Good and Evil

Course at IAP-PUC, Second Semester 2009, Mondays and Wednesdays 13.30-14.50h, by Daniel von Wachter

Contact: - replace "ABCD" by "von-wachter"

Content of this page

Descripción del curso

This course addresses fundamental questions of ethics, such as: Are good and evil relative? Are they subjective? Do they depend on the culture? Does morality depend on the will of God? How do we know what we ought to do? The core text of this course is: Gensler, Harry: Ethics - A contemporary Introduction (1998) and Ethics - Contemporary Readings. Although also some ancient texts will be studied, the aim of this course is not primarily to interpret old texts but to develop and defend answers to the questions.

General objective: Develop and defend an answer to a philosophical question, in writing and orally.

Special objectives

  1. Understand what the main possible answers to the questions are.
  2. Understand the presuppositions of the various positions .
  3. Be able to formulate arguments for and against the positions considered.
  4. Know the present state of the debate.



Written homeworks

Send me written homeworks by email until Saturday evening if it is for Monday, and until Wednesday 9 o'clock if it is for Wednesday. If it is short (up to 1.000 words), copy the text into the body of an email (plain text, not HTML). If it is longer or if it contains formatting which would be lost, send it to me as a file in format ODT (OpenOffice) or PDF or RTF (if you use MS Word, save as RTF) and follow THESE instructions.

Always do the homework. Without this you will not make progress. However, if you do not do up to 20% of the homeworks, this will not directly affect your mark (but it may indirectly because then you have less practise for the mid term exam and the final essay.


The evaluation is different from what was announced in the "Programa de Curso". It is as follows:
30%: Half term exam on Wednesday 14/10/2009

30%: Contributions to the classes and smaller writing assignments
40%: Final essay.

Half term exam

The half term exam will take place on Wednesday, 14 October, 2009, at 13.30 h.

The exam will ask brief questions like "What is cultural relativism?" or "Does moral subjectivism hold that moral statements are truthbearers? (Answer with up to three sentences), and ask you to defend or object to a view.

For the exam you need to study:

Practise giving arguments. Practise stating definitions of views. Use the studying techniques described HERE. Read this page and the pages referred to.

Train to answer the questions in ECI.

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The final essay

Length: 2.000 to 3.000 words.

Hand it in until 28/11/2008. If you need to arrange another deadline, talk to me. I urge you to write the essay now.

Possible essay topics

For each of the following topics, you find the relevant texts in the bibliography below and in the "Notes for the Sessions". Again, read this page completely and carefully. Search for references to relevant texts. If you want a different topic, talk to me.

Is cultural relativism true?

Is moral subjectivism true?

Is supernaturalism true?

See also Swinburne.

Are there objective moral facts?

Look at other expositions of objectivism besides Gensler's: See Huemer, Swinburne, Ross, McNaughton. See also ECR 221-228.


The files are sometimes updated.

Notes for the sessions

Go to the next session.

12-24/8/2009: Introduction

26/8/2009: Relativism

Monday, 31 August, 2009: Relativism

Task for this session: Give (in writing) one concise argument for cultural relativism and one against it. Do not write about c.r. but give arguments for and against it.

Obligatory reading for this session:

Further reading

Wednesday, 2 September, 2009

Task for this session: AGAIN: Give (in writing) one concise argument for cultural relativism and one against it. Do not write about c.r. but give arguments for and against it.
As written above (read it!), send the text in the body of an (plain text) email.

Obligatory reading for this session:

Monday, 7/9/2009

Task for this session: Give another concise argument against cultural relativism in writing. (As described above, email it to me until Saturday evening. Write or paste the text must in the body of the email.

Obligatory reading for this session:

Note that for the mid term exam all of ECI which we will have read thus far and all parts of ECR which we will have read thus far are presupposed. And you should study these texts thoroughly anyway.
Also do the exercises by Gensler!
Also the powerpoint slides will be relevant.

Wednesday, 9/9/2009

Have read all of the following:

Monday, 14.9.2009

For this session: Read ECI ch. 2 and ECR Hume, Nagel.

Wednesday, 16.9.2009

Writing task for this session: Define moral subjectivism and give an argument for or against it. State the argument completely. Write between 1/3 and 1 page.

Bring and have read ECI ch. 2 and ECR Hume, Nagel.

Mon. 21.9.2009

Task for this session:

The slides of the last class are HERE.

Wed. 23.9.2009

Task for this session:
Read ECR 69-81

Notes from this session

Nagel draws our attention to various reasons from which moral reasons are to be distinguished. Consider the example of someone stealing a book.

If he refrains from doing so (i.e. he does not do the wrong action) in order to avoid punishment (e.g. by God or by the state), then he does not act for a moral reason.

If he refrains from doing so because others might find out and criticise him or do the same with his books, then he does not act for a moral reason.

If he refrains from doing so because he believes that God commands him not to do it, then he is acting for a moral reason but not for the intrinsic one. That God has commanded it is a different reason than that it is not his book.

If he refrains from doing so because there is a law which says that he must not to take the book, then he does not act for a moral reason.

Duties supervene in a certain way on non-moral properties:

If in two situations there are different duties, then there is a difference in the non-moral properties.

False: If in S1 there is duty D because of the non-moral facts A,B,C,D, then in every situation equal in A,B,C,D there is a duty equal to D. (This is false because there can be an additional non-moral fact L because of which D does not obtain.)

Whenever there is a duty D, there is a set of non-moral facts because of which D obtains.

Mon. 28.9.2009

For this session read:
ECR 69-81
ECI ch. 3.
Swinburne, Richard: The Existence of God, ch. 9.

Further reading:
Byrne, Peter, "Moral arguments for the existence of God"
Survey over the divine command theory
Search in the internet for "divine command theory" or "eutyphro dilemma".

Wed. 30.9.2009

For this session read: ECI, ch. 3. (Of course, have read the readings for 28/9 too.)

Further reading: Copan, Paul, "The Moral Argument", The Rationality of Theism, ch. 8.

Mon. 5.10.2009

Written task: Put forward an objection against the divine command theory. Write at least 250 words (but no superflous words..

Obligatory reading for this session: Repeat thoroughly the material from the last two sessions. Read also the entry "The divine command theory" in the IEP. Follow the links in the Wikipedia article.

Wed. 7.10.2009

Swinburne, Richard: "God and Morality"

Mon. 12/10/2009

Prepare for the exam on 14 October!
In this session we shall repeat the material for the exam. Ask your questions.

Wed. 14/10/2009, 13.30 h: Half term exam!

Wed. 21/10/2009

Mon. 26/10/2009

For this session: Make sure you know the texts by Moore and Ross well. Further, read ECI ch. 5 and ECR pp. 100-116.

Notes for this session:

Moore's 'open question argument' is presented well in Huemer 2006, §4.2. See also Moore's Principia Ethica.

Mon. 2/11/2009

For this session: Study ECI ch. 5 and ECR pp. 100-116.

Monday 9/11/2009

For this session: Study ECR, 117-135, and ECI ch. 6

Monday 16/11/2009

For this session: Study ECI, ch. 10, and ECR pp. 197-220.

Wednesday 18/11/2009

For this session: Study ECI, ch. 11.

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Internet resources

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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Core text:

Other relevant Important texts

Further texts:

Vertreter der wichtigsten Positionen (vgl. McNaughton, S. 15):

Legal Positivism

(Beachten Sie, daß die Behauptung, daß es objektive moralische Gesetze gibt, noch über die z.B. von McNaughton vertretene Behauptung, daß es objektive moralische Tatsachen gibt hinausgeht. Man kann behaupten, daß es wahre moralische Einzelurteile gibt wie "Müllers Mord an Huber war böse", ohne zu behaupten, daß es wahre moralische Allgemeinurteile gibt wie "Töten ist (immer) böse".)

"Wenn es keinen Gott gibt, gibt es keine objektive Moral"

Zur Einführung in die Philosophie