General Ethics

Gordon L. Ziniewicz

"The wise is one thing, to be acquainted with true judgement, how all things are steered through all." (Heraclitus Fr. 230)

Description and Objectives

General Ethics is that branch of Philosophy concerned with determining what is right (with regard to principles and actions) and what is good (what ends or ideals are worth pursuing and what values are worth holding). Practical Ethics is the art or techne (know-how) of making things better rather than worse. The purpose of this course will be to acquire skill in evaluating the worth of ideals and principles as they have been spelled out in a variety of traditional ethical systems and to have some acquaintance with their empirical or practical applications (figuring out what to do with them).

General Requirements

In general, to succeed in this course, you will be expected to --

  • read all of the assigned readings,
  • attend class regularly,
  • participate enthusiastically,
  • write two reflection papers,
  • do well on major tests and quizzes

Grading for this course will be broken down into the following categories, with their corresponding values (tentative):

  • Test #1 -- 15%
  • Test #2 -- 15%
  • Final Exam -- 20%
  • Reflection Papers -- 40% (20% each)
  • Quizzes and Participation -- 10%

Required Reading

  • Burton F. Porter’s Reasons for Living: A Basic Ethics
  • All Handouts.


I can't stress enough the importance of participation. In philosophy, the best way to learn and to gain insight is through the give and take of dialogue with other learners. In addition, since attendance is required in order to participate, your attendance will be taken into account in the final reckoning of your participation grade.

Reflection Papers

Students will be expected to write two "reflection" or "thought" papers (minimum four pages typewritten). These are not the same as research or "term" papers. Students will be expected to think through one of the ethical problems raised in class. Papers will be graded on the basis of (1) understanding of the material content studied, (2) ability to think beyond the course content and to add one's own insight into the topics studied, and (3) ability to defend a thesis and to answer objections to it. Students will be allowed to choose from a variety of topics or to devise one of their own. One cautionary note: Plagiarism, intentional use of (theft of) another person's published words (verbatim or close paraphrase) without proper reference, will result in a "zero" for that assignment.

Tests And Quizzes

Tests will include both "objective" (short answer) and essay (longer answer) type questions. See the Course Calendar below for the scheduling of these examinations. The first and second tests will not be cumulative. The final exam will not be cumulative except for a single general essay question that will deal with the general content of the whole semester. There will be regular short true/false or multiple choice quizzes on the required readings. These may be announced or unannounced. These quizzes may cover the previous day's material or readings assigned for that same day. Review old material and prepare new material each day, and you will experience fewer anxieties.

Course Calendar

Aug. 31: Introduction. Ethics as Theory and Practice. Handout: Reflection in the Situation.

Sept. 2: Discussion of Carrie’s Situation. Reading: Handout: Carrie

Sept. 4: Some Challenges to Ethics. Objectivity and Relativism. Reasons for Living, pp. 3 - 11. Handout: Relativism

Sept. 7: Objectivity and Relativism (continued). Reasons for Living, pp. 12 - 21.

Sept. 9: Relativism (concluded). Evaluation and Discussion. Reasons for Living, pp. 21 - 26.

Sept. 11: Altruism Versus Egoism. Human Nature and Thomas Hobbes. Reasons for Living, pp. 30 - 48. Handout: Egoism

Sept. 14: Thou Shalt Take Care of Number One. Machiavelli and Nietzsche. Reasons for Living, pp. 48 - 64.

Sept. 16: Evaluation and Discussion of Egoism.

Sept. 18: Challenge to Freedom and Responsibility: Determinism. Fatalism, Predestination, and Scientific Causality. Reasons for Living, pp. 66 - 82. Handout: Determinism

Sept. 21: Skinner's Behaviorism and Genetic Determinism. Reasons for Living, pp. 83 - 104.

Sept. 23: Enjoying Egoistic Hedonism. Cyrenaics. Reasons for Living, pp. 107 - 119. Handout: Cyrenaic Guidelines

Sept. 25: Epicurean Egoistic Hedonism: Pleasure and Self-Control. Reasons for Living, pp. 119 - 135. Handout: Epicurean Guidelines

Sept. 28: Evaluation and Discussion of Egoistic Hedonism.

Sept. 30: Test #1.

Oct. 2: Utilitarianism or Social Hedonism (Greatest Pleasure for the Greatest Number of Persons). Bentham. Reasons for Living, pp. 136 - 152. Handout: Bentham's Hedonic Calculus

Oct. 5: Bentham (continued). John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism: Quality of Pleasures for the Greatest Number. Reasons for Living, pp. 152 - 168. Handout: Mill's Utilitarianism

Oct. 7: Mill’s Utilitarianism (concluded). Act and Rule Utilitarianism.

Oct. 9: A Last Look at Utilitarianism. The Ideal of the Common Good. Pragmatic and Democratic Ideas of the Common Good. Beyond Pleasure to Improvement or Growth. Evaluation and Discussion. Reasons for Living, pp. 168 - 172.

Oct. 12: Self-Realization, Self-Fulfillment (Being All You Can Be). Maslow's Theory. Reasons for Living, pp. 175 - 186.

Oct. 14: Self-Realization Continued. A Brief Look at Bradley. Reasons for Living, pp. 186 - 203. Aristotle's Notion of Self-Fulfillment and Right Functioning in Accordance with Our Human Capacities. Reasons for Living, pp. 203 - 217.

Oct. 16: Mid-semester Holiday. No Class.

Oct. 19: Aristotle (continued). Aristotle’s Understanding of Practical Judgment.

Oct. 21: Self-Realization Evaluated and Discussed. Reasons for Living, pp. 199 - 203, 217 - 220.

Oct. 23: Rationalism. Order and Reason as the End of Life. The Stoic Detachment of Epictetus. Reasons for Living, pp. 267 - 282. First Reflection Paper Due. Handout: Stoic Guidelines

Oct. 26: Rationalism, Part II: Platonism. Order and Arrangement as a Way of Life. Reasons for Living, pp. 283 - 299. Handout: Summary of Plato

Oct. 28: Rationalism Evaluated and Discussed.

Oct. 30: The Formalism of Kant. Reasons for Living, pp. 300 - 315.

Nov. 2: Kant (continued).

Nov. 4: Evaluation and Discussion of Kant’s Formalism. The Role of Principles in Trying to Do What Is Right. Reasons for Living, pp. 315 - 320.

Nov. 6: Test #2.

Nov. 9: Formalism and Christianity. Basic Christian Principles. Reasons for Living, pp. 320 - 333.

Nov. 11: Evaluation and Discussion of Christian Formalism. Obedience and Reason in Moral Action. Reasons for Living, pp. 333 - 337.

Nov. 13: Humanism. Scientific Humanism. The Humanism of Paul Kurtz. Reasons for Living, pp. 341 - 352. Handout: Traditional Religion and Humanism

Nov. 16: Further Discussion and Evaluation of Scientific Humanism. Reasons for Living, pp. 352 - 354.

Nov. 18: John Dewey’s Pragmatic Idealism. Reading: Handout.

Nov. 20: Existentialism. Camus and Sartre. Reasons for Living, pp. 355 - 369.

Nov. 23: Existentialism Evaluated and Discussed. Reasons for Living, pp. 370 - 371.

Nov. 25 - 27: Thanksgiving Holiday.

Nov. 30: The Humanism of Confucius. Humanity, Character, and Altruism. The Family, Society, and the Universe. Reading: Handout.

Dec. 2: Discussion of the Humanism of Confucius.

Dec. 4: Naturalism: Acting in Accordance with Nature. Rousseau Thoreau. Reasons for Living, pp. 223 - 240.

Dec. 7: A Glance at Chinese Taoism. Reading: Handouts.

Dec. 9: Naturalism Evaluated and Discussed. Reasons for Living, pp. 240 - 244. Second Reflection Paper Due.

Test #3 on Date Scheduled for Final Exam.

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Copyright © 1999 Gordon L. Ziniewicz
This page last updated 2004

Please note: These philosophical commentaries, though still in process, are the intellectual property of Gordon L. Ziniewicz. They may be downloaded and freely distributed in electronic form only, provided no alterations are made to the original text. One print copy may be made for personal use, but further reproduction and distribution of printed copies are prohibited without the permission of the author.