Ethics and Contemporary Life (Honors) Syllabus

Ethics and Contemporary Life (Honors)

Instructor: Rochelle DuFord


Catalog Description: An examination of general theories of obligation as applied to specific contemporary problems. The student will be introduced to major ethical theories, including: virtue-based, deontological and utilitarian standards. Life choices concerning issues of courage, moderation, wisdom, trust, authenticity, friendship, compassion and justice will be discussed. Controversial issues such as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, lying and truth telling, sexual morality, medical experimentation, citizenship, punishment, obligations to the disadvantaged and business and professional obligations are among those explored.

About this Course: This course will consider the various philosophical ways of understanding ethics. We will begin with meta-ethical questions. These are questions about whether ethics is possible, and if so, what does it mean to be ethical? We will move onto classical moral theories: virtue ethics, consequentialism, and deontology. Here we will discuss different orientations, principles, and actions that may be right or wrong. Some questions to be considered include: do actions or intentions determine whether an act is morally right? Does doing bad actions make you a bad person? What kinds of actions would a good person take, and why would they take them? The last moral theory we will consider is an ethics of care. This is a contemporary moral theory that claims the basis of all moral action is care for ourselves, for others, and for society. Lastly, we will consider some applied moral problems such as ethical decisions involving other animals, environmental ethics, the ethics of opportunity, and how to analyze political actions and structures using ethical models.

Course Objectives:

  • Enabling students to read, write, and think critically about ethical problems. Specifically, to familiarize you with the process of justifying ethical beliefs and actions.
  • To familiarize students with the basic theories of meta-ethics and normative ethics.
  • To introduce applied ethical reasoning to students—wherein they utilize ethical principles and apply them to everyday moral questions.
  • Develop students’ critical reading and critical writing abilities by reading and writing about complex texts.


Required Texts:

Will be available as PDFs on the Course Management Software. You are required to bring the reading to class, either as a PDF on a tablet or laptop, or a printed document.

Course Policies:

Technology: Unless you have a documented need for accommodations, laptops are not to be used in class, except as a reading device—you should not take notes on your laptops. Any technological activity unrelated to the course will result in a loss of participation points for the week.

Accommodations: I am committed to maintaining a classroom that is accessible for all students. If you require academic accommodations, please provide me with the appropriate documentation and we will work together to implement the structures you need.

Submission of Late Work: All work is required to be submitted by the due date. Any submission of discussion questions past the time/date due will be counted as a 0. Work submitted late will incur a 10% per day penalty. Make-up exams and writing assignments will be given only in the case of documented emergency or illness.

Academic Dishonesty:

Final Grades:

Final grades will be calculated according to the following scale:

Percentage Grade to Letter Grade:

A: 100-93

A-: 90-92.99

B+: 87-89.99

B: 83-86.99

B-: 80-82.99

C+: 77-79.99

C: 73-76.99

C-: 70-72.99

D: 60-69.99

F: Below 60

Discussion Questions: worth 15%

You are required to submit at least 15 discussion questions for the course. The structure of in class time will be roughly one hour of lecture followed by, or interspersed with, discussion of the text.

There are 15 weeks, however, only 13 of them will be weeks for you to submit discussion questions. Therefore, you will receive 1 point per discussion question you post. You will also receive 1 point for posting a question for review for both the midterm and final exam (you are welcome to post more than one question for review, however, only one will earn you a point).

Discussion questions must be submitted to the course management software by 5pm the day before the class for which you are submitting.

There will be a different discussion board for each week of class, and two different threads for each class. You must post in the correct weekly board, as well as the correct daily thread, which will be labeled with the title of the reading.

Writing Assignments:

You will have TWO distinct kinds of writing assignments. In class ‘quick writing’ and out of class ‘journaling.’

Journaling: (worth 15%, each section’s journal is worth 5%)

Each Unit of the course will require you to keep a weekly reflective journal. Journaling is an informal method of thinking about the material, what you have learned, and how you can make connections between the material and your own political life. On the course management software, you will have an individual journal set up. Only you and I will have access to your journal entries—however this is not a place for private reflection on your life, rather a place for private reflection on the course (perhaps with its relevance to your life).

While journals are informal writing, you must write in complete sentences with correct spelling and grammar. Merely making lists or jotting down a series of disconnected ideas is insufficient for full credit. We will cover, in class, some beneficial ways for you to journal, and I will provide you with a rubric.

You are responsible for one journal entry each week of the unit. Journal entries should be between 200-300 words and reflect on that week’s assignments, discussions, and your own learning in the course. At the end of each unit, I will ‘collect’ and grade your journal for that unit, and will be providing some feedback weekly.

In class writing: (worth 15%, each assignment is worth 5%)

There will be three short in class writing assignments. These assignments will be completed in class. Writing assignments will consist of a prompt that you will be asked to answer in essay form. You will have 30 minutes to write your answers, and will not be permitted to use either notes or your texts. More than anything, these prompts are designed to encourage critical thinking about the materials—they will not be heavily focused on remembering exact details, but rather, understanding theories and thinking critically about them in conversation with each other.

Midterm Presentation: (15%)

Your midterm presentation will be a presentation of a contemporary ethical issue of interest to you. Your presentation should be roughly 1000 words (when reading, about 5 minutes), present the facts of an issue, and develop an ethical evaluation. You will be responsible to answer questions asked of you by your classmates and the instructor about the facts of the issue as well as your ethical assessment.

Final: (20%)

The final exam will require short (1-3 sentence) answers, and one essay, that require comparisons of the texts read, answers to questions about specific readings, as well as original critical work in relation to the readings. The final exam is cumulative.

Attendance/Participation: (20%)

Both attendance in class, and participation in class are required. Much philosophical work is done best in conversation, not simply by reading and memorizing the assigned texts. You are required to bring the text to class for the day; we will often consult the text, and work on understanding the text itself. Failure to bring the text to class will be considered an absence.

Because attendance is required, lectures will not be made available to students outside of the classroom. If you want to hear the lecture, attend class. Attendance will be taken each class. You may miss 3 classes without penalty. Missing more than 3 classes will result in a -1/3 letter grade, of your final grade, for each additional class missed. Additionally, if you have a documented emergency or illness, please give me the documentation. This will result in an ‘excused’ absence. Any work missed may only be made up if there is documentation of a serious emergency or illness. Scheduling travel, vacation, etc. is not a documented emergency and will not be excused. Any class missed for religious reasons will be excused, but you must contact me at least ONE WEEK prior to the class you will miss. ONLY the religious holiday itself is excused, not any travel associated with it.

You are expected to participate at least once per week. Ways you can participate

  • Asking questions during lecture or during discussion. Questions must be pertinent to the material. If you’re confused about some point in the lecture, chances are you are not alone, so please feel free to ask questions.
  • Answering questions posed by the instructor during lecture, or answering questions posed by others discussion questions during class.

Grading for Participation: Each week you will have the opportunity to earn 5 points for participation. Offering an answer to the instructors question will earn 2 points (this will only earn one point if the contribution is a distraction from course material). Offering an original contribution to the discussion that is well thought out and contributes to the furthering of discussion will earn 3 points. (Some contributions may cause you to lose points, for example, interrupting a fellow student, dominating a discussion by continuously speaking without allowing others a chance, or talking about something that is off topic. Polite on-topic questions or contributions will NEVER cause you to lose points.)

Your weekly average of points earned will determine your grade for participation.

Average of 5: 100%

Average of 4.5-4.9: A

Average of 4-4.49: B

Average of 2.5-3.99: C

Average of 1-2.49: D

Average of 0-1: F



  1. Introduction to the Course

Ethical Theory

  1. Onora O’neill “A Simplistic Account of Kant’s Ethics”
  2. J. S. Mill, On Utilitarianism, Chapter 2
  3. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2
  4. Jesse Prinz, “The Emotional Basis of Moral Judgments”
  5. Nel Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (selection)

Sexuality and Gender

  1. Anne-Fausto Sterling, Sexing the Body, “Of Gender and Genitals”
  2. John Finnis, “Law, Morality, and ‘Sexual Orientation’”
  3. Antioch’s Sexual Offense Policy and Alan Sobel, “Antioch’s Sexual Offense Policy: A Philosophical Exploration”

Love and Marriage

  1. Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins and Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa, “On Being the Only Ones”
  2. bell hooks, All About Love, “Mutuality: The Heart of Love”
  3. Claudia Card, “On Gay Divorce: Thoughts on the Legal Regulation of Marriage”
  4. Midterm Presentations
  5. Midterm Presentations

Prisons and Mass Incarceration

  1. Angela Y. Davis, “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex” and The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Causes and Consequences (selections)
  2. Michelle Alexander, “The New Jim Crow”
  3. Lisa Guenther, Solitary Confinement: Social Death and its Afterlives (selections)

Poverty: Local and Global

  1. Ta Nehisi-Coates, “The Case for Reparations”
  2. Anibal Quijano, “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America” (selections)
  3. David Schweikart, “Global Poverty: Alternative Perspectives on What We Should Do—and Why”

Immigration and Political Communities

  1. Seyla Benhabib, “Nobody Wants to be a Refugee”
  2. Matthew Gibney, “Kosovo and Beyond: Popular and Unpopular Refugees”
  3. Joseph Carans, “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders”

The Environment and Other Animals

  1. Bernard Williams, “Must a Concern for the Environment be Centered on Human Beings?”
  2. Carol Adams, “Ecofeminism and the Eating of Animals”
  3. Greta Gaard and Lori Gruen, “Ecofeminism: Toward Global Justice and Planetary Health”
  4. Final Exam Review

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