Topical Focus

In virtue of what, if anything, are moral judgments true or false? If one claims that "torture is wrong" or that "You ought to keep your promises" or that "the death penalty is a just punishment", we tend to think that the person uttering the claim thinks the claim is true, rather than just their opinion, an expression of emotion or of approval or disapproval, and so on. If we ask that person to justify their claim, we expect that they will provide reasons for their claim. Just as we expect a scientist to justify a claim about, say, the movement of particles or the development of the eye, with reference to evidence, with valid logical inferences between premises etc., we also expect rational support for moral claims.

However, whereas the scientist can (usually, but not always) point to objects in the world as evidence, a major problem for moral philosophers has been the clear absence of any empirically verifiable moral fact or natural moral property. Moreover, as Hume famously argued (although not in these precise terms), one cannot logically argue from factual premises to moral conclusions, i.e., go from "is" to "ought". The world shows us no empirically verifiable moral facts, and what facts we are aware of do not seem entail any moral conclusions or judgments. Thus, to ask "in virtue of what, if anything, are moral judgments true or false" is to inquire into the foundations of moral judgments, to ask whether there is anything that "makes" our moral judgments true or false, and if so, how that "something" can be a foundation for moral judgments. Each reading we encounter in the course offers a distinctive approach to our question, but they do not, of course, exhaust the possibilities.

In Unit One we will look at what is known as "intuitionism", "emotivism", and "relativism". The first claims that we can know moral facts through a distinct cognitive faculty, and thus there are some true moral judgments; the second claims that all moral claims are "cognitively meaningless" and thus neither true nor false; moreover, they re simply expressions of the emotions of the speaker; and the third argues that moral judgments can be true or false, but only relative to the values of a particular moral community.

In Unit Two we will look at a criticism of the fact/value dichotomy upon which the emotivist position rests; an argument for cultural differences in morality and notions of rationality that is not strictly relativist; and, finally, an account of metaethics based upon evolutionary theory. Each position engages with and challenges both the other readings in this unit as well as the previous readings. The final unit of the course contains no readings, because at that point you will be working on a research paper in which you will be finding relevant readings.

Rhetorical Aims

Like all WCT modules, the main goal of this class is to prepare you to write an academic essay. The academic essay is a genre of writing distinct from other genres such as the newspaper article, the opinion piece, the blog, the letter, the poem, and so on. Although there are certain formal aspects of the academic essay which, if not unique to it, are often associated with it—for example, the use of footnotes, literature reviews, bibliographies etc.—the defining feature of it, at least for the purposes of this class, is its mode of argumentation. Academic essays make arguments within and to specific sets of readers. What is an argument? An argument is a claim supported by relevant and potentially persuasive reasons and/or evidence. Hopefully, an argument is also worth making, that is, it is of interest and/or importance. An argument is neither the stating of an opinion nor a recounting of what other people have said or written. An argument need not be original, but it must be thoughtfully made. Thinking is essential to writing.

Learning to think is another goal of this class. But, if thinking is essential to writing, then there are not two goals of this class but one. Yet, if writing appears to be an unproblematic activity, it is far less obvious what (critical) thinking is. I understand critical thinking this way: whenever I am doing something, if I am being thoughtful, a voice in my head says: "But is that quite right?" A skeptical questioning is not the whole of thinking, but it is a crucial feature of it. A second crucial feature is learning to talk back to the skeptical voice by adducing reasons for what you say and write, reasons which may not fully satisfy you, or your readers, but which are cogent, insightful, pertinent and, perhaps, thought-provoking or disturbing.

Finally, the third goal of this class is to help you learn to read a few different kinds of texts critically. Reading critically involves critical thinking, and no academic essay can succeed if it doesn't proceed from critical reading. As we have seen, there is really only one goal in this class. Critical readers read closely: that is, critical readers make sure they understand the meaning of each word used in a text; they note the use of metaphors, irony and other tropes, and ask themselves what the metaphor means and why it has been employed; they discern what premises are taken for granted in the construction of an argument; they try to situate texts in broader contexts; they look for keywords and phrases; they note carefully the thesis of a text and whether the argument proves the thesis; they question examples used, often by posing counter-examples; and so on. Most importantly, critical readers are re-readers; as the French literary theorist Roland Barthes once wrote (although he meant something more), "All reading is rereading".

Although learning to think critically, read critically, and write an academic essay are challenging activities, they can be rewarding. By the end of this class you should be able to think more carefully about your own positions and the arguments of others, as well as write more persuasively and intelligently in an academic mode.

N.B. One way in which this module will differ from the others on offer is that you will be writing, in a sense, the same paper three times. In other words, what you choose to write on in the first unit of the course will remain the subject of your subsequent essays. However, in each essay assignment you will be expected to read, think, and write more deeply and intensely about your object of inquiry through greater engagement with other texts. More about this on the first day of class, but for now you should know that the reason I am structuring assignments in this way is that this is what most academics do: we grab hold of a topic, text, event, theory, problem etc. and learn as much about it as we reasonably (and sometimes unreasonably) can in order to make better and better sense of our object of inquiry. My hope is that by the end of this course you will have produced a set of essays that show the progress of your thinking and understanding as well as your capacities to write a specific type of academic essay.