Introduction to Judeo-Christian Ethics

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God and the Good Life:

Introduction to Religious Ethics

(a.k.a. “Introduction to Judeo-Christian Ethics”)

REL 364 – Spring 2011

MW 2:00-3:20

VKC 109

Prof. David Albertson (

Office: ACB 129

Office hours: TBD

What is the good life? What is human excellence, and what does it mean to be human? What is “the Good,” and how does it relate to “God”? What is the difference between seeking a just community and seeking righteousness before God? What is “ethics” and how does one go about doing it?

Conflicting answers have been given to such questions in the history of western religious thought, answers which may still inform the possibilities for ethics (religious and otherwise) in the present. The project of the course is not to consider discrete, contemporary moral issues. Rather, it serves as an historical introduction to western religious ethics, especially as influenced by Christianity, and provides a solid foundation for further study of today’s pressing ethical questions.

The goal of the class is to equip students with the historical knowledge necessary so that they can situate think on their own about how to relate religion and ethics in the present.

Our class time together will be spent trying to make sense of primary texts. Our collective enterprise is to attempt to understand how religious beliefs, for better or for worse, have influenced western ethical reflection. We will first acquaint ourselves with the Greek sources that influenced Jewish and Christian ethics themselves. We then read selections from over a millennium of religious writings in Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions, before considering modern critiques of such religious approaches to ethics in general.

Required texts

  1. Course Reader

  2. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (Penguin)

  3. Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (Cambridge)

  4. Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals (Cambridge)

  5. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (Cambridge)


Details TBA, but generally speaking: some quizzes based on predistributed study questions, a take-home midterm, and a final.

Attendance policy

Your absence diminishes the quality of common discussions. One absence will be excused without affecting your preparation grade. However, if you have a good reason to be absent more than one time, please notify me of your situation by email at least 24 hours in advance.

University policies

Students with disabilities

Any student requesting academic accommodations based on a disability is required to register with Disability Services and Programs (DSP) each semester. A letter of verification for approved accommodations can be obtained from DSP. Please be sure the letter is delivered to me (or to TA) as early in the semester as possible. DSP is located in STU 301 and is open 8:30 a.m.–5:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. The phone number for DSP is (213) 740-0776.

Academic integrity

USC seeks to maintain an optimal learning environment. General principles of academic honesty include the concept of respect for the intellectual property of others, the expectation that individual work will be submitted unless otherwise allowed by an instructor, and the obligations both to protect one’s own academic work from misuse by others as well as to avoid using another’s work as one’s own. All students are expected to understand and abide by these principles. Scampus, the Student Guidebook, contains the Student Conduct Code in Section 11.00, while the recommended sanctions are located in Appendix A: Students will be referred to the Office of Student Judicial Affairs and Community Standards for further review, should there be any suspicion of academic dishonesty. The Review process can be found at:

Use of course materials

In SCampus 2000-2001 (page 91 under Academic Policies) there is a policy which reads: “Notes or recordings made by students based on a university class or lecture may only be made for purposes of individual or group study, or for other non-commercial purposes.... This restriction also applies to any information distributed, disseminated or in any way displayed for use in relationship to the class, whether obtained in class, via email or otherwise on the Internet, or via any other medium. Actions in violation of this policy constitute a violation of the Student Conduct Code, and may subject an individual or entity to university discipline and/or legal proceedings.”


I. Greek Ethics: What is Virtue?
M / Jan 10 Introduction to class: What is “ethics”? Why study ethics historically?

Read: William Schweiker, “On Religious Ethics”

W / Jan 12 The challenge of Thrasymachus

Read: Thucydides, “Melian Dialogue”; Plato, Republic, book 1 (Handout)

M / Jan 17 NO CLASS
W / Jan 29 Plato’s answer

Read: Plato, Republic, books 2, 6, 7 (Reader)

M / Jan 24 Aristotle on the ethics and the pursuit of happiness

Read: Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1-2

W / Jan 26 Aristotle’s idea of virtue

Read: Nicomachean Ethics, 3

M / Jan 31 Aristotle on justice and moral judgment

Read: Nicomachean Ethics, 5-6

W / Feb 2 Aristotle on true pleasure

Read: Nicomachean Ethics, 8-10

M / Feb 7 Stoic ethics

Read: Epictetus, Handbook; Marcus Aurelius (Reader)

W / Feb 9 Greek ethics compared

II. Biblical Ethics: What is Righteousness?
M / Feb 14 Ethics in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament

Read: Selections from Exodus, Leviticus, Micah and Proverbs; 1 Corinthians, 1 John, Matthew and Luke-Acts (Reader)

W / Feb 16 Augustine’s analysis of moral failure

Read: Augustine, Confessions book 2; City of God, book 14 (Reader)

M / Feb 21 NO CLASS
W / Feb 23 Augustine on charity, the virtues, and social order

Read: Augustine, Morals of the Catholic Church; City of God, book 19 (Reader)

M / Feb 28 Augustine
W / Mar 2 Medieval ethics: askesis and poverty

Read: John Cassian, Institutes (Reader)

M / Mar 7 Medieval ethics: law and virtue

Read: Maimonides, Eight Chapters (Reader)

W / Mar 9 Early modern ethics: virtue and freedom

Read: Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian (Reader)


III. Modern Critiques of Western Religious Ethics: the Demise of Virtue?
M / Mar 21 Kant, or ethics versus religion

Read: Kant, “Preface” to Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (Reader); Metaphysics of Morals, Section 1

W / Mar 23 Kant on duty and happiness

Read: Metaphysics of Morals, Section 2

M / Mar 28 Kant on moral freedom

Read: Metaphysics of Morals, Sections 3

W / Mar 30 Kant
M / Apr 4 Three critiques of Kant: Mill, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard

Read: Utilitarianism, ch. 2 (Reader)

W / Apr 6 Nietzsche, or the return of Thrasymachus

Read: Genealogy of Morality, preface and essay 1

M / Apr 11 Nietzsche

Read: Genealogy of Morality, essay 2

W / Apr 13 Nietzsche

Read: Genealogy of Morality, essay 3

M / Apr 18 Kierkegaard, or the religious suspension of the ethical

Read: Fear and Trembling

W / Apr 20 Kierkegaard

Read: Fear and Trembling

M / Apr 25 Kierkegaard

Read: Fear and Trembling

W / Apr 27 Ways forward: Aristotle, Kant, Nietzsche or Kierkegaard?

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