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Ethical Traditions (Level 6)


Module description

Although ethical convictions and practices vary considerably across history and between cultures, there are also aspects of ethical thought that they share. In this module we introduce you to a variety of historically influential ethical traditions and relate them to current work in moral philosophy.

One such tradition, which can be traced back as far as Aristotle and the Ancient Greeks but is visible also beyond European philosophy, is focused on the idea of virtue or desirable character traits. Another such tradition, which is often associated with the Utilitarianism and the modern West but which is also arguably present in earlier ethical systems, is focused on the consequences of action or ‘the good’. Yet another tradition, which is often associated with monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam, is focused on duty and the law.

Among questions asked in this module are:

  • What is the relation between virtue and the good?
  • Is it possible to conceive of a good ethical life without a prior conception of rights and duties?
  • Does the idea of a ‘moral law’ make sense in the absence of a law-giver?

By considering a selection of arguments and theories from different ethical traditions, we will explore their respective strengths and weaknesses and the relationships between them as understood by philosophers at different points in history and in different cultural circumstances.

Indicative syllabus

  • Virtue and character
  • Theories of the good
  • Utility, consequences and right action
  • Rights and duties
  • Power and consent
  • Natural law and divine command
  • Cultural and historical perspectives on moral theory

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • understand different ethical traditions focused on virtue ethics, consequentialism and law/duty, as well as their interrelationships with other approaches to ethics
  • understand different ideas, contexts and frameworks deployed by historical and contemporary contributors to debates over virtue, the good life, rights and duties, and recognise some of their strengths and weaknesses
  • undertake thorough critical analyses of different philosophical theories of the relations between virtue and the good, the role of rights and duties in ethics and the authority of ‘moral law’, and evaluate the outcomes
  • critically challenge historical and contemporary philosophical accounts of the good life, while situating these in relation to different ethical traditions.