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Instructor-specific Course Descriptions

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Spring 2019

Upper Division and Graduate Courses

PHIL 400 Descartes and Leibniz

This is a course on the philosophy of Descartes and Leibniz, two central figures in seventeenth-century continental rationalism. In this course we will discuss their views about a variety of philosophical and scientific topics, including motion, space, time, force, perception, knowledge, and the mind.

PHIL 420/520 Plato

We will study several dialogues centered on virtue, knowledge, and pleasure, most likely including the Protagoras, Gorgias, Theaetetus, and Philebus, along with snippets from other dialogues.

PHIL 441 Global Justice & Human Rights

By recent estimates, over 800 million people live in extreme poverty, with nearly 80% of these people living in South Asia and Sub Saharan Africa. If current trends continue, climate change and persistent environmental degradation will have serious impacts on human well-being and will disproportionately impact the poor. In the past decade, uprisings in the Middle East and Northern Africa, have led some countries to intervene to end the violence in some cases, but not others. How are we to make sense of what we ought to do, given the social and economic interconnections that exist in today’s society? Do national borders matter morally? Do we need a world state? Are we obligated to make changes in the way we conduct trade and international relations? We often appeal to an idea of human rights to answer these questions, but what kind of work can human rights really do for us? Do we even know what they are? Over the course of the semester, we will take up these questions, carefully considering the key philosophical issues that are at the heart of the global justice debate.  While cross-listed with GLBS 441, this is an upper-division philosophy course, more specifically one in political philosophy.  We will be looking at matters with clear practical implications, but our focus is on the underlying conceptual issues and normative theories.  Thus, we will not be directly focused on matters such as human rights activism, particular aid practices, and so on.  Previous experience with philosophy is not required to succeed in the course.  If you find yourself struggling with the philosophical focus, I highly encourage you to ask questions in class, use the recommended resources, and/or visit me in office hours.

PHIL 480/573 Grounding

Grounding is a kind of noncausal explanation, often expressed by the phrase “in virtue of.” For instance, “an action is wrong in virtue of its consequences,” “a person is in a particular mental state in virtue of being in a particular brain state,” and “societies are just in virtue of being organized according to certain principles.” This kind of explanation is not causal.  It’s not that what causes an action to be wrong is its consequences. Nor is the explanation identity.  It’s not that wrong actions are identical to their consequences. Rather, it’s that what it is for the action to be wrong is for it to have certain consequences; that is, what grounds the action’s wrongness is its consequences. In this class, we’ll examine the notion of grounding. We will focus on two issues: (i) the theory of ground (What is grounding? How does it differ from other relations—causation, identity, etc.? Is it basic or can it be reduced to other relations?), and (ii) the application of ground. For most of the course, we’ll look at how grounding has been used in contemporary debates in ethics, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of action as a way to shed new light on old problems. Our aims will be to clarify what grounding is supposed to be and assess to what extent appealing to it can make progress.

Justice as Fairness

In this course we examine John Rawls's conception of justice, which he labels "justice as fairness". We set the context for Rawls's conception by briefly articulating the views of his (arguably, at least) most important precursors in English-language political philosophy: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, James Madison, and John Stuart Mill. We then turn to investigate Rawls's own work, using his book Justice as Fairness: A Restatement as our principal text. Among the Rawlsian ideas we explicate and criticize are: the basic structure of society, the well-ordered society, the difference principle, the original position, property-owning democracy, public reason, and overlapping consensus. We look at how these ideas can illuminate contemporary large-scale political disputes, such as oppositions between capitalism and socialism and conflicting understandings of the appropriate role of religion in public life. One major theme of the course is the significance of Rawls's distinctive conception of stability in helping to frame these disputes.

Rational Choice

Rational choice is today an entire discipline.  It boasts a canonical framework that functions as a target of criticism, and offers a menu of competing principles for adoption in any given application.  In this course we will examine the very conception of rational choice.  How does rational choice intersect with other cognitive functions or virtues—such as, for instance, epistemic virtue or moral reasoning?  Is there a body of truths to be associated with rational choice?  What is the status of such truth, when compared to the status of (say) scientific truth? Finally, what is the appropriate methodology for pursuing a (true or correct) theory of rational choice?  These are questions on the present frontiers of philosophical inquiry.

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