Adam Etinson

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Courses Taught

The Ethics of Conversation (with Justin Snedegar)

We are social creatures. As a result, we have to find a way to live together in various overlapping social groups: families, places of work, cities, nations, and so on. This requires near constant communication and frequently involves discussion of moral and political issues. It’s obvious, especially recently, that there are lots of potential pitfalls and key ethical questions about communicating with others in this way. This class aims to critically examine some of those issues. It covers interconnected topics in ethics, moral psychology, moral responsibility, political philosophy, and epistemology. And it encourages students to engage with material beyond academic journals. [syllabus]

Timely Topics in Political Philosophy

This course explores a variety of especially timely topics in political philosophy. In its 2019 iteration, the module explores questions about the origins, dangers, and subversion of democracy – including worries about populism, fascism, and the tyranny of the majority. Alongside this, the module examines questions about structural injustice, identity politics, the nature of the “modern” condition, and the role of anger, civility, and hope in politics. [syllabus]

First Contact

This module examines the philosophical dimensions of first encounters with alien phenomena, agents, and experiences. The first four weeks of the module examine the experiential component of such encounters, including the nature and aptness of relevant emotions such as wonder, awe, terror, disgust, surprise, and admiration - and attendant events such as "epiphanies," alienation, and conversion. The remainder of the module examines specific instances of first contact, and their significance. These include (actual and/or possible) encounters with aliens, animals, foreign cultures and languages, as well as with profound personal, social, and environmental change. Because of its subject matter, each week combines readings in philosophy with readings in other sciences, as well as literary fiction. [syllabus]

Why Does the World Exist? (with Alex Douglas)

This course explores what is perhaps the most fundamental question in philosophy: why is there anything at all? We will look at arguments about whether or not the question is a sensible one, whether, if so, it is answerable, and what knowledge we can draw upon in attempting to answer it. Besides its intrinsic interest, the question touches other deep issues in philosophy – the nature of explanation, the notion of ultimate purpose, the fundamental nature and structure of reality, the existence of supernatural beings, the presence of objective value in the universe, and so on. We will look at various approaches to the central question from within and without the Western philosophical tradition. By the end of the course, students should expect to have a decisive answer. [draft syllabus]

Toleration in the Early Modern Period (with Alex Douglas)

This module offers an in-depth study of the theory and practice of religious toleration in the Early Modern Period (16th & 17th centuries). The module covers classic texts, such as Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration, but also spends a good deal of time exploring the thought of lesser-known figures in this area: Mary Astell, Pierre Bayle, Jean Bodin, Bartolomé de Las Casas, Sebastian Castellio, Margaret Cavendish, Confucius, Lady Montagu, Roger Williams, etc. The main purpose of the course is to try to understand the variety of arguments offered both for and against religious tolerance in the Early Modern Period, the historical background or context informing these arguments, and the relationship between these arguments and the actual practice of religious tolerance or intolerance.. [syllabus]

David Wiggins' Ethics

This graduate course introduces students to the moral philosophy of David Wiggins, principally through an encounter with his 2008 book, Ethics: Twelve Lectures on the Philosophy of Morality. We will be reading that book in its entirety, along with a few other papers by Wiggins, and various primary sources that form the subject of Wiggins’ discussions in Ethics (including Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, and Mill, among others). This will provide students with an intimate understanding of Wiggins’ thought, as well as an opportunity to watch a twentieth-century philosopher in action, as it were – allowing them to compare Wiggins’ interpretation of classic works in moral philosophy with their own. [syllabus]

Moral Sainthood

Few of us do as much as we should to help others, and this is often a powerful source of guilt and regret. At the same time, those of us who are fastidiously concerned with the needs of others, and who act accordingly (call them altruists, or “moral saints”), can sometimes seem almost inhuman and even misguided. Is the moral life a good life? How should we balance our self-interest, and other goods, against the interests of others? [syllabus]

The Philosophy of Human Rights (with Elizabeth Ashford)

The course explores cutting-edge research on the history, nature, content, and justification of human rights.  We begin by examining the origins of human rights, and current debates about how this bears on the way in which we should conceive of human rights. We then explore methodological issues in theorizing about human rights, and turn to core contemporary debates in the philosophy of human rights, concerning orthodox and political conceptions of human rights; the relationship between their status as moral and legal norms; the significance of the fact that human rights are rights; and the nature of human dignity, to which the major human rights declarations appeal. We also examine critical perspectives on the human rights movement. [syllabus]

Human Dignity

This advanced undergratuate course explores philosophical questions about human dignity. What is the meaning of "human dignity"? Is this a moral, or a legal idea, or both? Is there a distinction to be drawn between dignity, on the one hand, and human dignity, on the other? What is the connection, if any, between having dignity and having rights? Is human dignity an inherently religious concept? What grounding might it have in secular ethics? [syllabus]