• Don Landes

Phil 621/430 Advanced Topics in Ethical Theory: Virtue Ethics

Course Taught:


Phil 621/430 Advanced Topics in Ethical Theory: Virtue Ethics, Concordia University, Fall 2014


Detailed Course Description


What is the good and happy life for human beings? What should my life be like? How ought I to live? What kind of person should I work to become? These are questions that naturally occur to many individuals at various times in their lives, assuming of course some basic level of leisure, curiosity, and reflection. Moreover, not only do they motivate literature, the arts, psychology, politics, and even industry and technology, they also represent the core of the normative ethical landscape known as “Virtue Ethics.” And yet some philosophers wonder: are these questions, properly speaking, ethical questions? To a modern sensibility, questions of character traits, practical wisdom, and the good life will often seem secondary given the emphasis in ethical thought on justice, duties, rights, or the overall expected consequences of actions. Worries about the good person or practical wisdom may have spurred Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and others to write some of the great ethical works in the history of philosophy, but it seems fair (to many) to say that philosophers were justified in suspending these less direct and codifiable areas of ethical discourse. This is too simplistic of a story, of course, but it is a version of the standard one…


Even if the appearance of virtue ethics as an equal alongside the other two would hardly have been expected by philosophers educated prior to the 1970s, in the current philosophical understanding of normative ethics it is not uncommon to hear the general claim that there are three main branches of normative theories: deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics. The contemporary inclusion of virtue ethics as one of the “big three,” however, is not simply the result of nostalgia for the tradition or of a desire to force unwilling undergrads to read Aristotle. Rather, “virtue” has reappeared with force in the contemporary debates, partially as a response to the alleged shortcomings of other theories, as we will see. Thus, as Hursthouse puts it, Virtue Ethics is both “an old and a new approach.”


This course is designed to explore the ongoing revival of Aristotelian-inspired Virtue Ethics – its sources, its proponents, its critics, and the various key concepts and debates that have emerged. In week 1, we will begin with Aristotle, and his presence will remain throughout our readings, lectures, and discussions. In weeks 2–5, our general theme will be the role of the “neo,” the “Aristotelian,” and the “Ethics” in the perhaps less-than-straightforward phrase “neo-Aristotelian Virtue Ethics.” In weeks 6-8, we explore the “Virtue” part of that phrase, and thus the exciting promise and potential of a (re)turn to Virtue Ethics in terms of topics related to human nature, perception, reason, and the emotions. Weeks 9-11 will put virtue ethics into question, as we explore Feminist, Kantian, Social Psychological, and Utilitarian attacks on or defenses against the Virtue Theory revival. Sessions 12-13 will draw much of this together, as we explore a phenomenological approach to Virtue Ethics (including a concluding “workshop” on developing a phenomenological description of the lived experience of character, virtue, vice, and ethical weight).


Course Objectives

· To gain a deep understanding of how the History of Philosophy interacts with contemporary philosophical debate.

· To develop your skills of critical thinking, reading, and writing in the context of subtle and difficult material.

· To gain a secure grounding in formulating, developing, researching, and writing a substantial philosophy term paper.

· “Unit One”: To develop a subtle understanding of the key components of Virtue Ethics and the ongoing neo-Aristotelian versions of Virtue Ethics

· “Unit Two”: To explore the role of human nature, perception, reason, and the emotions in the ethical realm.

· “Unit Three”: To understand the way in which objections and replies unfold in philosophy through a study of the Feminist, Kantian, Situationist, and Utilitarian responses to the Virtue Ethics revival.

“Unit Four”: To develop a subtle grasp of the possibility of phenomenological description in relation to character, habituation, and ethical experience.

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