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COURSE NAME: "Living the Good Life: Religious and Philosophical Ethics"
SEMESTER & YEAR: Fall 2019

EMAIL: [email protected]
HOURS: TTH 11:30-12:45 PM
OFFICE HOURS: By appointment, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 8.30-10 a.m., 1.30-3 p.m., and 4.15-6 p.m.

What it is to do the right thing, or to be a good person? Where do ethical ideas and standards come from? And why should we be ethical at all? This course introduces students to ethical thinking by studying both concrete issues and more abstract theories, religious and non-religious. Students will explore ideas like “virtue”, “duty”, “conscience”, and “perfection,” philosophers like Plato, Aquinas, and Kant, and religious traditions like Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, alongside concrete issues in areas such as medicine, war, sex, and the environment.

This course introduces you to some general ideas about ethics and the philosophical debates about them, and to some relevant debates over concrete ethical issues. Throughout, the emphasis will be on developing your own views about the issues, ideas, and arguments studied and your ability to explain and defend them orally and in writing.

The course is divided into five parts. The first three parts introduce you to three general concepts of ethical value: happiness, respect, and virtue. For each of these concepts, we will examine how it has been understood and defended by an important historical figure and by a contemporary philosopher, and how it is used in debates over two important contemporary issues. So, for instance, in considering the utilitarian concept of “maximizing happiness” we will examine John Stuart Mill’s sense of “higher pleasures” and Peter Singer’s “drowning child” analogy for helping strangers in need, and we will explore how these ideas are reflected in debates over the limits of our individual freedom – to own a gun, sell sex, or publish what we like, say – and over our responsibilities to animals. After examining these three concepts and the related issues, in the final two parts of the course we consider two broader fields: our responsibilities to nature and the place of religion in ethics. Here too we will examine both some general concepts and some contemporary issues. In considering religion, for example, we will examine general ethical arguments for and against belief in a divine power, as well as the place of religious arguments in debates over abortion and over the meaning of one’s life. 

You will prepare a written assignment after the third part of the course and another after the fifth, and take an exam at the end. You will also be assessed by your participation in class and your contributions to the class forum.


By the end of the course, you will be able to:

• explain and evaluate concepts and arguments used in debates over specific ethical issues;

• explain and evaluate more abstract ethical theories and arguments used to support them; 

• reflectively develop your own reasoned views of these issues, concepts, and arguments;

• understand and interpret primary and secondary philosophical texts; 

• do all this in appropriately academic oral and written forms and individually and in groups.


Class participation Classes will involve a mixture of lectures, seminar discussions, group presentations, and other activities. The emphasis will be on helping you to develop your own and others’ opinions and arguments and your ability to discuss them with others, as well as your understanding of the readings and other materials and the positions and arguments presented in them. Your active involvement in discussions and other class activities, based on adequate preparation outside class, is therefore essential. 25%
Forum contributions Since the class forum is intended to allow for free discussion, I will not assess the content of your posts. Your grade for this assessment will be simply the percentage of times that you post on time, out of the possible total posts. You may also miss up to two posts unexcused without this affecting your grade. 10%
Two written assignmentsThe two written assignments will be ‘take-home’ assignments of 1400-1600 words. You will prepare a written assignment after the third and fifth parts of the course. I will give you a set of questions from which to choose on the last Thursday of the relevant part, although you may also agree an alternative question with me. The assignment will be due a week later, after the review and writing classes. 20% each
Final examinationThe questions for the cumulative final examination will be distributed on Thursday of week 13 and at the examination, which will take place in week 15, you will be given a selection of these questions to choose one from.25%

AWork of this quality directly addresses the question or problem raised and provides a coherent argument displaying an extensive knowledge of relevant information or content. This type of work demonstrates the ability to critically evaluate concepts and theory and has an element of novelty and originality. There is clear evidence of a significant amount of reading beyond that required for the course.
BThis is highly competent level of performance and directly addresses the question or problem raised.There is a demonstration of some ability to critically evaluatetheory and concepts and relate them to practice. Discussions reflect the student’s own arguments and are not simply a repetition of standard lecture andreference material. The work does not suffer from any major errors or omissions and provides evidence of reading beyond the required assignments.
CThis is an acceptable level of performance and provides answers that are clear but limited, reflecting the information offered in the lectures and reference readings.
DThis level of performances demonstrates that the student lacks a coherent grasp of the material.Important information is omitted and irrelevant points included.In effect, the student has barely done enough to persuade the instructor that s/he should not fail.
FThis work fails to show any knowledge or understanding of the issues raised in the question. Most of the material in the answer is irrelevant.


A maximum of two unexcused absences from class will be accepted. Beyond this, a zero grade will be given for each unexcused absence, bringing your average grade down. It is your responsibility to inform me if you miss or cannot participate fully in a class for a good reason. Good reasons include illness, unavoidable appointments, religious holidays, and transport strikes, but not trips, guests, or malfunctioning alarm clocks. Note that arriving late to class, leaving for lengthy "toilet breaks," and using a laptop or mobile phone in class also count as "unexcused absences."

Note also that you may make up a missed assessment only with the permission of the Dean’s Office. This permission is granted only in cases of serious impediment – such as a documented illness, hospitalization, or attendance at an immediate family member’s funeral – and when you notify the Dean’s Office beforehand.
As stated in the university catalog, any student who commits an act of academic dishonesty will receive a failing grade on the work in which the dishonesty occurred. In addition, acts of academic dishonesty, irrespective of the weight of the assignment, may result in the student receiving a failing grade in the course. Instances of academic dishonesty will be reported to the Dean of Academic Affairs. A student who is reported twice for academic dishonesty is subject to summary dismissal from the University. In such a case, the Academic Council will then make a recommendation to the President, who will make the final decision.
John Cabot University does not discriminate on the basis of disability or handicap. Students with approved accommodations must inform their professors at the beginning of the term. Please see the website for the complete policy.


Class schedule and topics


Week 1:           How to do ethics                                                                                                                                                  

Week 2:           Happiness

Tuesday: Maximizing happiness        

                        Thursday: How much should we give?

Week 3:           Tuesday: How free should we be? Guns, prostitution, hate speech

                        Thursday: Animals                                                                                                                          

Week 4:           Respect

Tuesday: Universality and autonomy

                        Thursday: How equal should society be? 

Week 5:           Tuesday: Objectification

                        Thursday: Affirmative action                                                                                                                             

Week 6:           Virtue

Tuesday: Human excellence

                        Thursday: Environmental virtues

Week 7:           Tuesday: Friendship 

                        Thursday: Corruption in politics

Week 8:           Preparation of first written assignment                                                                                                                                                       

Week 9:           Nature

Tuesday: Should we identify with nature? 

                        Thursday: Should I genetically enhance my children?   

Week 10:         Tuesday: What are our responsibilities to future generations? 

                        Thursday: What should do about climate change?                                                                                                                         

Week 11:         Religion

Tuesday: Should we believe in God? 

                        Thursday: What’s wrong with believing in God?               

Week 12:         Tuesday: Is abortion wrong? 

                        Thursday: What is the meaning of my life?                                               

Week 13:         Preparation of second written assignment

Week 14:         Preparation for final exam