Moral Philosophy Essay Questions

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The paper should be 5-7 pages (double space, typewritten) and explore a topic in ethics, social & political philosophy, philosophy of religion, or aesthetics. The paper counts for 34% of your course grade and so it should be a significant effort.

You choose the topic. Any topic that we have discussed in class or that is considered in the assigned reading is suitable. You may, if you want, write on a topic we haven't discussed in class and on which there is no assigned reading-though this is somewhat risky. All topics must in some way relate to the course content and refer to and use the course materials relevant to your subject. This is an absolute requirement. (It must be true that only someone who was in this class could have written the paper.) If you write on a topic the course specifically addresses, your paper should show a thorough understanding of the readings and class discussions on the issue. Some suggestions for suitable topics are listed below.

A paper description is due on Thursday, March 23th, 3 pm, 14 Glebe, 1st floor mailbox (keep a copy for yourself in case this copy gets lost). It should include a characterization of your topic, the major lines of argument you intend to pursue, tentative thesis, and a full bibliographic citation and a paragraph description of the content of one philosophical article you will use in your paper. The paper is due on Thursday, April 13, 3 pm, 14 Glebe, 1st floor mailbox (keep a copy for yourself in case this copy gets lost).

The paper should be a philosophy paper in which you focus on normative, evaluative, or conceptual issues. (Always ask: What should we do concerning this issue and why? What are the philosophical, ethical, and conceptual questions which must be answered if this issue is to be resolved?)

One outside philosophical article must be used in your paper. Those of you who write on a topic not specifically covered on the schedule of assignments will have to rely more on your outside philosophical article. Although I require that you to interact with the ideas from some philosophy article that we have not read in the class, the main point of the paper is to have you think philosophically for your self; the outside reading is meant only to help stimulate your own thinking.

One good way to find an article related to your topic is to use The Philosopher's Index. This is in the reference section of the library and lists philosophical articles by title, author, and subject matter for each year. Perhaps the best approach is to look under the subject heading that best approximates the issue you want to write about. Then see if our library carries the journal the article is in.

Philosophy and Public Affairs, Between the Species, Bibliography of Bioethics, Bioethics, Biology and Philosophy, Business and Professional Ethics Journal, Environmental Ethics, Ethics, Feminist Review, Hastings Center Report, Hypatia (Feminism), International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Journal of Applied Philosophy, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Journal of Medical Ethics, Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, Journal of Religion, Journal of Value Inquiry, Law and Philosophy. Possibly of use: Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Journal of the History of Philosophy, Journal of Philosophy, Metaphilosophy, Monist, Nous; A Quarterly Journal Of Philosophy, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, Philosophical Forum, Philosophical Quarterly, Philosophical Topics, Philosophy, Philosophy and Literature, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Philosophy East and West, Philosophy of Science-(East Lansing), Phronesis, Southern Journal of Philosophy, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Economy and Philosophy, American Philosophical Quarterly, Analysis-(Blackwell), Australasian Journal of Philosophy, History of Philosophy Quarterly, Inquiry, International Philosophical Quarterly.

  • Some dimension of the cultural relativism issue. (Are morals relative to culture?)

    Great Questions of Philosophy, Spring 2009, Sample Final Paper Topics

    Papers are due on April 21, 4-7 pages double-spaced.

    I'll be asking you to e-mail me the topic of your paper and your thesis statement by April 14. The topic of your paper is the general area or question you'll be exploring, while your thesis is the position you'll be arguing for in that area. I have some suggested topics and sample thesis statements below.

    The final paper is a position paper, in which you give arguments for a position; it is not a research paper. If you want to bring in additional material from outside the class readings, you may do so, but only if it contributes to your argument. (However, you might want to check with me to see whether the material is appropriate.) You don't need to bring in additional material, and I don't want this paper to be an exercise in finding out and explaining what other people thought about the philosophers and topics we've studied. Instead, this is your chance to give your own arguments about the material we've studied.

    I want you to give your opinion. However, you need to give reasons for your opinions, and your discussion should take, as its starting point, the arguments of the philosophers we've studied this semester. In addition, it should demonstrate an understanding of these arguments.

    As always, you should explain things clearly enough that somebody not already familiar with the class material, like your ignorant but intelligent roommate, would understand what you're saying. Another good technique is to try to think of possible objections to what you're saying and to reply to those objections. What would Plato, or Epicurus, or Descartes say against you? Having an actual ignorant roommate (or a classmate) look over your paper to raise objections, and to spot obscure passages, can be very helpful.

    I've also posted additional paper writing guidelines; please look them over.

    Note: These are only suggestions for possible paper topics, to get you thinking, plus some of the questions it might be helpful to address during the course of your paper. However, these aren't binding; feel free to adapt these to your own needs.

    1. Morality and the Desire for Happiness. Kant would say that the actions of somebody who acts 'justly' because of a desire for happiness or pleasure have 'no moral worth.' In fact, even if that person acts justly because of a desire for the happiness of others, Kant would still say that person's actions have no moral worth. Why does he think this? How do you think Epicurus would respond to Kant? Evaluate what both Kant and Epicurus would say. With whom do you agree (if either), and why? What do you think is the proper place of desire in one's motivations to act morally? (For this question, you can bring in Mill if you wish.)
    2. The Nature of Mind. What sort of thing does Epicurus believe the mind is, and why? Evaluate his position. In formulating your answer, try to think of the strongest objection against the position that you'll be advocating, and respond to it.
    3. Material Goods and Happiness. Epicurus says that he can be as happy as Zeus if he has bread and water, and he thinks that the pursuit of luxury is incompatible with attaining happiness. Epicurus is down on 'materialism' (in the ethical, not the metaphysical sense). Why is that? Give his argument. Do you believe that the pursuit of material goods, wealth, etc., is an impediment to achieving happiness? Why or why not? If you disagree with Epicurus, make sure that you say why. What is the proper place of material goods (and the pursuit of material goods) in the happy life? Consider (and reply to) the strongest objections to your position that you can think of.
    4. The Possibility of Knowledge. Do Descartes' Dreaming Hypothesis and Evil Deceiver Hypothesis successfully show that it is impossible to know whether one has a body and whether the external world exists? If they do, can belief that there is an external world and that one has a body be justified? (Along these lines, you could explore the motivation for Descartes' program of radical doubt, and give an argument for whether his program is justified or not.) Along these lines, looking at what Hume has to say might be relevant.
    5. Epicurus' ethics. Look at some area of Epicurus' ethics in particular, and evaluate what he says. Some possible topics include:
      • Is one's own pleasure the only thing with intrinsic value to oneself? Evaluate Epicurus' arguments for this.
      • The nature of pleasure, and its connection with desire-satisfaction, according to Epicurus. Is he right? (tranquillity and lack of pain themselves being pleasures, the superiority of mental to bodily pleasures, the relationship between mental and bodily pleasures, etc.)
      • Epicurus' account of the value (instrumental) and necessity of the virtues for obtaining a pleasant life. Are all of the virtues really just forms of prudence? Are they necessary for achieving a pleasant life? If Epicurus were consistent, should he recommend a vicious/'bad' life?
      • Friendship. Does Epicurus correctly describe the necessity and nature of friendship? Is one truly a friend if one treats one's friends well for self-serving reasons? Etc.
      • Justice.
      • Death.
      • The gods. Is believing that there are no gods/no God that take an interest in our affairs, that human existence has no purpose beyond what we give it via our desires, and that we are result of 'blind' forces, really conducive to having a tranquil life, as Epicurus believes?
    6. Other possible topics: Is death an evil, and should it be feared? Does the evil in the world show that there is not an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God? What difference, if any, does God's existence make to ethics (you can relate this to divine command theory, the Euthyphro, Epicurus, and Kant...)? Are freedom and foreknowledge comaptible? Are free will and determinism compatible? Should one trust one's senses as a reliable source of information about the world? I haven't filled these out, but the questions above should give you some idea of how to approach these topics in a way that grapples sufficiently with the course material. If you'd like to write on something else that came up over the course of the semester, please be my guest! However, please also come and discuss your paper topic with me beforehand.
    Some sample thesis statements:
    • Epicurus is wrong when he argues that there cannot be justice with regard to non-human animals. Certain ways of treating animals are unjust, even if we have no agreements with them.
    • If death is annihilation, then it can indeed be a great evil, because an early death can cause one to accomplish much less in life than one would have otherwise.
    • If one does the morally right thing only because doing so in is one's self-interest, then one's actions have no moral worth.
    • In his ethics, Epicurus cannot account for the way that we should treat our friends. True friends do not treat their friends well just because doing so helps them to get pleasure for themselves.
    • There is an immaterial soul, that exists separately from the body and survives its death.
    • The Divine Command Theory of Ethics is not refuted by the type of question that Socrates asks Euthyphro. Actions can be right or wrong becauseGod commands or prohibits them. In fact, without God's commands, there can be no basis for ethics.
    • The Free Will Defense does not succeed in showing that God's goodness can be reconciled with the evil in the world.

    Return to the Great Questions of Philosophy page.
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