Topics in Metaethics (Michaelmas 2019)

Eight Lectures, weeks 1-8
Tuesdays 0900–1000
Faculty Board Room, Faculty of Philosophy (3rd floor, Raised Faculty Building, Sidgwick Avenue)

Students in Part II of the Philosophy tripos; MPhils, graduates and other visiting students welcome

Course aims

This is a course of eight lectures on themes in recent (analytic, English-language) metaethics, delivered principally for students studying for Part II Paper 3 Ethics in the Philosophy tripos, University of Cambridge.

These lectures are not introductory and will not be suitable as someone’s first encounter with philosophy. While I shall try to explain all technical terminology and references to historical figures, I shall be presupposing some previous philosophical background: roughly, a good understanding of basic concepts in logic, metaphysics and ethics, and a broad-brush knowledge of the history of western philosophy. Anyone attending who is looking for an elementary introduction to metaethics should attend the IA lectures on Metaethics instead.

Different lecturers have different styles. My own is heavily influenced by an essay of Henry Sidgwick’s, ‘A Lecture Against Lecturing’, especially by his view that any lecture that simply replicates material that could just as well be printed as a book is useless. Moreover, I will not be delivering lectures that can act as substitutes for private reading and study. Anyone aiming to do exams on this course should be prepared to master a much wider range of material, and in greater depth, than I shall be covering in these lectures.

The point of these lectures is different. Firstly, they’re meant to be synoptic rather than fine-grained: that is to say, they aim to provide a survey of a large and growing literature and to make connections between different arguments and themes. They’re designed to help you to place the things you’ll be reading into a wider (philosophical, historical, intellectual) context, not to offer potted summaries of the things you’ll be reading. Secondly, they’re designed to raise questions rather than provide answers: a good part of learning to do philosophy involves getting puzzled by things, and seeing how deep some problems can go, and just what stands in the way of solving them. At the conclusion of each lecture, I’d like you to leave not with the answer, but with a sense of what needs to do to come up with a satisfactory answer. There will be many opportunities to ask questions during the lectures.

There is, by now, an enormous literature on metaethics. No series of eight lectures can possibly address all of it. I’ve been highly selective, choosing debates that still have some life to them, i.e. are still raging, and for good reason. Other things being equal, I’ve gone with questions I’m actually bothered by personally and philosophers I myself engage with. This has meant leaving a good deal out, but so would any other series of lectures on this topic.

Schedule with set readings

Papers marked § are required; other papers are important background or classic texts.

Week 1. Morality, reasons and rationality

§ Kate Manne, ‘Internalism About Reasons: Sad but True?’, Philosophical Studies 167, no. 1 (2014): 89–117. [JSTOR] [PDF]

Peter Strawson, ‘Freedom and Resentment’, in Proceedings of the British Academy, Volume 48: 1962, ed. Gary Watson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), 1–25. [URL]

Bernard Williams, ‘Internal Reasons and the Obscurity of Blame’, in Making Sense of Humanity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 35–45. [URL]

Week 2. The ‘queerness’ of moral facts

§ Hallvard Lillehammer, ‘Companions in Guilt: Entailment, Analogy and Absorption’, in Companions in Guilt Arguments in Metaethics, ed. Christopher Cowie and Richard Rowland (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019). [PDF]

J. L. Mackie, ‘The Subjectivity of Values’, in Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), 15–49.

Terence Cuneo, ‘The Parity Premise’, in The Normative Web: An Argument for Moral Realism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 89–114. [URL]

Week 3. Genealogical anxiety about ethics

§ Amia Srinivasan, ‘Genealogy, Epistemology and Worldmaking’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 119, no. 2 (2019): 127–156. [URL] [Audio]

Sharon Street, ‘A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value’, Philosophical Studies 127, no. 1 (2006): 109–166. [JSTOR]

Louise Hanson, ‘The Real Problem with Evolutionary Debunking Arguments’, The Philosophical Quarterly 67, no. 268 (2016): 508–33. [URL]

Week 4. Styles of constructivism

§ Sharon Street, ‘Constructivism in Ethics and the Problem of Attachment and Loss’, Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 90, no. 1 (2016): 161–189. [URL]

Christine M. Korsgaard, ‘Realism and Constructivism in Twentieth‐Century Moral Philosophy’, in The Constitution of Agency (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 302–25. [URL]

John Rawls, ‘Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory’, Journal of Philosophy 77, no. 9 (1980): 515–572. [JSTOR]

Sharon Street, ‘Constructivism about Reasons’, in Oxford Studies in Metaethics, ed. Russ Shafer-Landau, vol. 3 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 207–46.

Sharon Street, ‘What Is Constructivism in Ethics and Metaethics?’, Philosophy Compass 5, no. 5 (2010): 363–384. [URL]

Week 5. Styles of realism

§ Claire Kirwin, ‘The Metaethical Significance of the Transparent First Person’ (unpublished ms: contact lecturer for a PDF)

David Enoch, ‘The Argument from the Deliberative Indispensability of Irreducibly Normative Truths’, in Taking Morality Seriously: A Defense of Robust Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 50–84.

Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good (London: Routledge, 1970).

John McDowell, ‘Values and Secondary Qualities’, in Morality and Objectivity, ed. Ted Honderich (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), 110–29.

Kieran Setiya, ‘Murdoch on the Sovereignty of Good’, Philosophers’ Imprint 13 (2013).

Week 6. Styles of Expressivism

§ Huw Price, ‘From Quasirealism to Global Expressivism – and Back Again?’, in Passions and Projections: Themes from the Philosophy of Simon Blackburn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 134–52.

AJ Ayer, ‘Critique of Ethics and Theology’, in Language, Truth and Logic, 2nd ed. (New York: Dover Publications, 1952 [1936]), 103–25.

Simon Blackburn, ‘How to Be an Ethical Antirealist’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy 12, no. 1 (1988): 361–375.

Richard Rorty, ‘Private Irony and Liberal Hope’, in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 73–95.

Week 7. Thick concepts

§ Debbie Roberts, ‘Shapelessness and the Thick’, Ethics 121, no. 3 (2011): 489–520.

Bernard Williams, ‘Knowledge, Science, Convergence’, in Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Reissue (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006 [1985]), 132–155.

Hilary Putnam, ‘Objectivity and the Science—Ethics Distinction’, in The Quality of Life, ed. Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 143–57.

Week 8. Moral Deference

§ Andreas L. Mogensen, ‘Moral Testimony Pessimism and the Uncertain Value of Authenticity’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 95, no. 2 (2017): 261–284.

Karen Jones, ‘Second-Hand Moral Knowledge’, Journal of Philosophy 96, no. 2 (1999): 55.

Alison Hills, ‘Moral Testimony and Moral Epistemology’, Ethics 120, no. 1 (1 October 2009): 94–127.

Paulina Sliwa, ‘In Defense of Moral Testimony’, Philosophical Studies 158, no. 2 (2012): 175–195.

Lecture notes

To be uploaded after each lecture. Watch this space.