General Education

All undergraduate students (except for some transfer students) at Niagara University are required to take three philosophy courses. These courses are an important point of the liberal arts education in the Catholic and Vincentian tradition that Niagara University provides.  

The first two courses students take are Philosophy 105: Introduction to Philosophy; and Philosophy 206: Ethics.  

As part of the overall general education requirements of Niagara, these courses are to accomplish the following goals:

  • Teach students how to think critically and independently.
  • Teach students new ways of approaching ethical issues.
  • Teach students about the intellectual and religious foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition.
  • Teach students about the relationship of faith and reason, in general, as well as the philosophical and religious basis of Catholic values.

The department gives its faculty the opportunity to teach a range of topics in Phi 105 and Phi 206. Each member of the department has a different area of specialization and a unique approach to philosophy. Students will benefit from hearing different perspectives from various faculty. Furthermore, the department encourages students to take their philosophy classes from three different faculty members.

However, to ensure some consistency from section to section, the department requires that there are some common terms and topics that are covered in each section. Students should take special care to learn these terms (listed below) since they will be used from one class to another. If a student has any questions about these topics, she or he may speak with the department chair or any member of the department.

Topics to be Covered in Sections of PHI 105: Introduction to Philosophy

St. Thomas Aquinas

  • Faith and Reason: Summa Theologica, Prima Pars, Question 1, Art 1-5, 8. We are not overly concerned with a detailed account of Aquinas's theory but moreso that a discussion of the relation between faith and reason occur in the classroom.
  • The Five Proofs for God: Summa Theologica, Prima Pars, Question 2, Art 3.

Logic Assessment Topics

One of the most important learning outcomes that Niagara's philosophy department seeks to assess is that of critical thinking. This is a skill that can be difficult to measure, but one way we assess students' average progress with critical thinking is by a test we call the "Logical Reasoning Assessment". There are two parts to this test. A small part asks about definitions of seven key logical terms (below), and the best way to study for this small portion is to be sure you know and understand those definitions and their relations to each other.

Most of the test presents various arguments and asks students to identify the arguments' strengths or weaknesses - such as the implicit assumptions the arguments make, or the degree to which the premises really support the truth of the conclusion. This portion is skill-based, not content-based, and so the best way to "study" for this part of the test is to gain that skill - to practice, while in philosophy, critically assessing arguments. This part of the test is modeled after the LSAT (the standard graduate admissions test for law school), so if you really want to study similar questions, you might try the various LSAT practice tests out there.

The seven definitions required of all Introduction to Philosophy students at Niagara are these:

  • A proposition is a fundamental bearer of truth or falsity. (Propositions can be expressed by “statements”, “sentences”, “beliefs”, and so on, so we derivatively say those things are true or false, too.)
  • An argument consists of a group of propositions one or more of which (the premises) are claimed to provide support for the truth of one of the others (the conclusion).
  • A conclusion is the proposition that is claimed to be supported by the premises.
  • A premise is a proposition in an argument that is claimed to provide evidence for the truth of the conclusion.
  • An argument is valid just in case it is impossible for the premises to be true and
  • the conclusion false.
  • An argument is sound just in case it is valid and its premises are true.
  • A deductive argument is an argument that, when successful, is valid.
  • An inductive argument is an argument that, when successful, contains premises that support the conclusion in such a way that it is improbable for the premises to be true and the conclusion false.

Topics to be Covered in Sections of PHI 206: Ethics

As part of its continuing effort to clearly define goals and student learning outcomes in its classes, the Philosophy Department has articulated the following set of topics that it would like covered in all sections of PHI 206. The topics are divided into four major branches of ethical theory.

In order to help students think about ethics and values in a critical and reflective way, the Philosophy Department requires students to be familiar with four schools of ethics as they are articulated by some of their most influential proponents. Specifically, the department asks that students be familiar with a number of key terms associated with these schools.

Students may use the following definitions as a guide for studying for the common Ethics final exam. Students should be aware, however, that the common exam goes beyond what is covered in these definitions. Students are expected to pay attention to the discussions of these topics in class. If students are unsure of what a term means or the associated arguments related to a term, they should ask for help from the instructor.

I.   Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is an ethical theory based on the principle that the only morally relevant feature of actions is the amount of happiness they produce. As such, utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory, meaning the rightness or wrongness of actions is based entirely on the consequences that result from them. Utility is understood as the overall balance of happiness over unhappiness. The modern utilitarian theory was founded by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and defended by John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Bentham and Mill, commonly referred to as “classic” or “hedonistic” utilitarians, understood happiness to mean pleasure and the absence of pain. There are competing accounts of happiness among contemporary utilitarians.

A. The Greatest Happiness Principle

The Greatest Happiness Principle (or Principle of Utility) is the basis for evaluating the moral worth of actions according to utilitarians. John Stuart Mill defines the principle this way: “The creed which accepts the foundation of morals ‘utility’ or the ‘greatest happiness principle’ holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure (7).”

By "promote happiness," Mill implies that the overall happiness of everyone involved needs to be considered equally. Utilitarians are committed to the notion that no one’s happiness (including one’s own) is more valuable than that of any other. Therefore, when evaluating the morality of a given action, one must calculate the overall utility that is likely to be produced for all those affected. The best action is that which produces the greatest happiness overall.

B. The Distinction Between Higher and Lower Pleasures

Although both Bentham and Mill identify happiness as pleasure, they disagree on a critical point with respect to its nature. Bentham believed that pleasure is a uniform type of sensation. Thus, if two pleasures differ from one another, the difference is merely quantitative. That is, they differ only in amount. Mill, by contrast, argues that pleasures differ both quantitatively and qualitatively. The bodily pleasures we have that are common to nonhuman animals such as those of eating and sleeping are lower pleasures. However, humans are also capable of pleasures produced by the exercise of the intellect, the imagination, and moral sentiment. Mill calls these higher pleasures and argues that they are more valuable than lower pleasures. We know they are more valuable, he claims, because those who have genuinely experienced both give preference to them. Mill believes that when applying the Greatest Happiness Principle, the distinction between higher and lower pleasures ought to be taken into account (See Utilitarianism, 7-12).

II. Kantian Ethics

Kantian ethics refers to the ethical theory founded by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804).

A. The Good Will

According to Kant, the only thing that can be considered good in an unqualified sense, or “good in itself,” is a Good Will. A good will is motivated by respect for the moral law, which Kant claims, is distinct from what an individual wants or desires. Furthermore, the good will is not made good because of what results from it. Thus Kant’s ethics contrasts sharply with consequentialist theories like utilitarianism. A good will is good in virtue of the principle, or maxim, that underlies it.

B. The Categorical Imperative

The supreme principle of Kantian ethics is the Categorical Imperative. The principle is an "imperative" because it is a command or an "ought."   It is "categorical" because it is based on pure reason. A "hypothetical imperative" is an imperative that is based on some desired goal or outcome in the world. Since there are no goals in the world that can be demonstrated to be fully universal, "hypothetical imperatives" cannot be universal. The "categorical imperative," on the other hand, is universal because it is not based on any outcome in the world but is true on the strength of its own rationality (See Groundwork 26-29). The Categorical Imperative provides the basis for our moral duties. It can be used as a means of determining whether a given action conforms to the moral law. While Kant claims that there is one Categorical Imperative, he expresses it in multiple formulations.

C. Kant’s formulation of the categorical imperative based on universalization of one’s maxim

Kant defines the fundamental formulation of the categorical imperative in this way: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law (30).”

D. Kant’s formulation of the categorical imperative based on human beings as ends in themselves

A popular formulation of the categorical imperative. Kant writes: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means (36).”

III.   Virtue Ethics

This is a system of character-based ethics that evaluates the moral worth of a person on the basis of how much virtue her or his character has. There are many systems of virtue ethics. The most influential system was developed by Aristotle (384 BCE — 322 BCE).

A. The role of natural function in Aristotle’s ethics

Aristotle holds that everything has a design or a function. Something fulfills its function when it operates well and is focused on its proper object. In performing this function, it achieves eudaimonia that is usually translated as happiness. While Aristotle thinks eudaimonia (happiness) is connected to pleasure, pleasure does not define it. Rather, eudaimonia is the activity of performing one’s function well. By understanding one’s function, then, one can understand how to have an excellent character (See Nicomachean Ethics Book I, Chp 7 1097a15 - 1098b8 and   Book X, Chp 5 1175a21 - 1176a29).

B. Happiness as the life of virtue

Eudaimonia (happiness) depends on performing one’s function well. To do this, one must develop arete (virtue). Arete in Greek means "virtue in the sense of excellence." Aristotle identifies two types of virtue based on two parts of the soul: ethical virtue which is based on the appetitive part of the soul and intellectual virtue which is based on the rational part of the soul.

C. The ‘Golden Mean’

Ethical virtues are states where one desires the right amount of something rather than too much or too little. Someone who has the right amount of generosity, for example, desires to give the right amount to the right person at the right time in the right way. The person who desires to give too much has the vice of extravagance. The person who desires to give too little is stingy (See Nichomachean Ethics 1106b35 — 1107a8).

Ethical virtues are developed through habituation. Through this process, one identifies the vice she or he has. Then, she or he performs acts that cause one to develop the habit of desiring the right amount (See Nichomachean Ethics Book II Chp 1-4 1103a15 — 1105b18).

D. Practical wisdom (Phronesis/Prudence)

An important intellectual virtue (arete) for Aristotle is phronesis, which may be translated as practical wisdom or prudence. It is the ability to use reason to solve practical problems. Aristotle distinguishes phronesis from techne (art or craft) that involves achieving a practical result using a particular method. Someone with phronesis does not simply apply a method but can use critical thinking to find the best solution in any situation (See Nichomachean Ethics 1103a 4-10 and 1140a - 1140b30).

IV.   Natural Law Theory

This is a principle-based ethics that derives moral laws from the order of nature. While there are many natural law theorists, the most influential version of the theory was developed by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) who drew heavily on Aristotle’s notion of natural function.

A. Practical Rationality and the Natural Law

Aquinas defines “law” generally as an ordinance of reason, ordered toward the common good, made by the one charged with care of the community, and promulgated. He identifies the “Eternal Law” as the rational plan according to which all things in creation are subject. Nonrational beings in nature are merely determined by the eternal law; for example, bodies are subject to the law of gravity. As rational beings, however, humans are unique in at least two important ways. First, they are able to understand the way in which the law determines things. Aquinas calls the capacity for this understanding “Speculative reason,” as it describes the way things actually are. Second, humans are able to seek out their proper ends or “goods.” Thus, as speculative reason deals with truths of the way things are, “Practical Reason” is the capacity to determine the goods humans ought to pursue. As beings endowed with practical reason, they are subjects of “Natural Law,” which are the proper ends for which humans, by their nature, are directed. The natural law, therefore, is composed of the principles that humans ought to follow based on their nature, which they are able to discover by way of their practical rationality.

B. Basic Human Goods

Aquinas’ natural law theory is founded on the primary precept of practical reason, which he claims is self-evident. It states, “Good is to be done and pursued, and evil is to be avoided.” (ST II.2 Q. 94, Art. 2) Practical reason can discover the goods more specifically by an investigation into human nature. In this sense, Aquinas’ perspective is Aristotelian in that it rests on a conception of the good life for human beings. Aquinas argues that we can determine what a good life consists of by examining the things to which we have natural inclinations: “Since, however, good has the nature of an end, and evil, the nature of a contrary, hence it is that all those things to which man has a natural inclination, are naturally apprehended by reason as being good, and consequently as objects of pursuit, and their contraries as evil, and objects of avoidance.” (ST II.2 Q. 94, Art. 2). Aquinas goes on to list some of the things to which we are naturally inclined. Among them are health and our own preservation, reproduction and care of offspring, and finally inclinations associated with reason such as the inclination towards knowledge of the truth and God, and the inclination to live in society.

Contemporary natural law theories often formulate the notion of a good life by articulating “Basic Human Goods.” The lists vary according to different authors, but generally they include: life and health, family, friendship, work and play, aesthetic experience, knowledge and integrity. (Gomez-Lobo). A good life for a human being will involve some combination of these goods, although different individuals will prioritize them in different ways. Natural law theorists typically claim that these goods are incommensurable. That is, these goods have no common measure to which they can be compared or weighed against. As such, there is no means by which we could say that a certain amount of one particular good such as friendship is “equal” to some amount of a different good such knowledge. This makes natural law theory differ fundamentally from classical utilitarianism (Bentham and Mill), which states that the common measure of all things good is pleasure.

Finally, since natural law theorists believe that each of these basic human goods is to be sought after, evil actions are those that are contrary to them. Thus, any action that intentionally aims at the destruction of a basic human good is morally impermissible. This is the case even if the good being destroyed is for the sake of some other good as its end result.

C. Principle of Double Effect

Many actions that aim at the promotion of one human good may negatively affect others. The Principle of Double Effect is a way of determining how to act when an action has a desired good effect but in order to achieve that effect a bad effect also results. The principle holds that it is wrong to think that the ends ever justify the means. However, if the undesirable effect is truly a secondary effect and unintended, it is justifiable if the good of the primary effect outweigh the secondary effect.

The New Catholic Encyclopedia defines the Principle of Double Effect this way (cited in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on the Principle of Double Effect

  1. The act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent.
  2. The agent may not positively will the bad effect but may permit it. If he could attain the good effect without the bad effect he should do so. The bad effect is sometimes said to be indirectly voluntary.
  3. The good effect must flow from the action at least as immediately (in the order of causality, though not necessarily in the order of time) as the bad effect. In other words the good effect must be produced directly by the action, not by the bad effect. Otherwise the agent would be using a bad means to a good end, which is never allowed.
  4. The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect (p. 1021).


  • Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics.   Translated by Martin Oswald.   Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999.
  • Kant, Immanuel. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Third Edition.   Translated by James W. Ellington.   Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993.
  • Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Second Edition.   Edited by Georgo Sher.   Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2001.
  • St. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica.
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Principle of Double Effect,”