice, rights, and the value of human life. We explore the moral theory of utilitarianism in depth and consider whether it can help us determine the right thing to do and how to produce a just society. Finally, we introduce two ethical theories that contrast with utilitarianism: deontology and natural law.

        Completing this unit should take you approximately 6 hours.

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

        So far, we have predominantly 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 may need to consider an alternative approach to justice and morality. Consequently, this course will continue to examine some other approaches to ethical questions which are not grounded in the consequences of an action. One such approach is represented by libertarianism, which argues that morality and justice are rooted in the natural rights of individual human beings. Consequences matter, of course, but they are always secondary to considerations of natural rights.

        Libertarianism centers on the relationship between individual freedom and the laws of the state. In this unit, we will look at arguments on both sides of this question. 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 like Milton Friedman and Robert Nozick uphold individual rights and liberties. John Locke argues that the contract we have with our government can always be rescinded. Locke’s arguments have been influential in the shaping of modern western democracies, in general, and the United States in particular.

        Completing this unit should take you approximately 15 hours.

      • Unit 3: Morality, Markets, and Immanuel Kant

        John Locke and the libertarian philosophers he inspired held 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 such as Milton Friedman argue 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 examine several case studies in which individual rights are disputed, and we consider whether these cases provide sufficient reason to doubt the libertarian position.

        Are individual rights enough to determine how to answer moral questions and how to propose a just society? Perhaps we need a more substantive philosophical approach to answer some of our moral and political questions. This is the position of Immanuel Kant, who suggests that we have certain moral obligations because we are human beings with moral reasoning capabilities. These capabilities lead to certain duties which we need to consider. We call Kant’s philosophy deontological, which means it is rooted in duty.

        Completing this unit should take you approximately 10 hours.

      • Unit 4: John Rawls' Theory of Justice

        In the 1970s, John Rawls (1921–2002), the American moral and political philosopher, proposed what many consider to be the most important contemporary theory of justice. He updates the traditional social contract approach, but begins with the deceptively simple idea of fairness, rather than the natural rights of individuals. Who can disagree with the proposal that a just society should be fair?

        Rawls' theory is convincing and controversial. Thomas Hobbes, one of the most well-known proponents of social contract theory, believed that life before government and the social contract is "nasty, brutish and short" because human nature itself is selfish and cruel, especially when society lacks a government contract to maintain peace and punish those who break the contract.

        Rawls has a more positive view of human nature: he advocates political liberalism, and his political philosophy conflicts with several popular contemporary ideas and ideologies. He examines issues of equality in society and proposes redistributing certain social goods – such as income, education, and opportunity – to ensure fairness.

        Completing this unit should take you approximately 10 hours.

      • Unit 5: Ethics and Politics of Virtue

        Prior to any of the theories we have considered so far, most accounts of what it means for a person to be moral, or for a society to be just, centered on some conception of virtue. Aristotle is the most famous proponent of virtue, as the basis for living a good human life and creating a good state. Recently, Alasdair MacIntyre and a growing number of moral and political theorists have returned 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 our society agree on what living virtuously means?

        In this unit, we examine Aristotle's theory of a society organized on the basis of virtue, and some modern communitarian extensions of his general line of thought. We contrast Aristotle's notion of virtue with existentialist concepts of will to power (as in Friedrich Nietszche), and radical freedom and radical responsibility (as in Jean Paul Sartre). We see how these theories bear on certain controversial topics of our day. This discussion will help you consider these types of difficult controversies from a richer, more informed perspective.

        Completing this unit should take you approximately 10 hours.

      • Study Guides

        These study guides will help you get ready for the final exam. They discuss the key topics in each unit, walk through the learning outcomes, and list important vocabulary terms. They are not meant to replace the course materials!

      • Course Feedback Survey

        Please take a few minutes to give us feedback about this course. We appreciate your feedback, whether you completed the whole course or even just a few resources. Your feedback will help us make our courses better, and we use your feedback each time we make updates to our courses.

        If you come across any urgent problems, email contact@saylor.org or post in our discussion forum.

      • Certificate Final Exam

        Take this exam if you want to earn a free Course Completion Certificate.

        To receive a free Course Completion Certificate, you will need to earn a grade of 70% or higher on this final exam. Your grade for the exam will be calculated as soon as you complete it. If you do not pass the exam on your first try, you can take it again as many times as you want, with a 7-day waiting period between each attempt.

        Once you pass this final exam, you will be awarded a free Course Completion Certificate.