“I told a friend that I exit class on clouds every day. The content of the class is endlessly interesting.” - Jessica F. | Valley Stream, New York
One of the core subfields of philosophy, ethics is concerned with such matters as: what should we do – what makes actions right or wrong? 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 ends are worth pursuing and make 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 does morality consist of rules that are binding amongst all humans (or rational beings)? Or is it merely a subterfuge – a means through which the weak thwart the flourishing of a “higher” type of human, or through which society deflects us from the rightful pursuit of our rational self-interest?
After an overview of the terrain of ethics and basic concepts of philosophical argumentation, we examine three of the most prominent ethical theories within the Western philosophical tradition: (utilitarian) consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics. We then consider two significant challenges to these approaches: Nietzsche’s “genealogy” and ethical egoism. In the third and final part of the course, we explore how the theoretical perspectives we have considered in the first two can enhance our appraisal of a question we confront, explicitly or not, almost every day: is eating meat morally permissible?
Authors covered include Aristotle, 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 a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Columbia University. His dissertation is about time, death, and the relation between the individual and the community in Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. His research is mainly in 19th- and 20th-century European philosophy and in social and political philosophy, and he has teaching interests in ethics, philosophy of law, and philosophy of art. While at Columbia, he has taught or served as teaching assistant for numerous courses. He believes that philosophy is for everyone and continues to facilitate philosophical discussions with non-academic audiences as a participant in the Columbia Department of Philosophy’s outreach program, Rethink.