Great Questions of Philosophy Assignments, Fall 2003

For 12/10. Reading: chapter 4 of Utilitarianism.

Questions to think about:

  1. What is Mill's proof that the general happiness is the only thing that is desirable?
  2. How does Mill argue that virtue can be desired for its own sake, even though happiness is the only thing that is desired for its own sake?

For 12/8. Read Chapter 3 of Utilitarianism.

Questions to think about:

  1. What are the internal or external sanctions of morality (or both), as described by Mill? Do you agree with him that these sanctions give good reason to act along utilitarian lines?
  2. How would Kant criticize what Mill has to says about the sanctions of morality? Explain and evaluate what he would say.

For 12/3 Read sections I and II of Utilitarianism.


11/19. Reading: Kant, Grounding, Second Section.


11/17. Continue Kant. No new reading.


For 11/14

Reading: Kant, Grounding, First Section.

Questions to think about:

  1. Assume that a merchant has a duty not to cheat his customers. Imagine a merchant who does his duty, and doesn't cheat his customers, but only because he believes that not cheating will help his business prosper. Kant would say that the merchant's actions (in this case) have "no moral worth." Now imagine that the merchant refrains from cheating, but does so because he really likes his customers a lot, doesn't want to hurt them, finds inner pleasure from spreading joy, and rejoices in the happiness of other people. Kant would say that the his actions still have "no moral worth." Why does Kant think that, in both cases, the merchant's actions have no moral worth? Explain Kant's arguments. Do you agree with Kant? Why or why not?

  2. Why would Kant argue that the actions of an Epicurean, or of a Platonist, have no moral worth? Would you agree? Why, or why not?


For 11/12.

Reading: Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation 6.

You may also find helpful the study guide to the meditations and Jonathan Bennett's 'translation' of the Meditations (a fairly close paraphrase of Descartes written for the purposes of making him a bit easier to understand).

Questions to think about:

(1) Descartes says that he is "taught by nature" that he has a body (vs. seeing that he has a body by the "light of nature"), and he says that things that he is taught by nature are not indubitable. Nonetheless, he uses the fact that he is "taught by nature" that he has a body as the basis for an argument he does, as a matter of fact, have a body (and that there is an external world). What is his argument? Do you find it convincing? Why, or why not?

(2) Why does Descartes think that the mind is completely different from the body? What is the relation between the mind and the body, according to Descartes? Either come up with an objection against Descartes' position, or think of a reply on Descartes' behalf to a potential objection.


For 11/5.

Reading: the web page summary of the free will defense.


For 11/3.

Reading: Meditations on First Philosophy, Meditation 4.

Questions to think about.

(1) What is Descartes' theory about the cause of intellectual error, and why does he think that this theory is consistent with there being an omnipotent, omniscient, all-good God? Do you agree with Descartes? Why, or why not?

(2) What are Descartes' other arguments for why he thinks that error is consistent with there being an omnipotent, omniscient, all-good God? You may wish to think about these argument in the context of the "Problem of Evil," not just Descartes' "Problem of Error."

(3) Descartes ends up saying that even though error is a result of a misuse of free will, nonetheless God could have brought it about that I never err. Why does he think this?


For 10/31.

Reading: Meditations on First Philosophy: Meditation 3, beginning-end of paragraph 36 (see the margins), Meditation 4, first 3 paragraphs. Meditation 5 (all of it).

Questions to think about:

(1) At the beginning of the third meditation (paragraph 35 ff.), Descartes derives the following "rule" for what he may be certain of, a rule She thinks he derives from the Cogito: "everything that I very clearly and distinctly perceive is true." (i) What do you think he means by this? (ii) Is the rule the correct lesson to draw from the Cogito? (iii) Do you think that this is a good rule to follow if you want to believe only what is certain?

(2) Why does Descartes think that he needs to prove God's existence? Do you agree with Descartes that he needs to prove God's existence? If he can prove God's existence, does it accomplish what he wants it to accomplish? If he CANNOT prove God's existence, what would the results of this failure be?

(3) Why does Descartes think that it is contradictory to suppose that God does not exist, just like it's contradictory to suppose (in Euclidean geometry) that there is a triangle whose interior angle sum does not equal 180 degrees?


For Wed. 10/29. Readings: Meditations on First Philosophy. Meditation 2.

Questions to think about: (1) How is the Cogito (Descartes' proof that he exists: "I think, therefore I am") supposed to work? Why is it certain? How does it escape the hypothesis of the evil deceiver? Do you agree that one can know this with certainty? Why, or why not?

(2) Why does Descartes conclude that he is a thinking thing? What does mean by this? Do you find his arguments for this convincing? Why, or why not?

(3) Why does Descartes think that he can be more certain that he has a mind than that he has a body? Do you agree?


For Monday, 10/27. Readings: Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy. Meditation 1.

You may also find helpful this study guide to the meditations and Jonathan Bennett's 'translation' of the Meditations (a fairly close paraphrase of Descartes written for the purposes of making him a bit easier to understand).

Questions to think about:

  1. What are Descartes' arguments for why the senses cannot be trusted at all? Do you agree with him? Why, or why not?

  2. Why does Descartes engage in his method of 'hyperbolic doubt' (i.e., 'engaging in the general demolition' of his opinions by withholding his assent from all opinions that are not completely certain and indubitable)? Is this a reasonable procedure? Why or why not?

  3. Is there anything that you are so certain of that you could not possibly doubt it? If so, how can you be certain of it in the face of Descartes' 'dreaming hypothesis' and 'evil deceiver hypothesis'?


For Wed. 10/22. Read text 4, sections 124-127 (starting on the first full paragraph on section 124), text 5, # 2; text 6 #14; #60. Also read the on-line article on Epicurus, on death.

Also read a selection from the Epicurean poet Lucretius on the folly of the fear of death, which is here, after the short selection from the Letter to Meneoceus.


For Monday 10/20. Read text 5, #31-40, and texts 151 through 156

Also, the on-line article on Epicurus; read about the virtues and justice.

Question to think about:

(1) What is justice, according to Epicurus? What reason does the wise person have to be just? What about the foolish person?

(2) What do you think Epicurus would say if he heard the story of the Ring of Gyges? What would he recommend that one do, and why?


For Friday 10/17. Read Also, the on-line article on Epicurus; read the section on his ethics up through "Types of desires."

Questions to think about:

(1) Why does Epicurus think that only one's own pleasure has value?

(2) Why does Epicurus think that mental pleasures are greater than bodily pleasures?

(3) Why does Epicurus advocate the simple life?

(4) What is Epicurus' three-fold division of desires? Do you find this division convincing? Why, or why not?


For Monday 10/13. Reading:

On-line article on Epicurus; finish up the section dealing with his metaphysics.

From The Epicurus Reader: text 2 (sections 63-67); text 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 104, 109.

For Epicurus' philosophy, you may also wish to look at Lucretius' poem "On The Nature of Things." Lucretius gives much more detailed arguments on topics (1) and (2) below. Click on this link and scroll down and read the sections on "Nature and Composition of the Mind" and "The Soul is Mortal." Unfortunately, the on-line translation is a little outdated, but it's still readable.

Some questions to think about:

(1) Why does Epicurus think that the mind must be something bodily? Are his arguments cogent?

(2) Why does Epicurus think that death is annihilation? Are his arguments cogent?

(3) Why does Epicurus deny that the world is under the providential care of a deity or deities? Are his arguments cogent?


For Friday 10/10. Reading:

On-line article on Epicurus, up through the section of his metaphysics dealing with the gods.

From The Epicurus Reader: text 2 (sections 34-45, 54-55, 60-62, 68-71) texts 14, 78, 79, 80, 82, 85, 87, 89 (sections 220-222), 90, 92, 109, 110, 111, 114.

Questions to think about

(1) Why does Epicurus think that bodies and void exist? Are his arguments cogent?

(2) Why does Epicurus think that bodies and void are the only things that exist, although (in a sense) things like colors and like also exist? What is the relationship between 'things' like color and bodies and void, according to Epicurus?

(3) Why does Epicurus think that there must be an infinity of matter and space, and that the universe has no beginning or end?

(4) Why does Epicurus think that what happens in the universe (i) is not due to the providential care or plan of any deities, and (ii) occurs because of mechanical, not teleological, processes?



For Friday, 10/3. No new assignment. We'll finish up book 4 of the Republic.
For Wed., 10/1. Read book 4 of the Republic.

Questions to think about:

  1. Are the people of the ideal Republic happy? What are Socrates' arguments for why they are? Is he right?
  2. Is the ideal Republic just? Give and evaluate Socrates' arguments for why it is. What is justice (in the city), according to Socrates?
  3. What are Socrates' arguments why there are distinct parts of the soul?
  4. What is justice (in the individual), according to Socrates, and why does he say this? Is he right?
  5. Is justice an intrinsic good for you (if Socrates is right about what justice is)? Why does Glaucon think that it is? Is he right?

For Monday, 9/29.

Read the rest of Book 2 of the Republic, and all of book 3, excluding 392c-412b.

Questions to think about.

  1. (376ff.) Why does Socrates advocate censoring the stories of Hesiod and Homer, and how does his proposed censorship relate to his educational proposals? Do you agree with his proposal? Why, or why not?

  2. 378ff: Why does Socrates' say that the stories of Hesiod and Homer are harmful lies? What argument does he give for his own conception of the gods, at 379b ff? Do you agree with his arguments? Why, or why not?

  3. (412 b ff.) How are the rulers of the cities chosen, and why? Do you agree with this method (and rationale) for choosing the rulers? Why, or why not?

  4. (414c ff.) Explain the myth of the metals. Why does Socrates propose promulgating it? Is it justified? Why, or why not?


For 9/26. No new reading. We'll talk about book II of the Republic.
For 9/24. Read Book 2 of the Republic, up to 369b.

Questions to think about:

  1. What would you do if you had the Ring of Gyges, and why would you do it? (I'm looking for a justification here, not an explanation.) If you'd choose to do something that would be considered unjust, what do you think Socrates' strongest argument against you doing so would be, based on what he says in Book I of the Republic? How would you respond to Socrates? If you would not do something unjust, what do you think Thrasymachus would say against you, based upon what he says in Book I of the Republic? How would you respond to Thrasymachus?
  2. What is Glaucon's explanation of the origin of justice, and why does he thinks that a consequence of this explanation is that justice is only a 'second best'? Is he right about how and why people invented justice, and is he right about the implications of his position?

For Monday, 9/22. Read the introduction and Book 1 of the Republic.

Questions to think about:

  1. What are Socrates' objections to the definitions of justice given by Cephalus and by Polemarchu? Do you believe that Socrates' refutations are convincing? Why, or why not?

  2. What are the arguments that Thrasymachus gives for injustice being more profitable, and Socrates' arguments for justice being more profitable? Do you find these arguments cogent? Why, or why not? What are your own views about which (if either) is more profitable, and why?

For 9/19. Continue the Euthyphro, and also discuss more divine command ethics. Look back over the later parts of the Euthyphro and also read the Euthyphro objection to the divine command theory and the following summary of some of the issues with the Euthyphro.

For 9/15. Read the Euthyphro. We'll be concentrating on the earlier sections.

Some questions to think about:

(1) Look at the definitions of piety that Euthyphro offers, or that Socrates offers on his behalf:

Explain on what grounds Socrates objects to this definition. Do you find the objection convincing? Why, or why not?

We will probably discuss this second topic more on Wednesday, but you may write on it if you wish.

(2) Consider Socrates' objection to the following definition of piety: "What all the gods hate is impious, and what all the gods love is pious." (9d) Does his objection show that a Divine Command theory of ethics is false: that is, a theory according to which morally wrong actions are wrong because God prohibits them, and morally obligatory actions are obligatory because God commands them? Why, or why not? Defend your answer against objections.


Starting Friday, 9/5, we'll be discussing the Apology.

Please read the Apology (in The Trial and Death of Socrates). In the Apology, on Friday we'll be concentrating on the earlier sections, but please read to the end. Here are some questions you may want to think about while you're doing the reading:

  1. Why does Socrates claim (in 29e-30b and in 36b-37a) that what he is doing is highly beneficial to the citizens of Athens? What is his argument (or what are his arguments) for this? What assumptions does he make? Give and analyze the cogency of Socrates' argument.

  2. In 30b and following, Socrates makes the following claims: "If they kill me, they will harm themselves more than if they harm me," "A better man cannot harm a worse man," and "I am defending myself not for my own sake but for theirs." These claims seem incredible, as Socrates well knew, and would have seemed so to the members of the jury also. Give Socrates' reasons for one of these claims (put this in your own words, as much as possible). Evaluate his arguments and his claim. (NOTE: he doesn't produce a simple argument for these claims when he makes them, but evidence for why he says these things can be found elsewhere in the dialogue, e.g., 39a-b is especially relevant.)

  3. What is Socrates' argument for why there is good reason to think that death is a blessing (in 40c and following)? Give it (in the form of a numbered argument is OK) and evaluate it.


Please read James Pryor's descriptions of what an argument is, of vocabulary describing arguments, and of some good and bad arguments. In the 'vocabulary' section, please do the exercises and bring them to class.
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