Course Description

Are moral standards relative to cultures and/or moral frameworks? Are there incompatible or non-comparable ways of thinking about the world that are somehow equally good? Is science getting closer to the truth? Is rationality--the notion of a good reason to believe something--relative to cultural norms? What are selves? Is there a coherent form of relativism about the self? Guided by the writings of Thomas Kuhn, Gilbert Harman, Judith Thomson, John Perry and Derek Parfit, we attempt to make these vague questions precise, and we make a start at answering them.

Graded Assignments

You will submit 20 pages of written work (as required by HASS-D regulations). These will be divided among 4 papers (the HASS-D requirement is at least 3).


Feel free to discuss the writing assignments -- and, of course, also the reading assignments -- with each other. But (as you don't need me to tell you) the written work you submit must be entirely your own. Your papers should not contain quotations masquerading as paraphrases. A statement of ideas from one of the assigned authors must be couched in your own words. Do not use any footnotes. There will be no prizes for writing in anything other than plain English. There is only one route to a good grade: thinking hard about the issues, and formulating and defending definite opinions.


The course divides into three parts. At the end of each part we will hold an in-class debate. Everyone is expected to participate. Yummy snacks are a distinct possibility.


HASS-D regulations require a 3-hour final exam covering material dealt with throughout the term. The exam will be open book but not open notes, at a time and place to be announced. There will be no midterm exam.


Papers 60%
Final Exam 25%
Class Participation 5%
Section Participation and Quizzes 10%

Subject Matter

This course is primarily intended for students who have not had any previous exposure to philosophy. It treats a small number of important philosophical questions in some depth. (For more breadth and less depth, try 24.00, Problems of philosophy.)

  1. What are persons? Soul pellets, living bodies, brains, or what?

    It comes naturally to think that whether you survive some upcoming event (say a heart operation) is a yes or no question, and a question of great importance: death is a hard fact and a bad thing. Derek Parfit argues in Reasons and Persons that the right answer to (1) implies that there is sometimes no fact of the matter as to whether you survive; also that you sometimes (even when there is a fact of the matter) ought not to care about not surviving, since death is as good as life. Our first few weeks will be devoted to Parfit's argument and critical reactions to it.

  2. Are moral standards absolute or in some sense "relative"?

    Harman and Thomson's Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity takes the form of a debate about the question (Harman being the moral relativist, and Thomson the moral objectivist). It is self contained, and mostly clear and accessible. The goal is to read and discuss a good chunk of the book.

  3. Is the truth about external reality absolute or relative to one's point of view?

    Science seems to show that external objects are not colored or sweet in themselves but only in relation to human observers (Blackburn). This concedes to science the task of saying what objects are like "in themselves." But Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions casts doubt even on that. Is the world really a certain way or are competing perspectives on it equally valid?


By the end of the course you should be able to see your way through the swirling fog of metaphor that often surrounds these issues to a reasonably precise formulation of the central questions. You should also have some familiarity with the way in which a philosophical problem arises, and techniques by means of which one might try to solve it. And, with a bit of luck, you might even end up with philosophical views yourself.


Your comments and criticism, expressed either to myself or the TAs, are extremely welcome.