Week 1 Instructor Guidance Introduction

Welcome to the Course!

I'm pleased to welcome you to PHI 208! Please be sure to familiarize yourself with the Faculty Expectations over to the left. Please also know that it will be very important to read and watch this guidance every week in addition to reading the assigned texts. See the video to the right for a walk-through of the guidance and how to best utilize it.

The guidance should be regarded the same way that you would regard a lecture in a traditional on-the-ground class. In the guidance I will do the following:

The guidance is your central resource for understanding the course content and requirements

Your chances for success in the course will be greatly improved by utilizing the guidance every day.

This Week's Topics

This week, I will give you an overview of what this course is all about, and what we will be doing over the next 5 weeks. Later, I will say a few things about the readings and multimedia to guide you through it.

1. Why Study Ethics?

In the first section, we will get an overview of what the study of ethics in particular involves, and why it's important. We also consider how the philosophical study of ethics can deepen and enhance one's religious ethical beliefs, even if it might also challenge them in certain ways. Almost all religions strive to provide rational justifications for their beliefs, as a way of showing that those beliefs aren't simply a product of how one was raised. Do you think that we have good reasons to act morally if God doesn't exist?

2. Moral Skepticism

Are moral values simply relative to a particular culture, religion, or personal point of view? Are they simply rules imposed by society to keep people in line? Or are at least some of them true statements about how we really ought to live? The first two views are ways of expressing skepticism about the reality or objectivity of our moral values. We will discuss moral skepticism and the responses to it in section 2.

3. End-of-Life Issues in Medical Ethics

Is it ever right to intentionally end a life? This is an important and difficult question within medical ethics, one that raises many of the considerations that we will investigate more deeply in the weeks to come.

4. Discussion

There is an introductory post and one discussion assignment this week. Please carefully read the prompts carefully before you begin posting, and review them often during the week.

5. Assignment

The assignment for this week is the introductory exercise, which is due at the end of the week (Monday). The assignment instructions are listed at the bottom of this page. Please read both the instructions and the guidance, and re-read them often during and after the writing process to make sure that you are fulfilling all of the instructions.  Utilize the checklist at the end to help ensure that you have completed all of the components of the assignment.

Why Study Ethics?

An Inescapable Question

The subject-matter of ethics concerns the basic questions of how we should live. These questions are ones we all must ask, and ethics considers how to best ask and answer such questions.

Abstract and Concrete

Ethical enquiry proceeds by moving back and forth between abstract, general considerations about values, principles, and meanings, as well as concrete judgments about particular questions and problems. Each of these levels is essential to the formation of reasoned and justified ethical views.

The Components of Life

Each of us has an identity and character, each of us makes choices, and each of us has an impact on the world around us. Ethical theories prioritize these components of human life in different ways as they express what it means to live well.

Socrates' Question

A philosopher named Bernard Williams (1929-2003) once made the following remark about the study of ethics "[i]t is not a trivial question, Socrates said: what we are talking about is how one should live" (Williams, 1985, p. 1). This question of how one should live has sometimes been referred to as "Socrates' Question".

Every culture, every religion, and every community has addressed this question. Every individual human has had to face choices in which they asked themselves, "what's the right thing to do?" The choices we make impact other people, the world, and our own selves. The choices we make express what we think is important; they express some stance on what human life is all about. And the choices we make are a way of living out that astounding human capacity to make good choices in the first place!

The study of ethics dives deeply into what it means to make right choices rather than wrong ones, to live well rather than badly, and which answers to Socrates' question have the strongest support.

Sometimes we will be considering these questions at a rather abstract level, thinking in very general terms about very general features of human life and action. Other times we will be considering these questions on a concrete level, thinking about specific questions having to do with specific issues. And sometimes we will be looking at examples from history, current events, film and television, and other sources that illustrate some of the themes we will be considering.

All of these are important to this study. If we simply consider the abstract questions without looking at how they apply to concrete cases, we will likely get lost in a sea of ideas that end up leaving us cold. On the other hand, if we simply consider concrete cases, we won't be able to adequately consider questions like:

  • what are the reasons for people's disagreements, and can they be resolved?
  • what assumptions are people making when they express moral beliefs, and are they legitimate?
  • what is really valuable and worthwhile in human life, and are there any objective answers to those questions?

And considering how Socrates' question is illustrated by various forms of media can help our minds, as well as our emotions, engage that question in a fresh way.

Whether we realize it or not, our lives are driven by various ideas, values, and assumptions about what matters in human life. We cannot escape Socrates' question. This course is a chance for us to pay close attention to it, in some cases for the first time.

Our Procedure

Each week will consider an important theory of morality as well as a concrete moral issue.

The theory will propose answers to questions like:

  • What is morality?
  • How does morality figure into a good human life?
  • What are our moral obligations?
  • Why should we be moral?

This is all part of what we call "normative ethics". That is the field of ethics that considers questions having to do with "norms" (i.e., standards for how one should live and act).

We all live by norms; it would be impossible not to. So "normative ethics" examines these standards to consider how strong they are.

Historically there have been three main approaches to normative ethics. You can try to distinguish them along the following lines:

If we regard human actions as consisting of three parts, then the main difference between these moral theories has to do with which part they believe to be most important when it comes to moral value.

The three parts of human action are:

  1. The nature and character of the person performing the action.
  2. The nature of the action itself.
  3. The consequences of the action.

The three moral theories can be distinguished in this way:

  1. Virtue ethics focuses on the nature and character of the person performing the action.
  2. Deontological ethics focuses on the action itself.
  3. Consequentialism focuses on the consequences of the action.

When moral philosophers examine these theories, they ask certain questions. Among those question are:

  • Do these theories give us the right answers to ethical question?
  • Do these theories reflect and do justice to our best understanding of what it means to be human?
  • Do these theories justify the sense of morality as authoritative or binding (i.e., proscribing how I ought to act regardless of my own interests and desires)?

If you aren't sure how to make sense of these questions yet, that's okay. We will be looking more deeply in them. Part of the way we will do so is by looking at "concrete moral issues".

The "concrete moral issues" will consider attempts to apply the theories to real-life situations.

This is all part of what we call "applied ethics". That is the field of ethics that considers questions having to do with "applications" (i.e., how the theories apply to our lives).

Week 1: Why Ethics Matters

This week we are examining a challenge to and some defenses of the idea that morals express objective standards for how we ought to live. We will also take a look some issues in medical ethics (specifically end-of-life issues). This is intended to give you a sense of why this course, and the theories we will be studying, matter.

Week 2: Making The World a Better Place

In this week we will examine the first of the three major ethical theories, utilitarianism. This is the theory that moral actions are those that lead to the greatest amount of happiness and least amount of suffering for all those affected. We will look at how this theory applies to the questions concerning our moral responsibilities toward animals.

Week 3: Doing One's Duty

This week looks at the second major ethical theory, deontology. This theory argues that we have certain moral duties that we have a responsibility to respect, independently of who we are, our situation, or the consequences of doing so. We will consider whether there are any such moral duties that apply within the context of military action.

Week 4: Being a Good Person

The third major ethical ethical theory, which we will examine in week 4, is virtue ethics. This view holds that the primary ethical concern has to do with the sorts of persons we ought to be, and the character traits (or virtues) needed to be good people. We will consider, by way of example, what virtues are needed to be good stewards of the environment, and the virtues needed to be a good soldier.

Week 5: Looking Deeper into the Ethical Life

In the final week we will focus on gender issues as a way of looking further into the applications, as well as the limitations, of the three traditional ethical theories. Specifically, we will consider whether the female perspective has unique contributions to offer to our understanding of the ethical life regardless of our gender. And we will also consider ethical concerns regarding gender equality.


Ethics Under Fire

While ethics is a central concern of every culture, religion, and society, not everyone agrees about what is ethical, or about whether we should all live our lives in accord with ethical standards. The study of ethics has to consider not just what is good and right, but whether this is the same for all.

Why Be Moral?

We might recognize certain ways of acting as good for society, does this mean that each individual person has reason to act in these ways? Could we have better lives if we were able to get away with acting immorally? These questions show that ethics is not simply about rules and principles, but about the reasons each of us has to act in certain ways.

The Thought Experiment

It's common for philosophers to use stories and illustrations, both real and fictional, to help focus our thoughts as we examine ethical problems. They force us to consider what we might do in such situations, and how those can support and challenge ethical views. The story of the Ring of Gyges is an example of this, and would have been a well-known story in Plato's time.

Why Be Moral?

We all know the feeling: you really want to do something, but know that it goes against the "moral rules". And sometimes, you're pretty sure you could do it and not get caught. What holds you back?

We’ve been taught to regard certain kinds of behavior as “good” and other kinds of behavior as “bad”. These claims might come from our parents or teachers, religious authorities, talking heads on cable news, etc., all making claims on how we ought to live. Some people think that all of these claims are just social conventions - sets of rules that society imposes on us, whose purpose is to keep us from doing what we want to do.

Why do we have such conventions? Well, there might be lots of reasons: to keep order, to protect the weaker members from the stronger ones, and so on. Perhaps they are ways that certain groups of people exercise power over others. But regardless, if morality is nothing more than a social convention designed to keep us from seeking our own advantage at the expense of others, why should we respect those conventions?

One obvious answer is: we don't want to be punished.


But what if you could do your own thing, and not get caught?

Socrates Dialogue
Socrates in Dialogue

This is not a new question; in fact, humans have been wrestling with the question of "why be moral" for ages. 2500 years ago, the great philosopher Plato raised this issue in his most famous text, The Republic.

Plato conveyed his philosophical ideas through fictional dialogues. Many of these dialogues featured Plato's real-life teacher Socrates as a main character. In the passage we are looking at here, Socrates has proposed that the person who lives a just life is better off than the person who lives unjustly. His friend (and Plato's own brother) Glaukon is challenging him on this.

Go ahead and read the text, then come back to this point in the guidance.

What are Glaukon's claims?

  1. No one is just willingly.
  2. Justice is a social convention that benefits the weak.
  3. The best sort of life that of the unjust person who seems just.

How does Glaukon argue for these claims?

Claim 1: No one is just willingly.

Imagine a situation in which you have it within your power to do whatever it is you choose, and not incur any kind of punishment or social condemnation. What would you do? Would you have any reason to be moral? This is the situation he imagines when he tells the story of the Ring of Gyges.

Glaukon thinks that if we’re honest we’ll see that if a person we would normally regard as "just" or "moral" were to acquire such a ring, his actions would be in no way different from those of an unjust person, and both would follow the same path. If this is true, it shows that one is never moral willingly, but only when compelled to be.

Is Glaukon right about this? If he is, then what would that tell us about the real reasons we act morally?

Do we have any reason to act morally apart from wanting to avoid punishment or the condemnation of others?

Claim 2: Justice is a social convention that benefits the weak.

If no one really wants to act morally, why do we have these standards? What good are a set of rules no-one really wants to follow anyway?

Well, they seem to be good for society, right? It's good for us if people aren't going around killing others and stealing other people's stuff. But who is most benefited by this? To see what Glaukon's answer is, consider the following:

Imagine two people, Big Jim and Tiny Tim. Big Jim is strong, well-connected, wealthy, and charismatic. Tiny Tim is weak, a bit of a loner, poor, and socially awkward. Both of them are pretty self-centered, and want as many advantages for themselves as possible, regardless of how that might harm others. For obvious reasons, Big Jim is much better at getting what he wants than Tiny Tim. In fact, when Big Jim goes after something, it often ends up harming Tiny Tim in some way.

Is there anything people like Tiny Tim can do to prevent people like Big Jim from doing whatever they feel like, gaining all the advantages for themselves, and stepping all over the Tiny Tims?

What if we established this system of rules that constrained people's capacity to pursue whatever they want for themselves?

People like Tiny Tim were already quite constrained by their own weakness, especially when competing against people like Big Jim. Such a system would "level the playing field" a bit more, which benefits the Tiny Tims when it comes to their capacity to pursue what they want, but hinders the Big Jims, since they wouldn't be able to use all of their superior means as freely as before. Moreover, if effective it would prevent the Big Jims from harming the Tiny Tims.

Benefit: Tiny Tim.

Claim 3: The best sort of life that of the unjust person who seems just.

So we have a system of rules that tell us we have to refrain from seeking our own advantages when that harms others, and that we need to look out for the needs of those weaker and less fortunate than us. Glaukon claims that such a system benefits the weaker members of society, but so much the stronger ones. But while the weak benefit more than the strong from rules like "do good to others", we can probably all agree that it's good for society as a whole if we have these rules in place. After all, no matter how powerful I am, I don't want others trying to kill me or steal my stuff, right? So wouldn't it be a great thing if everyone lived by these moral codes?

Everyone else, that is.

Think about it: If everyone else feels compelled to help others (like you, when you need it), to avoid seeking their own advantages (more for you!), and avoid harming others (like you, when you're vulnerable), then that's great for you! And if we all recognize this, we can all recognize that it's good for everyone when people abide by these moral rules.

But that's for everyone. It doesn't change the fact that sometimes, for you as an individual, lying, stealing, and so on would be good ways to gain even more of what you want.

You'd have to still seem moral, of course: you don't want others to think that it's okay to lie and steal and whatever (that would take away one of the advantages you have), and more importantly you don't want to be punished by society, since that would negate the advantages you were hoping to gain.

By adding all of this up, we are led to admit (so Glaukon thinks) that the best life is the one that has all the advantages of living in, and seeming to abide by the standards of, a "just" society, but is able to somehow get around those standards without punishment or condemnation in seeking more what they want.

Responding to Glaukon

If you're like most people, you might find something both compelling and disturbing in these ideas. You might find yourself thinking, "if I had the Ring, I would do all sorts of things I can't do now - rob a bank to get tons of money, spy on people, or maybe even just watch a movie for free." But you may also feel a bit of the old tug of conscience: that you should use this newfound ability not just for yourself, but to help others as well - your family, your friends and community, or even the whole world. Still others might feel rather repulsed by the very thought of using this Ring for oneself, particularly at the expense of others.

These kinds of thoughts point to what we often call moral intuitions - the deep-down sense we have of some things being good or right, and other things being bad or wrong.

Glaukon would maintain that these kinds of intuitions have been conditioned in us by society, since it's obviously in the advantage of society and other people for me to have such intuitions. But if we regard them only in this way, these intuitions have no force or authority over what choices I make; they're really just feelings or emotions that I should get over if I really want to have the best life I can have.

Still, though, some of us have the persistent sense that there's something more to these intuitions. We sense that there's something about human life itself that supports them - something about what it means to be human that involves recognizing and respecting certain standards of life, and that if we disregard them or go against them we are living a lesser kind of life, even if on the surface it seems pretty good.

For the next 5 weeks, we will be examining some of the most prominent and influential attempts to make sense of these intuitions. These are philosophers that had the sense that living and acting ethically is good in itself (not simply because it can help you out), and tried to defend that through rational argument.

Our task in this course is to examine those arguments. Have they succeeded in responding to Glaukon's challenge? What might someone like Glaukon say in response their arguments? Whose arguments best make sense of what we humans recognize as valuable?


A World of Diversity

We all know that ethical views vary among individuals, cultures, and time periods. Does this show that the truth and authority of such views are relative to who holds them? Or can we offer good reasons for supposing that some are right and others are wrong?

Biting Bullets

One of the challenges to ethical relativism is how to make sense of actions we find terrible, abhorrent, even evil. We know of the horrors of slavery, the Holocaust, and contemporary acts by terrorist groups. Are these excused by the fact that those who committed them believed them to be justified? Or do we have the resources to show they they were wrong?

The Conditions for Critique

Most of us would want to say that certain things that people in our own culture and community do are ethically wrong, even when those things might be regarded as "acceptable" by some. What allows us to say that? Some would argue that the kinds of assumptions that allow us to critique our own culture, allow us to critique other cultures as well.


If, as Glaukon argues, morality is nothing more than a set of social conventions, it follows that what is "right" in one society may not be "right" in another, and there would be no independent way to resolve the differences. But even if we disagree with Glaukon, we might find that it's hard to say why the values, beliefs, and ideals of one society are more "true" than those of another. This is the challenge of cultural relativism.

What would you say to someone who said that 2+2 = 7? You would probably say that they are wrong, and that 2+2 = 4.

What if they replied by saying, "well, 2+2=4 for you, but I think it's actually 7. We are each entitled to our own mathematical views. What's mathematically true for one person, may not be true for someone else, and who are we to judge others?" I imagine that we'd find this to be preposterous. Mathematical claims are true or false, regardless of whether some people disagree.

Consider the same scenario regarding a scientific question, like whether the earth is flat or whether someone has cancer or not. Again, someone might have a belief about a scientific matter, but that's not enough to make it "true for them". Most of us would agree that scientific facts are what they are regardless of whether someone believes differently, or even whether a whole culture believes differently.

In other words, we think of scientific or mathematical truths as objective: if something is true, it is true for everyone, even if they believe differently.

The other end of this is relativism, which is the view that the truth of something is relative to the person holding the belief. For example, "strawberry is the best flavor of ice cream" is a relative truth: If I believe it's the best flavor, then it is the best flavor...for me. Most of us agree that at least some beliefs having to do with taste are relative to a person, a culture, etc. What about morality?

Are moral judgments more like scientific or mathematical ones? Are they more like judgments about the best flavor of ice cream? Or are they something different than either of those?


In our second reading for this week, Mary Midgley (1983) addresses this question and argues that there is something deeply flawed with this idea that our moral values are simply relative to our own particular culture.

She begins with an old Japanese law that said that it was lawful for samurai to try out their new swords on common people that they came across in society.

Read “Trying Out One’s New Sword” (pp. 69-75) from her book, Heart and mind: The varieties of moral experience (London, GBR: Methuen & Co Ltd).

For two more perspectives on the weaknesses of relativism, see James Rachels' (1999) article, “The Challenge of Cultural Relativism,” and Lenn E. Goodman's (2010) "Some Moral Minima".

"Who am I to say?"

Thus far we have considered cultural relativism, but sometimes we are tempted to extend this idea to differences among individuals within a society or culture. Whether we are talking about different cultures or different individuals, when someone has different values, or is raised differently, or feels differently about certain things, sometimes people might say "who am I to say that what they do is wrong?"

The next three videos confront us with cases in which people seem to lack even a basic moral conscience at all, or have radically views about what's right or wrong - people we would call "psychopaths". Moreover, as the next videos show, their minds and behaviors are often the result of experiences such as abuse, or just simply brain defects, that make them almost incapable of "normal" thought, feeling, and behavior. Should we take the same "who am I to say?" attitude towards them? Watch as much as you need to get the picture of things:

The Mind of a Psychopath
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Confessed serial killer: I’d kill again
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Child of rage the full documentary
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These are people who have brutalized, raped, molested, and murdered others many times over. Are we willing to look at their different perspectives and values, their different experiences, backgrounds, and even brain chemistry, and conclude that we have no right to say that what they did was "wrong"?

Most people would say that we do have that right.

These are extreme cases, of course, but they bring out an important point:

The fact that an individual or a culture has a different perspective on human life and behavior, comes out of a different background, and so on, does not necessarily undermine the idea that ethics can be "objective".

Our task in this course is to example some of the ways that philosophers have tried to articulate and defend, at this more objective level, certain moral values, principles, and behaviors. Our challenge is to examine whether and to what extent they have done so successfully.

Medical Ethics

Who Is Involved?

Most ethical issues usually involve multiple people, including those that are the ones acting, and those that are affected. What might be ethically acceptable considering one may become ethically questionable when considering another. For instance, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide involve not only the patent, but the doctor as well.

Not A Trivial Issue

Ethical issues that involve the ending of someone's life bring out in salient ways the importance of careful consideration, since they concern choices that cannot be undone. Whatever position one takes on these issues involves a rejection of opposing positions on whether it is permissible to take a life, and that's one reason why they generate so much controversy.

Outcomes, Actions, and Virtues

If we regard the outcomes of actions as having ethical priority, that may lead to very different judgments on end-of-life issues than we would make if we took the value of actions themselves to have ethical priority. And each of these judgments might be called into question if we think primarily in terms of the virtues needed to be a good doctor, friend, or human being. As we dive into the complex issues and arguments surrounding end-of-life topics, think of how they treat these different dimensions.


Having considered some "big picture" questions about morality, we will look at a specific moral issues to try to get a sense of the importance of all of that.

Medical ethics deals with the questions of right and wrong that arise within the context of medical practices. Some of our most prominent and public debates fall under this category, such as those concerning abortion or affordable health care. The passions aroused by such debates should clue us into the importance of taking moral questions seriously.

Many people believe things because it's "what they've been taught," or say that their belief is merely their "opinion." We're going to try to go beyond that, and consider carefully some of the arguments behind different views, and evaluate the merits of those arguments. Thinking back to what we said in an earlier section, that moral philosophy enables us to ask:

  • what are the reasons for people's disagreements, and can they be resolved?
  • what assumptions are people making when they express moral beliefs, and are they legitimate?
  • what is really valuable and worthwhile in human life, and are there any objective answers to those questions?

Accordingly, when considering the arguments and euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, some questions to ask of the readings might be:

  • What are the reasons for the conclusion the author is trying to defend?
    • Are they appealing to other beliefs that we already have, and trying to show a logical connection?
    • Are they using illustrations and examples to try to help us see the intuitive plausibility of what they are arguing?
    • Are they using certain terms (such as "respect" or "dignity") in ways that have other meanings?
    • Do these reasons have further implications beyond the conclusion the author is trying to defend? For instance, could their reasons in defense of one conclusion also be reasons in defense of another conclusion that might be much harder to accept?
  • What assumptions might they be making about how we should reason about morality?
    • Are they appealing to good or bad consequences that might result from different actions or policies?
    • Are they appealing to rights, duties or obligations, prohibitions and so on?
    • Are they appealing to facts about human nature, ideas about good character, or purposes and functions tied to certain social roles?
    • Are they making a distinction between who we are, what we do, and what results from our actions? Which ones of those do they consider most important, and why?
  • What do these arguments presume to be really valuable and worthwhile in human life?
    • Are they making a distinction between our experiences (such as pleasure or pain), our essential humanity, or our freedom? If so, how do they prioritize these?

To think critically about these questions, we have to look carefully not just at what the arguments are saying, but at what they might not be saying.

End-of-life Questions

The area of medical ethics we will focus on concerns what our moral responsibilities are when people reach the end of their lives, such as whether euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide is morally permitted.

  • We usually believe that it's wrong to intentionally take someone's life, but what if the person is experiencing great suffering?
  • Is it morally wrong to take our own life, if we decide that our life is no longer worth living?
  • What reasons do we have for or against various positions on these questions?

The readings and multimedia for this week addresses such questions.

Before reading the articles, I suggest you first watch the videos to get a better sense of the realities behind euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide and their alternatives. What do we do when people's lives have deteriorated past the point of recovery, and they only have a short time of possibly great suffering left? The first video explores the option of palliative care, while the second considers thee circumstances that lead people to seek assisted suicide. (Note that all multimedia for the course can be accessed via the Ashford Philosophy Department's YouTube channel.)

Dying For Care - Quality Palliative & End of Life Care in Canada
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Right to Die, Assisted Suicide, Euthanasia part 1 of 5
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Keeping these images and experiences in mind, and assuming that both authors have wrestled with the kinds of situations presented in the videos, let's look at the arguments for both sides.

James Rachels' "Active and Passive Euthanasia" and Leon Kass's "Why Doctors Must Not Kill" offer not just different conclusions on the end-of-life debate, but differing approaches.

Rachels asks whether there a moral difference between actively killing a person and letting them die. If there is not, as Rachels argues, and it's okay to allow people to die in certain circumstances, then it should also be okay to actively kill them in those circumstances.

Kass maintains, however, that there is an important moral distinction between killing and letting die, and that even in cases in which a person is in great suffering, there are reasons not to allow a doctor to intentionally kill them.

Your challenge will be to think about and evaluate their arguments by asking some of the questions above. Since they are arguing for contradictory positions, they can't both be right. Whose argument do you find more convincing, and why?

I suggest starting with Rachels' article, which you can find here or in your textbook, and then read Kass' piece, which is found here.

Going Deeper

These recommended readings and videos can help you go deeper with some of the issues and arguments raised above. This can be especially helpful for those who might like to write your paper on this topic.

Articles on Euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide

Philippa Foot, “Killing and Letting Die”.  This article is found in the readings portion of chapter 6, or by clicking here.  Foot's article is a direct response to Rachels' article “Active and Passive Euthanasia", which, as you recall, maintains that there is no inherent distinction between killing and letting die. Foot, on the contrary, argues that most people recognize an important difference between killing and letting die, and presents some provocative examples to illustrate her argument. 

Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel, Robert Nozick, John Rawls, & Judith Jarvis Thomson, who were some of the most prominent moral and political philosophers of the 20th century, collaborated on an article that argues that assisted suicide should be legal as it promotes the basic right to determine for oneself the answer to ultimate questions about life and death. See "Assisted Suicide: The Philosophers’ Brief".

David Velleman offers a rebuttal to the “Philosophers’ Brief,” (see above) in which he argues from a Kantian perspective that those who choose to end their lives in the face of suffering fail to respect their own dignity, at least in most cases. It's an important example of an argument against euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide that is not based in religious belief. See "A Right Of Self‐Termination?" 

On the other hand, some people might be interested in the religious point of view. Most of us know that the Catholic Church opposes euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, but many don't exactly know why. John Paul II's encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae is a very important document that spells out such an argument in a way that can be relevant to all religious traditions, not just Catholics. Read it here. If you are interested in Islamic perspectives on these and related questions, you can find these two articles in the Ashford library: Brockopp, J. E. (2008). Islam and Bioethics: Beyond Abortion and Euthanasia. Journal of Religious Ethics, 36(1), 3-12;
Ghaly, M. (2012). The Beginning of Human Life: Islamic Bioethical Perspectives. Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science, 47(1), 175-213.

Finally, Peter Singer, whom we will encounter in Week 2's unit on animal ethics, presents a characteristically clear and straightforward defense of euthanasia from a utilitarian perspective. See Voluntary euthanasia: A utilitarian perspective.

End-of-Life Care

One of the considerations that is raised by many of the arguments concerns the fact that we often have limited resources available to care for people as they reach the end of their lives. Should this be a factor in our deliberation about euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide?

What might be a reason to think that it should? What might be a reason to think that it should not? These recommended videos present perspective that might help you think about such questions.

End-of-Life Care: Weighing Ethics and Rationing Resources
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End-of-Life Care Dilemma: Who Gets Booted from the ICU?
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Web Resources

This entry on Voluntary Euthanasia from the The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has lots of useful information, and is an excellent resource for further research on this topic.

Discussion and Introduction

Post Your Introduction

Tell us about yourself!

Then, present your own definition of ethics and explain what you think this course will examine. Present an example of one of your most strongly held ethical beliefs and explain the reasons you have that support that belief. Your initial post should be completed on day one and you should respond to three peers by day 7 of the week (Monday evening).


The requirements for the discussion this week are a minimum of four posts on four separate days. The total word count on all of your posts combined should be over 600 words. Be sure to answer all the questions in the prompt and to read any resources that are required to complete the discussion properly. In order to satisfy the posting requirements for the week, the latest day you can post would be Friday (Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday). However, we recommend that you get into the discussion early and spread out your posts over the course of the week.

Additional Information:

  • When posting an independent post (i.e., not replying to your peer), please use the following heading (w/out the quotes): "Your Name 1" (for your first such post), and "Your Name 2", "Your Name 3"... for any subsequent independent posts. That will help me keep track of different threads.
  • Be sure you understand the general discussion requirements stated above, and which are explained in more detail in the Faculty Expectations (which includes video guidance and a "Frequently Asked Questions" section). If you have read that and are unclear about the requirements, be sure to read the Frequently Asked Questions section, and if you have questions not answered there, please contact me.
  • Before composing your post, be sure to read and watch the relevant text(s) and media, and be sure to also read the instructor guidance and watch any associated lectures on this topic.

Key Discussion Requirements to Remember:

  • Post at least once on four separate days during the discussion week.
  • Total word count for all posts combined should be at least 600 words.
  • Demonstrate a thoughtful engagement with the relevant resources and the instructor guidance.
  • All posts should be on-topic and contribute to the discussion topic in a meaningful and substantive way.
  • All posts should be carefully proofread for spelling, grammatical, and mechanical errors, and should cite all sources in APA format.

Discussion Topic: What Would You Do?

After reading the “Ring of Gyges” story from Plato’s Republic, think about what you would do if, like the shepherd who found the ring, you were able to do whatever you felt like doing without anyone knowing. What is one thing that you are unable to do now, but would do if you had that ring? (The more honest everyone is, the more interesting this discussion will be. No judging, just thinking and discussing!)

  1. Reflect on yourself: What is the reason you would do that?  Try to explain as concretely as possible what your reason(s) would be for deciding to do that.  
  2. Reflect on society: Would most people in our society consider what you do to be ethical or unethical (or are there too many different views to really be able to say)? Why do you think this is, exactly?  If you think society would consider it unethical, would they be right to do so? 
  3. Engage with the text: Thinking back to the text, what does Glaukon’s view imply about human nature? In other words, what ultimately motivates us as human beings?
  4. Discuss with your peers: From Glaukon’s perspective, read the posts of your peers and suggest how Glaukon might respond to their answers to parts (A) and (B). Use this as a springboard to discuss whether you think Glaukon is right about human nature and why we have the standards of morality and justice that we do (for instance, if a peer suggests how Glaukon would respond to your answers, reply back to that with your own perspective).



Week 1 Assignment: Thesis Construction

Please read these assignment instructions before writing your paper, and re-read them often during and after the writing process to make sure that you are fulfilling all of the instructions.  

Be sure to carefully look over the "Notes and Advice" section underneath the instructions, and to watch the Assignment Overview and Assignment 1 videos below.

Utilize the checklist at the end to help ensure that you have completed all of the components of the assignment.


The following assignment is an exercise designed to help you write your Final Paper. In this exercise, you will do the following:

  • Identify a topic of interest from the list (provided below), and narrow it down to a particular, concrete ethical problem or question.
  • Provide an introduction in which you briefly explain the topic and the particular question on which you will focus your paper.
  • Explain three ethically significant issues pertaining to this question that would need to be considered when addressing it.
  • Use the Thesis Generator Tool in the Ashford Writing Center to construct a thesis statement that articulates your position on the topic as you have defined it.


The exercise will consist of 5 parts, conforming to the following guidelines, formatted in APA style, and at least 400 words in length (not including reference and title pages). Please number each section of your assignment. You should also include a title page and a references page (if necessary).

  1. Part One: Thesis Statement

    Use the thesis generator in the Ashford Writing Center to construct a thesis statement that articulates your position on the question as you have defined it. This will likely be the last thing you do in this exercise, but your thesis should be placed at the top of the first page after the title page.

    The Thesis Generator can be found by going to the Ashford Writing Center at awc.ashford.edu, hovering over the "Writing Resources" tab, then clicking on "Thesis Generator" located under the “Writing Tools” header.  Or go directly to https://awc.ashford.edu/writing-tools-thesis-generator.html.

    Your thesis should clearly state your position and provide a concise statement of the primary reason(s) drawn from the three issues you raise in Part Two. For example, having identified three important issues that need to be considered, you may find that two of them support your view, and while one may present a challenge to it, that challenge can be overcome. 

  2. Part Two: Provide a brief introduction to the topic.

    Your introduction must make clear to the reader exactly what ethical issue or question you are addressing within this topic, and what you take to be the boundaries of the question.

    For example, a paper on criminal punishment might consider whether capital punishment should be used as punishment for certain types of crime, or it might consider the broader question of whether the criminal justice system should favor retribution over rehabilitation. If you were writing on this topic, you would need to specify which of these (or some other) specific question you intend to discuss. (Note, you may not write on criminal punishment, this is just an example. More examples are given below in the "Notes and Advice" section.) You should aim to focus your question as narrowly as possible. 

    The final sentence of this paragraph should provide a brief summary of the three ethically significant issues pertaining to this question that you intend to address.

  3. Parts Three, Four, and Five: Explain three ethically significant issues pertaining to this question.

    An "ethically significant issue" is a feature of the topic and circumstances that must be taken into account when reasoning about the question. For example, if you were writing on criminal punishment and focusing on the question of whether drug users should be imprisoned, ethically significant issues might include the monetary costs, the social costs, the impact on the person himself or herself, the effect on the drug trade, and so on. And each of these, in turn, would have sub-issues, negative and positive sides, etc. Your task is to be as specific as you can in explaining the ethically significant issue. See the "Notes and Advice" below for further information.

    The first sentence of each paragraph must be a topic sentence that clearly states what issue you will be considering. The remainder of the paragraph should clarify why this is an ethically significant feature of the situation. Each paragraph should be focused on a distinct issue.

Notes and Advice:

The Purpose of This Paper

  • This assignment, along with Assignment 2, is intended to prepare you to write the final paper by helping you identify the kinds of issues that would need to be addressed in any adequate discussion of an ethical problem.
  • This is not intended to be an essay, but an exercise. 
  • While you will articulate a position in your thesis statement, this exercise is not intended to defend your position; that doesn't happen until the final paper. Your own view should not be discussed except at the beginning when you provide your thesis statement.
  • It is recommended that you read the instructions for the Final Paper before starting this project, as it may help you decide which topic to write on.

Specifying The Question

  • The list below identifies the general topic areas from which you are to choose the specific problem or question to focus on. There are questions listed under each topic to help inspire your thinking; however, remember that a good analysis of an ethical problem usually focuses on something very specific, especially in a short paper (5-6 pages) like the final assignment in this course. It will be impossible to examine broad topics in the final paper. The more concrete and focused the problem, the better your paper will be.
  • In order to hone your thesis to something that is manageable you will need to do research and become familiar with the topic of interest, trying to focus on a specific sub-topic within it. 
  • Again, do not attempt to address all of these questions, and do not simply adopt one of these questions as it stands. Instead, use these questions as a springboard for the creation of your own concrete and clearly defined question and thesis statement.
  • You may find many questions within a topic to be interesting. That's great. You still need to choose only one to discuss.
  • Be sure your chosen question is itself ethically significant. A question is ethically significant if there appear to be good reasons that support different perspectives on it, and the topic has ethical import.
    • For example, almost no one in our society believes that there are good reasons to support slavery, and so the question of whether we should allow slavery is not ethically significant.  However, reasonable people might disagree on the question of whether a certain policy or treatment of people amounts to slavery, or whether we have an obligation to avoid products that may have been produced with slave labor, and so these are ethically significant questions.
    • Regarding a topic having “ethical import,” if you were writing on business ethics, questions such as whether a certain policy will help a business increase its profits are usually not questions with ethical import in a direct sense.  The question of whether a profit-maximizing policy should be favored over one that is more environmentally responsible has ethical import. 

Identifying Ethically Significant Issues

  • The questions you can ask when trying to identify and describe ethically significant issue or feature of a situation include:
    • what values are at stake in this question?
    • who is affected by various possible actions or policies?
    • what features of individual human life are brought to bear on this question?
    • what features of social life are brought to bear on this question?
    • what common moral standards might be at risk in different answers to this question?
    • what other considerations would have to be addressed when formulating and defending a position on this question?
  • You should strive to identify considerations that seem to support your thesis, and considerations that seem to oppose it.  That will show that you have recognized the complex issues surrounding most ethical problems. 

Constructing a Thesis Statement

  • Having identified a concrete ethical question on a topic, and identified three ethically significant issues or considerations that would need to be addressed, you will take a position on that question and express the primary reason for your position.  This will involve showing how those issues you identified pertain to the question, but won’t necessarily be identical to them.  
  • The thesis serves as the backbone of your paper. Or if you like, it states the central idea of the paper, around which everything else revolves. Every part of your final paper will be meant to in some way explain and defend that thesis. So it’s really important to construct a thesis that is focused enough that you can defend it in the space given to your paper, and for that thesis to be clear, concrete and specific, and to include a statement of the primary reasons for that position. 
  • Please see the associated guidance page for examples of better and worse thesis statements.


This checklist can help you ensure that you have completed all of the assignment instructions.


Please Carefully review the Grading Rubric for the criteria that will be used to evaluate your assignment.

Content Criteria 
Identifies the Topic and Provides an Introduction to the Topic 1
Explains Three Ethically Significant Issues Pertaining to the Topic in Question, Each in a Separate Numbered Paragraph. 3
Utilizes the Writing Center to Construct Thesis Statement that is Placed at the Top of the Assignment. 2
Writing Skills 
Uses correct grammar and spelling throughout. 2
Style Criteria 
Uses proper APA format throughout.  1
At least 400 words in length, not including reference and title pages. 1

Topics and Questions

Note: To the right of the topics, you will find the weeks in which these topics are directly addressed. Please go to those weeks and begin using the required and recommended resources in those weeks to gather information for your papers. Bear in mind that many of these topics will also overlap with material from other weeks, so you will want to be thinking about how that other material might bear on your chosen topic.

There are many valuable resources provided in the recommended readings and media, and you should be using these to deepen your understanding of the topics and the arguments for various positions.

Just War/Military Ethics (Weeks Three and Four)

  • What are some circumstances that would make a war just or unjust?
  • What are some controversial reasons nations have gone to war, contemplated going to war, or refrained from going to war? Were they justified?
  • Are there ways of conducting a war that should be defended as just or opposed as unjust?  
  • Thinking of some specific technology such as drone weapons, nuclear weapons, or chemical and biological weapons, is its use justified?  When would it not be justified? 
  • Consider various methods of war such as carpet bombing, targeting of civilians or intentionally killing non-combatants, using human shields, the use of blockades, sanctions, and other means of preventing basic good from reaching the enemy civilians. When would one of these be justified or unjustified?   
  • Are there forms of treatment of suspected enemy combatants, such as torture, imprisonment without trial, warrantless surveillance, etc., that should never be done?  Why or why not?
  • Is it justified to violate the normal rights of one’s own citizens to ensure the safety of the country?   
  • What kinds of virtues do persons in the military need?  
    • What sorts of behavior might those virtues require?  
    • What sorts of behavior would be contrary to those virtues?  
  • Are there times when a soldier’s virtues and/or duties may conflict?  
    • How should a soldier act in such circumstances?
    • Should a soldier disobey an immoral or unjust command? 
    • What policies should the military have in place to respond to such conflicts? 

Gender and Equality (Week Five)

  • What does it mean to say that women and men are equal? What does it not mean?
  • Are there ways in which women and men are treated differently that are unjust?  
  • Are there ways in which women and men are treated differently that are just?  
  • Are there social structures, cultural trends (such as in media or advertising), or other aspects of our society that convey and sustain gender inequality?
  • What should our response to them be as individuals?  
  • What should our response to them be as a society?  
  • Are there certain religious or cultural beliefs or practices that convey and sustain gender inequalities?  
  • What should our response to them be as individuals?  
  • What should our response to them be as a society?

Relativism and Multiculturalism (Week One)

  • What should our response be to behavior in other cultures that are disturbing or seem morally wrong? 
  • What are examples of behaviors that might pose a strong challenge to cultural relativism? 
  • What are examples of behaviors that might pose a strong challenge to absolutism or universalism? 
  • Are there behaviors that should be regarded as obligatory or prohibited regardless of time, place, culture, or any other contingent circumstance? 
  • Should people be held responsible for immoral behavior when most of their community or culture also behaves that way? 

Responsibility to Animals  (Week Two)

  • What does it mean to respect non-human animals in the way we as individuals live our lives?
  • How should we weigh human needs and/or desires against those of non-human animals?  
  • What kinds of behaviors would that involve?
  • What kinds of behaviors would that exclude?
  • Is eating consuming meat and/or other animal products (dairy, eggs, leather, etc.) ethical? 
  • Is it ethical to harm or kill animals for purposes such as scientific research?
  • Why do we treat some animals as pets, or even members of the family, and others simply as resources?  Is there a moral justification for this distinction?
  • Do we as individuals have moral obligations toward non-human animals when our own behavior has very little direct effect on the overall state of things?  
  • Does a government have an obligation to care for non-human animals as well as its human citizens?  
  • How should the answer to this question affect political policy

Responsibility to the Environment  (Week Four)

  • What does it mean to respect the environment in the way we as individuals live our lives?
  • What kinds of behaviors would that involve?  
  • What kinds of behaviors would that exclude?
  • Do we as individuals have moral obligations toward the environment when our own behavior has very little direct effect on the overall state of things?  (Consider the products we buy and use, the cars we drive, the energy we consume, etc.) 
  • How should we weigh human needs and/or desires against environmental impact?  
  • Does a government have an obligation to care for its natural resources as well as its human citizens?  
  • How should the answer to this question affect political policy?

End of Life Medical Issues (Week One)

  • Do people have a right to end their lives whenever they choose to?  
  • Can people be mistaken about whether their life has value and ought to be ended?  
  • Does the answer to this question affect the answer to the first question?  
  • Can we set polices that determine in each case what the value of a human life is and when it should or should not be ended?  
  • Does the answer to this question affect the answer to the first question?  
  • Does it make a difference whether a person’s life is ended by an act of active killing, or whether it is simply allowed to expire?  
  • Does it make a difference whether the agent (i.e., the person causing the death), in either case, is the person himself or herself or someone else (such as a doctor)?
  • Is there a limit to the amount of resources we should allocate toward the preservation of a life in the face of limited resources for other healthcare needs?  
  • Considering lives that are on the brink of death, under what circumstances (if any) would it be ethically wrong to prolong that life?  
  • Under what circumstances (if any) would it be ethically required to prolong that life?
  • Under what circumstances (if any) would it be ethically required to end that life?


Additional Resources

Please see:

Zúñiga y Postigo, G. (2013). How to write an argumentative essay [Unpublished work]. College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Ashford University, Clinton, IA.

Ashford Writing Center Resources:

The Ashford Writing Center can be found by looking under the Learning Resources tab on the left navigation toolbar.  Once in there, please note the following resources:

  • The Ashford Writing Center Thesis Generator to help you generate your thesis. Look under the "Writing Resources" tab, then under "Writing Tools", and click on "Thesis Generator", or go directly to https://awc.ashford.edu/writing-tools-thesis-generator.html.
  • Information regarding APA, including samples and tutorials, can be found by clicking on the "APA/MLA" heading at the top. 
  • The Ashford Writing Center (AWC)  has two kinds of tutoring available to you.
    • Live Chat – If you have writing-related questions about a topic before you draft a discussion post or submit a written assignment, you will now be able to chat live with a tutor for a short (up to 20 minute) conversation. Live Chat will be available Monday through Friday from 10:00-11:00 am and 4:00-5:00 pm (PST). AWC Live Chat
    • Email Paper Review – If you have a draft, partial draft, or even if you’re having trouble getting started, you can complete a submission form and email your paper to the AWC for review.
    • Writing Tutors will do their best to return your paper with their comments within 48 hours, not including Saturdays and Sundays. Please plan accordingly if you would like to receive feedback before an assignment due date. AWC Email Paper Review.

Additional References

Williams, B. (1985). Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.