Summer 2021 - PHIL 421W E100

Advanced Topics in Ethical Theory (4)

Epistemic Responsibility

Class Number: 4048

Delivery Method: Remote


  • Course Times + Location:

    We 4:30 PM – 8:20 PM

  • Prerequisites:

    two 300 level PHIL courses; it is strongly recommended that students have taken some prior course in moral theory.



A highly focused, advanced examination of a selection of topics in normative or meta-ethics. May be repeated for credit. Writing.


Selected Topics: Epistemic Responsibility

[Note: this course is to be taught concurrently with PHIL 824.]  

Philosophical discussions of moral responsibility, especially analytic philosophy over the past several decades, has focused on the type of freedom that is necessary for moral responsibility and whether that type of freedom is compatible with causal determinism.  But, at least since Aristotle, philosophers have also recognized an epistemic condition on moral responsibility.  Questions regarding whether and how ignorance can undermine moral responsibility have garnered more attention over the past several years and will serve as the focus of this seminar.

Suppose the CEO of a pharmaceutical company is presented with two options for treatments the company could develop.  She chooses the one which, unbeknownst to her and the researchers, turns out to have severe side-effects.  Is the CEO responsible for the harm caused by the treatment?  What if the CEO knew of the side-effects of a given treatment but was unaware that there were alternative treatments they could develop?  Or what if she is fully aware of all the relevant non-moral facts, but believes her primary moral responsibility is to the shareholders, and thus believes that she morally ought to develop the treatment in spite of the known side-effects, because it is the most profitable of the options?  Assuming that the CEO is wrong about what her moral obligation is in this case, does her false moral belief defeat or mitigate her blameworthiness?  In the first two examples involving mistaken non-moral beliefs, does the CEO’s moral culpability for harm depend on her moral culpability for having those mistaken beliefs, for example, on whether she has violated a duty to be informed about potential side-effects or alternative treatments?   While it is generally accepted that non-moral ignorance can excuse, at least when that ignorance itself is non-culpable, there is a great deal of debate over whether moral ignorance can likewise excuse, even when the ignorance is non-culpable.  In this seminar we will explore these and other questions about the ways in which ignorance can affect a person’s moral culpability.  


PHIL 421W may be applied towards the Writing Requirement (and the upper division Writing Requirement for Philosophy Majors). This course may be repeated for credit if the topic is different.

In addition to learning about the nature of moral responsibility and some of the contemporary debates regarding the epistemic condition on responsibility, the primary objective of this seminar is for students to learn how to research and compose a substantial piece of philosophical writing that draws on multiple sources in order to answer a significant question arising from a body of literature. 


  • Short reflections: over the first half of the semester students are required to submit precis of one of the required readings each week at the start of class. 20%
  • Participation in group-workshops: starting in the second half of the semester, students will be divided into workshop groups based on area of interest. Students will take turns presenting material to the workshop. 10%
  • Peer review of drafts: students will provide written feedback on the drafts written by peers in their working group. The grade is based on the quality of the feedback. 10%
  • Final Project: Students will complete a final paper project (roughly 3500-5000 words) over three stages: outline/literature review, initial draft, and final draft. While all three components are required, only the final draft is graded. 60%


This course will be conducted remotely and synchronously.  Classes will NOT be recorded.  Presence and participation during synchronous sessions is expected.



Students must have access to reliable internet and a computer/other device that permits streaming video, word processing and teleconferencing with Zoom.


Robichaud and J. Wieland, Responsibility: The Epistemic Condition (Oxford University Press, 2017). Note: this text is available online through the SFU library.

Department Undergraduate Notes:

Thinking of a Philosophy Major or Minor? The Concentration in Law and Philosophy? The Certificate in Ethics? The Philosophy and Methodology of Science Certificate?
Contact the PHIL Advisor at   More details on our website: SFU Philosophy

New elective grade policy : P/CR/NC, pilot project for Spring/Summer/Fall 2021. List of exclusions for the new policy. Specifically for Philosophy: 

  • Students can use a P or CR to satisfy any requirement for a major, joint major, or minor in Philosophy (with the exception of Honours tutorials).
  • Students can use a P or CR to satisfy any prerequisite requirement for any PHIL course.
  • Students can use a P (but not a CR) to satisfy any requirement for the Ethics Certificate, or the Philosophy and Methodology of Science Certificate.
  • Philosophy Majors and Honours students can use a P (but not a CR) to satisfy any WQB requirement.

Registrar Notes:


SFU’s Academic Integrity web site is filled with information on what is meant by academic dishonesty, where you can find resources to help with your studies and the consequences of cheating.  Check out the site for more information and videos that help explain the issues in plain English.

Each student is responsible for his or her conduct as it affects the University community.  Academic dishonesty, in whatever form, is ultimately destructive of the values of the University. Furthermore, it is unfair and discouraging to the majority of students who pursue their studies honestly. Scholarly integrity is required of all members of the University.


Teaching at SFU in summer 2021 will be conducted primarily through remote methods, but we will continue to have in-person experiential activities for a selection of courses.  Such course components will be clearly identified at registration, as will course components that will be “live” (synchronous) vs. at your own pace (asynchronous). Enrollment acknowledges that remote study may entail different modes of learning, interaction with your instructor, and ways of getting feedback on your work than may be the case for in-person classes. To ensure you can access all course materials, we recommend you have access to a computer with a microphone and camera, and the internet. In some cases your instructor may use Zoom or other means requiring a camera and microphone to invigilate exams. If proctoring software will be used, this will be confirmed in the first week of class.

Students with hidden or visible disabilities who believe they may need class or exam accommodations, including in the current context of remote learning, are encouraged to register with the SFU Centre for Accessible Learning ( or 778-782-3112).