Course Syllabus

Syllabus last updated: Jul 25,  2019.

HIST S-35 (33015)


A History of Western Ethics Defined with Nature in Mind

Summer 2019

Professor Joyce E. Chaplin ( )

Office hours: by appointment—please email!


TF Evan Price ( )

Office hours:  Tuesdays after lecture, or by appointment.


Lectures on Tuesday and Thursday, 13.15-15.45

Plus weekly section, Thursday 16.00-17.00

Aula/Room MF6


Why take this class?


The planet is in crisis—we need to think clearly and calmly about this problem, and craft solutions to it that will be as just as possible to as many people as possible. How can we do this? This class is designed to give students an intellectual, verbal, and ethical toolkit for dealing with the important debates over imperiled natural resources and competing human needs that will only become more important as the years go by.


It may seem that questions about human responsibility toward the natural world are new, but there are long-standing traditions within western philosophy of arguing for ethical behavior in relation to nature, whether to benefit humans or to help non-humans. This course offers a critical and historical analysis of selected texts that identify human beings as a distinctively ethical species within the natural world, with particular attention to the emergence of normative theories that rank humans with and against other natural beings. Topics include:  definitions of wilderness and property; agriculture, industrialization, and consumerism as historic transformations of humanity and human culture; social hierarchies based on perceived natural human abilities; ideas of natural rights; conservation and environmentalism; and animal rights. Readings include Aristotle, Locke, Kant, Wollstonecraft, Rousseau, Smith, Bentham, Malthus, Emerson, Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, Mbembe, and Singer. We will also examine how contemporary debates over the human place within nature have continued to cite and critique normative traditions defined in the past, whether these traditions continue to be appropriate in relation to problems in the present day. 


This class represents a particular approach: ethics presented as the history of ideas that relate to definitions (or assumptions) about what nature is. We need to analyze each of these key terms, which requires a focused analysis of how definitions of each have emerged within distinct historical contexts and then changed over time, sometimes clashing with each other.


Course Policies


When taken for a letter grade, this course fulfills Harvard’s General Education requirement for Ethical Reasoning or the Core requirement for Moral Reasoning; the course also fulfills the requirement that one of the eight Gen. Ed. courses engage substantially with study of the past. If a student takes the course Pass/Fail, s/he will not be granted a passing grade unless s/he submits all of the required work. 


Students must attend all course meetings. Any absence must be registered by the CFHSS office (email ). Extensions for assignments can only be granted in cases of unforeseen personal and medical emergencies. You must verify all such circumstances to your TF; without such verification, late papers will be penalized at the rate of one-third of a letter grade per day. The Summer School is committed to providing an accessible academic community. The Accessibility Office offers a variety of accommodations and services to students with documented disabilities. Please visit for more information.  


Academic Integrity and Collaboration


Course policy on student collaboration on coursework is the following. You are encouraged to consult with your classmates on the choice of paper topics and to share sources. You may find it useful to discuss your chosen topic with your peers, particularly if you are working on the same topic as a classmate. However, you should ensure that any written work you submit for evaluation is the result of your own research and writing (and your writing alone) and that it reflects your own approach to the topic. You must also adhere to standard citation practices in this discipline and properly cite any books, articles, websites, lectures, etc., that have helped you with your work. If you received any help with your research and writing (feedback on drafts, etc.), you must also acknowledge this assistance. Plagiarism—the representation of ideas or words by another source as your own—is cause for failing this course. Words taken directly from another source (whether the item was found in published or unpublished print material, manuscript source, or the internet) should be presented in quotation marks, with the source clearly indicated in parentheses or footnotes. Ideas paraphrased from another source should likewise be footnoted to indicate and credit the source.


You are responsible for understanding Harvard Summer School policies on academic integrity ( and how to use sources responsibly. Please visit the Resources to Support Academic Integrity ( which includes links to the Harvard Guide to Using Sources and two free online 15-minute tutorials to test your knowledge of academic citation policy. The tutorials are anonymous open-learning tools. For help with citation usage and formatting, please consult Harvard Guide to Using Sources, which can be found online at:



Course requirements


  1. Intelligent, informed participation in seminars and sections (25% of final grade).  You will need to do and think about the reading to do well in section and on the writing assignments and exam.  The reading is not extensive—on average, we read fewer than 200 pages per week.  But the material is by nature demanding; please do not plan to read any of it quickly and at the last minute; be prepared to have to read some things twice.  You will need to be a critical reader, ready to analyze the readings, not just describe them. 
  2. Three papers (first paper 900-1000 words/20% of the final grade; the other two papers 1250-1500 words/25% each); due dates indicated on the syllabus below; participation in a debate on de-extinction (5%). The paper topics will be posted on the course website. Your writing will be analytical: you cannot simply describe the readings but must assess them critically, in relation to each other.  


All readings are required. Most readings are available online, with links embedded in the syllabus below.  Two readings are available in a course reader, available through Ca’ Foscari. One book (Frankenstein) may be purchased independently—make sure to get the 1818 edition. Readings will be discussed intensively and comprehension of them will be essential for the papers and presentations.


Course Schedule


June 25:  nature is us; we are it

Guiding questions:  how have definitions of nature changed over time and how have they been connected to ideas about human happiness? Animists and environmentalists represent philosophical views from the chronological extremes of our course.  How does each define happiness and the good life in relation to natural entities? 



June 27: dominion and stewardship vs. wilderness and the wild

Guiding questions: how have human beings defined themselves as superior to all other parts of the natural world? Have these justifications depended on empirical observations? Or on non-empirical criteria? What is “wild” and what is it good for?


July 1 (Monday): first paper due by noon.


July 2: natural hierarchy vs. natural rights

Guiding questions: how have arguments for inequality among human beings depended on ideas about the natural world? What other beliefs have challenged these concepts of natural inequality? What is at stake in defining human rights as “natural”?


July 4: good for whom?

Guiding questions: who can do good, and to whom can good be done? Why did St. Francis preach, including to birds? How does Kant define duty or imperative as the essence of doing good, and how does he conceive of nature in relation to morality? How does Bentham define a utilitarian ethics? What is at stake in including or excluding non-humans within an ethical community? 


July 5 (Friday): field trip to Orto Botanico, Padova.  
Meet at Ferrovia at 12:45. Return to Venice by 6:00.
More instructions to follow.



July 9: aesthetics

Guiding questions: how have the non-human parts of the natural world been redefined as essential to a good life for humans, even—or especially—when they are not transformed by human action? If nature is good, what good are people?


July 11: science (I)

Guiding questions: how has modern science redefined nature? How has it defined the scientist as a person who, by manipulating natural materials, does good—or not? 


July 16: science (II)

Guiding questions: how has science redefined humanity? What good is nature, to these scientifically-defined humans? If, after Darwin, good and evil no longer exist as transcendent truths, how can humans argue for preferred outcomes?


July 18: production and distribution

Guiding questions: how does the economic development of nature contribute to a good life? How do proponents of capitalism and communism differ in their ideas about the fair division of natural resources among individuals and nations? How do Malthusianism and cornucopianism have differing ethical significance? What role has racism played in concepts of material plenty?


July 19 (Friday): Second paper due by 5 p.m.



July 23: conservation

Guiding questions: how do conservationists define nature? What reasons do they give for preserving natural resources? Who benefits from conservation? How could Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” preserve equitable access to nature?


July 25: environmentalism

Guiding questions: well, should trees have standing? If so, how? If not, why not? To what extent can arguments for saving the non-human parts of the natural world not rely on definitions of the good of humanity?


JULY 29 MONDAY: second field trip—tour of MOSE begins at 5 p.m. 
Instructions to follow! See your email for vaporetto details from Megan.


July 30: animal rights

Guiding questions: on what grounds do animals have rights? Does the possibility of animals’ equality to humans threaten human uniqueness and dignity? Is a concept of animal rights contradictory, because it implies human moral superiority to animals?

July 30: De-Extinction Debate
(NOTA BENE:  Debate takes place on Tuesday during our special section post-lecture.)
We will hold a debate on de-extinction in section.  Please find full assignment details here.
Debate question (for discussion section on TUESDAY this week): if we were to bring extinct species back to life, what good would that do?


August 1: beyond human

Guiding question: Will post-humans have the same ethical responsibilities that humans may have had? Will the natural world of the Anthropocene still inspire either humans or post-humans to moral action?


August 2 (Friday): third paper due by noon.

Course Summary:

Date Details Due