Academic year
Max Kölbel
Department of Philosophy
Universitat de Barcelona
Master courses
Module 1. Practical Philosophy
Monday-Thursday 16-18
Room 410 Facultat de 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. The 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.

Provisional Programme:

22 April Introduction: the Meta-ethical Toolkit
3 May    A central problem of metaethics: the incompatibility between cognitivism, internalism and the standard theory of motivation.
         Reading: “What is the Moral Problem?” by Michael Smith
6 May    Moore’s Open Question Argument
         Reading: Ch. 1, §§1–15 of Principia Ethica by G.E. Moore.
10 May   Non-cognitivism: Ayer’s emotivism (Stevenson, Hare)
         Reading: Ch. 6 of Language, Truth and Logic by A.J. Ayer.
13 May Non-cognitivism: The Frege-Geach Problem, Blackburn’s solution.
       Reading: pp. 181–202 of Spreading the Word by Simon Blackburn
17 May Harman’s Relativism: Cognitivism?
       Reading: “Moral Relativism Defended” by Gilbert Harman.
20 May Cognitivism without Realism: Mackie’s Error Theory
       Reading: “The Subjectivity of Values”, by J.L. Mackie
24 May Cognitivism: Lewis’s Dispositionalism
       Reading: “Dispositional Theories of Value” by David Lewis
27 May Cognitivism: McDowell’s Realism
       Reading: “Values and Secondary Qualities” by John McDowell
31 May Cognitivism: Cornell realism: Brink, Sturgeon
       Reading: “Externalist Moral Realism”, by David Brink
3 June Cognitivism: Jackson’s Analytical Functionalism
       Reading: “Functionalism and Moral Motivation”, by F. Jackson y P. Pettit


Bibliography Metaethics.pdf71.84 KB


There will be two two-hour classes every week for 6 weeks. Each two-hour class will consist of a one-hour lecture and a one-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 from the “campus virtual”. Spanish translations of all texts will soon be available in a collection entitled Metaética, which is 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 4 or 5 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.
Class participation: 15%
4 or 5 short exercises: 35%
Critical essay: 50%



Find a document with a reading list combined with a bibliography. That is, it not only aims to list those works you should or might read, but it also serves to give you the bibliographical details of works that will be mentioned in the lecture. So don’t be intimidated by the length of the list. The comments in brackets are meant to help you find your way around. I have marked accessible material with “*”. I have also put assigned readings in bold (please refer to provisional programme for details of which texts are assigned for which class).