Introduction to Philosophical Enquiry: Ethics

Open to students entering grades 11 or 12 or freshman year of college in the fall
I - June 29–July 17, 2020
Days & Time:
Monday–Friday, 11:10 –1:00 p.m. and 3:10–5:00 p.m.
Alex Rigas

“I told a friend that I exit class on clouds every day. The content of the class is endlessly interesting.”  - Jessica F. | Valley Stream, New York

Course Description

In this introduction to ethics, one of the core subfields of philosophy, we try to answer questions such as the following: What makes actions morally required, forbidden, or permissible? To what entities do we stand in moral relations, and what do we owe them? (What do we owe, if anything, to animals? To the natural environment? To future generations?) What makes a life good and worthy of choice? Can we be mistaken about whether we are living well? What is the relation between morality and happiness – is there anything “in it for us” if we consistently act out of genuine respect for our moral duty?

After an overview of some of the fundamental themes and methods of the philosophical study of ethics, we examine, in the course’s first unit, four of the most prominent approaches to ethics in Western philosophy: utilitarian consequentialism, Kantian ethics, virtue ethics (in various traditions), and, more recently, the feminist ethics of care. We also explore one non-Western source in the writings of Mahatma Gandhi.

Equipped with these theoretical tools, we put them to use in the course’s second unit as we strive for a richer and more defensible understanding of several significant contemporary moral issues: the relation between morality and the law, justice in the distribution of resources in society, and the moral status of the unborn.

Authors covered include Aristotle, Gandhi, Kant, Martin Luther King Jr., Nietzsche, and several contemporary moral philosophers, including Peter Singer.

Through lecture, independent reading, and class discussion and debate, participants gain not only a familiarity with of some of the fundamental issues in ethics but also an understanding of the distinctiveness of philosophical enquiry and an improved ability to think critically and to express themselves clearly and cogently.


Alex Rigas

Alex Rigas holds an M.A. and an M.Phil. in philosophy from Columbia University. His research has been mainly in 19th- and 20th-century European philosophy, especially Martin Heidegger. He has taught at Columbia and New York University, and his teaching interests include political and social philosophy, ethics, and metaphysics and epistemology. Alex believes that philosophy matters to and is for everyone, and he continues to facilitate philosophical discussions with non-academic audiences as a participant in the Columbia Department of Philosophy’s outreach program, Rethink.   

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Specific course detail such as hours and instructors are subject to change at the discretion of the University. Not all instructors listed for a course teach all sections of that course.