Course Description

Meta-ethics is concerned with the metaphysical and epistemological status of moral judgement. Moral judgements are judgements concerning what one ought or ought not to do, or about what is morally good or bad. Metaethics deals with questions such as: “Can moral judgements be true or false?”, “Are there any objective moral values?”, “If there are moral values, and truths about them, can we have knowledge of them?”, “If so, how do we gain such moral knowledge?” or “Are moral values and facts reducible in non-moral terms?”
It is the aim of the course to familiarize participants with the main issues and positions in the contemporary debate, and to put them into a position where they can begin to defend a view of their own.
We shall begin by looking at a very helpful statement of one (if not the) central problem in meta-ethics, by Michael Smith. Next we shall look at G.E. Moore’s original formulation of the open question argument, an argument against the definability of moral concepts in non-moral terms. The course then moves on to some classic non-cognitivist writings, by Ayer and Blackburn, and pauses a while to consider the Frege-Geach problem. Then Harman’s and Prinz’s version of relativism are discussed, as well as Mackie’s error theory, before moving on to full-fledged cognitivist realist positions. Here we look at Lewis’s dispositionalism, McDowell’s non-natural realism, Brink’s version of Cornell Realism and if there is time, we’ll also look at Finlay’s reductivism.


There will be a two and a half hour class each week. Each class will consist of one hour of lecture-style exposition and a one and a half hour seminar, in which we will discuss the assigned reading of the day. It is expected that students study the assigned texts carefully in advance, prepare a summary and discussion questions. Attendance is obligatory. The assigned texts will be available online.


The module will be evaluated by a weighted combination of various factors. Participation in class will be evaluated in terms of quality of preparation and of contributions to the discussion. There will be 3 short exercises, which I will ask you to complete during the course. Their main purpose is to allow you to check whether you are on top of the material, and to motivate you to stay on top. The essay will be due some time after the end of classes. You will be required to choose one question from a set list that I will make available in the last third of the course. The essay will have a word limit of 2500 words. The weighting of the three factors is as follows:
Class participation: 15%
3 short exercises: 35%
Critical essay: 50%


As mentioned above: it is the aim of the course to familiarize participants with the main issues and positions in the contemporary debate, and to put them into a position where they can begin to defend a view of their own.

More specifically, this includes:

• understanding the main positions in the metaethical debate of the 20th and 21st century.

• understanding most of the key notions and arguments used in this debate.

• practicing the competent application of these notions in a philosophical debate.

• developing the ability to articulate one’s own position in this debate (at least provisionally), and to defend it in argument.

This contributes to the following competences promoted by the APhil master programme:

• The  competent use of the terminology, concepts and methods used in contemporary analytic philosophy, and their employment  in the argumentative defence of a position.

• The ability to identify the the current state of a particular philosophical debate, and form a reasoned view, even if provisional, about it.

• The ability to conduct a philosophical discussion (orally and in written form), by putting forward, for example, general arguments or specific examples, in support of one’s position.

• The ability to work independently as well as in a team, in an international context.

• The independent and creative application of one’s knowledge to new problems, i.e. the ability to employ knowledge and abilities aquired in one area in order to address new problems or problems in different areas.

• Develop the ability to conduct philosophical research in an independent and autonomous way (as is required, for example, in pursuing doctoral studies).

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