Contemporary Moral Issues

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Course DatesLengthMeeting TimesStatusFormatInstructor(s)CRN
July 12, 2021 - July 28, 20217/12 - 7/282 WeeksOnlineWaitlistedOnlineAnna Brinkerhoff

Course Description

Is abortion morally permissible? How about torture? Capital punishment? Is eating meat morally wrong? Are we morally required to help those in poverty? How do we take steps to rectify racial injustice (affirmative action, reparations, etc.)? Is pornography morally objectionable?

People have strong, conflicting beliefs about how to answer these questions. Often, these beliefs are ones they hold near and dear. This can make it difficult to subject those beliefs to rational evaluation. The goal of this course is to do just that. Throughout the course, we will be looking at arguments for different answers to these questions and more, and assessing those arguments, strengths, and weaknesses.

By the end of the course, students will be able to see - more specifically, rationally engage with - both sides of many hot-button issues. In addition, by grappling with these specific practical moral issues, students will gain a deep understanding of the theoretical nature of morality.

This course serves as an introduction to applied ethics. We will consider hot-button issues in sexual ethics, social ethics, environmental ethics, biomedical ethics, and political ethics. More specifically, we will consider and critically evaluate philosophical arguments on various sides of the following issues, among others:

  • War and torture
  • Death penalty
  • Vegetarianism and non-human animal rights
  • Abortion
  • Euthanasia
  • Poverty and humanitarian aid
  • Pornography and censorship
  • Affirmative action
  • Drug laws
Each evening, students will be asked to read two conflicting positions on one of these issues. In the process, students will engage with both historic and contemporary philosophers, including John Stewart Mill, John Rawls, Catharine MacKinnon, Peter Singer, Judith Jarvis Thompson, Robert Nozick, and Gina Schouten.

Students will gain invaluable skills by thinking through these issues philosophically - skills that will set them up to flourish in college, in the philosophy classroom and beyond. They will hone their analytic skills by learning how to identify, reconstruct, explain, and evaluate arguments; learn how to write clearly and succinctly about big ideas; practice forming thoughtful, substantiated answers to complicated moral/philosophical questions; gain experience discussing controversial issues with civility and reason, and in a friendly, collaborative environment.

A student who completes this course should be able to do the following:
  • Clearly communicate philosophical ideas, both verbally and in writing;
  • Identify, reconstruct, and explain arguments found in course readings, and critically evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of those arguments;
  • Explain central arguments (and objections to them) concerning major contemporary moral issues;
  • Think reasonably about a controversial issue, and see both sides of it;
  • Produce a final paper informed by relevant philosophical research.

Prerequisites: This course is appropriate for any student at the high school level. Students do not need any background in philosophy in order to succeed in this course.

Course Information

  • Course Code: CEPL0940

Program Information


Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences for students completing grades 9-12 by June 2021.

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