Individual and Society A (Moral Philosophy)

Department of Philosophy, School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion

College of Arts and Law


Code 20388

Level of study First Year

Credit value 10

Semester 1

Module description

We talk naturally of learning, knowing or not knowing, the difference between right and wrong, and of moral "debate", or moral "convictions", as though there were moral facts or moral truths just like there are mathematical truths or facts about chemistry, and as though the concept of gaining moral knowledge were unproblematic. Typically, someone who thinks that, say, bull-fighting is wrong does not treat that as "just my taste or opinion". On the other hand it can easily seem that ethical disagreement amongst sane and competent people is peculiarly deep, pervasive and ineradicable in a way that makes implausible the picture of a "moral reality" that we might be mistaken about. Again the apparent existence of widespread cultural and historical divergencies in moral "outlook" may appear to support some form of moral "relativism" according to which our values are in some way social (or class) constructions or projections; and many modern philosophers, emphasising the inherently action-guiding function of moral "beliefs" have followed the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume in regarding morality as therefore rooted in "sentiment", which can alone truly motivate, not the "reason" which his younger contemporary Immanuel Kant later insisted upon as the foundation of morality. Furthermore, there are fundamentally different approaches in moral theory exemplified especially in the clash between utilatarianism, which holds the rightness of an action to depend crucially upon the amount of happiness or "utility" it produces, and deontological accounts, like Kant's, which isist that we have duties and rights which should not be overridden by any consideration of maximising desirable consequences: that the end can never justify the means, if these involve trampling on certain moral rights. Can the conflict between these theories be satisfactorily resolved? If not, would that indeed support the view that no form of moral "objectivism" is tenable? Is that view in any case to be rejected on other grounds? Was Hume or Kant right about the basis of morality? Does it really matter much anyway? These are the main questions to be explored in this module.