Teaching metaethics to undergraduates

Greetings, all.  Sorry that my first official post will be so mundane, but here goes.  I’ll be teaching an upper-level undergraduate course in metaethics for the first time this fall.  I’m wondering if anyone who has taught metaethics at this level can recommend an anthology to use.  Many of the big anthologies and overviews of the field I’ve looked at seem pitched a bit high for undergraduates.  I  may end up scrapping the book idea altogether, but it would be nice to know if anyone’s had particular success with a collection.  And while we’re at it, if you’ve got favorite articles for teaching metaethics to undergraduates, I’ll happily take those recommendations as well.  Thanks.

14 Replies to “Teaching metaethics to undergraduates

  1. I use the Darwall, Gibbard and Railton anthology. And also The Language of Morals. I used to use a Wadsworth anthology called Ethical Theory (I think that’s what it’s called), edited by Louis Pojman, but I decided it was unconscionably expensive.

  2. You might try Arguing about Metaethics, edited by Fisher and Kirchin and published by Routledge.

  3. ‘Twentieth Century Ethical Theory’ ed. by Steven Cahn has a good set of papers. It is expensive new, but there are usually enough used copies at a reasonable price.

  4. I just finished teaching metatehics to undergraduates, and I ended up using resources from JSTOR, etc. rather than an anthology. The anthologies are not only expensive, but many are too sophisticated for students coming to the subject for the first time, and in my 10-week quarter system, we’d only end up using about one-third of an anthology anyway. We covered many of the major figures and movements from the twentieth century (Moore, Ayer, Mackie, Harman), but skipped some important stuff (prescriptivism, debates about supervenience) and did very little post-1980 material. We spent the last three weeks reading Smith’s The Moral Problem. Some students benefitted from reading along in Miller’s An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics, which is still insufficiently ‘introductory’. There’s definitely a market for a companion to metaethics for students confronting this material for the first time.

  5. I’ve used the Darwall-Gibbard-Railton in the past, though the past couple years I’ve used a reader that I’ve put together myself. But Russ Shafer-Landau has a new anthology from Blackwell (Foundations of Ethics: An Anthology) which looks really good, and contains nearly everything I was putting in my reader (plus a lot of other stuff), so I think I’m going to try it next time around.
    As for the sophistication issue, my own opinion is that it’s good for students to be thrown into the deep end of the pool. Sure, they show up to class the first couple weeks with a deer-in-headlights look. But then we talk about it and work through it and by the end of the course, they’re often surprised by how much of this initially inscrutable and obscure material they have actually managed to grasp.

  6. I just taught my first undergraduate metaethics course, and used the new Fisher & Kirchin anthology mentioned above, supplemented with a packet of articles. I thought it was quite good, though they try a bit too hard to find pairs of articles that directly critique and refer to one another, rather than simply choosing the best pieces on the topic. However, the anthology really stands out for its excellent introductions for each section, and overall I feel it’s a bit better for undergrads than Darwall, Gibbard, and Railton.
    I think in the future I’ll still use Fisher & Kirchin, but I’ll supplement it a bit more. There are a few classic pieces that aren’t included, and some of their selections (e.g., from Blackburn’s early work) are not very good.

  7. I’ve used Darwall, Gibbard and Railton but more commonly I have used a packet from our bookstore that I put together. Even when I’ve used D,G & R I had to supplement it with additional readings beyond what was in there (including good parts of The Language of Morals)> I agree it is a good anthology with a good introduction by the editors and I think Darwall’s internalism paper is helpful and may have been written for that volume.
    Long ago I used the Pojman/Wadsworth volume that Jamie mentions but found the introductions to the articles to be too misleading even when I explicitly told students to ignore them.

  8. I just used, and recommend, the Shafer-Landau and Cuneo book that Troy mentioned, for a co-taught class that’s cross-listed for last-year undergraduates and honours-year students (a year that doesn’t easily translate into the US system — it’s a year between undergrad and the master’s, and I guess it’s a bit like first-year master’s, as the MA here is only one year…at least in theory). The students — many of whom, despite their seniority, had little relevant background — found the material difficult. But with a lot of work and discussion, they could do it, and I subscribe to Troy’s “deep end” policy; it makes the teaching job more challenging, but that’s a good thing. Also, the Shafer-Landau/Cuneo book has excellent area introductions, which really help the students get oriented.
    (Like others, I supplemented with a couple of articles, too.)

  9. i took a course my last semester in college–spring 2006–in which we studied david brink’s moral realism and the foundations of ethics. although this book took a little longer than it would have had i a background in metaethics, i found that the obstacle of a challenging book made my experience more rewarding. as for introductions, i used alexander miller’s book when i finished brink’s to get a better sense of the tradition. i found this book to be absolutely excellent. i recommended it to all of my peers in the course and they also raved about it.

  10. I really like Shafer-Landau’s Whatever Happened to Good and Evil?, and I like to use it especially for teaching undergraduates with little to no philosophical background or knowledge. It’s very accessible, certainly more accessible than most of the titles listed above. More often, though, I use one the titles suggested above when teaching junior and senior-level philosophy majors.

  11. I can offer a student perspective. As a senior undergrad, I took a metaethics seminar last fall (it was a graduate course however). We used texts already mentioned-Cahn and Haber; Darwell, Gibbard and Railton; and Miller. Even though this was a grad level class, I felt we read too much and tried to cover everything in a semester, which didn’t seem to work for most folks in the class. For an undergrad class, I’d recommend finding the most seminal essays from the major positions within metaethics. I would’ve preferred to go deep rather than broad because this stuff is quite dense, especially for an undergrad. I really liked Miller’s text as a supplement–it is clear and useful, esp. for things like the Frege-Geach problem. I also read Michael Huemer’s book on realism as an extra thing, and I thought that it was really accessible.

  12. Hello all,
    Thanks for the interesting comments about the volume that Andy Fisher and myself have put together. To answer Elisa’s original question, before we had our volume I put together a reader like many other people, supplemented with Alex Miller’s book. I’ve been on research leave this year, so haven’t taught with our book yet. When I do so next year I’ll probably – is this an odd thing to say? – supplement with a few things also. (Russ S-L and I have a gentlemans’ agreement to put each other’s book on our wider reading lists!) Occasionally I have second thoughts about some of our selections, and there were certainly some things Andy and I wanted to include but couldn’t as we were at the very limit of what we could pack in. (For example, we were hoping to have more on Jackson, and a separate section on Gibbard.) It could be that Routledge ask us to do a second edition in the future. If any Pea Soupers have any ideas about our selections, and our introductions, Andy and I would be pleased to hear from you. (Andy’s at Nottingham, and I’m at Kent.) Best wishes, Simon

  13. Elisa, I know you were mostly interested in anthologies, but I thought I would mention that Shafer-Landau’s Moral Realism works very well as a textbook at the upper level. I have used it this year and the students found it useful as a supplement to the primary readings.

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