Monday, September 29, 2008

Philosophy and Religion Society Meeting

> From:
> Subject: First Philosophy and Religion Society Meeting
> Date: Fri, 26 Sep 2008 11:19:08 -0400
> Hello All,
> I hope all is well. This email is being sent to notify you all of the first official meeting of the Philosophy and Religion Society for the 2008-09 academic school year. The meeting will be held on Wednesday, October 1, 2008. Our start time will be 7pm and we will be located in Sale Hall (room 109). We ask that you please be prompt, so that we can conclude on time. The meeting should be quite brief. No more than one hour. (we were finished after 45 minutes last meeting). We do desire to be respectful of your time.
> During this meeting, we plan to go through brief introductions of new members, but also propose the mission and vision of the society for this year. Another pressing issue that we must discuss is the upcoming Vanderbilt Conference. The conference is in November so we need to get all of the information on the table as soon as possible.
> We will probably also begin to discuss our first social functions. I hope to see you all at the meeting on next Wednesday. And I hope that we are all looking forward to a new, exciting, and productive year.
> Best,
> Taurean Webb
> President

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Test 1 study guide

This test will be in approximately 2 weeks, a few days after we conclude our discussion of homosexuality.

Philosophy 302 Study guide for 1st Test

Topics and reading covered: everything from Day 1 through and including EMP Ch. 3. The test format is mostly short answer and short essay, which require you to genuinely understand the material.

This study guide is available at

It is better to download it from here so you can use the file to type up all the answers.

If you miss the exam without an approved excuse, you will not be able to make it up.

If you must miss it, you must plan to take it early.

You should be able to answer all these questions and explain the various concepts and arguments below. Anything in the readings, handouts or class discussion is eligible test material; there might . Study groups are highly encouraged!!

RTD, Ch.2. Logic & Arguments

· What is an argument?

· What is a conclusion?

· What are premises?

· What is a logically valid argument? Define ‘validity’ or ‘a valid argument’.

· Give an example of a valid argument.

· Know what the modus ponens, modus tollens and universal generalization valid argument forms are.

· Why is it important for an argument to be valid?

· Can a valid argument have true premises and a false conclusion?

· What is a sound argument? Define 'a sound argument'.

· Can a sound argument be an invalid argument?

· Can a sound argument have false premises?

· Can a sound argument have a false conclusion?

· How, in general, do you show that a conditional, an if-then statement (‘if p is true, then q is true’) is false?

· Identify and give an example of these logically invalid argument forms:
Affirming the consequent
Denying the antecedent

RTD Ch. 1: A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy

· What is moral relativism? What are the arguments against it?

· Be able to explain the basic ideas of moral theories based in impartiality, utilitarianism, and Kant’s ethics.

Explain how the term ‘morally right’ is ambiguous between "morally permissible" and "morally obligatory." To explain this distinction, give an example of an action that is ‘right’ in one sense of the term, and another action that is ‘right’ in the other sense of the term.

RTD Ch. 2, the short introduction to logic chapter

What is moral skepticism? What are the arguments in favor of it and arguments against it?

EMP Ch. 1:

· Explain, in detail, Rachel’s “minimum conception of morality,” especially his claims that "moral judgments must be backed by good reasons" and "that morality requires the impartial consideration of each individual's interests." (p. 11)

· Explain Rachels’ argument that Baby Theresa cannot be “used as a means.”

· Explain why some people might think that Baby Theresa is already dead. Explain why some people might think that she is not dead yet. (This suggests an ambiguity in ‘being alive’).

· Be familiar with the Jodie and Mary case. What was the hospital’s argument?

· Explain what a “slippery slope” argument or response is; explain how some people gave this response about the case of Tracy Latimer.

RTD, Ch. 12. Will Cloning Harm People?

· Be able to explain the arguments against cloning the Pence discusses and explain whether they are sound or not and why.

EMP Ch. 2: CR & FGM

· State and fully explain the idea of cultural relativism. If someone accepts CR, what theory does she believe? Be able to explain which of the 5 claims really is cultural relativism (not all of them are cultural relativism), which are logical consequences of it, and which are premises that might be given in arguments for it.

· State a valid argument for cultural relativism from moral disagreements between cultures (“cultural differences”). (Note: Rachels gives a version of this argument that is not clearly valid because it is missing a premise; we discussed, however, a valid version). State whether you think the argument is sound or not; if you think it is not sound, explain which premise(s) is false. If you think it is sound, explain why all the premises are true.

· Be able to give at least 3 valid arguments against CR; be able to explain each premise – that is, explain why someone might think the premises are true (this will often involve explaining why something is a logical consequence of cultural relativism. Explain whether you think the arguments are sound or not and why.

· If you think we should be “tolerant” of everything, should you think that cultural relativism is true? That is, if cultural relativism is true, is it true that we should be tolerant? (You might want to think about these questions also: should we always be tolerant, of everything? If we should just sometimes be tolerant, when should we be tolerant?)

· Rachels argues that, sometimes, there is less moral disagreement than we might think because some moral disagreements are superficial: we accept the same moral principles, but differ in our beliefs about the facts. Explain this idea with an example.

· Some people say that different cultures “disagree about everything, morally.” Explain Rachels’ argument that this is not true, that is his reasons to think that all cultures will share some moral values. What are some of these values that he thinks we all hold in common?

· Female circumcision / female genital mutilation: what do its “advocates” say in favor of the practice, i.e, for why it is not wrong to have it? What do the critics (e.g., the editors at the Harvard Law Review) say against these advocates, and what are their arguments that it’s wrong? Whose arguments are sound, in your view?

· Rachels presents a culture neutral standard of right and wrong. What is it? Explain his idea.

· Even if cultural relativism is false, its advocates might teach us something useful. What are these things, according to Rachels?

EMP Ch. 3: Simple Subjectivism & Emotivism, Homosexuality

· State and fully explain the idea of simple subjectivism. If someone accepts simple subjectivism, how does he or she "translate" moral judgments (i.e., what does someone say when he or she says that something is wrong, or says that something is not wrong?

· Be able to give at least 2 valid arguments against simple subjectivism; be able to explain each premise – that is, explain why someone might think the premises are true (this will often involve explaining why something is a logical consequence of simple subjectivism). Explain whether you think the arguments are sound or not and why.

· What is emotivism? Be able to present an argument against it.

· Explain what Rachels thinks the general nature of “moral truths” or “truths of ethics” are.

· Rachels thinks he can “prove” that some ethical judgments are true. What are the examples of his proofs? (What does he mean by a "proof" anyway?) Is he correct? Why or why not?

· There can be questions on any of the assigned readings and discussions, so you need to be deeply familiar with everything and be able to show that you understand the material. Check the blog for any handouts you missed.

· Be able to state many common arguments against homosexuality (including those discussed in the articles in the RTD book) in valid form (and so add the premises needed to make the argument valid) and explain whether they are sound or not. Be able to state which, if any, premises are false.

· Rachels and Corvino also give arguments for the conclusion that homosexuality is morally permissible. What were those arguments?

Friday, Monday, Wed.


For the 12PM Class, Lunch will be provided!!

Talk about female genital mutilation. (Re-read EMP Ch. 2). Please also read:
a short article on female genital mutilation / female circumcision that you should read for next Wed. It's interesting!

"What's Culture Got to Do with it? Excising the Harmful Tradition of Female Circumcision" Harvard Law Review

I mentioned that EMP Ch. 3 OPS would be due Wednesday, but why not make that due Friday?


Monday, September 22, 2008

EMP Ch. 2 Cultural Relativism:
A “Midas Touch” Morality

We want to:

  1. Understand what Cultural Relativism is. If you accept CR, then what exactly do you believe?
  2. Identify and evaluate some reasons that people might give in favor of CR: why might they accept CR?
  3. Identify and evaluate some arguments against CR.
  4. On the basis of 1-3, decide whether there are better reasons to accept CR or reject it.

The take home message:

To respond to a moral issue, “That’s ‘their culture’, so you can’t criticize them!” seems to be based on poor reasoning. So, if anyone says this, we will say, “So what? Yes, that's what their (or our culture) accepts, but they might be mistaken. So what are their moral reasons in favor of this practice? Are these reasons part of sound arguments or not

1. A general truth: “Believing something don’t make it so!”

In general, there’s a difference between:

· someone’s believing something to be the case, and

· something being the case.

There’s a difference between believing a claim to be true and that claim being true. (Examples?)

Also, there’s a difference between:

· the majority of people in a culture believing something to be the case (or some claim true), and

· that thing being the case (or that claim being true). \

2. Cultural relativists deny this general principle:

They think that a cultural majority’s believing something to be morally permissible [MP] (or impermissible) makes it MP or not MP.

CR’s think this:

An action is morally permissible if, and only if, the majority of a culture approves of that act, i.e., believes it to be morally permissible.

· If the majority of a society approves of an action, then it’s MP (group approval is a sufficient condition for MP).

· An action is MP only if the majority approves of it (group approval is a necessary condition for MP).

This definition of CR clearly implies Rachels’ claims (2), (3), & (4), but the core idea is (2): (3) and (4) are implications or consequences of (2). (EMP, p. 18-19). Whether it supports (5), the claim that we should be tolerant, is something that needs to be discussed. And (1) – since everyone accepts it – is not part of CR. Indeed it seems to be a premise in an argument for CR.

3. In light of the logical implications of CR, why would someone accept CR? What might their argument(s) be?

1. An argument from disagreement

2. An argument from the idea that we should be “tolerant

3. …. What else?

4. What are some arguments against CR? (see also the discussion in RTD)

The argument from error:

1. If CR is true, then if someone’s moral views are in the majority, then they cannot be mistaken.

2. But someone’s moral views can be mistaken, even if they are in the majority.

3. So CR is false.

The argument from moral progress:

1. If CR is true, then the majority’s moral views must always right (no matter what!).

2. If the majority’s moral views must always right, then “reformers” – who are in the minority – cannot be right.

3. If “reformers” cannot be right, then moral progress – widespread changes for the better, the majority coming to adopt the (formerly) minority view – is impossible.

4. But moral progress is possible.

5. So “reformers” can be right.

6. So the majority isn’t necessarily right.

7. So CR is false. (multiple modus tollens)

The argument from moral methodology:

1. If CR is true, then the way to find out what’s really MP (not just what people believe to be MP) is to do a survey.

2. But surveys will not reveal what’s really MP (they only show what people believe to be MP).

3. So CR is false. (MT)

The argument from the ability to evaluate cultures:

1. If CR is true, then we can never truthfully say that a majority-approved of practice in another culture is wrong.

2. But we can truthfully say that a practice in another culture is wrong, even if the majority approves of it.

3. Therefore, CR is not true.

Other arguments?

4. So what are the arguments for CR?

1. Cultures disagree on the morality of some actions. (What if the premise said all actions)?

2. Therefore, an action is morally permissible if, and only if, the majority of a culture approves of that act, i.e., believes it to be morally permissible.

3. Therefore, Rachels’ claims (2), (3), & (4) are true (EMP, p. 18-19), including “there is no universal truth in ethics,” i.e., there are no true moral principles that everyone should follow, wherever they are.

Rachels calls this argument unsound (p. 21); we first can be nice and add the missing premise to make it logically valid:

1. Cultures disagree on the morality of some actions. (T? F?)

2. For any topic, if there is disagreement on it, then there are no universal truths about it. (T? F?)

3. Therefore, there are no universal truths in ethics.

Another argument (it needs to be expanded to understand it, but are these expansions sound?):

1. We should be tolerant. (Of what? Everything, all actions? Some actions? Which things?)

2. Therefore, we should accept CR.

Some thoughts about (1): If (1) is true and so we should be tolerant of all actions, then there is a universally true moral principle. But if there is a universally true moral principle, then CR is false!

If CR is true, we should be tolerant of a wide variety of actions (even those that harm others) if and only if the majority of people in our society are tolerant of a wide variety of actions (even those that harm others). But our society is not tolerant in this way, so if CR is true, then we should not be tolerant either. And if there are some things that should not be tolerated in any society, then CR is false.

So what should we “tolerate”? What kind of diversity should we be respectful towards?

Rachels’ proposal for a universal moral principle: Actions that promote the welfare of people affected by it are morally permissible; actions that hinder the welfare of those affected are morally wrong.

Important points that CR can help us see: many! See Rachels’ discussion!

Some cultural differences do not matter morally. Others do matter: we can morally evaluate them.

EMP Ch. 1 Notes

Discussion of Rachels Elements of Moral Philosophy Ch. 1

What is it to ‘Think Morally’?

“Morality is …”

Someone is “thinking morally” or engaged in “moral thinking” when:
(1) one is guiding one’s thought by reasons – the best reasons – and
(2) one gives equal weight to each individual who is affected by one’s actions.

Re. (1): reasons include (scientific, empirical) facts and moral principles.

Case 1: Baby Theresa L
· What’s her situation?
· What did her parents want to do? What were their reasons?

The parents' argument:
(3) If we can (a) benefit someone without (b) harming anyone else, it’s right to do so.
(4) By taking Theresa’s organs we can (a) benefit others and (b) not harm anyone else.
(5) So, taking Teresa’s organs is right (i.e., not wrong).

Is this arguments sound or not?

· What did “the critics” say” (p. 2)

(6) “It’s too horrifying to use people as means to other people’s ends.”
(7) “It’s unethical to kill in order to save, unethical to kill person A to save person B.”
(8) “The parents are saying we should kill the baby to use the organs. That’s horrendous!

These remarks are the basis of arguments. Are these arguments sound or not? If any of them are, then argument (3)-(5) is not sound.

Re. Remark (6):
(A) If someone is used as a means to another’s end, then that is wrong.
(B) Taking Teresa’s organs would be to use her as a means.
(C) So, it would be wrong to take her organs.

Is the argument valid? Are the premises true? (Are they somehow ambiguous or imprecise?)

Re. Remark (7):
(D) If person A is killed to save person B, then that’s wrong.
(E) To kill Teresa would be to kill her to save others.
(F) Therefore, it’s wrong to kill Teresa.

Is the argument valid? Are the premises true? (Are they somehow ambiguous or imprecise?)

Re. Remark (8): ?

Case 2: Jodie and Mary

· What’s their situation? What did her parents want to do? What did the hospital want to do? What were their reasons?

“Whose to decide?!” Asking this kind of question is often a way to avoid thinking about which arguments are best. (Also, it’s often unwise to ask rhetorical questions, since there might be good answer to them).

An argument:
(G) If we have a choice between saving one infant and letting both die, we should save one.
(H) We have such a choice.
(I) So we should save one.

Is the argument valid? Are the premises true?

Some critics say:

(J) If someone is an ‘innocent human life’, then they should never be killed.
(K) Mary is an innocent human life.
(L) Therefore, Mary should not be killed.

Is the argument valid? Are the premises true?

3rd Case: Tracy Latimer
· What’s her situation? (We need to think about the details..)
· What did her parents want to do? What were their reasons?

· What did their critics say?

Take note of:
· Feelings
· Require reasons
· Getting one’s (non-moral) facts straight: checking up on the empirical / scientific evidence
· Impartiality: differences in treatment are justified only by relevant differences in the person/being and in light of general moral principles; otherwise these are unjustified prejudices.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Monday and Wednesday

For Monday, a change of plans:

EMP Ch. 2 on Cultural Relativism and Female Genital Mutilation. (OPS assignment optional, extra credit, due Wednesday)

(The earlier assigned readings from Kant and Mill from RTD are now extra credit and due Monday, if you do them).


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Philosophy Club



I thank all of you who have responded to requests concerning participation in Morehouse College’s Philosophy and Religion Society for the 2008-09 academic school year. Your interest is very much appreciated.

Although it is on somewhat short notice, our first meeting/ interest meeting will be held on tomorrow, Wednesday, September 17, 2008 at 5pm in Sale Hall. I apologize for the short notice, but we were running into some scheduling conflicts.

I would very much like for all of you to attend. We will be introducing the organization, its purpose, officers and general plans for the upcoming academic school year. We plan to hold meetings at least twice a month, but tomorrow’s meeting is important because it will lay foundational work concerning who concretely desires to participate in the organization and functions. We do not plan to hold you long.

Additionally, please invite all of your friends/ colleagues that are either philosophy/ religion majors or minors AND all those who have a general interest in philosophical or religious studies discourse (in its academic function). We will open the society up to ALL MAJORS.

As for right now, that is all. I wish you all well for the rest of the day and I hope to see you Wednesday afternoon at 5.


Taurean J Webb
President, Philosophy and Religion Society

Monday, September 15, 2008

For WEDNESDAY, 9/17 we will keep discussing the remainder of this, so please re-read it:

o Ch. 1, "What is Morality?" (EMP) OPS Writing Assignment on the arguments in favor of killing Teresa, separating the twins and killing Tracey (!!)

For FRIDAY (9/19):

o "Will Cloning Harm People?" Gregory E. Pence (RTD) OPS Writing Assignment

o Worksheet:

For Monday (9/22):

o "Utilitarianism," John Stuart Mill (RTD) OPS Writing Assignment

o The Categorical Imperative," Immanuel Kant (RTD) OPS Writing Assignment

Friday, September 12, 2008


Rachels, RTD: Ch.1 “A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy,” available here if you don’t yet have the books:



o Ch. 1, "What is Morality?" (EMP) OPS Writing Assignment on the arguments in favor of killing Teresa, separating the twins and killing Tracey (!!)


o "Will Cloning Harm People?" Gregory E. Pence (RTD) OPS Writing Assignment

o Worksheet:

For FRIDAY (9/119):

o "Utilitarianism," John Stuart Mill (RTD) OPS Writing Assignment

o The Categorical Imperative," Immanuel Kant (RTD) OPS Writing Assignment

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Soulforce Equality Ride to visit Morehouse, Spelman
Gay advocacy group travels to dozens of campuses across the South
By DYANA BAGBY | Sep 10, 5:10 PM

Morehouse College and Spelman College, two historically black universities in Atlanta, are on the list of higher education institutions in the South to be visited by youth members of Soulforce on its annual “Equality Ride.”

“As young people and students ourselves, we understand that it’s very difficult to learn in an environment where you don’t feel safe,” Jarrett Lucas, 21, co-director of the Equality Ride, said in a statement.

Soulforce Q, the youth division of Soulforce, a national faith-based gay advocacy organization, plans on having 17 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and straight members visit 15 schools to “bring a message of inclusion and safety,” according to a press release.

“[S]tudents who face harassment or expulsion can’t always speak up for themselves,” Lucas added. “That’s where we come in. We can speak up for a community where everyone can learn without fear.”

Soulforce Q members are scheduled to visit Morehouse on Oct. 9 and Spelman on Oct. 10.

Morehouse has faced several issues with anti-gay sentiments on campus in recent years, most notably in 2002 when former Morehouse student Aaron Price beat a classmate in a dormitory shower with a baseball bat after he claimed the classmate made an unwanted sexual advance toward him. Price, who used a “gay panic" defense, was originally sentenced to 10 years in prison for the beating but later had his sentence reduced.

Despite the anti-gay incidents, there have been organized efforts on Morehouse’s campus to end the all-male college’s lingering reputation of homophobia, including an anti-homophobia workshop held in 2007. An openly gay student and the campus’ Safe Space program, that offers resources for gay students, held a “No More ‘No Homo’ Initiative” earlier this year.

Lesbian author and activist Audre Lorde bequeathed her personal papers to Spelman College, an all-female campus, after she died of cancer.

The Equality Ride began in 2006 and since that time, Soulforce members have visited 50 schools as a way “to inspire further conversation and to empower students, faculty, and administrators to make their school welcoming to all students," according to the group.

Soulforce members also do not drop in without informing college administrators first through written correspondence and asking to working together to make the trip a safe and productive one, according to Equality Ride organizers.

This is the first year Soulforce is visiting historically black colleges.

“We know that young people want to be part of the solution that heals divided communities, churches, and schools,” said 26-year-old Katie Higgins, co-director of the Equality Ride. “We’re reaching out to these schools, because we can’t heal those rifts until everyone has a place at the table.”

Monday, September 08, 2008

For Wednesday

For Wed., re-read Rachels RTD Ch. 1 "A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy."

For Friday, EMP Ch. 1

For Monday, RTD, Pence chapter on Cloning

For Wed., RTD, Kant and Mill

Building a Moral Theory

Before looking at influential theories developed and refined by philosophers, it is useful to start by developing your own moral theory (or theories). Here is one method to do that:

Make a chart with three columns. In the left column, make a long list of actions (and we can use character traits too, if you’d like) that you think most people would think are obviously wrong or bad. In the right column, make a long list of actions or character traits that you think most people would think are obviously morally permissible, obligatory or otherwise good. In the middle, list any actions that come to mind but don’t fall into either category. Share your list with others to compare, change, revise, etc.[6]

Now ask, what is it about the wrong actions on your list that makes them wrong? Why are they on the “wrong” list? What is it about the right/good actions that makes them right or good? Why do they belong on that list? What moral hypotheses best explains this? Your answers here could result in your revising your initial judgments, if you see that some emerging moral principles are inconsistent with any initial judgment.


What the Question Is Not: Not “Morally Right,” but Morally Permissible and/or Morally Obligatory

One might think that the core questions in ethics are whether various actions are morally right or morally wrong. This is not quite correct. Effective moral reasoning requires the clear and precise uses of words. Thus, when a word is ambiguous (i.e., has more than one meaning), we must identify these meanings and make it clear what meaning we are using. That way everyone knows what exact thought we have in mind when we make claims using that word: we’re on the same page and can communicate effectively. And we can think about whether what we are saying is true or false and supported (or supportable) by reasons and evidence or not.

This applies to the use of the word ‘right,’ as in morally right, because the word is ambiguous. Examples show this. Suppose you saved a drowning baby by pulling her out of bathtub. This was easy for you, not risky, and had you not been there the baby surely would have drown. If someone says, “Your saving that baby was morally right,” this person probably means to say that your saving that baby, in these circumstances, was morally obligatory, morally required, or a moral duty: if you had not saved the baby, you would have done something wrong or morally impermissible.[4]

Consider another example. Although you are a person of average income, you send $1000 a month to famine relief organizations to help starving children. Someone says, “Your making these donations is morally right.” Here this person probably does not mean to say your making these donations are morally obligatory, morally required, or a moral duty. Unlike the bathtub case, the common (but perhaps mistaken[5]) view is that your not donating would not be wrong or morally impermissible. So, this person probably means to by saying, at least, that what you do is morally permissible, i.e., not wrong or not morally impermissible. She might also mean that it is not merely permissible, but more positively good beyond that, but definitely not morally obligatory.

With these distinctions in mind, we can stop using an ambiguous word – “morally right” – and instead use these more precise terms categories for morally evaluating actions:

1. morally permissible: morally OK; not morally wrong; not morally impermissible; “OK to do”;

2. morally obligatory: morally required; a moral duty; impermissible to not do it; wrong to not do it; “gotta do it”;

3. morally impermissible: morally wrong; not permissible; obligatory to not do it; a duty to not do it.

We might also add a category “between” the permissible and the obligatory for actions that are positively good, virtuous or admirable, and thereby morally permissible, but not obligatory: e.g., some argue that vegetarianism is in that category, and if this is correct then arguments for the conclusion that vegetarianism is morally obligatory are unsound. This category might be described as the “supererogatory,” meaning beyond the call of duty or what’s morally required.

Thus, the core questions in ethics are what moral categories specific actions fall into – morally permissible, morally obligatory, or morally impermissible or wrong – and, most importantly, why. Again, the reasons given for why we should think, e.g., that some action is permissible and another is wrong, or whatever conclusions anyone advocates, are our main interest.