University of Notre Dame

Introduction to Philosophy: Ethics and Politics

PHIL 10105: Introduction to Philosophy: Ethics and Politics

This course will introduce students to ethics and philosophy more generally through a critical investigation of some important approaches to philosophical ethics. We will begin with eudaemonism, one of the most powerful and influential approaches to ethics. Eudaemonism is focused on questions concerning the best kind of life to lead, such as: What is the good life? That is, what sort of life should we want, and what do we need for that kind of life? Is pleasure the thing? Or is virtue its own reward? Should we want an active life or would a life devoted to contemplation and learning be better? How is the happiness of friends related to our own happiness? We’ll read three authors’ answers to these questions, Plato, Epictetus, and Lucretius. We may read a bit of Aristotle as well.

Next, we will consider some opponents of eudaemonism. According to Immanuel Kant, ethics is primarily about the universal moral law, and bringing happiness into questions about what is right is a seduction; according to Soren Kierkegaard, faith and an individual’s relationship to God can be a source of absolute demands that transcend morality or reason; Simone de Beauvoir argues for an existentialist ethics, claiming that it is freedom (not happiness, morality, or God) that provides the ultimate criteria by which to live; and Friedrich Nietzsche, finally, argues that ever since Plato, ethics has been on the wrong track, and that behind all this talk of happiness, justice, and morality, there is nothing but power.

Seminars will be focused on discussing the texts (1/3 of your grade) and short student papers written on the day’s reading (another 1/3). These discussions will help us learn how to make good observations, how to communicate these clearly, how to engage constructively with each other’s ideas, and how to constructively make use of others’ criticisms and suggestions. Students will also turn in a final essay on a philosophical theme rooted in the course (the final 1/3 of your grade).