The Participants

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The students in the discussion come from different backgrounds and have chosen different majors at Midwest U. They also have different interests and political views. Here is a brief introduction to each of them.

Henry Sidgwick is a visiting professor from Cambridge University in England. His role is to guide the discussion: to introduce questions, clarify points at issue, keep the participants on track, make transitions, and draw conclusions. 

(n.b. The 'real' or historical Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) was a late 19th-century philosopher who taught at Cambridge University in England. Sidgwick is still well known among moral philosophers for his main work on ethics, The Methods of Ethics, first published in 1874. In it he attempted to synthesize what he took to be the main methods for arriving at moral judgments. J. B. Schneewind described Sidgwick's Methods as follows:

It is a systematic treatise on moral philosophy, examining in detail a far wider range of topics than any previous book on the subject, and setting new standards of precision in wording, clarity in exposition, and care in argument. [J. B. Schneewind Sidgwick's Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy, p. 1]

Schneewind added that "Sidgwick gave the problems of ethics the form in which they have dominated British and American moral philosophy since his time." [p. 422.] Like many 20th-century anglo-American philosophers, Sidgwick's work was largely what we would call meta-ethical. He was concerned chiefly with methods and key moral concepts such as good and justice rather than specific moral judgments or arguments to support them.)

Ann is a philosophy major. In very general terms she identifies with the tradition sometimes called scientific humanism. In theology, she is an agnostic. In ethical theory, she leans toward utilitarianism (i.e., the notion that we are obliged to follow the moral rules that would maximize human welfare). But she also recognizes that there have been many criticisms of utilitarianism and that these must be taken seriously. Politically she considers herself a feminist whose main concern is equal opportunity for women in jobs and education.

Vera is a women's studies major. She is skeptical of the older ethical theories such as utilitarianism and natural rights. She is attracted to what is sometimes called "postmodern" philosophy and leans toward a postmodern theory of ethics. Politically, she considers herself a strong feminist with concerns that go far beyond equal opportunity for women. She is critical of social hierarchy in general and the dominance of men over women in particular.

Ayesha is an anthropology major. She is also president of the African American Students Association. Her ethical ideas have been formed by the writings of several prominent anthropologists. In particular, she places great value on respecting the autonomy of other cultures. She is critical of the European colonial regimes that dominated much of the world until recently.

John is a philosophy major. He greatly admires John Stuart Mill, the 19th-century political philosopher and philosopher of science. What he likes about Mill is not so much his specific philosophical views, such as utilitarianism in ethics, but his attempt to synthesize many ideas current during his lifetime.

Fred is an economics major. He is interested in philosophical issues because they connect with economic questions. In general he is inclined toward more conservative ethical theory with a stress on moral knowledge rather than moral relativity.

Dee is a computer science major. She accepts libertarian ethical and political theories. In other words, she advocates small government and free markets. She is inclined toward solid foundations for her ethical views - leaning toward those theorists who believe in a "reason based" ethics rather than one based on attitudes or sentiment.