Academic year
Max Kölbel
Departamento de Lógica, Historia y Filosofía de la Ciencia
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
Master courses
Module 1. Practical Philosophy
Thu. 16-18:30
Ropom 402 Fac. Filosofia/UB



Meta-ethics is concerned with the metaphysical and epistemological status of moral judgement. Moral judgements are judgements concerning what one ought or ought not to do, or about what is morally good or bad. Metaethics deals with questions such as: “Can moral judgements be true or false?”, “Are there any objective moral values?”, “If there are moral values, and truths about them, can we have knowledge of them?”, “If so, how do we gain such moral knowledge?” or “Are moral values and facts reducible in non-moral terms?”
It is the aim of the course to familiarize participants with the main issues and positions in the contemporary debate, and to put them into a position where they can begin to defend a view of their own.
We shall begin by looking at a very helpful statement of one (if not the) central problem in meta-ethics, by Michael Smith. Next we shall look at G.E. Moore’s original formulation of the open question argument, an argument against the definability of moral concepts in non-moral terms. The course then moves on to some classic non-cognitivist writings, by Ayer and Blackburn, and pauses a while to consider the Frege-Geach problem. Then Harman’s Relativism and Mackie’s error theory are discussed before moving on to full-fledged cognitivist realist positions. Here we look at Lewis’s dispositionalism, McDowell’s non-natural realism, Brink’s version of Cornell Realism and Jackson and Pettit’s functional realism.


There will be a two and a half hour class each week. Each class will consist of one hour of lecture-style exposition and a one and a half hour seminar, in which we will discuss the assigned reading of the day. It is expected that students study the assigned texts carefully in advance, prepare a summary and discussion questions. Attendance is obligatory.
The assigned texts will be available online. Spanish translations of all texts will also be available in a collection soon to appear with Marcial Pons.


The module will be evaluated by a weighted combination of various factors. Participation in class will be evaluated in terms of quality of preparation and of contributions to the discussion. There will be ca. 4 very short exercises, which I will ask you to complete during the course. Their main purpose is to allow you to check whether you are on top of the material, and to motivate you to stay on top. The essay will be due some time after the end of classes. You will be required to choose one question from a set list that I will make available in the last third of the course. The essay will have a word limit of 2500 words. The weighting of the three factors is as follows:
Class participation: 15%
ca. 4 short exercises: 35%
Critical essay: 50%


Some suggested preparatory reading:

  • Darwall, Stephen, Gibbard, Allan and Railton, Peter 1992: “Toward Fin de siècle Ethics: Some Trends”. Philosophical Review 100. Reprinted in Darwall, Gibbard & Railton (eds), Moral Discourse and Practice, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. [Summary of the developments in Ethics in the 20th century. Quite useful as an introduction.]
  • Harman, Gilbert and Judith Jarvis Thomson 1996: Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity, Oxford: Blackwell. [Contains an accessible, systematic account of Harman’s indexical relativism with responses by Thomson, as well as Thomson’s account and Harman’s responses.]
  • Miller, Alex 2002: Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics, Cambridge: Polity. [Comprehensive and detailed discussion of most of the topics covered in this course. Not an easy read, but repays efforts. Highly recommended.]
  • Smith, Michael 1994: The Moral Problem, Oxford: Blackwell. [Chapter 1 contains a good overview and introduction to metaethics, and is our first assigned reading.]
  • Fisher, Andrews and Simon Kirchin (eds) 2006: Arguing about Metaethics, London: Routledge. [Good reader with many articles in metaethics.]