2015 Programme: Should we believe in God?
2014 Programme: Humour
2013 Programme: Right and Wrong
2012 Programme: Ancient Philosophy
2011 Programme: Mind and Body
2010 Programme: Love and Sex
2009 Programme: God
2008 Programme: Freedom
Topic 1: Personal Identity (Dr Elisa Galgut)
Suppose you wake up one day, and instead of being in your own bed, you’re in the White House. You then realise that you’re in the body of Donald Trump. Are you the same person if you “inhabit” a different body? Would it make a difference whether you could remember your entire life up to that point? What if you remember building Trump Towers in Chicago? In what does your identity consist? Can you change your body and still be you? If so – how much can you change? Will you still be the same person if – like the characters in Greek mythology – you change into an animal or a tree, but continue to have your thoughts and memories? And is memory important for who you are? These are some of the questions that philosophers have concerned themselves with regarding the problem of our personal identity.
Topic 2: Politics and the Self (Dr Ryan Nefdt)
Politics can shape national and social identity. It can define institutions (as capitalist or socialist), practices (as liberal or conservative) and positions (as representative or paternalistic). But what effect does it have on our individual identities? Are we products by and large of our political surroundings? As conformists or reactionaries? Or is there a distinctive and autonomous Self outside of our political environments?
These are the kinds of questions we will attempt to answer in this lecture.
Topic 3: Racial Identity (Ms Gabrielle James)
It is now almost universally accepted in the natural sciences that biological “races” do not exist. Does this mean that race is not real? If so, why do most of us still understand our identity (in part) in racial terms, and consider race issues (racial justice, etc.) as topics of political significance? One popular response to these questions is that racial identity is socially constructed. In this session, we will explore this response in detail, considering what it means for something to be a social construct, as opposed to a natural kind, as well as possible accounts of socially constructed racial identity.
Topic 1: Eating Animals (Dr Elisa Galgut)
The argument for vegetarianism / veganism is based on principles that seem obvious: for example, "refrain from causing unnecessary pain to another" is a basic tenet of our moral system. And yet, despite the mounting evidence that animals suffer enormously in industrialised agriculture, many, if not most, people who consider themselves to be morally decent continue eating meat. In this talk, we'll explore some of the arguments for vegetarianism, as well as some possible reasons why these arguments are resisted by many.
Topic 2: Is Democracy Still a Good Idea? (Dr Greg Fried)
Democracy, a political system in which the people at large hold power, is a cherished ideal in many regions of the world, and many people have fought and died to achieve it. Some contemporary thinkers, however, regard democracy as a deeply flawed system, one that entrusts crucial decisions to a mass of individuals who lack the unbiased expertise to make the right choices. These thinkers draw on a range of sources, from the work of ancient philosophers to recent failures and crises in democratic states. We will explore some current criticisms of democracy, and you will be asked how you might respond to these concerns
Topic 3: Giving and Taking Offence (Professor David Benatar)
Giving and taking offence is a common phenomenon. Although it is not new, there does seem to have been a recent resurgence of the proclivity to being easily offended. Those with these tendencies are sometimes criticised for being “snowflakes”. They in turn accuse those who offend as, at best, insensitive, but not uncommonly as racist, sexist, or homophobic, for example.
In this lecture we shall examine three questions: (a) What is offence; (b) When is it wrong to offend (and when is it not)?; and (c) How should we respond to those who offend us?
Warning: Some parts of the lecture may offend, but that won’t be because they are wrong.
Topic 1: Arguments for God’s existence (Dr Greg Fried)
Is there a good reason to believe in God? We will discuss and evaluate some famous and influential philosophical arguments, including the argument from miracles, Pascal’s wager and the argument from design.
Topic 2: Arguments against God’s existence (Dr Greg Fried)
Is there a good reason not to believe in God? We will discuss and evaluate the famous ‘problem of pain’, which asserts that the suffering of innocent creatures indicates that there is no omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent being.
Topic 3: Belief in the absence of argument (Dr Greg Fried)
Philosophers have often thought that belief in God is irrational and problematic unless the believer can provide a persuasive argument that God exists. We will consider the views of the philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who thinks that there is nothing wrong with belief in God even if the believer cannot show that his or her belief is true.
Topic 1: The Nature of Humour (Dr Greg Fried)
Since ancient times, philosophers and other thinkers have claimed to understand the essence and functions of humour. Humour has been said to involve the expression of disguised aggression, pleasure at oddness, playfulness, lust and even the highest form of maturity. This talk will explain some historical accounts of humour – including those of the philosophers Thomas Hobbes and Artur Schopenhauer, and the psychologist Sigmund Freud – and consider which, if any, is to be believed.
Topic 2: The Ethics of Humour (Professor David Benatar)
Though humour is the very opposite of seriousness, perceived breaches of humour ethics are taken very seriously. In this lecture we shall examine the ethics of humour. Among the questions we shall ask are: What makes some humour immoral? Are there some jokes we may never tell? Is it acceptable for a particular joke to be told by some people but not others? The lecture will be both light-hearted and serious.
Topic 3: Horror and Humour (Dr Elisa Galgut)
Horror books and movies are supposed to scare us, while comedies are meant to make us laugh. These seem to be very different kinds of emotional responses. But the genre of “horror comedies” seems to challenge this opposition between the funny and the scary – movies likeGremlins, The Addams Family and Buffy the Vampire Slayer scare us, but also make us laugh. In this talk, we’ll examine some of the characteristics of the horror genre of art, and we’ll investigate whether there are aspects of art-horror that also lend themselves to humour.
Topic 1: Should we be utilitarians? (Dr Greg Fried)
When I can choose between various actions, what is the morally right thing for me to do? A famous answer is that I should act in a way that brings the most happiness. This view, called utilitarianism, is often thought to be highly attractive. We will consider the merits of utilitarianism, and will then discuss some powerful arguments raised against it. You will be asked to reflect on these challenges and consider whether utilitarians can respond to them.
Topic 2: How much should we give to charity? (Professor David Benatar)
Most people think that we have a moral duty to give some money or time to charitable causes. A number of philosophers have suggested that our moral duties are much more expansive. They think that we should be giving away much more than most people do give or think that they should give. In this lecture we shall examine and evaluate one influential such argument – that of Peter Singer.
Topic 3: Eating animals (Dr Elisa Galgut)
Most people think that, although animals should not, for the most part, be treated cruelly by humans, there is nothing ethically problematic about eating meat and animal-derived products, such as eggs and milk. In this talk, we’ll critically examine this claim.
Topic 1: Why Plato hates democracy (Dr Greg Fried)
For those of us who cherish liberal democracy, it may be a shock to find that the ancient philosopher Plato – one of the world’s greatest thinkers – hated democracy. According to Plato, democracy encourages bad character traits among citizens, and produces leaders who make poor decisions. We will discuss Plato’s disturbing challenges to democracy. Then we will consider a response from the nineteenth century philosopher John Stuart Mill, who argues that democracy is in fact excellent for human character and decision-making. Has Mill successfully defended democracy, or does Plato have a point?
Topic 2: Why Aristotle thinks you need theatre in your life (Dr Elisa Galgut)
In The Poetics, the philosopher Aristotle examines the role that theatre plays in our lives. Aristotle is, in part, attempting to defend the representational arts from some of the criticisms raised by his teacher Plato. In this lecture, we’ll look carefully at Aristotle’s analysis and defence of tragedy: what makes a good tragedy? Can going to watch tragedies make you a better person? And if so, how? We’ll be reading some selections from The Poetics in order to acquaint students with one of the greatest pieces of philosophical writings on the arts.
Topic 3: Why Epicurus and Lucretius do not fear death (Professor David Benatar)
Most people think that death is among the worst things that can happen to us. Some of those who fear death fear it because they think that they will live on after death and will suffer in the next world. But even those who think that death is the irreversible cessation of the self fear their extinction. The thought that they will cease to exist for the rest of time fills them with terror. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus and his Roman follower, Lucretius, each had a fascinating argument for the view that we should not fear death. We shall examine their arguments and consider some of the responses to them.
Topic 1: The mind-body problem (Dr Greg Fried)
What is the relation between your body (including your brain) and your mind? This question is known as the mind-body problem. Some people believe that mental states – beliefs, desires, emotions and so on – are really states of the brain. Others claim that mental states are not physical. Strangely, both views seem deeply problematic. For instance, if mental states are just states of the brain, then how can it be that your brain can be observed by other people but your mind is accessible only to you? And if mental states are not physical, then how can your mind and body interact at all? This talk aims to stimulate you to find a good response to the mind-body problem.
Topic 2: The Unconscious (Dr Elisa Galgut)
The 17th century philosopher Descartes thought that the mind was essentially rational, conscious, and conceptually distinct from the body. In the late 19th Century, a neurologist by the name of Sigmund Freud argued that, on the contrary, many of our thoughts are unconscious and irrational; Freud also showed how bodily symptoms often express our unconscious thoughts in strange and unintuitive ways. Although there were other thinkers who disagreed with Descartes' views on the mental, Freud was the first to postulate what he termed the “dynamic unconscious”. In this talk, we'll examine what Freud meant by the dynamic unconscious, and how his insights (which have developed into what is now known as “psychoanalysis”) have fundamentally changed the ways in which we think about our minds - and our bodies.
Topic 3: Is cosmetic surgery morally permissible? (Professor David Benatar)
Plastic surgeons reconstruct parts of the body that have been damaged by injury and disease. They also perform what is known as “cosmetic surgery” – the surgical alteration of body parts for purely aesthetic rather than therapeutic purposes. Few people object to reconstructive surgery, viewing it as a legitimate surgical intervention. By contrast, there are many critics of cosmetic surgery. In this lecture, we shall examine the ethics of cosmetic surgery. We shall ask, for example, whether it is wrong to have a “nose job”, to have one’s breasts enhanced or to have a face-lift, and we shall ask whether it is wrong for surgeons to perform these operations on people who want them.
Topic 1: Is there anything wrong with casual sex? (Dr Greg Fried)
Having sex is one of the most physically intimate things that people can do together. Given this physical intimacy, should we reserve sex for people who mean a great deal to us; those to whom we are deeply committed? Or can it be morally legitimate to have sex for various reasons – enjoyment, curiosity, and so on – with those who don’t mean as much to us? In this talk, we’ll consider and evaluate an argument that people who have sex without a deep personal commitment are making a mistake.
Topic 2: “The love that dares not speak its name”: are the moral arguments against homosexuality compelling? (Dr Elisa Galgut)
Is homosexuality immoral? Should marriage between people of the same gender be sanctioned by society? Some people have argued that homosexuality is unnatural, and therefore should not be condoned. Others argue that legalising gay marriage would undermine the integrity of important social institutions. In this lecture, we’ll examine and critique several arguments in defense of the claim that homosexuality is immoral, and that gay marriage should be banned.
Topic 3: Loving your country (Dr Jeremy Wanderer)
It is a great and noble thing to love one’s country. Or so it is widely assumed. Patriotism is typically heralded as an important virtue, and being called a national traitor is supposed to generate feelings of shame and disgrace. In this talk, we shall explore just what it could mean to love one’s country, and consider some reasons for thinking that it is not such a good thing after all.
Topic 1: The Divine Command Theory (Professor David Benatar)
Some (but not all) religious people believe that what makes some actions morally wrong is that God has prohibited them, and that what makes other actions morally required is that God commanded us to perform them. This view is known as the Divine Command Theory of morality. The first lecture will examine this popular view. We shall see why some people find it an attractive theory, but we shall also consider a number of challenges to it, the most interesting of which dates back to Plato.
Topic 2: The Ontological Argument (Dr Elisa Galgut)
Many philosophers have attempted to provide arguments for the existence of God. One of the most famous of these arguments, dating from medieval times, is that of Saint Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury. Anselm tried to show how, through reason and argument alone, and without relying on any facts about the nature of the world, one could prove conclusively not only that God exists, but that God must exist. In this lecture, we'll examine Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God, and subject it to critical scrutiny.
Topic 3: Pascal's Wager (Dr Greg Fried)
In the final lecture we’ll discuss another famous argument that seeks to persuade us to believe in God: that of Blaise Pascal, a seventeenth century French theologian. The argument, known as Pascal’s Wager, is very different from Anselm’s, as Pascal does not try to show that God exists. Rather, he tries to convince us that we ought to believe in God, since believers lose nothing if they are wrong and gain eternal happiness if they are right. We’ll consider whether Pascal’s argument succeeds.
Topic 1: Mill on freedom (Dr Greg Fried)
How freely should I be allowed to speak my mind? No one objects to the airing of my views if they are widely held or inoffensive. But what if my beliefs upset many people, or if they are entirely false? Some people think that the expression of such views offers no benefits and is too harmful to be allowed.
By contrast, the great nineteenth century philosopher John Stuart Mill claims that freedom of expression is precious not only when the speaker pleases us or speaks the truth. Even highly offensive and entirely false views are very valuable.
We will consider why Mill held this view, and whether he was right.
Topic 2: Was the publication, by a Danish newspaper, of cartoons of the prophet Mohammed an abuse of freedom of speech? (Professor David Benatar)
There were violent protests in response to the publication by the Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper, of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed. Many people condemned that violence and argued that a right to freedom of speech entitles newspapers to publish cartoons even if they cause offence. Nevertheless, many of these defenders of the Jyllands-Posten argued, it was morally wrong to publish these cartoons notwithstanding the legal freedom newspapers should have to publish such material.
This lecture will not engage the question whether newspapers ought or ought not to have the legal right to publish cartoons that offend. Instead, it will ask whether the editors of the newspaper were morally wrong in making the use they did of their legal freedom.
Topic 3: What you will (Dr Elisa Galgut)
Most of us think we know the difference between acting freely and not acting freely. If I give my money to a robber who's pointing a gun at me, it seems pretty clear that I do not hand my money over freely, but rather that I feel compelled to do so. But what of the robber? Most of us think that he has chosen - freely - to rob me; we thus also think that he is responsible for his actions. But some philosophers think that free will is an illusion; they argue that our actions are caused by prior events, many (or even most) of which are outside our direct control. We are not responsible for the conditions that make us who we are, so are we then responsible for our personalities and our actions that flow from our characters? In this talk, we'll examine some of the key philosophical arguments for and against freedom of the will.
Topic 1: Punishment (Prof David Benatar)
Most people think that wrongdoers should be punished. However, punishment raises a philosophical problem. Punishment is, by its nature, unpleasant. Inflicting unpleasantness requires justification. The problem is that the justifications for punishment that people are most likely to offer have serious flaws. In this session we shall examine the problem of punishment and ask whether punishment can in fact be justified.
Topic 2: Personal identity (Dr Elisa Galgut)
Suppose you wake up one day, look at yourself in the mirror, and Madonna (or Brad Pitt) looks back at you! Are you the same person if you now inhabit Madonna’s body and are married to Guy Ritchie, or are you still you? Would it make a difference whether you could remember your entire life up to that point, or whether you remembered recording “Material Girl” (or starring in Ocean’s Eleven)? In what does your identity consist? Can you change your body and still be you? If so – how much can you change? Will you still be the same person if – like the characters in Greek mythology – you change into an animal or a tree, but continue to have your thoughts and memories? And is memory important for who you are? Is the idea of a single, coherent self even plausible? These are some of the questions that philosophers have concerned themselves with regarding the problem of our personal identity.
Topic 3: The pursuit of truth (Dr Jeremy Wanderer)
Many critics complain of the ‘dumbing down’ of contemporary culture. One result of this, note the critics, is that today’s youth not only know fewer facts, but they care less about finding them out. Students are being taught to survive in a world of spin, PR and corporate cliché, a world where knowledge of the facts and the pursuit of truth is both unvalued and a liability. In this session, we consider whether this matters. After all, if knowledge is not a useful goal for operating in contemporary society, then why pursue it? Other pursuits from the past, such as hunting, are no longer deemed noble. Is the pursuit of truth any different?