Despite the somewhat broader range of issues mentioned in the standard catalog description of this course, all the “contemporary moral problems” that we will in fact be discussing have to do, as the schedule that is given in the syllabus indicates, with either sex or death (or both!). I don’t suppose there’s any need to stress how important these issues are to all of us. There are some preliminary matters we must address, though, if we are to discuss these problems fruitfully. Accordingly, the course has four major parts, which I will now describe briefly to you.
Part I: Preliminary Matters
1. Much of our time will be taken up examining arguments for and against certain controversial moral or ethical claims (having to with sex and/or death). Since some arguments are better than others, we need to know how to go about constructing and assessing arguments in general so that we can figure out just what to say about these arguments in particular. (By the way, although some people draw a distinction between the terms “moral” and “ethical,” in this course I will take them to mean the same thing.)
2. We will be inquiring into whether it is morally right or morally wrong to behave in certain ways. We will thus need to understand what it means to make claims to this effect. I will make note of certain key features of these fundamental concepts.
3. There is a very important “background” question that we must discuss: whether ethics is “objective” or “subjective.” (I know, “ethics is” sounds a bit odd − you might expect “ethics are” instead. But it is now customary to treat “ethics” as a singular noun in this sort of context.) Many people seem to have a schizophrenic attitude regarding ethics. On the one hand, they get into heated arguments with respect to what’s morally right or morally wrong. On the other, they say that there are no ethical facts − that ethics is just “subjective” or “relative,” that it’s all just a “matter of opinion.” Well, if there aren’t any ethical facts about which we might be mistaken, then what’s all the fuss about?
4. Many people who maintain that there are ethical facts say that these facts simply reflect what God has decreed. This is often something of a conversation stopper. “Thou shalt not kill,” we are told; “Thou shalt not commit adultery”; and so on. Why “shalt” we not do these things? Because God says so, that’s why. End of story − or so many people say. But in fact it’s not the end of the story, and we’ll see why this is the case even for those (such as you, perhaps?) who are firmly committed to Christianity and/or the Ten Commandments.
Part II: Sex
There is one fundamental question that we will ask regarding the various kinds of behavior that we will be discussing: Is it ever morally wrong to engage in such behavior? If so, under what circumstances is it wrong to do so, and (most importantly) why is it wrong to do so? And so:
5. Is it ever morally wrong to engage in homosexual behavior? If so, under what circumstances, and why?
6. Is it ever morally wrong to engage in prostitution (either as a prostitute or as a client)? If so, under what circumstances, and why?
7. Is it ever morally wrong to engage in surrogate mothering (either as a surrogate mother or as a client)? If so, under what circumstances, and why?
Part III: Sex and Death
8. Is it ever morally wrong to have or perform an abortion? If so, under what circumstances, and why? (Since this is such a controversial issue, we’ll spend quite a bit of time on it.)
Part IV: Death
9. Is it ever morally wrong to kill in time of war? If so, under what circumstances, and why?
10. Is it ever morally wrong to inflict capital punishment on someone? If so, under what circumstances, and why?
11. Is it ever morally wrong to fail to give to famine relief? If so, under what circumstances, and why?
12. Is it ever morally wrong to kill (or otherwise exploit) animals? If so, under what circumstances, and why?
13. Is it ever morally wrong to commit euthanasia? If so, under what circumstances, and why?
So there you have it: a baker’s dozen of issues to be discussed. Before you move on to Module 1, though, please go first to the WARNING that I have posted.