Contemporary Moral Problems

Nita de Oliveira, Ph.D.

UT Blackboard ID access

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PHIL 2400-901 (download syllabus pdf) Fall Semester 2018

Distance Learning Course

Course Website:

Personal Website:


Course Description:

PHIL 2400 CONTEMPORARY MORAL PROBLEMS (Distance Learning Course)

[3 hours] A study of topics such as abortion, environmental responsibility, animal rights, famine relief, sexuality, and just war, in light of their sustainability. Attention is paid to moral arguments and the bases of moral decisions. Humanities core course. UT DL course.
The course is an introduction to some central issues within the realm of contemporary applied ethics. No particular previous coursework in ethics is required. The course is accessible to students coming from various academic backgrounds and its online format is very practical and pleasant. This course is being offered entirely online through the University of Toledo’s Blackboard system, accessible through the MyUT Web Portal. Students encountering any technical difficulties should contact the IT Help Desk at 419-530-2400, or the department of Distance Learning at 419-530-8835.
In the UT Academic Journey, the elements of your UT education — from the first year beginnings to the capstone experience — link together as related stages of learning. UT Core and major courses, opportunities for research, community engagement, and ongoing assessment mark the unique path you are taking and are touchstones along the way. Through guided reflection and engagement, you will see these varied learning experiences in their connections to your own life and to broader social challenges. This DL course is an intersection and connecting point for themes and paths in your UT Academic Journey, and will incorporate the following learning objectives:
1. We will be relating Contemporary Moral Problems to key concepts, questions, and problems in the general field of Sustainability, broadly conceived.
2. We will work on guiding questions, such as: What is Sustainability? What is environmental ethics? How can we develop innovative, sustainable technologies and ways of life, so as to make our world a better place?
3. We will develop and use critical thinking, by introducing problem-solving skills used to address those and other urgent community problems, such as abortion, capital punishment, environmental responsibility, animal rights, famine relief, and affirmative action.
4. As we will discuss moral arguments and the bases of moral decisions, we will be engaging in interdisciplinary and integrative learning, relating practical questions of legislation and political policies to ethical theories and philosophical problems.
5. We will be thus promoting civic engagement through community projects, service learning, and social awareness, as students will be encouraged to reflect on the moral grounds of democratic citizenship and human solidarity.


Required Text:

Lewis Vaughn, Doing Ethics. W.W. Norton & Co., 4th Edition, 2016. Paperback. ISBN-13: 978-0393265415; ISBN-10: 0393265412. Other editions available (e.g., 3rd edition, ISBN 978-0-393-91928-8 / 978-0-393-93428-1) can also be purchased as a used book.

Suggested Study Website (Highly Recommended Resource - 3rd Edition)

How to do well in this DL course


Further Reading / Reserved Materials (Library):

John Arthur, editor. Morality and Moral Controversies. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.
Richard N. Burnor and Yvonne Raley. Applied Ethical Reasoning: A Case Study Approach to Ethics. Oxford University Press, 2009.
James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 5th edition, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2007.
James Rachels, editor, The Right Thing to Do, 4th edition, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2007.
Lawrence M. Hinman, Contemporary Moral Issues. Prentice-Hall, 1996.
Louis P. Pojman, Editor. Philosophy: The quest for truth. Oxford University Press, 2010.


Grading Policy:

Grades are based on point accumulation throughout the sixteen weeks, divided into six units (one or two chapters per unit). There are 6 Homeworks / Quizzes worth 10 points each and 1 final, multiple-choice exam worth 10 points. Participation is worth 30 points (by sharing your views, insights, comments, and criticisms with classmates on the Discussion tab on-line, at least one post per unit). Students can earn up to 100 points in this course.


Final grades for the course are based on the following scale:


93-100 pts. = A 77-79 pts. = C+

90-92 pts. = A- 73-76 pts. = C

87-89 pts. = B+ 70-72 pts. = C-

83-86 pts. = B 60-69 pts. = D

80-82 pts. = B- 59 and below = F


Academic Honesty:

Neither plagiarism (i.e., presenting the written work of another as one's own) nor cheating (i.e., providing answers to exam questions or receiving exam answers from another) will be tolerated. Any academic dishonesty will be disciplined according to the guidelines in the University of Toledo student handbook.



If you need special accommodations to attend my class, please notify me immediately. Your need for special accommodations, including special testing requests, will need to be documented by the Office of Accessibility, located at 1400 Snyder Memorial (Tel. 419.530.4981 -


Reading Assignments & Class Structure:

Chapters on the schedule refer to the fourth edition of the textbook. The reading assignments are usually short and hopefully pleasant. Every week you’ll have the opportunity to ask questions and do self-assessment by taking the quiz on-line or writing a couple of paragraphs to address some of the Discussion Questions at the end of each chapter.

Unit 1: Aug 27 - Sep 16 : Introduction; CHAPTERS 1 & 2
Aug 27 – Sep 2: CHAPTER 1 - Ethics and the Examined Life
Sep 2 - 9 : CHAPTER 2 - Subjectivism, Relativism, and Emotivism

Sep 9 – 16 : HOMEWORK / QUIZ # 1

Unit 2: Sep 16 - 30 : CHAPTER 8 - Abortion

Sep 23 - 30 : HOMEWORK / QUIZ # 2 / Bonus / Midterm # 1

Unit 3: Sep 30 - 14 : CHAPTER 13 & 14 - Sexual Morality and Same-Sex Marriage

Oct 7 - 14 : HOMEWORK / QUIZ # 3

Unit 4 : Oct 14 - 28 : CHAPTER 15 - Environmental Ethics

Oct 21 - 28 : HOMEWORK / QUIZ # 4

Unit 5 : Oct 28 - Nov 11: CHAPTER 16 – Animal Rights

Nov 4 - 11 : HOMEWORK / QUIZ # 5

Unit 6: Nov 11 - Dec 2 : CHAPTER 17 – Political Violence: War, Terrorism, and Torture / CHAPTER 19 - Global Economic Justice

Nov 25 - Dec 2 : HOMEWORK / QUIZ # 6

Dec 2 - 8 : Make-Up / Bonus / Midterm # 2

Dec 8 - 14 : FINAL EXAM (multiple-choice exam, covers all material Units 1-6)

Recommended Further Reading: CHAPTER 5 - Consequentialist Theories: Maximize the Good
Wiki on Environmental Ethics
Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Environmental Ethics
International Society for Environmental Ethics
Journal for Environmental Ethics
Center for Environmental Philosophy
A Jewish take on Environmental Ethics
A Christian take on Environmental Ethics
A Buddhist take on Environmental Ethics
A Marxist take on Environmental Ethics

Wiki on Warfare

Wiki on Pacifism

Wiki on Just War

YouTube: Michael Walzer on Just War Theory

YouTube: An Alternative Arabic view of the Clash of Civilizations

YouTube: Stop the Clash of Civilizations

Wiki on Arms Industry

Wiki on Terrorism

You Tube: Just War (Howard Zinn 1/3)

Exhaustive Website on Just War Theories

YouTube: An Alternative Arabic view of the Clash of Civilizations

Islam and Secularization

Peace Now / Shalom Achshav

Power Point Chapter 17

Wiki on Global Justice

Wiki on World Poverty and Human Rights (get Thomas Pogge's book in PDF)

Wiki on Economic Justice

YouTube: David Welch on Global Justice

Paper on Rawls's take on Global Justice

Rawls's Theory of Justice Power Point

YouTube: On Rawls's Theory of Justice

Book Review of Tim Scanlon's "What We Owe to Each Other"

Further Reading: Power Point Chapter 17: Terrorism

Related Links:

Wiki on Sustainability
Green Gossip with UT Professor Ashley Pryor
Facebook: Founding the College of Innovative Learning at UT

Learning for Sustainability
You Tube: Environmental Sustainability
Climate Crisis: An Inconvenient Truth
Medical Ethics (U Toledo DL)

Business Ethics (U Toledo DL)

ABC News: An Inconvenient Verdict for Al Gore
CBS 60 Minutes: The Wasteland

In order to understand what is at stake in contemporary debates about abortion, euthanasia, death penalty, and other so-called "Moral Problems" belonging to the vast field of Applied Ethics, one must inevitably refer to Ethical Theories and how they co-relate to both Law and Politics (for instance, in legislation, public policy making and many legal, procedural decisions relating to the Constitution and to the public opinion). Ethical Theories seek to justify our arguments and moral reasoning when dealing with contemporary moral problems. Applied ethics is, therefore, a discipline of philosophy that attempts to apply Ethical Theories to real decision-making processes (e.g. in legal procedures and political decisions), especially those involving moral dilemmas and world dilemmas, such as the ones found in bioethics (abortion, euthanasia, health care, stem cell research, cloning, and other problems in medical ethics), biotechnology (eugenics, genetic research, food processing), legal ethics and human rights (global ethics, global justice, public policy making, international law), environmental ethics, computer ethics, corporate social responsibility, and business ethics. See the Wiki entry on Applied ethics. For more thoughts to address the broader question: What is philosophy? follow the link to this question in previous editions of this DL course. Keep in mind that Ethics is a branch of Philosophy which deals with moral problems both in abstract, theoretical terms (such as in Meta-Ethics and Normative Ethics, for instance, to define "what is good") and in practical, concrete terms (Applied Ethics).
According to Benedict, Cultural Relativism inevitably leads to Moral Relativism. According to Rachels, however, it is possible to subscribe to Cultural Relativism without necessarily endorsing Moral Relativism.
Why, after all, should we be moral? The main lesson we learn from the story of Gyges' ring: no one is so virtuous that one could resist the temptation of being able to steal at will by the ring's power of invisibility.
For a broader presentation of Ethics, Applied Ethics and Ethical Theories, see the Power Point Presentations below.

What is ETHICS ? (Power Point)

You Tube: Kant's Ethics
You Tube: Sartre's Existentialist Ethics

The ethics of virtue / Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
The moral law / Kant, The Groundwork
Utilitarianism / Consequentialism, J.S. Mill
Existentialist ethics, J.-P. Sartre / Ethics Without Religion / Outline

Scent of a Woman: Al Pacino's speech on character
Scent of a Woman: Al Pacino's speech (full version)
Scent of a Woman (Wiki)

What is Virtue Ethics ? (Power Point)


COGNITIVIST: Ethical principles can be known and established in objective terms

NONCOGNITIVIST: Ethical principles cannot be known and are rather chosen for different subjective reasons (by the very affirmation of subjective choices, individual freedom, emotions or by personal preferences or subjective expressions)

See the Power Point Presentations below:

Utilitarianism Power Point

John Rawls Power Point Presentation

Existentialism Power Point (advanced)

Sartre's Existentialism in a Nutshell (PDF)

Aristotle's teleological view of ethics: the highest end of human life is eudaimonia (the flourishing of one's moral character and development of moral, intellectual capabilities)
Moral virtue is the mean between two vices of excess and deficiency
Ethical life is to be cultivated within social, political institutions
Rationality (rational animal) ↔ Sociability (political animal)

Kant's categorical imperative: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." As a formal procedure (to decide how to proceed morally) it must pass the triple test of:
Universalizability: the maxim must be universalizable (moral law is universal)
Humanity as an end: each person must be treated as an end in itself
Self-legislation: we must act as legislators in a realm of ends (a moral community)
Human Persons: free, moral agents who rationally act from duty
Good will: to will what ought to be willed (universal, equal freedom shared by all)
Ethics - Law - Politics

Utilitarianism: an action is morally good insofar as its consequences are the best; the moral worth of an action is solely determined by its outcome (utility principle).

Existential Ethics: Since there is no presupposed belief in God, one must start from nothingness, so as to create her/his own values and make life meaningful: existence precedes essence, the freedom of the individual has primacy over the State and the Establishment.

The dilemma of determinism / Ethical dilemmas
Freedom of the will and human responsibility / A critique
Freedom of the will and the concept of a person
Discussion: Freedom of Choice and Moral Responsibility

Dilemma: two propositions seem to be plausible leading to a paradox or undecidable situation.
See the Wiki entry on Ethical Dilemmas

Determinism: all events are determined by natural laws (for instance, physical laws, such as the laws of gravity) or by some form of conditioning (such as psychological, sociological or cultural conditioning).
Free Will: Human beings have the individual capacity for free choice

Nature-Nurture: what is innate (DNA, genetic features) vs. what is acquired (socialization, cultural and psychological features acquired in human behavior)
Behaviorism: stimulus → organism → response (Pavlov's dog)
Libertarianism: Individuals are free, regardless of natural, social or other constraints.

Soft Determinism (William James) as an alternative to Hard Determinism.
Compatibilism: one can make compatible both Free Will and Determinism either by resorting to a Soft Determinism (e.g. James) or by resorting to a dualism (e.g. Kant's reconciliation of Nature and Freedom).
Insofar as they are free, humans are said to be responsible for their actions. First-order desires: To will something.
Second-order desires: To will to will something.
Only human persons (as opposed to nonhuman animals) can have volitions of the second order.

Applied Ethics: Abortion
You Tube: Abortion - The Silent Scream
Wiki entry on abortion
Wiki entry on the abortion debate
Abortion Shineups
Why Abortion is Immoral (Don Marquis) [OR Abortion is not morally permissible (J. Noonan)]
Abortion is morally permissible
The moderate position
You Tube: The Abortion Debate
You Tube: Roe v. Wade Summit Recap Video

An abortion is the removal or expulsion of an embryo or fetus from the uterus, resulting in or caused by its death. Induced abortion is the removal or expulsion of an embryo or fetus by medical, surgical, or other means at any point during human pregnancy for therapeutic or elective reasons.
Once a sperm fertilizes an egg cell, the result is a cell called the zygote that has all the DNA of two parents. In humans, it is called an embryo from the moment of fertilization until the end of the 8th week, whereafter it is instead called a fetus.
Conception (human fertilization) - zygote - embryo - fetus
Prior to 1973, almost all states in the United States had laws prohibiting abortion except when it was necessary to save the mother's life. However, in 1973 the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that such laws are unconstitutional.
Noonan: A being with a human genetic code is a human being. Therefore, abortion is not morally permissible.
Warren: Human in the genetic sense (a member of the biological species homo sapiens) must be, however, differentiated from the moral sense (a full-fledged member of the moral community). Abortion is, therefore, morally permissible.
For Jane English, the central question is not whether the fetus is a person. She maintains that even if the fetus is a person, it doesn't simply follow that abortion is wrong. But she goes on to argue that even if the fetus is not a person, it doesn't follow that abortion is simply acceptable in all circumstances. Hence, the moderate position: "In the early months of pregnancy when the fetus hardly resembles a baby at all, then, abortion is permissible whenever it is in the interests of the pregnant woman or her family. The reasons would only need to outweigh the pain and inconvenience of the abortion itself. In the middle months, when the fetus comes to resemble a person, abortion would be justifiable only when the continuation of the pregnancy or the birth of the child would cause harm -- physical, psychological, economic or social -- to the woman. In the late months of pregnancy, even on our current assumption that a fetus is not a person, abortion seems to be wrong except to save a woman from significant injury or death."

Applied Ethics: Sexual Morality, Marriage, and Same-Sex Marriage:

YouTube Debate on Same-Sex Marriage

Wikipedia entry on Sexual Ethics

Human sexuality

Sexual orientation


Same-sex marriage

Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality (3 vols)

Foucault's Genealogy of Modernity

Youtube: Michel Foucault short talk (in French)

YouTube: Foucault-Chomsky debate (subtitles in Dutch and English)

YouTube: Judith Butler on Gender Self-Identity (English with subtitles in French)

YouTube: Memorializing Simone de Beauvoir

On the Genealogy of Modernity: Foucault's Social Philosophy

Michel Foucault Archives (France)

Foucault Texts On-Line (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German)

You Tube: Jeremy Irons on death penalty
The Case Against The Death Penalty
Wiki on Capital Punishment
You Tube: Amnesty International on Death Penalty
CNN: Republicans on Death Penalty
Death Penalty Issues
Al Jazeera on Death Penalty

Justice Marshall resorts to the Eighth Amendment's ban against "cruel and unusual punishments" to argue that the US Constitution does not make the death penalty morally permissible. Thus, the death penalty is excessive or unnecessary, it is abhorrent to currently existing moral values, as it violates the fundamental right to life and human dignity. Furthermore, punishment as retribution has been condemned by scholars for centuries, and the Eighth Amendment itself was adopted to prevent punishment from becoming synonymous with vengeance. Finally, statistics and empirical findings show that capital punishment is not a better deterrent than life imprisonment. Therefore, neither deterrence nor retribution can morally justify the death penalty. Capital punishment is thus morally unacceptable to the people of the United States at this time in their history.
Those who argue for the death penalty, like Leiser, maintain that it is not "cruel and unusual," pointing out that the threat of executions deters capital crimes more effectively than imprisonment and that the death penalty is the only suitable retribution for heinous crimes.
According to Bedau, there has been substantial evidence to show that courts have been arbitrary, racially biased, and unfair in the way in which they have sentenced some persons to prison but others to death. To use more violence than is necessary to adequately punish criminals is unfair and unjust. Hence, the analogy between self-defense and capital punishment (that is, that capital punishment is to the body politic what self-defense is to the individual) is flawed because the victim of a felony has no right to respond in whatever way he or she pleases in retaliation (for instance, by shooting to kill an unarmed burglar).

The case for animal liberation, Book Review / P. Singer
The case against animal rights / Carl Cohen
Wiki on Environmental Ethics
Peter Singer's Global Ethics / You Tube video
Weltethos / Toward a Global Ethic (Catholic theologian Hans Küng)
Ali G on Animal Rights
Discussion: Animal Rights and Environment

According to Peter Singer, we must extend the argument for equal rights to nonhuman animals just as we did to other humans who were systematically excluded, following the women's rights movement, the civil rights movement, and gay rights movement. Otherwise we would be inconsistent in our own conception of egalitarianism, as many other animals have also the capacity for feeling pain and suffering (i.e. they are also sentient beings). We should thus denounce speciesism as a prejudice in favor of one's own species (namely, the human species, as opposed to nonhuman species). According to Carl Cohen, animals don't have moral rights because they are not rational, self-legislative beings and cannot be morally autonomous or morally accountable for their actions. Cohen makes thus a case for speciesism, refuting the utilitarian assumption that all sentient animals have equal moral standing. Because humans owe to other humans a degree of moral regard that cannot be owed to nonhuman animals, Cohen goes on to argue for the use of live animals in biomedical research.

The case for affirmative action / Race & Gender
Wiki on Affirmative Action
YouTube: Sen. Edwards in favor of AA
The case against affirmative action
YouTube: Against AA
Discussion: Affirmative Action

Affirmative Action: an institutional effort to rectify past injustice and to obtain a situation closer to the ideal of equal opportunity by policies aimed at a historically socio-politically non-dominant group (typically, minority men or women of all races) intended to promote access to education or employment. Some of the most known AA policies are: preferential hiring, nontraditional casting, quotas, minority scholarships, equal opportunities for underrepresented groups, and even reverse discrimination.
Discrimination is the act of discriminating, to differentiate, to discern, to judge how one thing differs from another on the basis of some rational criterion. Prejudice is a discrimination based on irrelevant grounds (social, racial or sexual).
Mosley's basic backward-looking justification of Affirmative Action: the attempt to correct and compensate for past injustice, by resorting to deontological, compensatory arguments for corrective justice.
Mosley's forward-looking justification of Affirmative Action: the attempt to promote an ideal of a society free from prejudice, so as to render race or gender irrelevant to basic opportunities. Such arguments tend to be utilitarian, as they refer to distributive justice, minimizing subordination and maximizing social utility.
According to Pojman, we must attend to the difference between Weak Affirmative Action and Strong Affirmative Action: the latter is defined as preferential treatment, discriminating in favor of members of underrepresented groups (often treated unjustly or marginalized in the past), while the former simply seeks to promote equal opportunity to the goods and offices of a society. According to Pojman, since two wrongs don't make a right, he concludes that Strong Affirmative Action is both racist and sexist, and defends Weak Affirmative Action to encourage minorities to strive for excellence in all areas of life (esp. education, public offices, employment), so as to avoid reverse discrimination.

Tip for writing essays:
Besides Pojman's Appendix, you might want to take a look at Jeff McLaughlin, How to Write a Philosophy Paper or P. Bokulich, Paper Writing Hints.

Other Suggested & Related Links:
Global Sustainability Forum, Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil - March 2011
Rio + 20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development
Latin American Indigenous Philosophy
Latin American Philosophy
You Tube: Martin Luther King's "American Dream"
You Tube: Ethical Egoism
You Tube: Judith Butler on Feminism
You Tube: Just War (Howard Zinn 1/3)

You Tube: Francis Schaeffer - A Judeo-Christian Worldview
You Tube: Richard Dawkins on Atheism

Philosophy Dept - UT

Wikipedia entry on Ethics

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Ethics

Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Morality

Ethics Updates

Religious Studies at UT

Program in Law and Social Thought - UT

Reformed, Catholic, Jew: An Experiment in Self-Identity

Philosophy of Religion Course

Buddhism Course

Phenomenology Seminar

Existentialism Course

Nietzsche, Foucault, and the Death of God

Nietzsche's Genealogy of Modernity

Jean-Paul Sartre's Existential Phenomenology of Liberation

Paul Ricoeur's Revelatory Hermeneutics of Suspicion

Dialectic and existence in Kant and Kierkegaard

Heidegger and Heraclitus

Rawls's Normative Conception of the Person

Barry F. Vaughan's Notes on L. Pojman's Book

Wikipedia entry on "Philosophy"

Applied Ethics and US Politics (just for your personal reflection):
Because human beings are free to choose between what is morally right and what is morally wrong, they are held accountable and responsible for their actions and behavior. This holds both for individual and social ethics. Thus whether someone votes for a Democrat, a Republican or any other (independent) candidate to represent her/his interests, s/he is making an individual decision that reflects not only her/his personal choices but also contributes to a collective outcome, such as the election of a President, senators, and representatives in a democracy –just as we will do this year during our presidential election.
As you think of the main issues on domestic and international political agenda (such as the war on terrorism, immigration, homeland security, public health care, global warming) try to think of possible ways of relating those to contemporary moral problems and how you could argue for or against some of the most evoked contentions and arguments. It is particularly important to avoid facile reductionisms such as identifying issues with conservative, liberal or radical positions, just as one argues for or against abortion, animal rights, affirmative action, and same-sex marriage.

You Tube: Bob Dylan & Joan Baez: Blowing in the Wind
You Tube: Monty Python: The Meaning of Life - Intro
You Tube: Monty Python: The Meaning of Life - Death
You Tube: Ali G - Abortion
You Tube: Ali G - Medical Ethics
Ruth Benedict
The challenge of Cultural Relativism.
James Rachels
Why should I be moral? Gyges' ring and Socrates' dilemma

Wiki entry on Just War

Wiki entry on Health Care

Wiki entry on Immigration

Wiki entry on Global Warming

Wiki entry on Terrorism

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Ethics

Ethics Updates

Moral Philosophy

Applied Ethics Resources on WWW

Abortion: All Sides of the Issue

Abortion and Ethics

Punishment and the Death Penalty

The Moral Status of Animals

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: The Moral Status of Animals

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Affirmative Action

Rock Ethics Institute

Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics

Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs

PHIL 3750 Social and Political Philosophy


PHIL 2200-021 Introduction to Philosophy

In God's Name: Reformed, Catholic, Jewish

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