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HIST7013: History of Ethics: A Sociological Methodology

Professor David d'Avray

The module introduces students to a new way of studying the history of ethics, though it will incorporate the old way of reading texts by famous names in the history of moral philosophy with care and an independent mind. To make this easier, all the texts are available in digital form. The new method is an application of Sociology, notably of Max Weber’s distinction between instrumental and value rationality. Value rationality incorporates beliefs such as 'the spiritual essence of humans survives death' or 'women and men are equal', and values are defined as cemented convictions which are resistant to hostile argument but yet rational, in that they are defended by the coherent networks of thought that support them as an electricity grid supports a power station with a temporary problem; and embedded in experience, and in forms of life. Instrumental rationality is the vast field incorporating all reasoning which 'puts two and two together' logically or in causal explanation: all reasoning in the space not roped off by the value boundaries. The catch is that this second kind of reasoning takes its first principles from value systems, which thus affect the whole character of subsequent instrumental reasoning. To pinpoint those values which police the border between values generally and instrumental rationality, the further term of art 'interface values' has been coined. A sociological approach to the history of ethics means looking for those convictions that underlie the ethical systems of ‘great thinkers’ as well as of every day life. Such convictions are usually anchored in social practices and experiences of one sort or another.

Assessment method

HIST7013A/B: 1 X 2,500 word essay and a 1.5-hour written examination

Page last modified on 09 apr 15 14:27 by Jasmine Gane