Great Questions of Philosophy, Spring 2004, Sample Final Paper Topics

Papers are due on Monday May 3, 5-7 pages double-spaced.

I'll be asking you to e-mail me the topic of your paper and your thesis statement by Friday April 23. The topic of your paper is the general area or question you'll be exploring, while your thesis is the position you'll be arguing for in that area. I have some suggested topics and sample thesis statements below.

The final paper is a position paper, in which you give arguments for a position; it is not a research paper. If you want to bring in additional material from outside the class readings, you may do so, but only if it contributes to your argument. (However, you might want to check with me to see whether the material is appropriate.) You don't need to bring in additional material, and I don't want this paper to be an exercise in finding out and explaining what other people thought about the philosophers and topics we've studied. Instead, this is your chance to give your own arguments about the material we've studied.

I want you to give your opinion. However, you need to give reasons for your opinions, and your discussion should take, as its starting point, the arguments of the philosophers we've studied this semester. In addition, it should demonstrate an understanding of these arguments.

As always, you should explain things clearly enough that somebody not already familiar with the class material, like your ignorant but intelligent roommate, would understand what you're saying. Another good technique is to try to think of possible objections to what you're saying and to reply to those objections. What would Plato, or Epicurus, or Descartes say against you? Having an actual ignorant roommate (or a classmate) look over your paper to raise objections, and to spot obscure passages, can be very helpful.

I've also posted additional paper writing guidelines

Note: These are only suggestions for possible paper topics, to get you thinking, plus some of the questions it might be helpful to address during the course of your paper. However, these aren't binding; feel free to adapt these to your own needs.

  1. Ring of Gyges. Imagine that you have the Ring of Gyges. What would Plato advise you to do with it, and why? What would Epicurus advise you to do with it, and why? Critically evaluate their positions. Whose advice do you think you should listen to, and why? If neither, what do you think you should do with it, and why? In formulating your answer, try to think of the strongest objection that you can against the advice that you'd follow (or against your own plans), and respond to it. (NOTE: in answering this question, some of the theories of Kant and Mill might be relevant. I will NOT require you to bring in either Kant or Mill, but if you would like to read ahead and include either of them, feel free to do so. If you wish to discuss Kant or Mill with me, please come to my office hours. If you want to bring in Kant, here are some questions to consider: Kant argues that trying to recommend that one be moral because it is in your self-interest is mistaken. Why does he think this? Should one try to reconcile morality and self-interest? Why or why not?)
  2. Morality and the Desire for Happiness. Kant would say that the actions of somebody who acts 'justly' because of a desire for happiness or pleasure have 'no moral worth.' In fact, even if that person acts justly because of a desire for the happiness of others, Kant would still say that person's actions have no moral worth. Why does he think this? How do you think Epicurus would respond to Kant? Evaluate what both Kant and Epicurus would say. With whom do you agree (if either), and why? What do you think is the proper place of desire in one's motivations to act morally? (For this question, you can bring in Plato or Mill if you wish. If you'd like to bring in Mill, please see me.)
  3. The Nature of Mind. What sort of thing does Epicurus believe the mind is, and why? What sort of the thing does Descartes believe the mind is, and why? Evaluate their positions. With whom do you agree, and why? If neither, what sort of thing do you think the mind is, and why? In formulating your answer, try to think of the strongest objection against the position that you'll be advocating, and respond to it.
  4. Material Goods and Happiness. In the Republic, Plato describes the life of the philosopher, which he thinks is the best life available to a human being. The philosophers live simply and own no private property. Epicurus says that he can be as happy as Zeus if he has bread and water, and he thinks that the pursuit of luxury is incompatible with attaining happiness. Both Plato and Epicurus are down on 'materialism' (in the ethical, not the metaphysical sense). Why is that? Give both of their arguments. Do you believe that the pursuit of material goods, wealth, etc., is an impediment to achieving happiness? Why or why not? If you disagree with Plato and Epicurus, make sure that you say why. What is the proper place of material goods (and the pursuit of material goods) in the happy life? Consider (and reply to) the strongest objections to your position that you can think of.
  5. The Possibility of Knowledge. Do Descartes' Dreaming Hypothesis and Evil Deceiver Hypothesis successfully show that it is impossible to know whether one has a body and whether the external world exists? If they do, can belief that there is an external world and that one has a body be justified? (Along these lines, you could explore the motivation for Descartes' program of radical doubt, and give an argument for whether his program is justified or not.)
  6. Epicurus' ethics. Look at some area of Epicurus' ethics in particular, and evaluate what he says. Some possible topics include:
  7. Epicurus' metaphysics See the e-mail I've cut and paste below for more on this.
  8. Other possible topics: Is death an evil, and should it be feared? What is the ideal state? Does the evil in the world show that there is not an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God? What difference, if any, does God's existence make to ethics (you can relate this to divine command theory, the Euthyphro, Epicurus, and Kant...)? Should one trust one's senses as a reliable source of information about the world? I haven't filled these out, but the questions above should give you some idea of how to approach these topics in a way that grapples sufficiently with the course material. If you'd like to write on something else that came up over the course of the semester, please be my guest! However, please also come and discuss your paper topic with me beforehand.
Some sample thesis statements:
Cut and paste from e-mail: I think this might be useful, but it's late at night, and I don't have time to edit this up and make it look pretty. So here is an e-mail I sent out:

I am interested in the science aspect, possibly Epicurus' metaphysics. I can't think of a possible topic and I was wondering if you had an idea for me.


[deleted for anonymity]

One would be teleological vs. mechanistic explanation. Here is what I wrote to another student on that topic:


my topic is Epicurus and mechanistic explanations.

my thesis is:

it is my belief that mechanistic explanations of the universe are more plausible and therefore superior to those of teleological explanations.

[deleted to preserve anonymity]

Sounds fine. Make sure that you consider the scope of your claim: are you talking about explanations of particular phenomena within the universe (such as earthquakes, etc.), or (in addition to that), explanations about the existence and operations of the universe as a whole? Also, you might want to consider the position of those who claim that the two types of explanation are not mutually exclusive (with whom Epicurus would disagree); e.g., that God (or whoever) works His will by setting the universe in motion with various laws, so that the events can be given *both* teleological explanations (in terms of God's will) *and* mechanistic explanations (in terms of the 'laws' of science and interactions of particles etc.).


Along the same lines, you could also look at Epicurus' attempt to *displace* explanations that appeal to the will of the Gods, etc., with mechanistic explanations, and his claim that this world-view is actually more comforting than the 'godly' one. Or you can look at his identity theory of mind--the mind is just an organ in the body. Is this view supported (or proven?) by the findings of science? Does it follow from this view that death is annihilation?

I hope that this helps.


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