The Stanford Review
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“Moral Foundations of Capitalism” class cancelled

As the United States dipped into recession after the stock market crash in the late 2000s,
capitalism was under intense scrutiny. As concern and criticism of the economic structure rose,
part-time History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) professor John McCaskey mulled over the
idea of teaching a course on capitalism.

“I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to get students to explore how Americans have
historically defended the morality of capitalism,” said McCaskey in an interview with The
Stanford Review.

In 2009, after presenting the idea to his colleagues, McCaskey began teaching the course,
sponsored by the Ethics in Society (EiS) program. In the seminar, named “Moral Foundations
of Capitalism,” students explored and evaluated historical arguments for the free-market
model, particularly those which emerged in the 20th century. The seminar primarily covered
the arguments of economists such as Milton Friedman, of Protestant and Catholic religious
defenders, and of Objectivists.

The course was extremely well-received. The enrollment ceiling was accidentally doubled,
allowing the class size to swell past its intended 15-student capacity, and there was a scramble
to shrink the seminar back down.

“There was a huge demand for the class … with students sitting on the floor outside, trying to
get in,” said a junior, (who wishes to remain anonymous), who took the class in Winter 2012.

While there was steady interest for the course throughout the three years the class was
offered, the type of students that it attracted varied. According to McCaskey, the class was
largely made up of competing conservative students in the first year, largely because two
students—one Catholic and one Ayn Rand Objectivist—extensively promoted the course
before registration. By the third year, however, the class was much more balanced. “The class
attracted all sorts of students, right and left wing,” said the junior. “Some objectivists, a couple
of libertarians, a member of Stanford Democrats, and even two Marxists.”

“The class was still disproportionately conservative compared to the campus demographic,”
said McCaskey, “but it was a good mix with strong opinions. It was just as much an intellectual
challenge to be conservative in the class as it was to be liberal.”

“Although I would’ve liked to see more left-wing approaches,” said the junior, “[McCaskey]
did do a good job of balancing ideas, and so I do not feel that left-wing ideas were necessarily
quashed in that class. If anything, it forced some of the more conservative kids to really think
about their beliefs. There was a general atmosphere of political acceptance, due largely to
McCaskey’s assertive even-handedness.”
Despite strong demand, the class was discontinued after three years due to a restructuring
of Stanford’s general education requirements (GERs). Beginning next year, one of the new
requirements will be “Ethical Reasoning.”

“The Center on Ethics in Society will play a role in supporting the creation of new courses and
existing courses in ethical reasoning, and the Center decided to allocate its limited resources
(human and financial) to this task in the coming years,” said Professor Rob Reich, Director of
the EiS program.

In light of its reception at Stanford, Professor McCaskey was invited to teach the course at
Brown University.

About the author:
Has 35 Articles

Devon Zuegel is a junior studying Computer Science and Economics. She has served as Editor-in-Chief, Executive Editor, Opinions Editor, and Deputy News Editor during her time on The Stanford Review, and she is fascinated by information theory, constitutional law, and digital privacy.

  • steve bourg

    If students needed to learn about the benefits and morality of capitalism in COLLEGE, and they had not learned how all the other ‘ideas’ are inferior……well then our country is toast. The high schools have not done their job…..and it sounds like 1/2 the students at Stanford don’t even understand how capitalism is superior for human freedom and results.

  • http://funwithgravity.blogspot.com/ mtnrunner2

    As an Objectivist somewhat familiar with Dr. McCaskey, I’m disappointed to hear the course was cancelled. At the same time, I’m also happy this was ever in the curriculum!

    I like the comment from the student who was apparently liberal (it seems?) but thought the course was equitable in intellectual terms. I think that’s to the instructor’s credit. And also, reality does not take sides… simply presenting facts and logical arguments is non-threatening and allows students’ minds to make the determination as to what is right. Exactly as it should be. :)

    And the replacement requirement of “Ethical Thinking” presents a huge opportunity for Objectivism, which presents a novel, reality-based approach to how to ethics.

  • jorod

    Catholics used to defend private property; now they are all communists.

  • Pingback: Stanford Kills Popular Course on Free Market | Tarpon's Swamp()

  • http://www.dallasfinestmovers.com Jerry Zaf

    Nice interesting post, I guess brown is the one going to gain from it.

  • http://www.lawrys.com.sg/index.php/member/56307/ Milton

    I think what you posted made a lot of sense. But, consider this,
    suppose you added a little information? I ain’t saying your information isn’t
    solid., but suppose you added a title that grabbed a person’s attention? I mean “Moral Foundations of Capitalism” class cancelled is kinda vanilla. You might peek at Yahoo’s home page and see how they write news
    headlines to grab people interested. You might add a related
    video or a pic or two to get people interested about what you’ve written. Just my opinion, it could make your posts a little livelier.

  • Jack Dixon

    Has capitalism degenerated into consumerism–that is, the creed of growth, the gospel of spend, borrow and waste? If so, it has become a vast social and economic evil.

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