Introduction to Ethical Theory
What is the philosophical study of Ethics? For an introductory class such as this, we
will be seeking to answer this question, and others (because Philosophy is all about raising
questions and trying to answer them), in the context of particular contemporary ethical
issues. Many students (and in fact most people), upon coming across the subject for the
first time, tend to take one of two extreme views.
On the one end, of those who have
already begun to attempt to wrestle with ethical issues such as abortion, euthanasia, racism,
and so on (and believing it is necessary to have a clear and certain opinion on such
matters), formulate one or adopt a position taken by an influential authority figure in their
lives. There is then one right, and correct opinion about a particular subject for such
persons, and they are confident that they have it. On the other end of the spectrum are those
who are either skeptical about being able to have an informed and clear view about an
issue of ethical import (usually for any number of reasons), or have not taken the mental
energy to attempt to formulate a position. Subsequently they tend to take the view that
Ethics are entirely relative to a particular society or subjective to a particular person—and
that there is no objective right or wrong answer on any given ethical issue.
This course will not allow you to take either of these positions, at least not easily.
For as a branch of Philosophy, Ethics will require you to do two things. First, you will be
asked to not simply decide what the difference is between right and wrong, but to seek to
a particular action or policy is right or wrong. Since we are going to be
asking why something is the case, we will therefore be looking at particular
, and the reasons for accepting or rejecting such theories. Second, once you have
gained a clear understanding of the particular theories, you will then be expected to apply
them to contemporary ethical issues. By the end of this course, you can expect to not
necessarily have the right or wrong answers to particular ethical issues, but you can hope to
have more informed reasons for believing that your position is the best one.
Let us look at these expectations in a little more detail. This course is assuming that