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
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