Moral Foundations of Capitalism

Stanford EthicSoc 157 / 257  •  2010, 2011, and 2012

American capitalism, at least as originally promulgated, presumed a moral foundation of selfish individualism. Critics of such a morality have consequently denigrated capitalism. But others have tried to defend it either by appealing to an alternate foundation or by defending the morality of selfish individualism. In this course, we will explore three such groups of defenders: free-market economists who have defended capitalism on social, economic, or collective grounds; theologians and conservatives who have defended capitalism using a religious or altruist foundation; and Ayn Rand, who has proposed to defend the morality of selfishness.

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Here is all (not a sample) of the unedited, written comments, both positive and negative, for the course in 2010.

  • Perhaps the best teacher I’ve ever had.
  • very enthusiastic, brings excitement to discussions, really wants students to succeed, very helpful, always willing to meet outside of class
  • Very thoughtful with feedback and comments – really cares about you improving
  • Very outgoing, engaging, available, passionate and attentive.
  • Sometimes stressed personal view of things (morals) a little much, leaving space for a dialogue but not as much as I would have liked.
  • Primary sources were a plus. Heavy reading but worthwhile.
  • really good series of primary sources, broken up into really good sequence of categories, I especially liked reading Fitzhugh, Wilson, and the Austrian economists
  • Great firtshand sources
  • The primary sources were wonderful to interpret on our own, it was a good skill to practice; I liked the chronological order of the readings.
  • Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, was too long to read alongside everything else in the course. We didn’t discuss it enough to warrant reading it all. I preferred the Rand essays we read as an insight into her philosophy.
  • short, manageable essay let me focus on making a concise, well-written argument; good frequency too
  • Paper assignments – manageable but still demanding
  • Essays were nice to write; it was wonderful having the back and forth dialogues before, during and after writing the essays.
  • This course should also fulfill an EC requirement for ethics.
  • learned a lot of different perspectives on capitalism, discussion was always interesting and fun
  • Really great.

Here is all (not a sample) of the unedited, written comments, both positive and negative, for the course in 2010.

  • Instructor
  • “Best instructor I have had at Stanford. Forced students to think clearly; did not let anyone get away with hand waving in class discussion. Got students to think without belittling them, an unusually rare skill. Great attitude towards students. I felt challenged and respected.
  • “Prof. McCaskey is a phenomenal teacher. Deftly facilitated engaging and intellectually exciting classroom dialogues. Some of the best class discussions I’ve ever had in college.” “Too little classroom time. Course definitely deserves at least another 30 more minutes a week”
  • “Very effective teacher—one of the first I have had who was able to allow for rampant discussion in class while simultaneously ensuring that students were grasping the most important material. Very open to engage with students outside of class, and very thoughtful towards each individual teacher.”
  • “Professor McCaskey served the perfect role in this class. He was a supporter and a facilitator, but rarely was he a lecturer. That allowed us to grow and to learn because we never spat opinions at us. Rather, he questioned and drew analysis out of us. That is what a seminar is for.” “I’m naturally aggressive in debate and discussion. I’m always willing to share my thoughts, share my opinions, and think out loud. There were some other students who tended to be dominant, but not everyone was. Towards the middle of the quarter, Professor McCaskey made some attempts to draw out some of the quieter students. Professor McCaskey was successful in drawing them out, but I think he could have worked on that a bit earlier in the quarter.”
  • “Professor McCaskey is the most talented instructor that I have encountered at Stanford. He personally engages with students and gets everyone in the room excited to be there learning. Even when a student is hesitant to participate, he finds a way to coax them into discussion and thus get the most out of the people in the room. His dynamic and brilliant work in the classroom extends to a dedication to students outside of the classroom that includes email conversations, dinner chats, and in general every effort in his power to make sure that one gets the maximum benefits of his course.” “He is too good of a teacher. He makes all other classes disappointing in comparison to his.”
  • “Prof. McCaskey is very clearly passionate and extremely knowledgeable about the material covered in this course, and his enthusiasm for teaching makes class discussions engaging.”
  • “Professor McCaskey is a really good instructor. The seminar was really intimidating at first because I was not already knowledgeable about the material. He sets a tone in the class that makes the environment relaxed so people feel comfortable expressing their ideas. I also liked the fact that he encouraged everyone to speak from the beginning. I also liked the fact that he didn’t tell us what to think or give us his opinion on things. His bias definitely would have made it difficult to give an opposing view. He was always pleasant. And he responded well to questions and gave plenty of good feedback on the papers. Overall, I think that he was a really good professor.” “In terms of teaching style, it would be nice if he could highlight the key take-aways from the readings by the end of class. The class discussion would always be great but many times I would leave and wonder whether I grasped all the concepts that he wanted us to grasp.”
  • Readings
  • “all good except the following below:” “replace novak’s piece with something more on topic showing his argument instead of his historical analysis”
  • “The readings covered a nice range of material and were neither too burdensome nor excessively easy.”
  • “The readings were great—really interesting selection. They all fit together well in our discussions, and while I feel like there was a lot of reading that we had to do it was all very relevant and interesting, and was never overwhelming.”
  • “Readings were great. I learned much from each one. The selection of works for the course was superb. A fascinating trip through time and space”
  • “I really enjoyed all of the readings. I liked the fact that most of them were primary sources. I also liked the fact that the readings were assigned in chronological order. It helped me put the evolution of ideas into perspective.” “It was difficult to find time to read Atlas Shrugged in addition to the other course readings that we had to do. Perhaps every other week there could be a class that spends 30 minutes or so discussing the newly read chapters so that people don’t fall behind on the readings. The reading by Hayek was a little difficult to follow. I think it was because it was not one whole document or chapter but snippets out of a book.”
  • Excellent reading materials. Particularly the readings by Fitzhugh, von Mises, the Popes, and Rand” “Get rid of the Gilder piece.”
  • “For the most part, the readings were fantastic. We tied them together well be comparing and contrasting them throughout the quarter. By reviewing the readings throughout the quarter, we were able to track major themes in political theory over time. Rand was great.” “The economists’ readings were dull in comparison to most of the other readings. I do think their take on capitalism is important, but I thought the emphasis we placed on them was excessive. More of Adam Smith and the Framers would be great.”
  • Assignments
  • “3 papers is perfect” “perhaps allow one of them to be a bit longer so we can really dive into a topic!”
  • “The three papers required for the class seemed like an extremely fair way of evaluating students’ progress through the readings and understanding of the material. The fact that the papers were relatively short (900-1100 words) forced students to work on their technical writing skills in order to communicate effectively in fewer words.”
  • “The assignments and exams were great at provoking a deeper level of thought towards the material. It was great that they were geared towards individuals pursuing their own interests in the readings. This allowed me to explore very thought-provoking topics, while simultaneously getting feed back from the professor so that I could engage with the ideas that I was exploring on deeper and deeper levels. I do not think I have ever gained so much from the assignments for a class, even though they were relatively short.”
  • “Written assignments were valuable in reinforcing one’s command of the readings. The process of writing itself was great in polishing one’s mental organization and synthesis of the material, transforming it into written word. The feedback on the papers were extremely helpful.”
  • “We had three papers in the course. The assignments enabled me to think about the concepts in different ways. They definitely enhanced my learning. I liked the fact that they were short. A lot can be said in 1000 words.” “I do feel as if the topics for the papers were too broad. Many times, I had no idea was the prof was expecting from the paper. I think that the professor could have helped gauge our learning by assigning a broad topic for each paper. He did it for the first but it would have been nice for the last two.”
  • “The assignments were very appropriate for the course. Short and frequent papers were an effective way of getting students to think hard and write a little. This is a skill that many need to develop. Great call on assignment length. The short assignments were challenging because they were short; this is a good thing”
  • 1000 word papers are nice, but they are difficult. There is so much material to work with that squeezing it all into 1000 words is a real task. However, the exercises do force us to cover very targeted issues and to do so concisely.” “Did Atlas Shrugged really need to be completed by week 7? Finishing by week 8 would have been (and was) fine for me. It was a lot to tackle, especially if one reads for ideas and concepts. If one is reading for speed, that’s a different story. But I almost never speed read because I think it’s a disservice to myself. Plus, I’m just a lousy speed reader. On top of the other readings Atlas was enjoyable, but sometimes it felt like a burden. I made Atlas the cornerstone of my personal course experience, but sometimes it was difficult to do that when I was concerned with the weekly readings.”
  • Overall
  • “In one’s academic career, it is unusual to find a brilliant professor at a top research university who is so genuinely dedicated to teaching. His class inspired me and provides me with that rare gift of an intellectual spark sufficient to push me to new heights of discovery. Learning from him reminds me why I came to Stanford because he renews my passion for the discovery of new knowledge every day.”
  • “absolutely loved this class. I am not an Ethics or American History major, and have traditionally avoided philosophy classes but very much enjoyed the blend of philosophy and practicality that Prof McCaskey established in discussion. The small group of students allowed for extremely insightful and engaging discussions.” “I actually think making the class a two hours instead of an hour and fifteen minutes would benefit the depth of discussion. There were many occasions where I felt that there was much more discussion possible but the alloted class time was over (and in fact on several occasions discussions were simply taken outside and continued among interested individuals.)”
  • “Most influential and insightful class I’ve taken at Stanford. A truly multi-disciplinary and immersive learning experience. Compelling readings. Captivating dialogues. Rewarding assignments. Passionate students. Exceptional instructor It would be a disservice to the Stanford community to not offer this class again. Students should have the fantastic opportunity to take this class in the future” “More classroom time. 2 and a half hours a week is way too short.”
  • “Coming into this class I really had no opinions on individual rights or political systems. These were not subject taught in school or discussed. Perhaps it is partly because I got most of my primary and secondary school education outside of the United States. So being relatively green to this material, I can safely say that this course exposed me to a well rounded view of individual rights, and the morality of capitalism. The pace of the class was not too fast. And I really liked the review of the readings that we had every few weeks. This course was also different from others because it focused more on what the authors were saying instead of what students opinions of the authors were. I liked that.” “The class was heavily made up of conservative students. It would be nice next time if the course had a couple more non-conservatives. I think that the diversity in opinions would make this course really exciting.”
  • “Definitely offer this course again. This course exposes students to concepts that many ought to be exposed to. It teaches students to think more completely than they probably do now. Please offer it again.”
  • “I am excited when I can say that a class was in my Top 5 classes at Stanford. I can confidently say that this was the best class I have ever taken at Stanford. Honestly, most classes here are awful. The famous professors bring in attention and glory to the university, but they are really no good at teaching. They are boring, flat, and content to make their money reprinting the exact same editions of text books and politely taking issue with one another in academic journals. They are content to function in a rusty academic machine, one for which I have little respect. The Moral Foundations of Capitalism was a non-Stanford Stanford class. It was refreshing.”
  • “Best professor I’ve had at Stanford University. Always warm, encouraging, and approachable. Provided excellent feedback on assignments. Clear goals, consistent with syllabus. Facilitated engaging discussions.”
  • “This is one of the most fantastic courses that I have taken at Stanford. Professor McCaskey’s teaching makes my academic experience at Stanford worth the outrageous tuition expenses. He brings so much passion and talent to the classroom. Everyone should be required to study with him and benefit from his exuberance.”

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