The first lecture of Michael Sandel's "Justice" (MR 22) usually draws big crowds.
There are lots of reasons to be moral: avoiding prison, hell, and appearances on Gawker.com are just a few. But you’re in luck, oh principle–perplexed undergrad, for Harvard has bestowed its most righteous of all Cores, Moral Reasoning, upon thee.
Unfortunately, it’s often righteously boring.
In theory, Moral Reasoning courses will help you learn to deal with tough ethical questions, and face up to quandaries that enable you to hone your moral compass.
Though the MR menu provides a seemingly gourmet spread of professors, readings, and course titles, reality is often more rump roast than filet mignon. The oft-bemoaned core is a product of the 1978 Core Curriculum report, written under the auspices of then (and now) University President Derek C. Bok.
The disco era’s original spawn was to be called “Philosophical Analysis.” Then—as is the case now—its proposed coursework centered around political philosophy as a basis to answering ethical questions. The readings for the different courses often overlap, with J.S. Mill, Plato, and Aristotle appearing as perpetual syllabus favorites. Expect to write two to three papers, a midterm, and a final (sometimes even a final paper). Lectures can be horribly boring, so your first exercise in reasoning is choosing which course to take.
MR’s behemoth, MR 22, “Justice,” taught by Michael Sandel, is a perpetual crowd-pleaser. You will read philosophical heavyweights like Rawls, Mill, and Locke, making this a great introductory course for wannabe gov or philosophy concentrators. You’ll also learn some stuff about Kant, which will enable you to slip the categorical imperative into basically any section discussion for the rest of your Harvard career, engendering the hatred of the suckers who didn’t take Justice. Plus, the thrill of taking a class in Sanders and arguing about things that “really matter”—often focusing around the rights of the individual versus the convenience of the masses—will stoke your intellect. Having a professor who served on President Bush’s Council for Bioethics is pretty cool too. It is taught every other year, so including it into your schedule may take some planning.
But if you’re concerned about, say, eternity, then MR 54, “If There Is No God, Is All Permitted?” may be more to your liking. Sadly, Professor Jay Harris never actually answers the course’s headlining question. But after you’ve sampled the syllabus’ smorgasbord of theologians and philosophers theorizing about the relationship between earthly ethics and the existence of God, you just might be able to take a stab at the answer yourself. Plus, if you attend lectures religiously, then forgoing the reading is permitted. Harris’ lectures are so lucid that paying attention will save you hours in Lamont, which translates to more run-amuck time for you godless ones. Beverly Foulk is a demanding but first-rate TF; the other sections run the gamut from excruciatingly boring to exhilarating.
For a divinity-free overview of basic moral questions, MR 30, “Introduction to Ethics,” will hit the spot. If you think utilitarianism is a snooze, however, you should look elsewhere: no less than six lectures are devoted to variations on the theme. Other hot topics include moral relativism, evolution, and euthanasia. The reading is brief, and usually focuses on one to three articles per week, although it is quite dense (Plato, anyone?).
Harvey “The Man” Mansfield, author of “Manliness,” is also a purveyor of moral reasoning. He teaches MR 17, “Democracy and Inequality.” The reading—consisting mainly of Plato, Hobbes, and Tocqueville—is classic but tough. Questions revolve around democracy and equality, considering questions one wishes were resolved in the past century. “How is equality possible in a society with racial differences?” is just one. Have you ever wondered why the constitutional catch phrase “all men are created equal” is called a “self-evident truth”? This course will help you understand why.
If you’re not into manliness, but you’re interested in politics, then MR 74, “The Theory of Republican Government,” is one of the toughest, but best, Cores around. Like many desirable Cores it boasts an early wake-up call, but Professor Carpenter and its readings make the a.m. worth it. MR 74 is a Western-centric, Gov-like course, focusing on the evolution of Republican systems as well as their relevance today. Readings range from Machiavelli to Mansfield, as you learn about the different definitions and manifestations of the Republic.
Whether the above courses sound like a dream line-up or your worst nightmare, one thing to consider is that these courses may soon be a thing of the past—at least under the Moral Reasoning umbrella. Curricular Review rumblings have put into question the need for a Moral Reasoning requirement, and it may disappear altogether in the near future.