Course Syllabus PHL 308

PHL 308U

Elementary Ethics

Dr. Jeff Johnson

Distance Delivery

PHL 308U is a course on ethical thinking.  We will be exploring a technique for evaluating ethical arguments that I am calling “Inference to the Best Normative Narrative.”  The case studies we will be utilizing are the abortion controversy, the issue of euthanasia and the right to die, capital punishment, and the justification of law and government.  A primary source of normative principle will be the U.S. Constitution and the actions of the Supreme Court.

Required Texts:

  • Life’s Dominion by Ronald Dworkin
  • Several of my published articles and conference papers (provided within D2L)

Learning Outcomes:

  • Mastery of “inference to the best normative narrative”
  • Knowledge of the “fetal personhood” debate
  • Knowledge of the relevant Supreme Court cases regarding abortion
  • Knowledge of the philosophical and legal issues regarding the right to die
  • Knowledge of Dworkin’s argument regarding dementia and the right to die
  • Knowledge of the constitutional issues regarding the death penalty
  • Knowledge of “secular natural law” and the biological basis of ethical thinking
  • Knowledge of the philosophical debate regarding the justification of law and government

Means of Assessment and Grading

  • Midterm “take home” essay examination (33% of course grade)
  • Analytical paper (33% of course grade)
  • Final “take home” essay examination (33% of course grade)


WEEK ONE – Introduction to course

  • Lecture One – Mechanics of the course
  • Lecture Two – Rationality and Ethics
  • Lecture Three – Inference to the best normative narrative
  • Reading – Johnson – “Reasons, Reasoning, and Legal Narrative”

WEEK TWO – Fetal personhood and the abortion debate

  • Lecture Four – Dworkin “The Edges of Life”
  • Lecture Five – Fetal personhood
  • Lecture Six – The borderline case hypothesis
  • Lecture Seven – Dworkin Sacred Value of Life
  • Reading – Dworkin Chapters 1-3

WEEK THREE – Abortion and the Supreme Court

  • Lecture Eight – Abortion and the Supreme Court
  • Lecture Nine – Abortion and the Supreme Court
  • Lecture Ten – Abortion and the Supreme Court
  • Reading – Dworkin Chapters 4-6

FIRST MIDTERM (Due 10/20/16)

WEEK FOUR – Euthanasia and the Right to Die

  • Lecture Eleven – Writing analytical papers
  • Lecture Tweleve – Dworkin “Dying and Living”
  • Lecture Thirteen – Dworkin “Dying and Living”
  • Reading – Dworkin Chapter 7

WEEK FIVE – Dementia and the right to die

  • Lecture Fourteen – Dworkin’s story
  • Lecture Fifteen – Dworkin’s story
  • Lecture Sixteen – Dworkin’s story
  • Reading – Dworkin Chapter 8


  • Lecture Seventeen — Johnson’s (et. al.) story
  • Lecture Eighteen — Johnson’s (et. al.) story
  • Lecture Nineteen — Johnson’s (et. al.) story
  • Reading TBA

ANALYTICAL PAPER (Begin writing 11/4/16)

WEEK SEVEN – Capital Punishment and the Constitution

  • Lecture Twenty – Textual Interpretation
  • Lecture Twenty-one – Constitutional Interpretation
  • Lecture Twenty-two – Constitutional Interpretation and the Death Penalty
  • Reading – Johnson Chapter Seven 

WEEK EIGHT – Race and the Death Penalty

  • Lecture Twenty-three – McCleskey v. Kemp 
  • Lecture Twenty-four – McCleskey v. Kemp 
  • Lecture Twenty-five – post-McCleskey developments
  • Reading – Johnson Article and 103 chapters

PEER REVIEW (Analytical Paper draft due to group 11/14/16)

PEER REVIEW (Feedback due to groupmates 11/19/16)

WEEK NINE – Secular Natural Law and the Justification of the State 

  • Lecture Twenty-six – The anarchist’s challenge
  • Lecture Twenty-seven – Secular Natural Law
  • Lecture Twenty-eight – Secular Natural Law


WEEK TEN – Secular Natural Law and the Justification of the State

  • Lecture Twenty-nine – Anarchism
  • Lecture Thirty – The social contract
  • Lecture Thirty-one – The justification of the state?

FINAL EXAM (Due 12/5/16)