Philosophy 1308-06: Introduction to Ethics

Instructor: Alexander R. Pruss
Course webpage:
Email correspondence:
Class times: Mon., Wed. and Fri. 9:00-9:50 am in MH 107
Office hours: Mon., Wed., Fri. 10:00 am - 11:00 am., or by appointment

Required texts

  1. Plato, Trial and Death of Socrates
  2. Various texts online or on reserve


Ethics is a reasoned examination of the kind of life that a human being should lead.  This is not just a question of dos and don’ts, but a question of what is truly valuable in a human life and what is pointless, of what kind of a life is worth living.

For centuries, the Ten Commandments have been a source of ethical insight.  Interestingly, neither the Jewish nor the Christian traditions took the Ten Commandments to be just a list of ten simple commands.  Rather, the Ten Commandments, in addition to being commands, were seen as providing a way of dividing up ethical reflection.  We are going to look at ethics as organized in this way.

This is a philosophy and not a theology course.  The Commandments are going to act as headings for various abstract and specific issues.  For instance, “Thou shalt not murder” will be an occasion to consider two specific controversial issues, capital punishment and abortion, which both test the limits, if any, of the commandment.  On the other hand, the first commandment will lead us to look at the relationship, if any, between God and ethics, and at whether there are objective moral truths.  For another example, “Thou shalt not steal”, will lead us to examine on a rather abstract level the nature of private property. 

In the course of the semester we will look at a number of different general ethical theories as a way of addressing the particular issues raised.  For instance, consideration of capital punishment will lead us to think about Aristotelian virtue ethics.  When we take up lying, we will consider both utilitarianism and Kantianism.

The original texts of the Bible do not number the ten commandments, and so Jews, Catholics and Protestants traditionally divide them up somewhat differently. The Protestant numbering is:

  1. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.  You shall have no other gods before me.
  2. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth;  you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
  3. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain: for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
  4. Observe the sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you.  Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your manservant, or your maidservant, or your ox, or your ass, or any of your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you.  You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out thence with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
  5. Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God commanded you; that your days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with you, in the land which the LORD your God gives you. 
  6. You shall not kill. 
  7. Neither shall you commit adultery.
  8. Neither shall you steal.
  9. Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife; and you shall not desire your neighbor’s house, his field, or his manservant, or his maidservant, his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.  (Deuteronomy 5:6-21, Revised Standard Version)

In Catholic numbering, 1 and 2 are merged into a single commandment, but 10 is split into two separate commandments, one about lust and one about greed.



All grades are up to the instructor’s final discretion. TA-graded materials can always be re-submitted to the instructor to grade. The instructor will attempt to re-grade the material without looking at the TA's grade, and the resulting grade may be higher or lower.

Starting the second day of class until the end of term, except for the day of the midterm, during each class there is a 1/3 chance of a three-minute multiple-choice quiz, based on the material from the last lecture and/or the reading for that day.

Each student will make a 10 minute presentation at some point in the course of their choosing concerning some moral or ethical issue in the news or in contemporary popular culture (film, literature, music, etc.) that relates to one of the Ten Commandments. The presentation will present the issue, show how it relates to the Commandment, and say a little bit about the kinds of ethical arguments that can be brought to bear on both sides of that issue. You need to email the instructor the topic you are choosing by August 31, as well as the date that you present (it has to be a date that fits with the relevant commandment).

Don’t try to predict when the quizzes will happen.  This will be basically random.  Count on the quiz happening precisely when you’re not prepared!

Academic integrity

All credible suspicions of lack of academic integrity will be automatically reported to the Honor Council for further investigation. 

Plagiarism is one of the most serious of the violations of academic integrity and consists in presenting the work or thought of another as one’s own.  If you are using someone else’s literal words, even if only a short phrase of two or three words, you need to put them in quotation marks (or in the case of a longer quote, in block-quote format which is single-spaced and with every line indented on the left as in the sample quiz question above) and give the source.  If you are paraphrasing or merely using someone else’s ideas, you still need to give the source explicitly.  The only exception to the last rule is that you do not need to specifically give the source for ideas that you got in my lecture when writing papers for this course.

Plagiarism is not only immoral but foolish.  The Honor Council may fail you in the class, or may suspend you or even expel you.  If you just hand in a mediocre but honest paper you will very likely (though I do not make guarantees) get at least a D on the paper, and anyway there are other papers in the course to pull up your average.

If you confess to plagiarism before I give you any sign of my suspicions (before I email you asking you for sources, before I ask you to meet with me, etc.), I will let you rewrite the paper and not proceed any further.

Late and missed assignments

I expect all students to hand in their work on time, barring circumstances beyond their reasonable control.  Written assignments are due at the beginning of class.  I accept unexcused late assignments until the last class day, but of course the grade goes down.  The exact formula is probably going to be something like this: g=g0(100-n3/4)/100, where g is the grade you actually get on the assignment, g0 is the grade you would have got on it if it were not late, and n is the number of days the assignment is late, rounded up to the nearest whole day.  This formula means that it is worth handing in a paper even three months late—your grade will be multiplied by 0.72 then, but this is much better than getting a zero.  I reserve the right to automatically fail a student who misses a paper or an exam with no excuse.  

Tentative schedule

Keep on checking the course website for updates to this syllabus.  Online readings will have hyperlinks in the online version of this syllabus within about a week of the date the reading is assigned.

Additional reading may be added at a number of different points.

Date Subject Assignment
August 20 Introduction None
August 22 First commandment: Absolute rules and God Read: Plato, The Apology
August 24 Morality: real, fictional or subjective? Read: C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, chapters 1-3 (one copy of the book on two hours reserve; the library has a lot of other copies; great book, you should all own it anyway)
August 27 Morality: discussion Be ready to talk!
August 29 God and morality Read: C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, chapter 4
August 31 God and morality

Read: Plato, The Euthyphro

Email instructor: Topic and date of presentation

Sept 5 Second commandment: idols and symbols

Read: Tillich (on reserve)

Email instructor: Thesis sentence for paper #1

Sept 7 Third commandment: God's sacred name

Read: Otto (on reserve)

Sept 10 Fourth commandment: Work and the point of life

Read: Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book I (go to, choose "Aristotle", select "Nicomachean Ethics", and page through with the right-pointing triangle icon until you reach the end of Book I)

Write: Paper #1

Sept 12 Work and the point of life

Read: Marx, Chapter 1 of The German Ideology, sections entitled "First premises of materialist method" and "Production and intercourse"

Read: Marx, Chapter 2 of Wage Labour and Capital

Read: John Paul II, Laborem exercens, Part II

Sept 14 Fifth commandment: Respect for law Read: Plato, The Crito
Sept 17 Respect for law Read: Russell, "And then there were none..."
Sept 19 Legitimate authority

Read: Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II, 90 (note: the views Aquinas lists under "Objections" are views he disagrees with and which he tries to refute in the "Replies"; Aquinas' own view is listed in the "On the contrary" and "I answer that" sections)

Read: Wolff (on reserve)

Sept 21 Legitimate authority

Read: Raz (on reserve)

Read: Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II, question 96, article 4

Sept 24 Sixth commandment: Capital punishment

Read: Aquinas on capital punishment

Read: Plato, Phaedo, 57A-70C, 114D-end

Sept 26 Capital punishment

Read: Conway

Sept 28 Capital punishment Read: Gertsein
Oct 1 Abortion: Ignoring personhood Read: Thomson
Oct 3 Abortion: Ignoring personhood Read: Pruss
Oct 5 Abortion: Personhood Read: Warren (on reserve)
Oct 8 Abortion: Personhood  
Oct 10   Midterm examination
Oct 15 Seventh commandment: Sexuality

Read: May (on reserve)


Oct 17 Discussion

Be ready to talk!
Email instructor: Thesis sentence for paper #2

Oct 19 Eighth commandment: Theft

Read: Aquinas

Oct 22 Private property

Read: Locke, Second Treatise of Government, Chapter 5: original or simplified version

Write: Paper #2

Oct 24 Private property Read: Rousseau
Oct 26 Private property Read: Singer
Oct 29 Ninth commandment: Lying and Kantian ethics Read: Kant, Groundwork, Chapter 2 (online)
Oct 31 More on Kant Be ready to talk!
Nov 2 Kant, and clever ways out Read: Pruss
Nov 5 Utilitarianism Read: Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapters 1 and 2: original or simplified version
Nov 7 Utilitarianism Read: Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapter 5: original or simplified version
Nov 9 Discussion Be ready to talk!
Nov 12 Tenth commandment: Lust

Read: John Paul II on lust: first my note on translation, and then text 1 and text 2

Nov 14 Tenth commandment: Pornography Recommended reading: Andrea Dworkin. Note: Dworkin's piece uses sexually explicit language to describe pornography, and her verbal images are very graphic and unpleasant. She wants to shock her reader. The reading is optional--I will summarize the argumentative points in class.
Nov 16 Tenth commandment: Greed In class, watch Decalogue X
Nov 19 The meaning of life

Read: Camus, "Myth of Sisyphus" (Note: The questions at the end are not by Camus)

Read: Bertrand Russell, "A Free Man's Worship"

Nov 26 Discussion

Be ready to talk!

Email instructor: Thesis sentence for paper #3

Nov 28 Christian love Read: New Testament on love 
Nov 30 The meaning of life


Write: Paper #3

Dec 3 Review and final discussion

Read: Aquinas on love

Be ready to talk!

Dec 7   Final Exam