Ancient Ethics Assignments


12/1. Reading: selections from Sextus on the skeptics and the gods, plus Harald Thorsrud's paper on skeptical piety. (Optional reading: Julia Annas' paper that Thorsrud refers to.) Paper (Rice, Rosario).
  1. Sextus gives arguments that are supposed to induce suspension of judgment regarding the existence and nature of the gods. Describe and evaluate the success of his strategy.
  2. Although he suspends judgment about the gods, Sextus claims that the skeptic will live piously. Explain and evaluate Sextus' arguments for this.
  3. Thorsrud argues (against Annas) that ordinary religious believers in the ancient world do have convictions of the sort that the skeptic suspends judgment on. Explain and evaluate his argument for this.
  4. Thorsrud argues that there can be piety without belief. Explain and evaluate one of his arguments concerning this claim

11/17. Pyrrhonian skepticism:

Readings:

Possible papers (McCoy, Munroe, Murphy):
  1. Sextus raises and tries to answer several "self-refutation" objections against the skeptic. Explain and evaluate one of these arguments and Sextus' response to it. (Note: sometimes this is merely implicit.)
  2. How can one consistently live as a skeptic, according to Sextus, and why is a person better off as a skeptic? Do you agree with him? Why, or why not?
  3. Bett says that in one sense, the skeptic has a telos, and on another, he does not. Explain Bett's reasoning for this, and whether you agree with him that it's consistent for the skeptic (in one sense) to have a conception of the telos and in another not.
  4. Bett says that, while the skeptic might in some sense have a conception of happiness, he's right to be suspicious of having a conception of eudaimonia. Explaining evaluate what Bett says.
  5. Bett says that the skeptic's views on happiness are closer to modern sensibilities regarding happiness than they are to ancient sensibilities regarding eudaemonia, but that nonetheless even many modern people would be uncomfortable adopting the skeptical attitude. Explain and evaluate what bet says.
  6. Explain and evaluate something else from the readings.

11/10. Read the section of Hellenistic Philosophy dealing with the Stoics on fate (starting on p. 179, going to p. 190), skipping II-76 and II-83, and concentrating on the selections from Cicero's On Fate (II-84 and II-90) plus the linked article "The Stoics on Fate and Freedom," and the selections from Seneca's "On Benefits" and "On Tranquility."

Papers (Knafelc, Linhares, Loveall):

  1. Lazy argument: Explain, in your own words, the Lazy Argument and Chrysippus' response to it (both in selection II-84). Do you think that this response works? Why, or why not?
  2. Why does causal determinism and fate not undermine the appropriateness of praise, blame, punishment, and the like? Explain and evaluate Chrysippus' arguments.
  3. Why shouldn't a Stoic feel anger? Explain and evaluate.
  4. Explain and evaluate the Stoic doctrine of 'reservation,' or something else from the Seneca selections.

11/3. Reading: The Handbook of Epictetus and William Stephens' article on Epictetus on death. Optional: Stephens refers to Epictetus' longer work The Discourses often; here is a link to it if you'd like to look for yourself.

Paper topics (Kelley, Kausar).

  1. Explain and comment either on one of the themes or concepts common in the Handbook (such as how to use impressions, what is in our power, the role of God in ethics, living in accordance with nature, how to deal with the death of family members, etc.) or one of the entries in particular.
  2. Stephens lays out Epictetus' arguments for why various fears of death are unjustified, under what circumstances suicide is justified, and and how not fearing death contributes to virtues. Explain and evaluate one of them.

For 10/27. Readings: Papers topics (Halsne and Helder):
  1. Set out and evaluate one of the claims and/or arguments of the Stoics in the readings. For instance:
  2. Set out and evaluate one of Cicero's objections to the Stoics in Book 4. (For his main one, about preferred indifferents and their value, the Striker article on Antimatter may be useful.)


For 10/20. Epicurus on death. Readings: papers (Donnelly, Gilley)
  1. Evaluate one of the Epicurean arguments against the fear of death.
  2. Evaluate one of Nagel's criticisms of the Epicurean argument.
  3. Evaluate one of Nagel's positive reasons for thinking death is bad.
  4. If death is bad for the person who has died, when is it bad? Explain and evaluate what Nagel says about this.
  5. Philodemus argues that in cases of premature death, death can be bad for a person, and that feeling a "bite" of pain at this prospect is rational. Sanders explains this argument and argues that it is consistent with the overall Epicurean position. Explain and evaluate either (i) whether Philodemus is correct about premature death or (ii) whether Sanders is right that it is consistent with the overall Epicurean position.
    For 10/13. Justice and friendship. Readings:

    Justice. From Hellenistic Philosophy, text I-5, #31-40, and texts I- 151 through I-156. On Brightspace: Porphyry's report on the Epicureans on justice and animals ("porphyry-animals"), Lucretius on early humans ("lucretius-justice"). Also, John Thrasher's paper, "Reconciling Justice and Pleasure in Epicurean Contractarianism."

    Friendship. Matt Evans "Can Epicureans Be Friends?" ("evans-epicurean-friends"), and Cicero's Book I 65-70, and Book II 78-85)

    Paper topics (Rosario, Saint Ours):

    1. What is justice, according to the Epicureans, and why does it arise? Do you think this account is plausible? Why, or why not?
    2. What reason does the wise person have to be just? What about the foolish person? Are the reasons the Epicureans give for the wise person to be just compelling?
    3. Why is there no justice with regard to non-human animals? Explain and evaluate the Epicurean arguments in favor of this thesis.
    4. Explain and evaluate something else from the readings, e.g., Thrasher's claim that Epicurean contractarianism is an appealing alternative to Hobbesian contractarianism or that the Epicureans successfully reconcile individualistic hedonism with a robust account of justice.
    5. Explain and evaluate one of the three Epicurean theories of friendship presented by Torquatus.
    6. Do any of the three theories give a reason for "loving your friend as much as yourself" that is both plausible and consistent with Epicureanism? (Alternative: evaluate one of Evans' arguments for why it is consistent, and why Epicurean friendship qualifies as genuine friendship. Or examine his interpretation of Epicurus.)
    7. Explain and evaluate one of Cicero's criticisms of Epicurus on friendship.

    For 10/6. Reading: Cicero, "On Moral Ends" book 1 section 29 through section 64, book II sections 1-77, and from Hellenistic Philosophy texts I-4 (Letter to Menoeceus), text I-5 (Principle Doctrines), sayings 3, 4, 8, 18, 20, 22, 25, 26, 29, 30, text I-6 (Vatican Sayings), sayings 33, 73, texts I-20, I-36, I-37, and I-151. Also, Martha Nussbaum's article on therapeutic arguments in Aristotle and Epicurus. Optional reading: chapters 11-13 of Epicureanism (starting on p. 111), but I won't require or expect that everyone has done so.

    We'll concentrate on the Cicero material.

    Paper (Murphy, Rice):

    1. Set out in your own words and briefly evaluate one the arguments the Epicurean spokesman gives. These can be any of them, but here are some of the topics that are especially central:
      • Why pleasure is the only intrinsic good and pain the only intrinsic evil.
      • The nature of pleasure.
      • The relationship between mental pleasures and pains and physical ones.
      • The types of desires and the recommendations about which to cultivate and which to extirpate.
      • The relationship between pleasure and the virtues.
    2. Explain and evaluate one of Cicero's objections against Epicurus' arguments for hedonism, his conception of what pleasure is, or of the role of the virtues in obtaining happiness.
    3. Nussbaum expresses some objections to the Epicurean conception of philosophy as therapy. Explain and evaluate one of her objections.
    4. Explain and evaluate something else from the readings.


    For 9/29. Reading Nicomachean Ethics Books 8 and 9, and Nancy Sherman's paper, "Aristotle on Friendship and the Shared Life."

    Papers (McCoy, Munroe).

    1. Aristotle make the following claims: there are three types of friendship, the friendships of utility, pleasure, and virtue. The first two types are unstable. The friendship of virtue is the only stable type of friendship; it is complete, and it can only occur between virtuous people. Explain what these three types of friendship are, and his arguments for the claims above. If you disagree with any of them, say which ones, and why. (Reading, NE Bk 8 chapter 3)
    2. Aristotle claims that the virtuous person loves himself and is a friend to himself (or at least takes the same attitude toward himself as toward his friend), whereas the base person is not a friend to himself. Why does Aristotle think these things? Do you agree with him? Why or why not? (Reading NE Bk 9 chapter 4).
    3. Aristotle distinguishes between good and bad forms of self-love/selfishness. Explain and evaluate what Aristotle says. (reading NE Bk 9 chapter 8.)
    4. Sherman argues that what Aristotle says about friendship shows that (in several ways) Aristotle's theory is superior to the imperialist ethics of Kant. Explain and evaluate what Sherman says about one of these ways.
    5. Sherman claims that what Aristotle says about familial friendships in particular gives us insight into Aristotle's theory of friendship generally. Explain and evaluate one of the ways it is supposed do so.
    6. Anything else from the readings for today is fair game too.

    For 9/22. Reading: Nicomachean Ethics Book III, chapters 1-5, plus the reading by Bostock on responsibility. Paper (Linhares, Loveall)
    1. Crisp makes various claims about what "the noble" (to kalon) is in Aristotle's ethics and the role that it plays. Explain and evaluate one of his claims. (You may evaluate what he says either for its adequacy as an interpretation of Aristotle, or for the acceptability of the ethical claim / piece of reasoning that he attributes to Aristotle.)
    2. Explain & summarize, in your own words, the basic idea behind Aristotle's definition of what is voluntary in NE III 1. Why does Aristotle think that "pleasant things and fine things" do not force us to do what we do? (And what does this mean?) Does Aristotle's definition appear correct? (Some additional questions to think about, or write on: Can you think of any counterexamples to this definition? Does Aristotle's definition seem compatible, or incompatible, with causal determinism?)
    3. Explain and evaluate one of the 'excusing conditions' Aristotle discusses in NE III 1.
    4. Explain and analyze one of the claims Aristotle makes regarding wish, choice, and deliberation in NE III chapters 2-4.
    5. In NE III 5 Aristotle says that "[since] we cannot refer actions back to other principles beyond those in ourselves, then it follows that whatever has its principle in us is itself up to us and voluntary," and he supports this conclusion by pointing to practices of punishment. However, as Aristotle notes, it might be objected that (i) one's actions are the inevitable outcome of one's character, and (ii) everybody aims at what appears good to him, and a person does not control what appears good to him; instead, his character controls what appears good to him. How does Aristotle respond to these objections? Does Aristotle's response appear adequate? Why or why not? (Additional possible question to think or write about: do you think his response is compatibilist, or libertarian, or neither?)
    6. Bostock makes a number of criticisms of Aristotle along the way while explaining the texts. Set out and evaluate the cogency of one of them.

    For 9/15. Read Nicomachean Ethics book II, plus Roger Crisp's paper, "Nobility in the Nicomachean Ethics" Papers (Kelley, Knafelc):
    1. Explain and comment on Aristotle's own conception of what eudaimonia is (based upon the notion of there being a human 'function'). (Possibly as part of this paper, or as a separate paper, talk about Achtenberg's paper and how she thinks the function argument is supposed to proceed, and why she thinks it's plausible.)
    2. Why does Aristotle think that one's happiness can be effected by events that occur after one's death (like misfortune befalling one's children)? Is he right?
    3. Aristotle says that, to be virtuous, it isn't enough to do the right thing; one must also take pleasure (or at least not feel pain) in doing the right thing. Why does he think this? Consider to the following two cases: Two people have borrowed a great deal of money from a friend, who now needs it back, but both are poor, and returning it would be a hardship. The first returns it easily, and is happy to have the opportunity to pay his friend back. The second really doesn't want to return it, and has to struggle with himself, but with a great effort of will he manages to overcome his reluctance and return the money, because he knows that is what he ought to do. Which person is better? Which person is more praiseworthy? What would Aristotle say, and do you agree with him? Why or why not?
    4. "The golden mean." Aristotle says that virtue is a mean between extremes. What does he mean by this, and why does he think it? In what sense is virtue a mean, and in what sense isn't it? Do you agree with Aristotle? (See NE II.5 and II.6. in particular, and NE II 7 to see the application of this doctrine to particular virtues.)
    5. Crisp makes various claims about what "the noble" (to kalon) is in Aristotle's ethics and the role that it plays. Explain and evaluate one of his claims. (You may evaluate what he says either for its adequacy as an interpretation of Aristotle, or for the acceptability of the ethical claim / piece of reasoning that he attributes to Aristotle.)


    For 9/8. Re-read Vlastos' paper. Read book I of the Nicomachean Ethics plus Deborah Achtenberg's paper "The role of the ergon argument in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics"

    Papers (Halsne, Helder)

    1. Go ahead and explain and evaluate any part of the Vlastos reading. You can approach this from one of two angles: either look at whether Vlastos gets Socrates' moral theory right (as an interpretation of the texts), or look at the independent strengths and/or weaknesses of the resulting position that Vlastos ascribes to Socrates.
    2. Explain what you think the afterlife myth at the end of the Gorgias adds (or subtracts) to Socrates' case in favor of justice.
    3. Why isn't having virtue sufficient for happiness, according to Aristotle? (Look at chapter 5 in particular.) What *is* the relationship between virtue and happiness? (See chapters 7 and 13 in particular.) What do you think of Aristotle's arguments?

    4. Why does Aristotle think that happiness can't be the same as pleasure, or a life of pleasure? Do you agree with him? Why or why not? See chapters 5 and 7 in particular.

    5. Explain and comment on Aristotle's own conception of what eudaimonia is (based upon the notion of there being a human 'function'). (Possibly as part of this paper, or as a separate paper, talk about Achtenberg's paper and how she thinks the function argument is supposed to proceed, and why she thinks it's plausible.)
    6. Why does Aristotle think that one's happiness can be effected by events that occur after one's death (like misfortune befalling one's children)? Is he right?

    For 9/1. Reading: the rest of the Gorgias, plus Gregory Vlastos' book chapter on iCollege, "Happiness and Virtue in Socrates' Moral Theory."

    Possible paper topics (Donnelly, Gilley)

    1. Callicles distinguishes between 'natural' and 'conventional' justice. Explain the distinction in your own words and give your own evaluation of some part of what Callicles says. (Variation: how is this distinction supposed to evade Socrates' refutation of Polus? Does it do so?)
    2. Explain and evaluate one or more of Socrates' objections to Callicles' hedonism. If you wish, you also may explore the question of whether these objections refute Callicles position.
    3. In the Gorgias, Socrates gives his positive views on what the good life is and how to achieve it. Explain and evaluate some part of his position and/or his arguments for it.
    4. Why does Socrates say that he is one of the few Athenians who takes up the 'true political craft' and practices the 'true' politics? Explain and evaluate what he says.
    5. Go ahead and explain and evaluate any part of the Vlastos reading. You can approach this from one of two angles: either look at whether Vlastos gets Socrates' moral theory right (as an interpretation of the texts), or look at the independent strengths and/or weaknesses of the resulting position that Vlastos ascribes to Socrates.
    6. Explain what you think the afterlife myth at the end of the Gorgias adds (or subtracts) to Socrates' case in favor of justice.

    For 8/25.

    Please read the Gorgias from the beginning through 481b (the end of Socrates' cross-examination of Polus).

    Paper topics (Nate Saint Ours, Auj Kausar; everybody else respond):

    1. Explain the distinction between a 'knack' and a 'craft.' Why does Socrates say that oratory is only a knack and not a craft, and why is it shameful? Explain and evaluate what assumptions about human flourishing you think are behind what Socrates says about oratory here.
    2. Why does Polus think that a tyrant like Archelaus is happy? How does Socrates object to Polus' position (and eventually get Polus to recant his position)? Evaluate.
    3. On what grounds does Socrates argue that it's better to be caught and punished if one does wrong rather than getting away scott-free? Evaluate.

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