One of the core subfields of philosophy, ethics is concerned with such matters as: what we should do – what makes actions right (moral) or wrong (immoral)? What kind of person should one seek to be – what makes someone virtuous rather than vicious? What kind of life do we wish to live – what makes a life good and worthy of choice, as opposed to bad and undesirable? What is the best account of the relations amongst morality, virtue, and happiness – can someone be immoral or vicious and, yet, really happy? And is morality a genuine phenomenon that holds universally amongst all humans (or rational beings)? Or is it merely a subterfuge – a means through which weak humans thwart the potential flourishing of a “higher” type of human, or through which economically and militarily ascendant Western nations impose their values on non-Western cultures?
After an overview of the terrain of ethics and the basics of philosophical argumentation, we examine three of the most prominent traditions of ethics in the Western philosophical tradition: utilitarian consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. We then consider two significant challenges to these approaches: Nietzsche’s “genealogy” and moral relativism. In the third and final part of the course, we explore how the theoretical perspectives we’ve considered in the first two can enhance our appraisal of such pressing practical matters as our moral relations to the unborn, to non-human animals, and to the world’s poor.
Authors covered include John Stuart Mill, Kant, Nietzsche, Plato, and several contemporary moral philosophers, including Peter Singer.
Through lecture, independent reading, and class discussion and debate, participants gain not only a familiarity with of some of the fundamental issues in ethics, but an understanding of the distinctiveness of philosophical enquiry and an improved ability to think critically and to express themselves clearly and cogently.
Alex Rigas is entering his final year of a Ph.D. program in philosophy at Columbia University and is writing a dissertation on the thought of Martin Heidegger. He specializes in 19th- and 20th-century European philosophy, with secondary interests in political philosophy and ethics. During his time at Columbia, he has served as a teaching assistant for numerous courses, including Ethics and 20th-Century European Philosophy, and recently served as an instructor for Contemporary Political Philosophy. He also has experience teaching philosophy in non-academic contexts, having been a facilitator for three years in the Columbia Philosophy Department’s outreach program, Rethink.