Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session
The aim of this subject is to acquaint the student with some important works of systematic ethical philosophy and to bring to bear the viewpoint of those works on the study of classic works of literature.
The subject-matters of ethics and literature are closely related. Most ethical arguments arise out of stories that we tell ourselves about who we are and what we are doing; at the same time, there is scarcely a work of literature that does not carry a weight of moral urgency or exemplify an ethical position. This subject will trace the history of ethical speculation in systematic philosophy by identifying four major positions: two from the ancient world and the two most important traditions of ethical philosophy since the renaissance. The two ancient positions will be represented by Plato and Aristotle, the two modern positions by Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. We will try to understand these four positions as engaged in a rivalry with one another, and we will also engage with the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, which offers a bridge between ancient and modern conceptions and provides a source for the rivalry between the viewpoints of Kant and Mill. Further, we will be mindful that the modern positions are subject to criticism today by new currents of philosophical speculation, some of which argue for a return to the positions of Plato and Aristotle.
Our attention to ethical philosophy, however, will be always in service to close reading and discussion of a number of important works of literature. Authors will include Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Herman Melville, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Joseph Conrad, George Bernard Shaw, and Flannery O. Connor. Topics covered will include: the rights of individuals to resist legal authority, the responsibilities of leadership, the need for power in an unjust world, the ethics of manipulation, the values of truthfulness and deception. In reading these texts, we will not only pay attention to the ethical commitments of the characters but also to the commitments of the texts. It will be an open question whether we accept or not the "poetic justice" of the outcome of a story, the way in which it distributes fortune to the characters involved in the plot.
Time will also be devoted to discussion of Biblical materials, excerpts from the Book of Genesis and The Gospel according to St. Matthew.
The subject meets twice a week for two ninety-minute sessions. Each session begins with a lecture of varying length, but usually running for twenty-minutes to half an hour, although the lectures of the first two meetings will be somewhat longer. The rest of the session is devoted to class-discussion of the materials assigned for the session. Groups of students will be appointed from time to time to present a view of some of the materials during the last twenty minutes of the session. Participation in discussion is essential to the life of the class and the force and cogency of students' remarks will have a marked influence on grades. Much of the grade will also depend upon the quality of the three written assignments required by the course: an early paper (running from five to seven pages) a mid-term paper (running from seven to nine pages) and a final paper (running from ten to twelve pages). The papers will each deal with some aspect of the readings and discussion; topics may be invented by the students but an extensive list of suggested topics will be circulated two weeks in advance of each paper's due date for those students who require it. There is no final examination for this subject.
Coursepack: containing Antigone, Gospel according to St Matthew, Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Melville, Billy Budd, Shaw, Major Barbara, Flannery O. Connor, "The Displaced Person."
Plato. Republic. Translated by Desmond Lee. Penguin.
Dante. Inferno. Translated by Allen Mandelbaum. Bantam.
Dostoyevsky. Crime and Punishment. Translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky. Random House.
Conrad. "The Secret Sharer."
Also, the following materials will be made available in excerpt: Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Machiavelli, The Prince, Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, Mill, Utilitarianism.