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Michael Stoff, Director 305 East 23rd St, CLA 2.102, (G3600) Austin, TX 78712-1250 • 512-471-1442

Fall 2006

T C 301 • Moral Psychology - W

Unique Days Time Location Instructor
44430 TTh
11:00 AM-12:30 PM
WAG 210

Course Description

Why do we do the good things that we do? Why do we sometimes misbehave and do what we know to be wrong? "Moral psychology" is, in part, the study of those motivational factors that explain ethical (and unethical) behavior. For many years in philosophy, the main emphasis was on the power of rationality to move us, but this was much disputed, notably by one of the great moral philosophers of the eighteenth century, David Hume. He said, Reason is and ought to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office to serve and obey them (Treatise of Human Nature, p. 266). Immanuel Kant, the greatest philosopher of the nineteenth century, by contrast, insisted that we could be moved by rationality alone, indeed, by pure practical reason (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, p. 119). Alternatively, there are now many philosophers (more or less following Hume but long before him Aristotle) who shift the attention to questions of character and the concept of the virtues (Aristotle, N. Ethics, Books III-V). Contemporary philosophers continue this debate, but too often in secluded, repetitive, and isolated studies about the nature of practical reasoning, the nature of virtue, and such.

In the past twenty years, however, there has been a wealth of interdisciplinary research that casts a great deal of light on this debate. From neuroscience comes some wonderful research on the necessary cooperation between reason and (what we now call) the emotions. From psychology and psychoanalysis come volumes on the sources of personality and the limits of what philosophers call "character." From sociology and anthropology come reports of the most exotic cultural differences that raise at least the question of whether there may be deep moral differences as well. From historical research there are fascinating studies of the histories of emotions, rationality, and changes in the virtues. And in biology, the theory of evolution has raised controversial questions about the origins of our sense of right and wrong, disclosing a rich realm of phenomena that no longer fit into such neatly dismissive categories as "instinct" and "drive." My aim in this course is to get clear about how all of this fits together and clarifies-or further confuses-the debates about the movers of moral behavior. Ultimately, of course, the point of the course is to follow the philosopher Socrates in his insistence that we examine our own lives, which includes, perhaps more than anything else, an understanding of our motivation and our passions. In that sense, the course is intended to be deeply personal as well as practical and concerned with sophisticated scientific and philosophical theories.

Grading Policy

This course contains a substantial writing component.

This will be a writing intensive course. It will also require active class participation and serious thinking. Every student will be expected to write a one-page paper every week and keep a journal. There will be team presentations on various topics. There will be a term paper due at the end of the semester and one examination.

Term paper: 40%
Exam: 25%
Weekly papers, presentations and journal: 35%


We shall draw from a variety of disciplines including literary sources. Classic philosophical authors would include critical selections from Hume, Kant, Aristotle, and Nietzsche. More modern philosophers may include Sartre, Beauvoir, and Blackburn. A few interdisciplinary suggestions for the course would be Freud (psychoanalysis); Damasio (neurology), Milgram, Zimbardo, Buss, and Pennebaker (psychology); Lutz (anthropology); Gladwell (popular psychology); and Darwin (evolutionary biology). Literary sections (probably not whole books) will include readings from Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Austen, Kundera, and Marquez.


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