Pierce logo


photo of Professor McFerran

Doug McFerran, Professor of Philosophy
Office hours: by email (dmcf34@yahoo.com)
Phone:  818-364-7600, ext 7710

So what is this course about?

From the Pierce Catalog:   The course introduces the student to some of the traditional and contemporary issues in rational decision making about ethical and political issues.  (This course transfers to both UC and CSU and is equivalent to Phil 160 at CSUN.)

You'll note that on the schedule it is recommended as a first introductory course in philosophy.  This has been true for a long while at Pierce after we adopted a pattern from UCLA which reversed the traditional sequence of having a course about how we should live (ethics and political thought) follow a basic course on how to talk about truth and reality (epistemology and metaphysics).  The reason was that questions about society and values seemed more clearly relevant to the beginning student than the more abstract issues covered in Philosophy 1 and so would offer a better starting point for someone who might take only a single semester of philosophy.

This is an entirely online course.   We will be using the Moodle portal set up for this class, and it is through this that you will carry on the activities required.

Are there any prequisites for this class?

No, there are no courses you need to have taken first, but given the amount of reading and writing involved I do strongly recommend that you have met the prerequisites for English 101.  Also, since it is an online class, you do need to have adequate access to the Internet on a regular basis.

What are expected as the student learning outcomes for this class?

    1.      Students will demonstrate the ability to apply thinking skills to some of the major problems and responses central to philosophical questioning.
                   As a result of this class we want you to be better able to carry on a reasoned discussion about society and values.
    2.      Students will understand, comprehend, subdivide, and inter-relate major problems, philosophical questions, and responses central to social and political philosophy.
                    A reasoned discussion will involve being able to see the connections of some of the ideas that have come up in the more than twenty-five hundred years of both Western and Asian philosophy.

What about a textbook?

Everything you need for the class will be available online at no cost. 

And what if you want to know ahead of time who are the main writers we will be discussing?

With the lecture material expect to meet, among others, Plato and Aristotle from ancient Greece, Mencius and Xun-zi from ancient China, Locke and Hobbes, Kant and Mill, Rousseau and Marx, Herbert Marcuse and John Rawls and Peter Singer.  At the end of each week's lecture I will have links for you to read more about them on your own, and in few cases there will be specific online selections that will be the basis for items in your exams.

And how are you graded?

There are four things that go toward your grade.  The first (15%) is a participation score.  Going into this is a weekly log in which you let me know what you are doing for the class and we have more of a chance to discuss your individual progress, and for your score I will also be taking into account the evidence of your activity recorded on the Moodle site.  The second (45%) is based on a set of weekly discussions or forums on the Moodle site, the third (10%) is an individual position paper, and the fourth (10% each) are two midterms and a final exam, all done online.  Converted to points, you need a total of 90-100 for an "A," 80-89 for a "B," 70-79 for a "C," and 60-69 for a "D."  The details for all of these activities will be explained on the Moodle site.

What are the exams like?

The midterms are completely objective (true/false or multiple choice), but the final will be an essay exam.   Included in the final will be a question decided by all of us teaching this course that relates to the assessment of our specific learning outcomes (SLOs).

Any other things you should know?

You should already have a personal email account indicated as part of your LACCD profile.  Since we rely so heavily on email contact, I strongly recommend keeping a separate folder for our correspondence, and also you need make sure things do not get diverted into a junk or spam folder.  Also, please be aware that the standards of academic honesty expected of you as a Pierce student require that the work you submit should be your own and that anything that would not meet this standard (and that includes using "copy and paste" in a paper as well as evident collusion in an exam) would result in losing the credit for that activity.  Students with a disability that may affect being able to work adequately with our online materials need to advise me so that we can make appropriate adjustments. 

So what is the schedule we'll follow?

I am dividing the course into four parts. 

Understanding how philosophy is different from both science and religion. weeks 1-2
We are going to look briefly at the overall history of the discussion of society and values.  Our major emphasis is on Western thought, especially as it developed in modern times, but we will also look at certain Asian ideas. 

    WEEK 1:  We  need to begin with the recognition that a philosophical question has to be answered differently than a religious or a scientific question.  However, there was a strong tendency in twentieth-century philosophy to restrict it to logic and the analysis of scientific method, and this week and next we will have to look more closely at this approach.  Before we do, though, we are going to look at the beginnings of philosophy in both ancient Greece and ancient China since the basic questions for philosophy have not really changed since then.  For this week's forum I will be asking you to introduce yourselves.  This is what I would be calling on you to do in a regular classroom, and it is chance for you to see  the diversity in age and experience and expectations there will be with the class.  Keep in mind that you are also able to post your photo and a brief bio on your Moodle profile page.
    WEEK 2:  This week I want you to be thinking about whether it seems reasonable to expect objectively true answers when it comes to talking about right and wrong (a position we label as moral realism).  We are looking at the case against this in the last century and the response.  For the forum I am going to ask you for your own expectations about the answers we aim at in this course.

Deciding whether there is a rational basis for any discussion of right and wrong.  weeks 3-5, with a midterm in week 6
Much of twentieth-century philosophy has been about whether value judgments could ever be anything more than individual expressions of attitude, but more recently there has been a greater emphasis on what is called moral realism, a view that takes us back to the great history of philosophy in both Asia and the West.  We are going to look more at the major ethical theories employed in moral decision making.

    WEEK 3: The basic theme that is going to run through the entire course is what we can mean when we talk about  justice.  We will learn about the classic objection made to Socrates, and we will see how the issue links in with any understanding we have about human nature itself.  In the forum you will have a chance to present your own reflections on what we are learning.
     WEEK 4:  Assuming it makes sense to look for objective answers in ethics, what are the leading alternatives in the way we do this?  We are going to look in very general terms at several moral theories, then in the forum I am going to ask you about your own position on the possibility of being consistently moral in our actions.
     WEEK 5:  In a complex society such as our own we can look at the overlap of moral values with religious teachings and with the law.  We are going to look at two extremes and then in the forum, following up on last week's discussion, I am going to ask you for a first reaction to the issue of how to act rightly as an individual while respecting either religious or legal limitations in doing so.

Deciding whether there is a rational basis for preferring one type of government over another.  weeks 7-11, with a midterm in week 12
As Americans we are very familiar with the concept of "self-evident" truths that are the basis for discussing what we mean by personal rights.  This, however, is a concept that has come under serious challenge in modern times, and so we need to examine more carefully any basis for talking about a democratic system.

    WEEK 7:  Ever since Plato political philosophy in the West has used the idea that  the moral authority of the state (why we should still feel obliged to obey the law if we could get away with not doing so) is based on a promise of some sorts.  This has been seen as what we would call a virtual contract--not something we actually sit down and sign but what is understood from the fact that we accept the protection and service provided by a government.  The central issue is how we should understand whatever we call our indivfidual rights, and in your forum discussion I want you to explore how we should understand the first ten amendments to the American constitution.
    WEEK 8: 
After looking at the political theory that inspired our own form of government in the American Revolution we are going to look at the theory that inspired first the French Revolution just years after own own and then the form of government that for most of the twentieth century characterized the Soviet Union and the other countries seeing themselves as Communist.  The key will be a quite different vision of why things would ever have gone wrong in a state of nature.  Forr this week's discussion I will ask you to discuss the  different ways of having a true rule of the people in a modern society.
    WEEK 9:
The theories we have been looking at over the last two weeks have been secular in the sense that the basis for the legal systems proposed in them is not religious in origin.  However, in recent years we have come to see that religion, far from being just a thing of the past, has assumed new importance in the discussion of how a society should work.  When religious and political authority are essentially the same we talk about a theocracy.  Your forum for this week will deal with just how we are to reconcile secular and religious values in what we expect in our legal structure.
    WEEK 10: 
A theocratic vision of society insists on the law making us be moral.  Earlier we met John Stuart Mill proposing a quite different model which would not recognize "victimless crimes."  We are going to take a closer look at Mill's ideas with special emphasis on the idea of free speech, but we are also going to look at a major objection to how Mill supports his position.  In your forum for this week I am inviting you to examine this objection more carefully.
    WEEK 11:  Early in the course we saw that Socrates made the idea of justice the key to his entire philosophy.  We are now going to look more closely at still other positions about what we ought to take "justice" to mean.  In the forum I am asking you to reflect on whether there is a moral obligation not just to obey "good" laws but also to work to change "bad" ones.

Looking more closely at some specific issues.  weeks 13-15
This can vary from semester to semester.  In the fall for 2011 I am going to pose some questions about how to reconcile personal moral standards with social expectations.  It is here that you choose a specific topic for your paper, which will be due before the final exam and will actually be the basis for things I will ask you on the exam.

Each week I have an online lecture and links to additional materials.  Also, at the beginning of each week I am going to pose a question that I ask you to discuss together through the Moodle forums.  As we go along I am going to have other online activities to advance your understanding.  At the time of the midterms and the final I would expect that you can show a basic understanding of the concepts we are working with as well as some of the philosophers associated with them. 

In planning your study schedule I would ask you to spend the first part of each week (Monday through Wednesday) on the lecture material, which will include requirements or suggestions for additional reading, then for the last part (Thursday through Sunday) contribute to the Moodle forum for that week.  I would recommend allowing at least six hours a week for this class.

Please note:  whether I would personally agree with stands you may take in any discussion, including a paper or an exam, is not relevant to your grade.  Also, it is understood that at any point you may present a view for the sake of argument and it should not be assumed, either by myself or by other students, that what you say is what you personally believe. At all times, however, the same standards of courtesy and mutual respect appropriate in a face-to-face classroom setting apply in our online interaction.