Ethics Program

The ethics program offers courses in theoretical and applied ethics for Agnes Scott College students as well as an annual series of public ethics lectures. Each year, speakers from a variety of fields approach a single topic of ethical importance or controversy. The Ethics Lecture Series is supported by the James T. and Ella Rather Kirk Fund. 

The ethics program at Agnes Scott College presents its 2014-15 lecture series:


Thursday, April 9, 2015
Professor David Wong, "The Authority of Moral Beauty"
7:30 p.m., Campbell Hall, Rm. 128, The Frannie Auditorium

David WongProfessor Wong will explore the notion of moral beauty in the works of Aristotle and, primarily, early Confucian philosopher Xunzi. Professor Wong will argue that moral beauty is an unjustly neglected topic in modern philosophy, consider scholarly attempts to find the concept of moral beauty in Aristotle, and then examine Xunzi’s rather explicit and detailed discussions of beauty and ugliness in human motivation, ritual activity, and music. According to Professor Wong, part of what goes into moral beauty for Xunzi is that it helps make meaningful -- and weaves into a narrative -- the major passages of human life, such as birth and death. To argue for the relevance of Xunzi's ideas, Professor Wong will use contemporary examples of ritual and music that are beautiful in the ways that Xunzi meant.

David Wong is the Susan Fox Beischer and George D. Beischer Professor of Philosophy at Duke University. Professor Wong's publications include the books Moral Relativity and Natural Moralities, of which he is author, and Confucian Ethics: A Comparative Study of Self, Autonomy, and Community, of which he is co-editor. He is currently working on a book on practical reason, desire, and emotion in the works of the classical Chinese thinkers Mencius, Xunzi, and Zhuangzi.

Thursday, October 2, 2014
Professor Aaron Smuts, "It's a Wonderful Life: Pottersville and the Meaning of Life"
7:30 pm, Letitia Pate Evans Hall, Rooms ABC
It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946) tells what is now a familiar story of a suicidal banker, George Bailey (James Stuart), who is finally able see the meaningfulness of his life with a little help from a friend an angel 2nd class who wants to make good. The film presents an attractive theory of the meaning of life, or so masses of holiday viewers seem to think. The theory is fairly straightforward: One's life is meaningful to the extent that it promotes the good. Professor Smuts thinks that something along similar lines is the correct view of the meaning of life. Using the film as a guiding example, he defends the theory at the heart of the movie against two rivals. He argues that the good effects that count towards the meaningfulness of one's life need not be intentional. Nor must one be aware of the effects. Fulfillment is not required. What matters is that one is causally responsible for good. However the movie also suggests a problematic refinement in the Pottersville sequence a trip to a world where George had never been born. George's waking nightmare suggests that we are only responsible for the good that would not exist had we not existed. He argues that this is a misleading test of the meaningfulness of one's life.

Aaron Smuts is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Rhode Island College. His interests range across a wide variety of topics in ethics, the philosophy of art, metaphysics, and general value theory. Currently he is working on two projects. The first is on the nature and value of well-being. The other project concerns the normative assessment of emotions. Professor Smuts has published over three dozen articles in a variety of books and academic journals, including: American Philosophical Quarterly, Contemporary Aesthetics, Film and Philosophy, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, the Journal of Aesthetic Education, the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, the Journal of Value Inquiry, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, the Nordic Journal of Aesthetics, Pacific Philosophic Quarterly, Philosophy Compass, Philosophy and Literature, Philosophical Studies, Southern Journal of Philosophy, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Professor Shelly Kagan, "The Meaning of Life: An Exploration"
7:30 p.m., Campbell Hall, The Frannie Auditorium, Room 128
We all wonder about the meaning of life, but we rarely stop to ask what, exactly, it would take for life to have a meaning. What kind of an answer are we looking for, when we ask whether life is meaningful? We will consider several different interpretations of the question, and ask which one is the most important. We will also take a look at the troubling thought that since "nothing I do now will matter in a million years" our lives cannot be meaningful after all.

Shelly Kagan is the Clark Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, where he teaches moral philosophy. The online lectures of his popular undergraduate course "Death" have been viewed around the world. Professor Kagan received his PhD in Philosophy from Princeton University. Before Yale, he taught at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of four books: The Limits of Morality, Normative Ethics, The Geometry of Desert, and Death.

The Ethics Program gratefully acknowledges the James T. and Ella Rather Kirk Fund for its support of the Ethics Lecture Series.


Director of the Ethics Program
Lara Denis, Professor of Philosophy