• 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 video lecture course on justice, 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.

      • 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

        Thus far, we have predominantly considered theories of just action that base their criteria for justice on an action's consequences. Utilitarianism provides a convincing justification for many of our moral intuitions, but even more refined versions can seem unsatisfying when we realize they reduce moral decisions to detached, rational calculations. For a more adequate theory of just action, we may need to consider an alternative approach to justice and morality.

        In this unit we examine some other approaches to ethical questions which are not grounded in the consequences of action. Libertarianism argues that morality and justice are rooted in the natural rights of individual human beings. While consequences matter, they are always secondary to considerations of natural rights. Libertarianism centers on the relationship between individual freedom and the laws of the state.

        We look at arguments from both sides of this question. In the Crito, Plato claims an individual does not have a right to defy their government. In contrast, contemporary proponents of libertarianism, such as Milton Friedman and Robert Nozick, uphold individual rights and liberties. John Locke argues we can always rescind our government contract. Locke’s arguments have helped shape modern western democracies, such as the United States.

        Completing this unit should take you approximately 13 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's 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's 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 Guide and Review Exercises

        This study guide will help reinforce key concepts in each unit as you prepare to take the final exam. Each unit study guide aligns with the course learning outcomes and provides a summary of the core competencies and a list of vocabulary terms. Our study guides are not meant to replace the readings and videos that make up the course.

        The vocabulary lists include terms that may help you answer some of the review items, and terms you should be familiar with to successfully complete the final exam for the course.