Great Questions of Philosophy, Spring 2009, Sample Final Paper Topics

Papers are due on April 21, 4-7 pages double-spaced.

I'll be asking you to e-mail me the topic of your paper and your thesis statement by April 14. 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; please look them over.

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. 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 Mill if you wish.)
  2. The Nature of Mind. What sort of thing does Epicurus believe the mind is, and why? Evaluate his position. In formulating your answer, try to think of the strongest objection against the position that you'll be advocating, and respond to it.
  3. Material Goods and Happiness. 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. Epicurus is down on 'materialism' (in the ethical, not the metaphysical sense). Why is that? Give his argument. 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 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.
  4. 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.) Along these lines, looking at what Hume has to say might be relevant.
  5. Epicurus' ethics. Look at some area of Epicurus' ethics in particular, and evaluate what he says. Some possible topics include:
  6. Other possible topics: Is death an evil, and should it be feared? 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...)? Are freedom and foreknowledge comaptible? Are free will and determinism compatible? 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:
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