Philosophy course: Contemporary Moral Issues

University credit, 12 assignments, 2 exams, $1120 tuition, $75 administration fee, Prerequisites: sophomore standing or consent of instructor. This is course U736-341.


This four-credit course is a philosophical study that covers major issues of contemporary moral issues including: world hunger, animal rights, abortion, euthanasia, pornography and legalization of drugs. Students read contrasting views from prominent philosophers and then write essays describing and critiquing these perspectives. The main textbook we will use for Contemporary Moral Issues is Social Ethics, ed. Thomas A. Mappes and Jane S. Zembaty (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2007).

"He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion." —John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Social Ethics 7th ed. (Boston: McGraw Hill 2007) page 226

Consider a claim from Peter Singer, an advocate of animal liberation: "If the experimenters would not be prepared to use a human infant then their readiness to use nonhuman animals reveals an unjustifiable form of discrimination on the basis of species, since adult apes, monkeys, dogs, cats, rats and other animals are more aware of what is happening to them, more self-directing, and, so far as we can tell, at least as sensitive to pain as a human infant." Peter Singer, “All Animals are Equal” (Social Ethics, page 490)

Now stop for a moment and ask yourself "What are two good arguments in support of Singer's view and two good arguments against it?" If you cannot answer that question (it is not an easy one) then perhaps, paraphrasing John Stuart Mill, you only know your side of the case. In this course we seek to understand and evaluate the arguments philosophers offer for opposing positions on contemporary moral issues. The topics and quotations listed below will give you a flavor of the views we'll address.

Course work:

You will reflect upon the contemporary moral issues from the perspective of two moral theories: respect-for-persons, and utilitarianism. On the utilitarian view moral evaluation is based only upon the consequences of actions and/or policies. In contrast, on the respect-for-persons view moral evaluation is not made solely on the basis of consequences. The consequences of an act or policy may indeed be morally significant but they are not all that matters morally.

The course consists of twelve units. In each of the units you will read from the course texts and submit a written assignment, consisting of essay questions. Some questions can be answered in a paragraph or two; others require a page or two. You may submit your assignments by e-mail, fax or post. The course instructor, David Werther (Ph.D. University of Wisconsin-Madison), will evaluate your essays and provide feedback. Students turn in 12 written assignments and take two exams to complete the course.


Our instructor, David Werther (Ph.D. University of Wisconsin-Madison), has taught non-traditional and traditional students, through distance education, for more than a decade.

Student comments:

Here’s what Dr. Werther’s students have to say:

". . . I just wanted to thank you for your prompt returns of my assignments. . . I also appreciate your comments on each assignment. . . Thanks again for your insight. You allow me to work my brain ‘muscles.’ "-Brenda Goughe '03

"I was very afraid to take philosophy, and so I chose not to in college. I am glad a course like Contemporary Moral Issues is offered. It was very interesting and made me think about my views more than I probably would have ever." —Kelly Streich '03

Example topics and quotations:

"The one who first states a case seems right, until the other comes and cross-examines." —Proverbs 18:17, Holy Bible, The New Revised Standard Version


"...terrorist attacks on civilians are always wrong but... some attacks that cause civilian deaths and injuries as unintended consequences are morally justified." - Stephen Nathanson "Can Terrorism Be Morally Justified?" (Social Ethics, page 330)

"Since terrorism is even more attrocious than war... the cause of the terrorist must be overwhelming in righteousness. Only massive and systematic violations of human rights, not small injustices, could ever begin to justify the adoption of terrorist tactics and the use of these tactics must be kept to a minimum, in terms of both quantity and quality." - Alison M. Jaggar "What is Terrorism, Why Is It Wrong, and Could It Ever Be Morally Permissible?" (Social Ethics, page 340)


"[A] rational person must conclude that if the right to life of a fetus is to be based upon its resemblance to a person, then it cannot be said to have any more right to life than, let us say, a newborn guppy . . . "
—Mary Anne Warren, "On the Legal and Moral Status of Abortion" (Social Ethics, page 18)

". . . if respect is owed to beings because they are in a certain state, it is owed to whatever, by its nature, develops into that state. To reject this principle would be arbitrary, if indeed it would be intelligible. What could be made of somebody who professed to rate the state of rational agency as of supreme value, but who regarded as expendable any rational creature whose powers were as yet undeveloped?" —Alan Donagan, The Theory of Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), page 171


"[T]he bare difference between killing and letting die does not, in itself, make a moral difference."—James Rachels, "Active and Passive Euthanasia" (Social Ethics, page 69)

"I am very worried about what the institutionalization of euthanasia will do to society, in general, and particularly, how much it will erode our attachment to the sixth commandment. ["Thou shalt not kill."] . . . What will we say to the terrorist who justifies killing as a means to his political end when we ourselves justify killing as a means to a humanitarian end? I do not know and I daresay the euthanasia advocates do not either, but I worry about it and they appear not to. They need to justify their complacency." —Stephen Potts, "Objections to the Institutionalisation of Euthanasia" (Social Ethics, page 79)


"[P]ornography is immoral because it is harmful to people." —Helen Longino, "Pornography, Oppression, and Freedom: A Closer Look" (Social Ethics, page 236)

"I will argue that anyone who supports the aims of feminism and who seeks the liberation of all people should reject the censorship of pornography." — Mark R. Wicclair, "Feminism, Pornography, and Censorship" (Social Ethics, page 243)

Hate Speech

"The racial invective is experienced as a blow, not a proffered idea, and once the blow is struck, it is unlikely that dialogue will follow." —Charles R. Lawrence III "Racist Speech as the Functional Equivalent of Fighting Words" (Social Ethics, page 254)

"The liberal principle of viewpoint neutrality holds that those in authority should not be permitted to limit speech on the ground that it expresses a viewpoint that is wrong, evil, or otherwise deficient." —Andrew Altman "Liberalism and Campus Hate Speech: A Philosophical Examination" (Social Ethics, page 258)

Drug Control

". . . I favor free trade in drugs for the same reason the Founding Fathers favored free trade in ideas. In an open society, it is none of the government's business what idea a man puts into his mind; likewise, it should be none of the government's business what drug he puts into his body." —Thomas S. Szasz, "The Ethics of Addiction" (Social Ethics, page 284)

". . . widespread heroin and cocaine use are associated with all manner of ills. Thomas Bewley found that the mortality rate of British heroin addicts in 1968 was twenty-eight times as high as the death rate of the same group of nonaddicts. Even though in England at the time an addict could obtain free or low-cost heroin and clean needles from British clinics. Perform the following experiment: suppose we legalized heroin and cocaine in the country. In what proportion of auto fatalities would the state police report that the driver was nodding off on heroin or recklessly driving on a coke high? In what proportion of spouse assault and child abuse cases . . . " —James Q. Wilson, "Against the Legalization of Drugs" (Social Ethics, page 306)


"We are in the midst of an emergency in which appalling suffering is being inflicted on millions of animals for purposes that on any impartial view are obviously inadequate to justify the suffering." —Peter Singer, "All Animals are Equal" (Social Ethics, page 491)

"The elimination of horrible disease, the increase of the quality of lives (for humans and for animals) achieved through research using animals is so incalculably great that the argument of these critics, systematically pursued, establishes not their conclusion but its reverse: to refrain from using animals in biomedical research is, on utilitarian grounds, morally wrong." —Carl Cohen, "The Case for the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research" (Social Ethics, page 509)

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