“What Makes a Good Life? and What Should Government Do About It?”
This seminar is the continuation, under a new title, of a seminar I have given for years called “The One, The Many, and the Good”. The change in title reflects the fact that the emphasis has shifted over the years from the political philosophy aspect (“What Should Government Do About It?”) to the moral philosophy aspect (“What Makes a Good Life?”). But the questions are the same as they have always been (as they have been, indeed, right back to Plato): What sort of activities and projects and relationships make up a valuable human life, a life worthy of choice by a reflective person with reasonable opportunities? How does one put together and organize such a life? And, on the political side, what is the appropriate role of government in facilitating or encouraging such lives? Is the standard contemporary liberal view that government should be neutral between competing “conceptions of the good” correct? The seminar will read no legal materials and it will eschew all questions of legal doctrine. On the other hand, the sort of issues we will discuss are central to major legal problems, ranging from what mix of uses to allow in national parks to the issue of assisted suicide. We will explore some such issues along the way. The issues for the seminar are also issues each of us confronts in trying to shape a satisfactory life in (or out of) the law. I think of this as a philosophy seminar, but no formal philosophical background is required. What is required is some degree of philosophical temperament - a willingness to try to figure out what to think about questions that most people give up on at about age eight, or regard as unaswerable, or both. Although there may be some readings from philosophical classics (Plato, or Airstotle, or Nietzsche, or Rawls, for example), most of the readins will be novels or memoirs chosen to try to call up a vivid picture of what various sorts of activity or relationship are like from the inside - first-person popular science accounts, memoirs of artists or adventurers or engineers, Sherwin Nuland’s “How We Die”, Camus’ “The Plague”, Augustine’s “Confessions”, that sort of thing (if you can figure out what sort of thing all that is). One of the objects is just to read a variety of good books. The success of the seminar depends utterly on having students who are willing to do the reading as we go and talk about difficult and amorphous questions. I have been fortunate in this regard in the past. There is one paper required, on a topic of your choice connected to the seminar, due the first day of exams.