my fall philosophy class on the question: How should I live?

This introductory course will emphasize one of the great philosophical questions: “How should I live?” The readings will specifically consider whether truthfulness, happiness, and justice are important aspects of a good life, and how each should be defined. …

Moral Mapping Exercise: With colleagues, I have been developing a method for moral introspection that involves making and revising a network diagram (or map) of your moral ideas and the connections among them. I will ask you to make a private map early on and to revise it regularly. I will ask you to bring a copy to class that you are comfortable sharing: it should omit any ideas that you prefer to keep private. At the end, I will collect your final map and a 2-page reflection on it. Instructions are here.

Syllabus: Subject to Change

Sept. 6: Overview and introduction

I. Truthfulness

Is there an obligation to seek the truth? To say or teach the truth to others? How does truthfulness relate to happiness and justice? Can we know truths about ethics?

Sept. 11: Plato, Apologysections §17-35Also Justin P. McBrayer, “ Why Our Children Don’t Think There are Moral Facts ,” The New York Times, March 2, 2015. Or in this PDF if you have trouble reading it on the NY Times site.

Sept. 13: Plato, Apology §35-42. Also read the “introduction to moral mapping” section of this Google doc.

Before Sept. 18: Do the first two tasks of the moral network mapping exercise (1. “Generate a set of moral beliefs” and 2. “From a list to a network”). Bring a copy of your map that you are comfortable sharing with a partner during class.

Sept. 18: Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, aphorisms §1-12

Sept. 20: Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, aphorisms §13-32

Sept. 25: Bernard Williams, Truth, Politics, and Self-Deception, Social Research, Vol. 63, No. 3, (FALL 1996), pp. 603-617.

Sept 29, midnight. First paper due. Describe a situation in which it’s problematic whether to be truthful or not. Argue in favor of being truthful or not being truthful in this situation. Define what you mean by the term “truthful.” Give reasons for your position and explain and counter good reasons against it. Cite at least one relevant passage from Plato or Nietzsche.

I. Happiness

What is happiness? What are the best paths to happiness? Do we have a right to pursue our own happiness? Can we make others happy?

Sept. 27: Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus” (We will also discuss Socrates’ remarks about happiness in the “Apology,” already assigned.)

Oct 2: “Buddha” in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (You can also optionally consult “Buddha” from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

Before Oct. 4. Do the third task of the moral network mapping exercise: “Investigate the shape of the network.” Make changes to the map if you have had any new ideas or changed your mind. Bring a copy to class to discuss.

Oct. 4: “Buddha” (continued)

Oct 9: No class (Columbus Day)

Oct. 11. Emerson, “Self-Reliance”

Oct. 11: More discussion of the “happiness” readings.

Oct 13. (midnight) Second paper due. Essay prompts (pick one):

  1. Many words seem related to the word “happiness”: for instance, “pleasure,” “satisfaction,” “equanimity,” “acceptance,” “joy.” Choose one such word and explain why it is a good goal and how one should pursue it.
  2. Socrates, Nietzsche, and Emerson recommend independence or self-reliance. Is this the best path to happiness? Why or why not?
  3. What is one belief about life or the world that would bring happiness if people accepted it as true? Is this belief true? Should people embrace it?

Regardless of which prompt you choose, summarize and respond to objections to your position.

III. Justice Toward Others

What are principles of justice? Which principles of justice are binding on whom? How do they relate to each other?

A. Welfare

We discussed happiness in the previous section. Could maximizing the happiness of all human beings–or something similar to that–be the main principle of justice?

Oct. 16: Mill, Utilitarianism, chapter 2 (“What Utilitarianism Is”) and chapter 5 (“On the Connection Between Justice and Utility”)

Oct. 18: Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Part I, chapter 1, §5 (versus utilitarianism)

Before Oct. 23: Do the fourth task of the moral network mapping exercise: “Consider the Location of the Nodes.” Make changes to the map if you have had new ideas. Bring a copy to class to discuss.

Oct. 23: More discussion of welfare.

B. Liberty

Oct 25: Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958), in Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (1969).

Oct 30: Friedrich Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, Chapters 1, 4 and Postscript (pp. 11-21, 54-70, 397-411.)

Nov. 1: John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Part I, 1 §1-4, 2 §11-17, and 3 §24

Nov. 6: Discussion of Rawls continues.

Nov. 8: Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, pp. 149-177

Nov. 10 (midnight) paper due. Suggested essay prompt: Individual liberty and public happiness (or welfare) can conflict. Give a real or imaginary example of such a conflict, say whether you favor liberty or welfare/happiness in that case, and explain why, considering objections to your position. Cite at least one assigned author.

B. Equality

Nov. 13: [possible cancellation due to professor’s travel]

Nov. 15: Tim Scanlon, “When Does Equality Matter?

Nov. 20: Bayard Rustin, “From Protest to Politics: Future of the Civil Rights Movement,” Commentary (February, 1965)

Nov. 22, midnight: Fourth paper due. Suggested topics: (1) Describe an example of an inequality that you consider unjust. Explain why some might reasonably consider it to be just. Argue that it is actually unjust and explain why. Cite at least one assigned text. (2) Give an example of an unequal situation that you consider justifiable. Explain why some might consider that situation to be unjust or unfair. Explain why it is actually just. Cite at least one assigned text. (3) What should we consider when we reason about what a just society is like? Is Rawls right that we should ignore our own situation and beliefs? Is Nozick right that we should pay attention to past actions that have created the current situation? What forms of information do you consider relevant to justice, and why?

D. Democracy

Nov. 27: Robert A. Dahl, Democracy and its Critics, pp. 106-52

Nov. 29: Kwasi Wiredu, “Democracy and Consensus in Traditional African Politics” ( and Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze, “Democracy or Consensus?” (

E. Identity

Dec 4: Audre Lorde, “ The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House ” and Steve Biko, “Black Consciousness and the Quest for True Humanity

Dec. 6: Todd Gitlin, “The Left, Lost in the Politics of Identity,” Harper’s Magazine, 1993; and Susan Bickford, “Anti-Anti-Identity Politics: Feminism, Democracy, and the Complexities of Citizenship,” Hypatia Vol. 12, No. 4.

Before Dec. 11: Revise your moral network map again. Prepare a copy to hand in (omitting anything that you consider private and don’t want to share. Also write a note of up to 2 pages reflecting on the map.

Dec. 11: More discussion of the readings on democracy, diversity and inclusion.

Dec. 15: Fifth Paper due. Topic TBA.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • JanetLRD

    Nice! Wish I had the time nowadays to take such a class again! Glad that you make them write papers, too, although I know that’s more work for the prof!