This course encourages students to reflect on ethical matters, mixing practical tasks with theoretical reflection. It will make use of case studies on various moral issues, which students will engage with using different ethical theories. The student will learn to what extent moral theory and practice are interlinked and that responsible moral decision-making requires careful theoretical reflections (and, by the same token, that doing moral theorizing without having a concrete situation in mind is futile).
The course will tackle the following theoretical issues:
- Moral Relativism/moral pluralism/moral absolutism: This topic is concerned with determining whether there is one right (or adequate) morality, whether there are several adequate ones or an endless amount of inadequate moralities (‘anything goes’). Relativists suggest that there are no trans-cultural criteria with the help of which we can justify moral considerations, thus, suggesting an ‘anything goes’ morality. Moral absolutists suggest that there is only one right or adequate morality, usually the one they or their group hold. Moral pluralists are somewhere in the middle between both (they suggest that more than one morality can be adequate but that that does not imply that ‘anything goes,’ i.e., not all kinds of moralities are adequate).
-Possible example: How does the notion of human rights fare in light of those considerations? Does it require a morally absolutistic background rather than a relativist one? Can it be justified on pluralist grounds as well?
- Utilitarianism versus Kantianism: This is a debate centred around whether or not our most fundamental moral criteria should be moral principles, such as ‘human beings should always be treated as an end in themselves and not as a means to an end.’ Should one make one’s actions only dependent on those principles and neglect the consequences one’s actions have (as some Kantians suggest?). Or should one take those consequences into account as well? For example, utilitarians suggest that we should consider the consequences so as to maximise ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number (of people)”.
-Possible example: Depending on what kind of ethical approach one embraces, Kantian or utilitarian, one will look very differently at, for example, the practice of some NGOs to pick up refugees in the Mediterranean Sea and take them to Europe. Those different approaches will determine what kind of actions one considers to be morally laudable, whether one thinks that the NGO’s are morally justified to do what they do or whether they are not justified.
- Divine Command Theory versus Natural Law Theory: This is the issue of how certain religions justify morality. Christianity and some other religions tend to justify morality with the argument that something is good because God wills it so (many Protestant Christians justify morality in this fashion). Alternatively, morality is justified because it is in line with the order of nature, wherein nature is God’s creation (thus, perfect or, at least, very good; many Catholics justify their morality in this fashion).
-Possible examples: A commonly cited example is that Natural Law Theory has problems with accepting homosexuality (because sexuality’s goal is procreation and homosexuality does not fit this bill). Or that Divine Command Theory rules out euthanasia because it is against God’s will.
Students will discuss these and other relevant examples throughout the course.
Furthermore, students will consider whether Divine Command Theory and Natural Law Theory are the only ways to justify morality from a religious point of view or whether there are particular branches within religions that justify their morality differently.
Since the students of this course will be from different countries and thus have different cultural backgrounds, there will be a particular emphasis on how morality is culturally embedded. Students will be asked to come up with examples from their own cultural context.