COOL CLASSES: “Topics in Ethical Theory: Race”

A philosophy course concerning the role of the body in our evaluations of people and their actions

Class name: Topics in Ethical Theory: Race

Taught by: Associate Professor of Philosophy Jerry Miller


Here’s what Miller had to say about his class:

My course, “Topics in Ethics: Race,” concerns the role of the body in our evaluations of people and their actions. Are physical features of the body—like size, gender, age, and race—relevant to how we describe actions and ethical qualities? Does an action’s worth depend on the physical features of the person performing it? In this class we use race as a test case to answer these questions. Race is well suited for this purpose as a concept frequently invoked and rejected in such determinations.

When we describe ourselves and others—especially in particular situations—we do so by employing qualitative traits such as “nice,” “unhelpful,” or “interesting.” Some of these terms seem to refer to interior intentions of individuals and not to physical features. Other traits, however, such as “imposing,” “healthy,” or “waifish,” can allude strongly to embodied characteristics like size, age, gender, and race.

Modern ethical theory holds that embodied traits are irrelevant for assessing individuals. To include physical features in evaluations is, therefore, said to be judging someone prejudicially.  Accordingly, we typically understand prejudice as this judgment of traits as informed by bodily differences. Yet as some of the traits above suggest, recognizing subjective qualities may always entail awareness of those differences.

Through this course, students come to understand that the sole purpose of ethics is not to tell people what to do, but rather that a critical and fundamental component of ethics is exploring how value comes to configure the world we inhabit. Additionally, students develop a vocabulary and ability to discuss how embodied associations —perhaps necessarily—shape ethical judgment. Such knowledge is a critical, yet overlooked starting point for any on-the-ground discussion of discrimination, prejudice, rights, or responsibility.


See what other courses the philosophy department is offering this semester.

Photo (cc) Penn State

Cool Classes is a series that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford experience.