Fall 2019
How To Live / Introduction to Ethics PHIL1003W
MW 11:15 AM – 12:30 PM; plus one Friday discussion section

Course description

College is a time when people figure out what to do with their lives.  It is a time when you can set yourself on a course that determines what kind of life you’ll live and what kind of person you’ll be.   In this course we make room to think about questions that have to do with how to live your life in the broadest possible sense.  We do not focus on particular career decisions or life choices, though what we learn in the course can help you with these personal questions.  Rather, we focus on questions about the very nature of happiness and a morally decent life, the very definition of a good and happy person.  We begin with theories of well-being and happiness that span from Ancient philosophy to contemporary psychology.  We then expand our horizons to the wider community, asking questions about our moral obligations and the relationship between a happy life and a moral life.  Along the way, we will learn some basic “tools” we can use to tackle moral questions that arise in our personal and professional lives.

Other courses I teach:

Contemporary Moral Theories/PHIL4330

Course Description

Think about the last time you did a good thing.  Maybe you helped an elderly person across the street, helped a friend move, or took in a stray cat.  What made you do it?  Did you do it because you wanted to or because you thought you should?  Are you just a kind person?  Did you think about a duty to help those in need?  Were you thinking that you might want to ask your friend to help you move some day?  Did the sad look on the cat’s little face pull on your heart strings?   Now think about the last time you did something bad.  Perhaps you were in a hurry so you pretended not to hear the elderly person ask for your help, or you broke your promise to help your friend move, or you yelled at the poor cat to get out of your way.  Why did you do that?  Are you just selfish?  Were you overwhelmed by anger?  These are basic questions about moral psychology.  They are questions about the psychological aspects of moral (or immoral) actions.

There are some ways of answering these questions that call on the expertise of scientists.  If we want to know what was going on in your brain or your body when you yelled at the cat, we should ask a neuroscientist or a physician, not a philosopher.  But there other ways of understanding these questions that explains philosophers’ interest in them.  Some of these questions involve concepts that philosophers care about.  For example, the question “Did you do it because you wanted to or because you think you should?” presupposes that wanting is different from thinking you should and not all philosophers accept that this is true!   Moreover, how these questions are answered has important implications for what philosophers say about other topics in moral philosophy. 

This course surveys contemporary literature in moral psychology as studied by philosophers.  It also considers empirical research on these topics and addresses the question of how this research is relevant to philosophical arguments.

What Is Human Agency: Scientific & Philosophical Perspectives (With Melissa Koenig; Institute for Child Development).

Course Description: 
Two things are distinctive about life for human agents like us:  we think about what we ought to do and we think about what we ought to believe. Historically, philosophers have argued for ideal ways of knowing and doing – we should form our beliefs rationally, based on the evidence; we should do the right thing, the thing that conforms to moral principle – and many of the ideals philosophers have proposed have assumed that we do best when we use our rational capacities and the force of our individual will.  Empirical research on how human agency works puts some pressure on these assumptions. The paths toward knowledge and morality are strewn with obstacles that reason might not be able to overcome, and we do not travel these paths alone.  When it comes to knowledge, we are led astray by various biases, information bubbles, and fake news.  When it comes to morality we are led astray by weakness of will, prejudice, and peer pressure.  Being a good agent turns out to be quite complicated and we can’t answer philosophical questions about good agency without understanding scientifically the forces that help and hinder us.  In this course we try to put philosophy and psychology together to understand how to be good knowers and good people.

The course will start with a focus on moral agency.  We start here because there are some solid examples of how philosophy and science can work together to provide better answers to our questions.  Part of the way that human persons aim to be morally better is by improving our character.  But are there really such things as character traits?  Do they really exist psychologically?  Or are people’s actions just shaped by the circumstances they’re in without any room for character to have an effect?  Historically, philosophers have thought we are profoundly different from other animals in our ability to understand and alter our own character, and in our ability to reflect independently on our reasons and choose a rational course of action.  Psychological research has cast these ideas into doubt.  What should we think? 

We will then turn to epistemic (or knowledge-seeking) agency.  One important way we learn things is from the testimony of other people.  Many of the things we believe, we believe based on what other people tell us.  How do we learn to trust what other people say, and under what conditions is that trust a good idea?  Do children begin life as overly trusting, as many people believe?   Accepting testimony often requires that we assess others as trustworthy.  Are our decisions to trust free from prejudice?  Or do we deauthorize certain knowers because of who they are and what they claim to know?  In this course, we’ll put philosophical and psychological perspectives together in efforts to make progress on these questions. 

In the third section of the course, we put ethics and epistemology, philosophy and psychology, together and ask, generally, how we can be good agents when the social influence we have is so mixed.  In particular, we’ll look at two challenges to good agency:  (1) prejudice that may prevent us from learning from each other and from treating each other fairly, and (2) the excess of information from sources with uncertain credibility.  What is the responsible way to deal with epistemic bias, social media bubbles, etc.  We’ll examine how relations of dominance and subordination, along with stereotypes, influence how listeners receive reports of sexual harassment and racial discrimination.

This course is taught by a philosopher and a psychologist.  Students will read philosophical and psychological research papers, and assignments will be designed (ultimately) to foster creative engagement across these two fields.