Good Life or Moral Life?

Damien Freeman

Good LifeEver since Socrates claimed that the unexamined life is not worth living, people have been interested in what makes a life good or worth living. How should we decide how to live individually (ethics) and collectively (political theory)? Is morality derived from God? Is it possible to have morality without God? Is the good life one in which everyone lives according to duties and obligations, or one that maximizes happiness? This course is about the way that philosophers try to understand fundamental issues in our personal, social, and political life.

The course is appropriate for students who have no background in moral or political philosophy and for those who do. It will consist of two parts. The first part will introduce key issues in moral philosophy and the second part will focus on two recent Anglo-American philosophers.

Topics in the first half of the course are focused around the question ‘What is a good life?’ and include basic issues in the history of ethics. To answer this main question, we need to ask several related questions:

  • Are values determined by cultures?
  • What is a virtuous person (Aristotle)?
  • Is morality possible without God (Nietzsche)?
  • What makes human actions right or wrong – the actor’s intention (Kant) or the action’s consequences (Bentham)?
  • Is goodness a property that objects possess independently of us, or is it just an expression of how we feel about them (Hume)?
  • How can we determine whether serious actions such as abortion or euthanasia are right or wrong?

In the second half of the course, we shall look at the work of two recent philosophers:

  • Bernard Williams’s Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy
  • Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope

Bernard Williams was the Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, and a major twentieth century philosopher. Williams considers historical attempts at explaining morality and the relationship between science and ethics. He offers some suggestions about what we can and cannot hope to find out about how to live from philosophy.

Courage in warfare was central to the Crow nation’s conception of what it meant to live well. In the nineteenth century, the US Government prevented Indian tribes from engaging in warfare with one another. This brought to an end an entire way of life for the Crow people: it was no longer possible to live a good life as they had always understood that. Jonathan Lear asks how Plenty Coups, the last great Chief of the Crow, was able to cope with this cultural devastation, and how Plenty Coups was able to find a new sense of what it meant to be courageous – and hence to live a good life – in a radically different world; a world in which old values no longer made sense. In developing his account, Lear draws on insights from Bernard Williams, as well as Aristotle, Freud, and Kierkegaard, to provide an account of what he thinks it is to be human. Jonathan Lear is currently a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago and a former Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge.

This course is aimed at: The course is appropriate for students who have no background in moral or political philosophy and for those who do. The course will be of interest to philosophers, anthropologists, intellectual and political historians, psychologists, political scientists, and anyone who has ever wondered how they should live!

Pre-requisite knowledge required: None.

Transferable Knowledge and Skills: The course will develop critical thinking, reading, and writing skills.

No pre-arrival reading required

Core reading

  • J. Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Harvard University Press, 2006)
  • B. Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Routledge, 2006)

Further readings to be advised in due course.


1 Final Essay (2,500-3,000 words): 50%

1 Final Exam: 50%

Lecture Hours: 12 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 15 hours)

Seminar Hours: 8 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 10 hours)