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Ethics and Society (POLI 27, UC San Diego)

Session One - Introduction



Herman Tavani - Ethical Concepts and Ethical Theories (selections)

Michael Tomasello and Amrisha Vaish - Origins of Human Cooperation and Morality

John Rawls - Selections on Reflective Equilibrium

Optional: The Trolley Problem

Session Two - Moral Theories 



Onora O'Neill on Immanuel Kant's Ethics

Adam Smith - The Theory of Moral Sentiments (selections)

Jeremy Bentham - An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (selections)

Robert Böhm, Isabel Thielmann and Benjamin E. Hilbig - The Brighter the Light, The Deeper the Shadow

Optional: Kant's Axe, The Is-Ought Problem

Discussion Question: Recall the summary of the "trolley problem" in the Tavani reading. Now consider the twist proposed on p. 52:

Imagine that a “driverless” trolley—i.e., a trolley being “driven” by an autonomous computer system—is in the same predicament as the one facing the human driver described in that scenario. If you were a software engineer or a member of the team developing the computer system designed to “drive” this trolley, what kind of “ethical-decision-making” instructions would you recommend be built into the autonomous system? Should the autonomous computer system be instructed (i.e., programmed) to reason in a way that it would likely reach a decision to “throw the switch” to save five humans who otherwise would die (as a result of the failed braking system), thus steering the trolley instead in a direction that will intentionally kill one human? In other words, should the “computerized driver” be embedded mainly (or perhaps even exclusively) with a programming code that would influence (what we earlier called) consequentialist- or utilitarian-like moral-decision making? Alternatively, should programming code that would support non-consequentialist decision-making considerations also be built into this autonomous system?

For example, could we program the trolley in a "consequentialist" way? In a "deontological" way? Could we draw on contract-based or virtue-based moral theories? In a post of at least 100 words, propose a set of instructions for the trolley and explain which moral theory or theories motivate your choice.

Session Three - Moral Cooperation 



Bowles and Gintis - A Cooperative Species (selections) 

Mengzi - Selections

Rawls - A Theory of Justice (selections)

Optional: The Veil of Ignorance

Discussion Question: In their book A Cooperative Species, the authors Bowles and Gintis write:

First, people cooperate not only for self-interested reasons but also because they are genuinely concerned about the well-being of others, try to uphold social norms, and value behaving ethically for its own sake. People punish those who exploit the cooperative behavior of others for the same reasons. Contributing to the success of a joint project for the benefit of one’s group, even at a personal cost, evokes feelings of satisfaction, pride, even elation. Failing to do so is often a source of shame or guilt. Second, we came to have these “moral sentiments” because our ancestors lived in environments, both natural and socially constructed, in which groups of individuals who were predisposed to cooperate and uphold ethical norms tended to survive and expand relative to other groups, thereby allowing these prosocial motivations to proliferate.


As we've learned from the Evolution of Trust game, cooperation can be difficult to sustain. Morality seems to play an enabling role in sustaining cooperation. In a post of at least 100 words, explain which of the ethical theories we learned in week 1 you think would be most likely to sustain cooperation in the small-group setting that Bowles and Gintis describe.

Session Four - Moral Intuitions 



Jonathan Haidt - A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment (2001)

David Pizarro and Paul Bloom - The Intelligence of the Moral Intuitions

Jonathan Haidt - Five Moral Foundations

Peter Railton - The Ethical Dog and its Rational Tale (selections)

Optional: Paul Bloom - Against Empathy: Rethinking Our Common-Sense Beliefs About Morality

Discussion Question: Haidt's model of social intuitionism posits that moral judgments are typically the direct products of intuitions: "fast, effortless, and automatic affective responses that present themselves to consciousness as immediate judgments." As evidence, Haidt appeals to the phenomenon of moral dumbfounding: being unable to provide adequate reasons for a moral judgment that one nevertheless adheres to. The authors Bloom and Pizarro present a rationalist reply to social intuitionism, arguing that although we do indeed make use of intuitively given "starting points" in our moral reasoning, these intuitions can themselves be informed or modified by prior reasoning. In a post of at least 100 words, explain which model seems more persuasive, and why.

Session Five - Evil 



Albert Bandura - Moral Disengagement

Steven Pinker - The Better Angels of Our Nature_ Why Violence Has Declined (selections)

Vasily Grossman - Forever Flowing (selections)

Optional: Albert Bandura discuses moral disengagement


Discussion Question: Albert Bandura identifies eight mechanisms for disengagement from moral self-sanctions. In a post of at least 100 words, choose one of these mechanisms, explain it, and illustrate it with at least two examples (hypothetical, historical, literary, etc.).

Midterm Essay

In an essay of no more than five pages, double-spaced, draw on at least three course readings to answer one of the following questions:

1.  Many scholars have assumed that if morality leads to cooperation, it must be a good thing. Böhm, Thielmann and Hilbig remind us that morality is deeply connected to intergroup competition, and that an excess of morality within the group can have severe consequences for those outside it. In a modern context, which ethical theories seem best suited to preventing or reducing the harm caused by intergroup competition? How might we retrain or reinterpret our moral intuitions to reduce intergroup violence?

2.  In assessing the evolutionary purpose of morality, some have argued that it arose in a fairly narrow and homogeneous set of evolutionary conditions. If our moral intuitions are in some sense “calibrated” for these evolutionary background conditions, are they useful in a modern setting? What kinds of ethical theories seem most useful in a modern context?

3.  We might call the combination of moral intuitions, moral judgments and ethical theories a “moral system.” As you now know, the exact relationship between the elements in this moral system is disputed. While social intuitionists claim that moral reasoning is a post-hoc construction, rationalists claim that it can play a role in shaping moral judgment. Explain the terms of this debate, and discuss what’s at stake. Which ethical theories are most compatible with the views set out by each side? How does each side of the debate make sense of the origins of our moral intuitions?

Session Six - Why Government? 



Thomas Hobbes - Leviathan (selections)

Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, John Jay - The Federalist Papers (selections)

Max Weber - The Vocation Lectures (selections)

Optional: Freedom vs. Security

Discussion Question: Madison, Hamilton and Jay make extensive use of ethical theories and moral reasoning in Federalist #10 and #51. For example, they discuss human nature, moral intuitions, social norms, and cooperation. In a post of at least 100 words, identify one example of this ethical and moral reasoning, explain it, and discuss whether you think it is persuasive. Give a citation to the page number, and try to choose an example that has not already been posted.

Session Seven - Political Ideologies 



Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Socialism (2019)

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Conservatism (2019)

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Liberalism (2018)

Benito Mussolini - The Doctrine of Fascism (selections)

Leon Trotsky - Terrorism and Communism (selections)

Discussion Question: The political ideologies in this set of readings are grounded in the moral intuitions and ethical theories that we've been studying. In a post of at least 100 words, choose one of these political ideologies and explain 1) how it makes sense of some of our moral intuitions, and 2) which ethical theory or theories it's most compatible with.

Session Eight - Norm Change 



Gerry Mackie - Social Norms Change, Believing Makes It So

Cristina Bicchieri - The Rules We Live By

Bo Rothstein - Anti corruption, the indirect 'big bang' approach

Optional: Yvonne Riaño - Urban Fear and Violence in Bogota

Discussion Question: Gerry Mackie distinguishes between moral, social and legal norms, and Cristina Bicchieri argues that these norms are heuristics governing behavior in situations where deliberation would be too costly. In a post of at least 100 words, give examples of different types of conduct or behavior that are regulated a) morally, b) socially, and c) legally.

Session Nine - Effective Altruism



Peter Singer - Famine, Affluence and Morality

Toby Ord - The Moral Imperative toward Cost-Effectiveness in Global Health

Emily Clough - Effective Altruism's Political Blind Spot (with reply)

Optional: The Life You Can Save

Discussion Question: While Peter Singer and Toby Ord identify compelling reasons for what they call effective altruism, Emily Clough points out that the context within which effectiveness is assessed matters, and that if we widen our view to take in the effects of development interventions on state institutions and on the political autonomy of recipients, the case for effective altruism isn't so clear. In a post of at least 100 words, discuss whether the moral imperative identified by Singer and Ord can be reconciled with Clough's criticisms.

Session Ten - Toleration



Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Toleration (2017)

John Stuart Mill - On Liberty (selections)

Jason Stanley - What John Stuart Mill Got Wrong About Freedom of Speech

John Rawls on toleration (selections)

Optional: The Harm Principle, Hannah Arendt - Truth and Politics (1967)

Discussion Question: While John Stuart Mill argues that speech appearing false or harmful should be permitted because a diversity of opinions leads ultimately to truth, Jason Stanley argues that permitting this kind of speech gives a platform to conspiracy theories, thereby undermining our mutual respect and "common reality." In a post of at least 100 words, evaluate this disagreement. Who, if anyone, should decide on which ideas are false and hence not suitable for the wider public?

Final Essay

In an essay of no more than six pages, double-spaced, draw on at least three course readings to answer one of the following questions:

1. Madison, Hamilton and Jay write: “In framing a government…the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” Explain the tension between these two objectives. Why is accomplishing both of them a “great difficulty”? Which of the political ideologies that we’ve studied do you think would be most effective in accomplishing both of these objectives?

2. Find an example of a society suffering from injustice. This example can be from history, fiction, current events, or your own imagination. Identify the nature of the injustice, articulate the ethical theory or theories your judgment is based on, and explain how the perpetrators of the injustice rationalize it. Next, propose a program of norm change for this society, setting out a realistic plan for changing the undesirable behavioral norms you identify.

3. Toleration of intolerance is one of the most difficult challenges facing a liberal society. While some have argued that we should permit the expression of intolerant opinions in order to rebut them more effectively, others have argued that the harm caused by intolerance outweighs the public benefit created. Explain the terms of this debate, and identify the implicit appeals to ethical theories made by each side. Under what circumstances do you think it’s justifiable to silence others?

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