Academic year
Teresa Marques
Department of Philosophy
Universitat de Barcelona
Master courses
Module 1. Practical Philosophy
2018-10-04 - 2018-12-20
Thursdays, 10:00-13:00
UB, Philosophy Faculty, room 401


Metaethics is concerned with the metaphysical and epistemological status of moral thought – i.e. thought about what one ought or ought not to do, or about what is good or bad – and with the language we use to communicate such thoughts to others. Important metaethical questions include: “Can moral thoughts be true or false?”, “Are there any objective moral values?”, “If there are moral values, can we have knowledge of them?”, and “Are moral values and facts reducible to non-moral facts?” The overall aim of the course is to familiarise you with the main issues and positions in contemporary metaethics, and to put you in a position where you can give reasoned arguments for your own views on the central questions.

The course begins with two questions to which many positions in the 20th and 21st century metaethics may be seen as responding. The first is G. E. Moore’s famous ‘open question’ argument purporting to show that moral properties (e.g. good) cannot be defined in a non-moral way (e.g. maximising people’s happiness). One can indeed meaningfully ask: ‘OK, that action has the property of making people happy, but is it morally good?’ The second is what Michael Smith calls the ‘moral problem’, that is, the problem of reconciling the apparent objectivity of moral judgements, viz. their representing a mind-independent reality, with their apparent practicality, viz. their ability to explain action under the plausible assumption that if moral judgments motivate us to j, they do so because we desire j-ing.

The course assesses various reactions to both questions. Non-cognitivists, represented by Ayer and Blackburn, emphasise the practicality of moral judgement and deny that moral thought and moral language even aim to pick out real properties in the first place. Saying ‘Bullfighting is wrong’ simply expresses one’s negative attitude to bullfighting, in much the way that saying ‘Down with bullfighting!’ does. Error-theorists, represented by Mackie, say that moral thought aims to picks out real properties. But they also say that there are no suitable properties for our moral thoughts to pick out. So, our moral judgments are, strictly speaking, false even though practically useful. Moral realists say that moral thoughts aims to pick out real properties, and that they often succeed. Dispositionalism and Constructivism are alternative approaches that can be developed in both subjectivist and objectivist directions. Considerations from epistemology, metaphysics and philosophy of language are all relevant in making sense of, and deciding between, these different positions.





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.

Intended Learning Outcomes:

The aim of the course to familiarise participants with the main issues and positions in the contemporary metaethical debate, and to put them into a position where they can begin to defend a view of their own.

More specifically, this includes:

  • understanding the main positions in the metaethical debate of the 20th and 21st century.
  • understanding most of the key notions and arguments used in this debate.
  • practicing the competent application of these notions in a philosophical debate.
  • developing the ability to articulate one’s own position in this debate (at least provisionally), and to defend it in argument.

This contributes to the following competences promoted by the APhil master programme:

  • The competent use of the terminology, concepts and methods used in contemporary analytic philosophy, and their employment  in the argumentative defence of a position.
  • The ability to identify the current state of a particular philosophical debate, and form a reasoned view, even if provisional, about it.
  • The ability to conduct a philosophical discussion (orally and in written form), by putting forward, for example, general arguments or specific examples, in support of one’s position.
  • The ability to work independently as well as in a team, in an international context.
  • The independent and creative application of one’s knowledge to new problems, i.e. the ability to employ knowledge and abilities acquired in one area in order to address new problems or problems in different areas.
  • Develop the ability to conduct philosophical research in an independent and autonomous way (as is required, for example, in pursuing doctoral studies).




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 3 short exercises, which we 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 we will make available in the last third of the course. The essay will have a strict word limit of 2500 words. The weighting of the three factors is as follows:

Class participation: 15 %.

3 short exercises: 35 %.

Critical essay: 50 %.



Background reading:

(1) Stanford Encyclopaedia Entry on the topic (accessible introduction):

(2) ‘Toward fin de siècle ethics: some trends’, Darwall, Gibbard and Railton. The Philosophical Review Vol. 101, No. 1, Philosophy in Review: Essays on Contemporary Philosophy (Jan 1992), pp. 115-189. (more challenging introduction)


Preliminary Syllabus with readings for class:


Week 1 – Overview of Metaethics

(no reading)

Week 2 – The Open Question Argument

Moore, G. E. (1903). Principia Ethica, Cambridge UP: chapter 1.

Week 3 – Smith’s Central Problem

Smith, M. (1994) The Moral Problem, Blackwell: chapter 1.

Week 4 – Simple Non-cognitivism

Ayer, A. J. (1946). Language, Truth and Logic (Rev. ed.), Victor Gollancz.: chapter 6. 

Week 5 – Cognitivism without realism

Mackie, J. (1977). Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Penguin: chapter 1.

Week 6 –Subtle non-cognitivism

Blackburn (1985) Spreading the Word, OxfordUP: chapter 6.

Week 7 – Nonreductive Naturalist Realism

Boyd. R. (1988)  ‘How to Be a Moral Realist’, In G. Sayre-McCord (ed.), Essays on Moral Realism, Cornell UP.

Week 8 – Dispositionalism

Lewis, D. (1989).‘Dispositionalist Theories of Value’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 63: 113-137.

Week 9 – Internal vs. External Reasons I 
Williams, B. (1980). ‘Internal and External Reasons’, In R. Harrison (ed.), Rational Action, CambridgeUP.

Week 10 – Internal vs. External Reasons II

Foot, P. (1972). ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’, The Philosophical Review 81(3): 305-316.

Week 11. Realism and Evolution

Street, S. (2006) ‘A Darwinian Dilemma for Realist Theories of Value’, Philosophical Studies, 127: 109-166 (selected parts).

Week 12Constructivism 

Street, S. (2010), ‘What is Constructivism in Ethics and Metaethics’, Philosophy Compass, 5: 363-384.

Week 13 – Essay Clinic

Other considerations

Competencias básicas

CB6 – Students should be able to critically understand central texts in field of Meta-ethics in a way that puts them in a position to develop and apply original ideas.

CB9 - Students should be able to communicate their knowledge and their arguments to specialized audiences in a clear and articulate way.

Competencias generales

CG2. Students should be able to design, create, develop and undertake new and innovative projects in their area of ‚Äč‚Äčinterest.

CG3. Students should be able to engage both in general and specific discussions in the domain of meta-ethics. They should be able to conduct a philosophical discussion (orally and in written form), by putting forward, for example, general arguments or specific examples, in support of one’s position.

CG4. Students should be able to work both independently and in a team, in an international environment.

CG5. Students should be able to identify methodological errors, rhetorical, conventional and uncritical assumptions, vagueness and superficiality.

Competencias específicas

CE1. Students should be able to critically engage with the concepts and methods of contemporary Meta-ethics practice the competent application of these notions in a philosophical debate in meta-ethics

CE2. Students should be able to identify the core arguments and theories of contemporary meta-ethics.

CE4. Students should be able to assess the writings of leading contemporary philosophers in the field meta-ethics.

CE5. Students should be able to identify and critically engage with the current state of a particular philosophical debate, and form a reasoned view, even if provisional, about it.

CE7. Students should be able to critically use specialized terminology in the field of meta-ethics.