Universität Wien

180135 SE Ethics and Profit: A History of Ideas (2021S)

5.00 ECTS (2.00 SWS), SPL 18 - Philosophie
Continuous assessment of course work


Note: The time of your registration within the registration period has no effect on the allocation of places (no first come, first served).


max. 30 participants
Language: English


Classes (iCal) - next class is marked with N

For the time being, this seminar takes places as an e-learning seminar on Moodle. All registered students are already signed up for the Moodle course, where further information is posted in the announcements forum. If you cannot access Moodle but are registered for the course, please send me an email.

To allow for optimum use of the limited seminar places, if there is a waiting list, then students who do not attend the first seminar session without notification of the lecturer will automatically be de-registered to make space for students on the waiting list.
If you have registered and cannot make it to the first session, but intend to follow this seminar, then please email felix.pinkert@univie.ac.at ahead of the session to keep your place.

Thursday 11.03. 15:00 - 16:30 Digital
Thursday 18.03. 15:00 - 16:30 Digital
Thursday 25.03. 15:00 - 16:30 Digital
Thursday 15.04. 15:00 - 16:30 Digital
Thursday 22.04. 15:00 - 16:30 Digital
Thursday 29.04. 15:00 - 16:30 Digital
Thursday 06.05. 15:00 - 16:30 Digital
Thursday 20.05. 15:00 - 16:30 Digital
Thursday 27.05. 15:00 - 16:30 Digital
Thursday 10.06. 15:00 - 16:30 Digital
Thursday 17.06. 15:00 - 16:30 Digital
Thursday 24.06. 15:00 - 16:30 Digital


Aims, contents and method of the course

Traders make profit by buying products cheaply and selling them more expensively. Capitalists make profit by employing labourers and selling the fruit of their labour for more than the wages paid to the worker. Workers try to get the most money for their work, and consumers go bargain-hunting to spend as little as possible for the goods they buy.

But when, if at all, is it appropriate to thus profit from, or even on the back of, our fellow human beings? When does someone profit unfairly, or just plain too much? Are some forms of profit perhaps to be shunned altogether, or should profit-seeking be encouraged, so as to generate a societal benefit?

In this seminar, we approach these very much contemporary ethical questions about profit-seeking by studying their history in Western philosophical and theological thought. The aim of this seminar is to understand the philosophical issues at stake in these questions, to understand and critically appraise a range of different ethical positions that may be partly alien to us, and to lay the foundations for formulating and defending our own answers to ethical questions about profit-seeking that we encounter today.

List of topics:
- Plato Against the Merchant
- Aristotle on types of exchange and profit
- Jerome against wealth, Cicero on profit and fellow-feeling
- Augustine and Aquinas on justified profits from trade
- Wesley and Butler: A protestant twist on the profit motive
- Mandeville and Smith: Private profit, social benefit
- Rousseau and Fourier: Early socialist criticism of the profit motive
- Marx: The capitalist's profit
- Kropotkin: Altruistic motivation as part of evolved human nature
- Ayn Rand: In defense of egoism
- Cohen: The hypocrisy of making profit for the common good

After successful completion of the seminar, you will be able to
- explain key historical positions in the morality of profit in your own words in speaking and writing,
- contextualise contemporary ethical questions in the context of the history of ideas, identifying relevant historical texts and using these to increase your understanding of the contemporary questions,
- reconstruct and critically evaluate arguments from historical and contemporary texts, in speaking and writing,
- position yourself with regard to selected questions about the ethics of profit-seeking.

The seminar is taught and assessed in English, and will feature extensive small group discussions which require everyone's preparation and contribution to succeed. In preparation of each seminar, you will read the assigned core text and complete some short preparatory reading tasks and other research exercises on Moodle. A willingness to engage with concepts and ideas from contemporary economics is required. Prior knowledge of economics is an asset, but not required. Relevant economic concepts and ideas will be explained in class where needed.

Assessment and permitted materials

The seminar is assessed through four components:

1) Weekly tasks. These are marked for completeness, not for correctness: what matters here is that you have seriously thought about the tasks and prepared for the seminar. Weight: 25%. Deadline: Each teaching week 13:00 on the day of the seminar. Because the tasks are essential preparation /before/ the seminar, tasks that are late without authorisation count as not completed.
2) A minimal outline of a proposed final essay. Weight: 5%. Deadline: June 25, 2020, 23:59.
3) Peer feedback on one other student's minimal essay outline. Weight: 5%. Deadline: June 30, 2020, 23:59.
2) A final essay of 2300-2500 words (including bibliography and footnotes), on any topic from the seminar. Weight: 65%. Deadline: September 15, 2020, 23:59. I will only mark submissions after this deadline, irrespective of how early you submit. However, if you need your final seminar grade earlier than late September, e.g. if you are on an exchange semester, then you can also submit by an optional early submission deadline of June 30, 2020, 23:59, and I will then mark your submission shortly after this deadline.

The final essay is to be submitted as pdf file on Moodle, with all identifying information (name, student ID) in the text, file name, and file metadata removed to facilitate anonymous marking.

Except for the weekly tasks, delayed submissions are subject to a penalty of +0.2 marks for each day (24h) of lateness. If your submission is delayed for reasons outside of your control, e.g. illness, please contact me via email as soon as possible.

Minimum requirements and assessment criteria

A positive evaluation requires that you achieve a pass grade (4) in all assessment components, and that you actively attend the seminar. Two unauthorized absences will be excused.

Detailed assessment criteria are posted on Moodle.

Examination topics

You can write your assignments on any topics linked to the seminar themes and texts. You are encouraged to develop your own research topics, and to consult with me on your writing plans.

Reading list

The reading list is posted on Moodle, and contains selected historical and contemporary texts on the morality of profit.

Association in the course directory

Last modified: Sa 08.07.2023 00:17