PHIL 102 A: Contemporary Moral Problems

Summer Term: 
Meeting Time: 
MTWThF 9:40am - 11:50am
EEB 003
Julio Covarrubias

Syllabus Description:


What are the major moral problems confronting contemporary civilization? Today, each issue does not seem to join up to make a bigger picture. “There is a diffuse malaise,” Adam Curtis observes:

Scandals come and go like a series of blows that we experience as disconnected events - each one evoking shock and horror. And nothing happens. Our reactions are confused and contradictory. The old institutions that were supposed to protect us cannot understand or deal with the new powers that have emerged in society... 

It is as if the scandals are part of a giant jigsaw puzzle - and what we are waiting for is someone to come along and click those pieces together to give a clear, big picture of what is happening... And what we’ll need won't be just a catalogue of shocking facts - it will be an imaginative leap that pulls all the scandals together and shows how they are part of some new system of power that we don't fully comprehend.[1]

Social and Political philosophy aims to provide guidance not just in how we should live and act in the world, but how we should (re)structure and (re)shape it. To do this, however, we need to investigate the existing social dynamics and institutions that govern our lives--we need to try to put the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together. For while most moral problems are obvious, and can immediately be seen as problems, there are cases where we either lack the conceptual resources to determine what ought to be done, or where we are not able (or willing) to see a moral problem. This class considers just some of these second types of challenges facing contemporary civilization, where we likely have blind-spots keeping us from recognizing that there even is a problem. 

We will thus highlight issues of social justice, particularly focusing on the concept of structural oppression, in which such blind-spots typically arise. But first, we start by considering the problem of cultural relativism (i.e., why do Ethics at all if it's all relative?), and use it as a jumping off point to the question of how contemporary liberal societies have attempted to deal with cultural pluralism through multicultural theory (also called "the politics of recognition"). We then consider one of the central challenges to the politics of recognition, which is namely the problem of structural oppression. After looking at various forms of oppression, as refracted through the 2016 election, the issue of mascots and cultural appropriation, anti-immigrant sentiment, and hate speech, we shift to consider some avenues for overcoming oppression. Topics for this section will include the ethics of punching Nazis, the issue of anger in politics, the question of how we can find personal meaning in an oppressive world, and Indigenous peoples' resistance movements. We conclude by watching and analyzing Jordan Peele's Get Out! (2016). (Topics may vary slightly.) 

This course invites students to attempt to put the pieces of the "jigsaw puzzle" together for themselves. By the end of the course, you will hopefully (i) have a better understanding of the concept of structural oppression in its various manifestations; (ii) have learned how to apply philosophical concepts to contemporary social problems; (iii) have acquired some critical thinking and writing tools, and tools of expression, that will help you in other classes or spheres of life; and (iv) have acquired tools useful for you to continue to uncover blind-spots not just in yourself, but in our society. 



[1] The quote is an emendation/condensation of some key remarks made by Curtis in “What the FLUCK”:

Additional Details:

Social and Political Philosophy aims to provide guidance not just on how we should live and act in the world, but on how we should restructure and reshape it. In this course, we will be discussing a number of important social, moral, and political challenges faced in contemporary civilization. We will highlight issues of social justice, such as structural oppression, sports mascots and cultural appropriation, anger in politics, and sexual ethics (topics may vary).

TEXT: No Textbook Required – course materials will be available on Canvas

Catalog Description: 
Philosophical consideration of some of the main moral problems of modern society and civilization, such as abortion, euthanasia, war, and capital punishment. Topics vary.
GE Requirements: 
Individuals and Societies (I&S)
Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts (VLPA)
Writing (W)
Last updated: 
October 17, 2018 - 9:09pm