Problems and Issues in Contemporary Ethics

Course Syllabus

Course Location: Online --

Course Description

An introduction to moral philosophy with emphasis on the contrasts between realist and relativist theories and between consequentialist, deontological, and virtue approaches. During the course you will be introduced to classic theories and leading figures in the history of ethics, from Aristotle and Aquinas and Kant and Mill to Peter Singer and John Rawls. Course content will focus on issues (e.g., wealth and poverty, privacy, environmental protection, capital punishment, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, biomedical research, animal rights, etc.) at the center of contemporary ethical debate in the United States and throughout the world.

Note: This course is offered by DePaul's School of Continuing and Professional Studies (SCPS) and in it, SCPS students can fulfill as many as two SCPS competencies. For more information on this, SCPS students should scroll down to the heading "Course Competencies" immediately below

The course can also be taken by students from other colleges within DePaul for 4 hours of Liberal Studies credit in the Liberal Studies Program's Philosophical Inquiry domain. For more information on this, Liberal Studies students can scroll down to the heading "Course Objectives and Learning Outcomes.”

Learning Outcomes, Competencies, and/or Objectives

Course Competencies

In this course, you will develop the following competencies:


Competence Statement


Can examine a social issue from an ethical perspective


Can compare substantially different theological or philosophical systems


Can analyze a problem using two different ethical systems


Can analyze an ethical issue in business or the contemporary workplace

How the Competences will be Demonstrated in this Course

To demonstrate this competency, you will complete a series of short exercises and exam questions requiring you to apply one or more ethical theories or moral traditions (including virtue theory, Kantian ethics, utilitarianism, social contract theory, feminist ethics, moral pluralism, religious ethics, etc.) to a range of contemporary social issues (e.g., personal privacy, pornography and obscenity, animal rights, preferential treatment, etc.).

To demonstrate this competency, you will complete a series of short exercises or exam questions requiring you to compare or contrast the views of two or more philosophers (e.g., Kant vs. Bentham), religious traditions (e.g., Buddhism, Roman Catholicism) or moral theories (e.g., care ethics vs. natural law theory) as they apply to a range of contemporary moral issues.

To demonstrate this competency you will complete a series of short exercises or exam questions comparing the insights of two different philosophers or ethical theories (e.g., egoism vs. Utilitarianism) in relation to a contemporary social problem or moral issue (e.g., reproductive rights, racism, poverty, inequality, etc.).

To demonstrate this competency, you will complete a series of short exercises or exam questions requiring you to apply insights or theories from moral philosophy to a selection of ethical issues pertaining to business or the contemporary workplace (e.g., truth in advertising, employee rights, social responsibilities of corporations, etc.).

Note to Liberal Studies students:

Instead of receiving credit for a particular School of New Learning competency (or competencies), you will be taking the course for standard undergraduate credit. For all course modules you should complete the assignments designated for A4.

Course Objectives and Learning Outcomes

After completing this course, you will be able to:

After completing the course, Liberal Studies students will be able to:

Learning Strategies & Resources

Learning resources for the course include a textbook, recommended videos, diagnostic quizzes, websites (especially the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy), and a long list of supplementary resources and texts (see below). In addition, students can earn bonus credit by tracking down helpful new resources and sharing them with classmates.

Course Resources

To buy your books, go to

Required Reading

Timmons, Mark. Moral Theory: An Introduction. 2nd edition. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013. Singer, Peter ed. Ethics. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Electronic Reserve

Rachels, James and Stuart Rachels. “The Idea of a Social Contract.” In Elements of Moral Philosophy, 6th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010. p. 80-93.

Recommended texts

Rachels, James and Stuart Rachels (eds.). The Right Thing to Do: Basic Readings in Moral Philosophy. 5th edition. Hightstown, NJ: McGraw Hill, 2009.

Rachels, James and Stuart Rachels. Elements of Moral Philosophy. 7th Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.

Dictionaries and Encyclopedias

Audi, Robert, ed. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Blackburn, Simon, ed. Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Turkel, Susan Neiberg, ed. Encyclopedia of Ethics. New York: Facts on file, 1999.

Additional resources

Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics. New York: Penguin, 1976.

Attfield, Adam. Environmental Ethics: An Overview for the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Beccaria, Cesare. An Essay on Crimes and Punishments. Boston: International Pocket Library, 1983.

Bentham, Jeremy. Benthamiana, or, select extracts from the works of Jeremy Bentham: with an outline of his opinions on the principal subjects discussed in his works.  Edited by John Hill Burton. Holmes Beach, FL.: Gaunt, 1998.

Binmore, K.G. Game Theory and the Social Contract: Playing Fair. MIT Press, 1994.

Cooper, David E., ed. Ethics: The Classic Readings. Blackwell Publishing

Dewey, John and James Hayden Tufts. Ethics. New York: Holt and Company, 1909.

Donaldson, Thomas and Patricia Werhane. Ethical Issues in Business: A Philosophical Approach. (8th edition). Prentice Hall, 2007.

Gautier, David. Morals by Agreement. Oxford, UK: The Clarendon Press, 1986.

Gill, Robin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Christian Ethics. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

Habermas, Jurgen. Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.

Harman, Gilbert, et. al., ed. Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity. Blackwell, 1996.

Held, Virginia. Justice and Care: Essential Readings in Feminist Ethics. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. New York: Penguin, 2009.

Jaggar, Alison M. and Iris Young, eds. A Companion to Feminist Philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.

James, William. Pragmatism.

Kant. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Basic Philosophical Writings. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. 3rd edition. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.

Marx, Karl. The Marx-Engels Reader. Robert C. Tucker, ed. W.W. Norton, 1978.

Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. On Liberty. Considerations on Representative Government. New York: Everyman, 1913.

Moore, G.E. Principia Ethica. (1903.) New York: Prometheus Books, 1988.

Moser, Paul, K. (ed.) Moral Relativism: A Reader. New York, Oxford University Press, 2000.

Noddings, Nel.  Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. 2nd edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Putnam, Hilary. Ethics without Ontology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Rawls, John. Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

-----. Justice as Fairness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

Ross, WD. The Right and the Good. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Essential Rousseau. Lowell Blair, ed. New American Library, 1991.

Scruton, Roger. Kant. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

-----.  A Short History of Modern Philosophy. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1995.

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. Rev. ed. Avon/Hearst, 1991.

-----. Practical Ethics. Cambridge University Press, 1993.

-----. One World: The Ethics of Globalization. 2nd Ed. New Haven, CN: Yale University, 2004.

Tronto, Joan. Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethics of Care. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Web resources

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


Columbia Encyclopedia Online.

Recommended Films

Blood Diamond (2006)
The Constant Gardener (2003)
Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
The Fifth Estate (2013)
Food, Inc. (2009)
The Fountainhead (1949)
Gandhi (1982)
Girl, Interrupted (1999)
The Handmaid’s Tale (1990)
The Hours (2002)
The Insider (1999)
Lord of the Flies (1963)
A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Minority Report (2002)
Talk to Her (2002)
Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1981)
Wit (2001)
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Course Requirements and Deliverables

The course consists of 14 graded assignments and 10 required discussions. Assignments typically consist of two or three short essay-discussion questions. (In most cases, questions can be adequately covered in 2-3 paragraphs and in nearly all cases in 3-4.) Assignments are due on the date specified and are not accepted for credit if they are more than two weeks late. (See “Assessment Criteria” directly below.) Discussions are not formally graded. Instead, students receive credit for participating as long as they do so in a substantive way. (See “Assessment Criteria for Online Discussions” below.) Discussions remain open for student posts for a period of two weeks.

Student essays, especially for the last 4 modules, are evaluated both for form and content. Essays are expected to have a clear thesis statement, a body of supportive argument and evidence, and a logically consistent and clearly stated conclusion. Content will be graded mainly for accuracy of information. All submissions should be properly documented.

Course Structure

This course consists of a series of ten modules (several of which are sub-divided into smaller sections called units).  It is organized into two main parts. The first part (modules 1-7) is largely introductory and preparatory. Its purpose is to introduce you to the main normative theories in use in moral philosophy today and give you instruction and practice in their basic principles and rules of operation.

The second part of the course (modules 7-10) will require you to apply the various theories, principles, and philosophical insights that you learned in modules 1-6 to a range of contemporary social and moral issues – from euthanasia and stem cell research to capital punishment and animal rights.

It is assumed that no student in the course will have had much, if any, previous experience studying philosophy. This means that many of you may find the first seven course modules – where you will be introduced to technical terms like deontology, consequentialism, prima facie duties, and contractarianism slow-going and possibly even a little intimidating. Unfortunately, this is largely unavoidable, since even introductory moral philosophy involves material that can be a bit rugged and difficult. Nevertheless, the hope here is that the modules will present this material in a way that you’ll find convenient, stimulating, and relatively painless.

You’ll probably find the final part of the course (modules 7-10) more engaging and less of a grind. That’s mostly because the emphasis in these modules shifts from theory to practice – that is, from acquiring a base of new knowledge and technical information to applying that knowledge to real-life moral issues. You probably already have your own views on many of these issues (e.g., capital punishment, suicide) and, armed with new philosophical insights, should enjoy presenting those views in written form and debating them with fellow class members.

Course Modules

Module One: Introduction to Moral Philosophy. Relativism and Realism; Consequentialism and Deontology.

Module Two: Divine Command Theory and Natural Law Theory.

Module Three: Utilitarianism.

Module Four: Kantian Ethics.

Module Five: Moral Pluralism and Prima Facie Duties.

Module Six: Virtue Ethics and Ethics of Care.

Module Seven: Social Contract Theory.

Module Eight: Capital Punishment. Euthanasia and Suicide.

Module Nine: Environmentalism and Animal Rights.

Module Ten: World Poverty; Business and Professional Ethics.

Course Map

The following table provides a rough estimate of the time it will probably take you to complete each of the required learning activities, assignments, or forum posts. Obviously, it may take you a little less time if you’re a fast worker; a bit longer if you tend to read or write at a slower pace. Overall, the total time you’re likely to need to devote to your coursework is somewhere between 65 and 90 hours.

As you review the table and begin planning your own work schedule, please note the following schedule requirements and grading policies:

  • You are expected to complete one module per week and to keep pace with the activities and assignments as arranged in the “Schedule” (see Column 1 below).
  • If for some reason you find yourself falling behind or unable to complete an assignment on schedule you should immediately notify the instructor.
Schedule(hrs) Module, Unit, Assignmen #, or Forum # Estimated Completion Time
Week 1 Module 1, Unit 1 2 1/2 hours
(7 hrs.) Assignment 1.1 (10 points) 1 hour
  Module 1, Unit 2 2 hours
  Assignment 1.2 (7 points) 1 hour
  Discussion Forum 1.3 (2 points) 30 minutes
Week 2 Module 2, Unit 1 2 hours
(8 hrs.) Assignment 2.1 (6 points) 1 hour
  Module 2, Unit 2 2 1/2 hours
  Assignment 2.2 (10 points) 1 hour
  Discussion Forum 2.3 (2 points) 1 hour
Week 3 Module 3 3 1/2 hours
(6 hrs.) Assignment 3.1 (10 points) 1 hour
  Discussion Forum 3.2 (2 points) 1 hour
Week 4 Module 4 2 1/2 hours
(6 hours) Assignment 4.1 (7 points) 2 hours
  Discussion Forum 4.2 (2 points) 1 hour
Week 5 Module 5 2 1/2 hours
(6 hrs.) Assignment 5.1 (6 points) 2 hours
  Discussion Forum 5.2 (3 points) 1 hour
Week 6 Module 6, Unit 1 2 hours
(9 hrs.) Assignment 6.1 (8 points) 2 hours
  Module 6, Unit 2 2 1/2 hours
  Assignment 6.2 (7 points) 2 hours
  Discussion Forum 6.3 (3 points) 1 hour
Week 7 Module 7 3 1/2 hours
(7 hrs.) Assignment 7.1 (7 points) 2 hours
  Discussion Forum 7.2 (3 points) 1 hour
Week 8 Module 8, Unit 1 2 hours
(9 hrs.) Assignment 8.1 (10 points) 2 hours
  Module 8, Unit 2 2 hours
  Assignment 8.2 (10 points) 2 hours
  Discussion Forum 8.3 (3 points) 1 hour
Week 9 Module 9 2 hours
(5 hrs.) Assignment 9.1 (10 points) 2 hours
  Discussion Forum 9.2 (3 points) 1 hour
Week 10 Module 10 2 hours
(5 hrs.) Assignment 10.1 (10 points) 2 hours
  Forum 10.2 (3 points) 1 hour
    Total: 67 - 90 hours

Note:  For exact dates of module time frames and assignment due dates, consult the course Calendar or Q&A discussion forum.

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Assessment of Student Learning

Course Grading Criteria

Assignments will be graded mostly on content – that is, on accuracy of information and depth and persuasiveness of argument. Please try to keep your answers clear and concise and, where appropriate, provide illustrative examples.

In addition to these criteria, assignments will also be evaluated on the basis of overall correctness (including spelling, punctuation, and grammar); clarity, succinctness, and force of expression; and grace and readability of style. You must of course always cite your sources.

Note: Forum discussions 1 – 9 are worth 2 points each. Forum discussion 10.2 is worth 3 points.

You may also use the forum to raise your own questions and issues. You can earn up to 5 bonus points in the course by initiating or contributing to an original discussion thread or by contributing posts of exceptional quality. (See “Assessment Criteria for Online Discussions” below).

Assignment due dates are published in the Course Calendar and in the Q&A Discussion Forum.

  • Assignments that are 2-4 days late may be penalized one point.
  • Assignments that are 5-7 days late may be penalized up to 20%.
  • Assignments that are 8-14 days late may be penalized up to 40%.
  • Assignments that are more than two weeks late will receive a grade of zero.

Course Grading Scale

(144 points possible)

A         = 133 – 144
A-        = 129.5 – 132.5
B+       = 126 - 129
B         = 118.5 – 125.5
B-        = 115 – 118
C+       = 111.5 -114.5
C         = 104 - 111
C-        = 100.5– 103.5
D         = 86.5 – 100
F         = 0 – 86

Pass/Fail Option

Students have the option of taking this course either for a standard letter grade or for a grade of PA (Pass). Students have until the end of Week Three of the term to select the P/F option. Simply notify the instructor by email of your wish to do so. Otherwise you will be registered to receive a standard letter grade. Note: once a P/F request is submitted and approved, it cannot be reversed.

Grade of Incomplete (IN)

Students should consider a grade of IN to be a last resort and a decidedly unattractive option. The grade is an option available only in rare special circumstances. Normally, it is offered only to students who have successfully completed the first eight modules, but who, due to illness or special complications, are unable to complete the last two assignments and discussions by the final deadline. To qualify, students must also submit a formal request for a grade of IN before the final week of the term.

Assessment Criteria for Online Discussions

Participation in online discussions is a course requirement and an integral part of the online learning experience. However, to reduce performance pressure and to promote an active, yet comfortable discussion environment, posts are not assessed in the same way as weekly assignments. Instead, students earn two points for each weekly contribution so long as posts are substantive and relevant. (“Substantive” here basically means a good-faith, meaningful contribution and not just something like “I agree with so-and-so” or “me too.”) In addition, students can earn bonus points (up to five points for the term) for introducing or contributing to new, unassigned topics or by furnishing posts that are judged to be of particularly high quality. In general, exemplary posts will accomplish at least one of the following:

  1. Provide new ideas or links to useful resources.
  2. Raise challenging or pertinent questions.
  3. Provide supporting arguments or explanations for a view.
  4. Reflect on and re-evaluate an important idea relating to the discussion topic or course module.
  5. Offer a polite critique, challenging, dissenting from, or expanding on the ideas of others.
  6. Provide helpful interpretations, definitions, and meanings.
  7. Succinctly summarize previous contributions and offer a new insight or raise a new question.

Course Schedule

The schedule for all assignments and discussions is published in the Course Calendar and is also accessible in the Q&A discussion forum. Unless otherwise noted, assignments for each weekly module are due on Monday evenings (11:30 PM CT). Posts to weekly required discussions should be made no later than 11:30 PM every Sunday. Web discussions for each module remain open for posting for a period of two weeks, after which they become read-only.

Course Policies

As explained above, assignments are due on the date specified and late submissions are subject to penalties. Students should notify the instructor in advance and ask for an extension if a circumstance arises that will prevent them from meeting the deadline. Reasonable requests will not be denied.

Policies on IN grading, PA/F grade requests, and web discussion assessment are also explained above.

This course includes and adheres to the college and university policies described in the links below:

Academic Integrity Policy (UGRAD)
Incomplete Policy
Course Withdrawal Timelines and Grade/Fee Consequences
Accommodations Based on the Impact of a Disability
Protection of Human Research Participants

Course Resources

University Center for Writing-based Learning
SNL Writing Guide
Dean of Students Office

College and University Policies

This course includes and adheres to the college and university policies described in the links below:

Academic Integrity Policy (UGRAD)

Academic Integrity Policy (GRAD)

Incomplete Policy

Course Withdrawal Timelines and Grade/Fee Consequences

Accommodations Based on the Impact of a Disability

Protection of Human Research Participants

APA citation format (GRAD)

Additional Course Resources

University Center for Writing-based Learning

SNL Writing Guide

Dean of Students Office

Instructor Bio

David Simpson received a BA in psychology from Indiana University and a PhD in English Literature from Columbia University. He has served on the faculties of Columbia, Northwestern, Robert Morris, and DePaul, teaching courses and lecturing on Western civilization and intellectual history, Renaissance and 17th-century literature and drama, expository writing, American literature, history of technology, and moral philosophy. He has published articles on Lucretius, Pascal, Albert Camus, Sir Francis Bacon, and WD Ross, and on general topics ranging from electronic media and medieval poetry to nicknames and slang. His interest in philosophy began as an undergraduate specializing in the study of psycholinguistics and the philosophy of mind. He has taught undergraduate courses on ethics and on the thought of Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, and Machiavelli. His interest in business ethics stems from his experience as a trader and market maker on the CBOE.

Changes to Syllabus

This syllabus is subject to change as necessary. If a change occurs, it will be clearly communicated to students.


This course was designed and produced by Dr. David Simpson and staff at SCPS, School of Continuing and Professional Studies DePaul University.

©2018 School of Continuing and Professional Studies, DePaul University. All Rights Reserved by SCPS during contractual interval with the Author.