REQUIREMENTS FOR STUDY QUESTIONS AND TERM PAPERS
REQUIREMENTS FOR STUDY QUESTIONS
1. Assigned questions. For each assigned reading during the course, answer all of the “questions for review” and one “question for analysis” of your choice. Do not simply copy/paste selections from the reading material into your answers; you need to put the answers into your own words. Your answers can be short, but they need to adequately address the questions.
2. Deadlines. Study questions are due three times a semester on the day of the three exams.
3. Emailing. Submit your answers to me through email by copy/pasting them in the body of your e-mail message, not as e-mail attachments. Use a descriptive subject line, such as “Philosophy 410, first batch of study questions.”
4. Grading procedure. I will spot check your questions for completion, thoroughness and accuracy, but will not evaluate each one. I will grade your submissions as “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory”.
REQUIREMENTS FOR TERM PAPERS
1. Deadlines and Writing Lab. You must submit three drafts of your term paper to me through email. (1) The first draft is due on Sunday evening 11:59 on a date that I will give you (usually about one month before the end of the semester). This draft is just to assure that you complete the assignment by the deadline, and I will only briefly check it for proper format. (2) The second draft is due one week later on Sunday evening 11:59. During that week you must bring a copy of it to the writing lab, and email me your revision. If your writing style is particularly unclear, you should bring it by the writing lab a second time, but make sure that it is read by a different worker. I will read this version for content and suggest changes. (3) The third and final draft is due one week later on Sunday evening 11:59.
2. Length, Format and Style. Term paper length should be a minimum of 1,000 words for non-majors, and 2,000 words for majors. Please use the word count feature of your word processor. Your paper format must have five parts: (1) an introduction, (2) an exegetical section, (3) a critical section, and (4) a concluding original theory section, and (5) references. Each of these are explained below. The writing style should be technical (like an owner’s manual), and not creative (like a short story). Argumentation is key to philosophy, and your paper needs to be an argumentative essay, but always be polite in your critique. Do not include historical background or biographical information about the author. Use the feminine gender for unspecified personal pronouns, such as “the moral agent exercises her reason to make moral judgments.”
3. Pick a topic: Select one of the “questions for analysis” from the course reading material. Get my approval on the topic before you begin. If the topic is too easy or too difficult, you’ll need to select another that is at the right level. There are three types of “questions for analysis”: (1) a simple refutation such as this: “Criticize Descartes’ theory of innate ideas.” (2) A defense such as this: “John Stewart makes the following criticism of Hume's theory of the self. . . . How might Hume respond?” (3) A compare and contrast such as this: “Compare and contrast Hobbes’ and Locke’s views of the state of nature and defend one against the other.” The latter two types of questions might be easier since they involve the views of two philosophers, which quickly gives you a lot to write about. Some questions may be worded differently from the above types, but they are typically reducible to either simple refutations or defenses.
4. Introduction. It is not good to begin any writing project with the introduction because you do not yet know everything that you will ultimately say; rather, make it the last thing that you compose. When you do write your introduction, your opening sentences must clearly state your topic and what you will be arguing for. Here is the model you should follow: “The concept of personal identity, or the ‘self”, is a central theme in the philosophy of mind and one that was hotly debated during the modern period. In his Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume argues that a person has no experience of a unified self or personal identity, but only a series of fleeting mental perceptions. John Stewart criticizes Hume’s position for absurdly assuming that mental perceptions can exist without a perceiver. I will defend Hume against Stewart’s criticism and argue that Stewart’s conception of a ‘perceiver’ is unnecessarily restrictive.”
5. Exegetical section: gather and explain quotations. The exegetical part of your paper is where you explain the theory of the philosopher that you have selected. It is easier for the reader to follow the exegetical portion if it is broken into dominant themes, and the section can begin with a sentence like this: “There are two main parts of Descartes’ theory of innate ideas: (1) how they differ from adventitious and factitious ideas, and (2) their clarity and distinctness. Regarding the first of these, Descartes argues that. . . .” Your explanations should center around key quotations from the philosopher, and begin by hunting down and placing in order the quotations that you will use. Your main source should be the course reading material. Introduce quotations with phrases like “Descartes presents his argument as follows” “He states his position here,” “In Descartes’ words.” Beneath the quotation explain in your own words what the quote means, using phrases like “In the above Descartes argues that. . .”, “In this passage Descartes contends that. . .”, “A crucial point in the above quote is. . . .ffff” Do not let your quotations exceed 1/3 of the words in the exegetical section, and paraphrase some of them using your own words if you do run over. If you pick a simple refutation question, like the one on Descartes, then just quote and explain him. If you pick a defense or compare and contrast, then quote and explain each philosopher (e.g., first Hume then Stewart). Remember, this part of your paper is purely explanatory and should not contain anything critical or evaluative.
6. Critical section: criticize your opponent. The critical section of your paper must involve criticizing an opponent. If you pick a simple refutation question, like the one on Descartes, then Descartes is your opponent. If you pick a defense, like the Hume-Stewart example, then Stewart is your opponent, and you are criticizing Stewart as a means of defending Hume. Some defense questions involve and extra step, such as this: “Defend Butler’s view of instinctive benevolence.” In this case, you must first invent a theoretical objection to Butler to serve as his opponent, and then criticize that theoretical objection as a means of defending Butler. In short, all defenses must criticize an opponent, even if you have to invent that opponent. If you pick a compare and contrast question, like the Hobbes-Locke one, then you have to decide which of these two is your opponent. In all of these scenarios, you should devise three criticisms against your opponent. As you think of criticisms, include examples and draw on relevant quotes from the philosophers that you have selected, and perhaps even other philosophers that we have covered in the course. Number your criticisms as you move through them, like this: “There are three problems with Stewart’s critique of Hume. The first is. . . . The second problem with Stewart’s critique is. . . . A final problem with Stewart’s critique is. . . .” For rhetorical impact, make your third criticism the strongest of the three.
7. Concluding section: summarize and present original theory. This concluding section should include two parts (1) a four or five sentence summary of what you presented, and (2) your original thoughts and final assessment of the issue. Regarding the first part, here is an example: “I have argued here that Descartes’ view of innate ideas withstands common criticism. After explaining the key components of what he means by an “innate ideas I presented the three criticism: first, that his examples of innate ideas not foundational, second, that they cannot be clearly articulated, and, third, that there is no mental faculty by which they can be known. While these are valid criticisms of the innateness of the ideas of God and the principle of sufficient reason, I have argued that they do not undermine the innateness of the cogito.” Regarding the second part, you might say why the issue is important, whether innate ideas can serve the function that he believes they do, or whether there is a better account of mental concepts than what he offers. This section does not need to be long, but it is important to give your paper closure.
8. Secondary sources. Philosophy majors should include discussions from four secondary sources, and non-majors from two. These sources will help you develop your explanation or criticism, and confirm that you are correctly interpreting the philosopher’s theory. The quotations do not need to be long, and you can place them in any of the first four sections of your paper, but they work best in the exegetical and critical sections. Introduce the quotations with phrases like “Barry Stroud describes this feature as,” “Barry Stroud summarizes this accordingly,” “Barry Stroud refers to this as,” “Barry Stroud’s explanation of this is.” The secondary sources can be from academic books, journal articles or web pages. To find relevant secondary sources, go to the university library’s online search engine and type in key words like “hume causation” or “david hume”; some of these will be ebooks that you can directly access. Also, within the library’s web page, navigate to the Jstor database of journal articles and type in key words. Similarly, you can go to books.google.com and type in key words, and even very specific terms like “hume billiard ball”. While you will probably not be able to view the resulting books in their entirety, you may get enough viewable book pages to be helpful. If you use regular web sites as secondary sources, make sure they are respectable, such as from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
9. Reference section. At the end of your paper list your sources alphabetically by the author’s last name. This will include (1) the title of the online course reading material (e.g., Modern Philosophy: Essential Selections), (2) the primary source citations that appear at the end of each reading or within the question for analysis (e.g., Hume’s Treatise), and (3) citations of secondary sources. Below are models of the various types of citations:
Fieser, James, ed., Modern Philosophy: Essential Selections (www.utm.edu/staff/jfieser/class -- retrieved 9/11/2001).
Korfmacher, Carsten, “Personal Identity,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (www.iep.utm.edu/soc-cont -- retrieved 9/11/2001).
Hume, David, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), 1.4.6, as appears in Modern Philosophy.
Norton, David Fate, ed., Cambridge Companion to Hume (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
Pears, David, “Hume on Personal Identity,” Hume Studies, 1993, Vol. 19, pp. 289-300.
Stewart, John, “Some Remarks” in Essays and Observations (1754), as appears in Modern Philosophy.
10. Title and subheadings. Add a descriptive title to your term paper, such as “Descartes on Innate Ideas” or “Hume on the Self and Stewart’s Critique”. Also, give subheadings to each of the five sections of your paper, and title them as follows: (1) Introduction, (2) Descartes’ View Explained, (3) Criticisms of Descartes, (4) Conclusion, (5) References. If you pick a topic like the Hume-Stewart one, it might be helpful to have six sections, such as (1) Introduction, (2) Hume’s View Explained, (3) Stewart’s Criticism of Hume, (4) Critique of Stewart, (5) Conclusion, (6) References.
Berkeley’s Idealism: A Critical Examination
George Berkeley’s most lasting contribution to philosophy is his argument against the existence of physical matter and his claim that all of the things which we perceive in the physical world are ideas that exist only in the mind. Thomas Reid criticizes Berkeley’s idealism because it leads to solipsism, that is, the view that I exist alone in the universe, which Reid believes is a proposition that common sense reveals to be absurd. I will argue that Reid’s criticism is problematic for at least three reasons. First, according to Berkeley’s definition of existence, we have no cause to conclude that other minds do not exist. Secondly, common sense is not a meaningful standard of truth which should provide reason to reject an idea. Finally, Berkeley’s idealism allows for the possibility of knowing other minds just as does positing the existence of a material world, based on similar reasoning.
Berkeley’s Idealism Explained
Berkeley’s idealism rejects the commonly accepted notion that objects of perception, such as trees or rivers, have an external, physical reality separate from the mind’s perception of them (Berkeley, 31). In A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, he writes, “That neither our thoughts, nor passions, nor ideas… exist without the mind, is what everybody will allow. And it seems no less evident that the various sensations or ideas imprinted on the sense… cannot exist otherwise than in a mind perceiving them.” He asserts, in fact, that to say that something exists is merely to say that it has been perceived. When we say that there was an odor, we mean that we smelled it; when we say that a sound exists, we mean only that we heard it. The existence of a thing can’t be intelligibly separated from the sense perception of it (Berkeley, 30-31). He concludes from this that the only substance which exists is Spirit, or mind (Berkeley, 33).
Berkeley anticipates the following objection: “But, say you, though the ideas themselves do not exist without the mind, yet there may be things like them, whereof they are copies or resemblances, which things exist without the mind in an unthinking substance.” His response is that, just as a color can be compared only to another color, an idea can only be like another idea. Thus, even the things of which our ideas are copies are themselves only ideas (that is, other things which are perceivable). To claim otherwise would be as absurd as saying that a color is like something which is invisible (Berkeley, 33-34).
To further his point, Berkeley draws on the common understanding of primary and secondary qualities. It is widely accepted that secondary qualities of objects such as color, sound and temperature exist only in the mind. According to Berkeley, these secondary qualities can’t be sensibly separated from primary qualities such as figure and motion. That is, he finds it impossible to conceive of a thing in terms of its primary qualities without also joining to the object secondary qualities such as color. Hence, it follows that if secondary qualities exist only in the mind, the same must be true of primary qualities (Berkeley, 34-35).
Also central to Berkeley’s idealism is the following: “A little attention will discover to us that the very being of an idea implies passiveness and inertness in it, insomuch that it is impossible for an idea to do anything, or, strictly speaking, to be the cause of anything, neither can it be the resemblance or pattern of any active being...” (Berkeley, 43-44). In other words, an idea has no causal power, nor can it be a copy of any causal agent. By contrast, spirit (or mind) is an active being which may either be the perceiver or the cause of ideas. Furthermore, the nature of spirit is such that, “it cannot be of itself perceived, but only by the effects which it produces.” Here, Berkeley means that minds cannot be perceived directly, but can only be indirectly known through their effects because minds cannot be accurately represented by any idea (Berkeley, 44-45).
Berkeley makes a distinction between ideas produced by the will and those perceived through the senses. He writes, “When in broad daylight I open my eyes, it is not in my power… to determine what particular objects shall present themselves to my view; and so likewise as to the hearing and other senses; the ideas imprinted on them are not creatures of my will.” (Berkeley, 45). He concludes, therefore, that his sense perceptions must be produced by some other spirit greater than himself, which he determines to be God (Berkeley, 46-47).
Reid’s Criticism: Idealism Implies Solipsism
Thomas Reid criticizes Berkeley’s idealism on the grounds that it inevitably results in solipsism, the view that I exist alone in the universe. In support of this point, he writes, “What I call a father, a brother, or a friend, is only a parcel of ideas in my own mind; and, being ideas in my mind, they cannot possibly have that relation to another mind which they have to mine, any more than the pain felt by me can be the individual pain felt by another.” Here, his point is that if everything which I perceive exists only as an idea in my mind, the same must be true of other people, their existence being no more than a set of sense perceptions which I have attributed to them (Reid, 175). According to Reid, sense perceptions are our only means of communication with others. From this it follows that if our senses are unreliable, we must consider ourselves alone in the universe. Reid believes that by rejecting the material world, Berkeley has also rejected the existence of others (Johnson).
Reid repudiates this notion based on its incompatibility with common sense. To consider ourselves alone in the universe plainly goes against the dictates of human nature, and it will only lead common men to ridicule philosophy (Reid, 175). Reid notes that Berkeley seems to have taken great pains to reconcile his system of knowledge with common sense, while making little attempt to address its inconsistencies with philosophical doctrine. Yet, Reid finds fault in his failure to “carry this suspicion of the doctrine of philosophers so far as to doubt of that philosophical tenet on which his whole system is built.” He thinks it odd, in other words, that Berkeley frequently shuns philosophical doctrine in favor of common sense, except in the case of his own doctrine, one which is among the strangest and least coherent with human understanding (Reid, 172).
I will now defend Berkeley’s idealism by arguing that Reid’s criticism has three major weaknesses. The first of these is that the problem of solipsism can be avoided by adopting Berkeley’s understanding of existence. The second weakness is that his objection hinges on the questionable premise that an idea that is in opposition to common sense and human nature is necessarily wrong. Thirdly, as Jeremy Henkel explains in his article “How to Avoid Solipsism While Remaining an Idealist”, the idealist is able to infer the existence of other minds using the same reasoning that is employed by the realist.
While Berkeley does not specifically address the issue of solipsism that Reid raises, he clearly anticipates that his detractors will find fault with his idealism based on its incompatibility with common sense. In response to this line of criticism, he contends that the issue is merely one of semantics. He does not deny that things really exist if we understand existence to mean that which is perceived. By this understanding, there is no less reality in our sense perceptions than what is implied by the notion of corporeal substance. He does not encourage that we question the truth of our perceptions or respond to them any differently than the ways to which we are accustomed. Our perceptions may exist only in the mind, but they have as much reality as would be found in the physical world. We are not wrong to assert that these things are real, and we should respond to them as such. His concept of existence changes nothing in a practical sense, so we should see that the objection is meaningless.
Applying this line of argument, he can also avoid the accusation of solipsism. If we understand existence as that which we perceive, we have as much reason to assume the existence of other minds as would be allowed by an acceptance of corporeal substance. Though we do not perceive other minds directly, we perceive the effects which they produce, as Berkeley noted, which gives us reason to assume their existence. Whether other people exist as physical entities is of little consequence and does not alter the ways in which we interact with them, so it shouldn’t be viewed as an affront to our common sense.
Secondly, the fact that a proposition contradicts common sense and human nature is not sufficient cause to reject it. Common sense should not be taken as a reflection of ultimate reality, but as a way of understanding our world that is valued for its practical utility. Common sense allows us to act in ways that serve our best interests. It tells us, for example, that we should wear a coat when it is cold outside or that we ought to avoid sticking our hand in a blazing fire. Essentially, it is only a collection of human wisdom which guides us to act in ways befitting our natural state. We have no compelling reason to accept the truth of common sense, except for the fact that it just seems true. We need only a basic knowledge of psychology to show that many things are apt to seem true which really aren’t. The human mind is subject to a number of biases that frequently distort our perceptions and lead us to erroneous conclusions.
Furthermore, to hold common sense as our standard of truth would be to discard objectivity. As a collection of human wisdom, what is considered common sense changes over time and varies from culture to culture. Common sense once told humans that the earth was flat, but in today’s world this proposition is regarded as absurd. Likewise, common sense among people of a primitive jungle tribe may dictate ways of acting which appear barbaric and ignorant to a modern American. The only common sense propositions which aren’t subject to change based on time and culture are those necessitated by human nature, such as the proposition that 1+1=2. It is impossible to refute such a proposition based on human understanding, but this ultimately proves nothing except that the human mind is designed in such a way that it can see no other possibility, and there would be no practical benefit to asserting otherwise. Most so-called common sense propositions, however, cannot be met with such certainty. Common sense is clearly subjective and, as such, cannot be regarded as a reliable standard of truth. To refute a proposition based on its failure to meet such a standard is arbitrary and illogical.
Thirdly, an argument by Dharmakirti, as summarized by Jeremy Henkel, offers a means of defending idealism against solipsism. According to Dharmakirti, the idealist infers the existence of other minds in much the same way that the realist does. Both the realist and the idealist draw inferences about other minds based on mental representations, or perceptions, of physical acts, rather than from the actions themselves. He points out that the mere existence of action is not enough for the realist to become aware of another’s consciousness, otherwise we would all have knowledge of all other minds. Thus, it is based only on perceptions of action that we draw our awareness of other minds. Dharmakirti asserts that all volitional actions have their origin in consciousness, and he divides these into either subjective (those which originate within us) or objective (those which originate from outside of us). Since I am aware that objective volitional actions do not originate from within me, it follows that they must arise from some other consciousness outside of me. Thus, other minds besides my own must exist (Henkel, 64-67).
Essentially, Reid’s criticism amounts to little more than an acknowledgement of the discomfort aroused by idealism. While this discomfort may not be easily dismissed, this alone does not provide sufficient cause to reject idealism. A more pressing problem for Berkeley is that his theory requires that we assume the existence of God, a conclusion for which he fails to provide sufficient evidence. Without postulating a god, there remains no compelling explanation for the things we perceive if they have no corporeal basis. Yet, Berkeley’s certainty about God presupposes that our sense perceptions have a source other than a physical world. Berkeley’s arguments appear to employ circular reasoning. It is unclear how we can infer idealism without God, but equally unclear how we can be certain of God without idealism. Thus, even disregarding the problem of solipsism, Berkeley’s system of idealism leaves much to be desired.
Berkeley, George, Jonathan Dancy, and Thomas J. McCormack. A treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004. Print.
Johnson, William Hallock. "Does My Neighbor Exist?" The Princeton Theological Review 14 (1916): 531-32. Google Books. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.
Henkel, Jeremy E. "How to Avoid Solipsism While Remaining an Idealist: Lessons from Berkeley and Dharmakirti." Comparative Philosophy 3.1 (2012): n. pag. Comparative philosophy. 2012. Web. 04 Apr. 2017.
Reid, Thomas, Ronald E. Beanblossom, and Keith Lehrer. Thomas Reid's Inquiry and Essays. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 1983. Print.
SAMPLE TERM PAPER (2,602 words)
Epicurus’s View of Death: A Defense
One of the most well-known aspects of Epicurus’s moral philosophy is his view that death is not something to be feared because we do not experience our deaths. He and his follower Lucretius argue that reason reveals that death is essentially nothing to us and should in fact be preferred over immortality. Pseudo-Plutarch and others criticize the Epicurean view of death based on the principle that death deprives us of the good things in life. This line of criticism is problematic for at least three reasons. First, it rests on the assumption that life is inherently good. Secondly, it relies on the questionable premise that immortality is desirable. Finally, this argument is based on a principle which, when closely examined, has problematic implications.
Epicurean View of Death Explained
In his Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus writes: “Accustom yourself to think that death is a matter that does not concern us. For all good and all evil depend on sensation, and death is only the removal of sensation” (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus). Here, Epicurus expresses the view that death is not something to be feared because it entails the cessation of sensation, and there can be nothing negative without sensation. As Epicurus goes on to explain, “It is absurd for something that is not distressful when present, to then distress a person when it is only expected. Therefore, death, the most dreadful of all evils, is nothing to us, since, when we exist, death is not present to us; and when death is present we have no existence” (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus).
That is, it is only the expectation of death, not death itself, which causes distress. The reality of death is that a people cease to exist, and we cannot have any experience without existence. Since we do not actually experience our death, it is irrational to be troubled by it. Epicurus asserts that we should instead enjoy the time that we have, savoring the life that we do experience. He urges us to disregard worries of our mortality, concerning ourselves not with the brevity of life, but with “whether it is most enjoyable” (Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus).
In his Principle Doctrines, Epicurus states that death is actually to be preferred over immortality. In fact, he says that we would desire to rid ourselves of immortality if it were available to us. The reality that we all face death opens us up to fully experience the happiness of living, “liberating us from the fears relative to eternity.” In his view, eternal life would be a burden rather than a blessing. Reason allows us to see that eternity is not desirable and to embrace the reality of death. For Epicurus, to die is nothing more than “to interrupt a life of happiness” (Epicurus, Principle Doctrines).
Lucretius, the Roman Epicurean, expounds on these views in his work On the Nature of Things. He writes, “We will not be conscious after death any more than we were before birth. Death, then, is nothing to us, nor does it concern us a whit, inasmuch as the nature of the mind is but a mortal possession” (Lucretius, On the Nature of Things). In other words, death is a complete lack of consciousness, no different from the state of things before birth. Just as we could not have longed for our birth, in death we cannot mourn the loss of life. It is merely a state of nonexistence which should not concern us at all. Lucretius further explains that, even if the soul were to continue on after death and be reincarnated in a new body, still this would not concern us. Even in such a scenario, it is clear that we would remember nothing of our former existence. Thus, Lucretius argues that, regardless of the fate of the soul when we die, it will be of no consequence because we will not be conscious of it. In any case, death is essentially the same as never having been born.
According to Lucretius, the fear of death is founded on an inability to grasp its reality as a state of nonexistence. Though many may profess to believe in the mortality of the soul, there is a tendency to cling to the notion of consciousness persisting even in death. People “imagine a self surviving to grieve the fate of the body” (Lucretius, On the Nature of Things). We mourn for the fate of our bodies in death because we hold this irrational idea that we will still exist to bear witness. We imagine ourselves experiencing the torment of being a spectator to whatever evils befall our bodies, being overcome with pity for ourselves. Discarding this false idea is the key to being at peace with our impending deaths.
Criticisms of the Epicurean View of Death
There are three key problems with the Epicurean view of death, one of which is expressed by Pseudo-Plutarch. He argues that the Epicurean view of death is insufficient to support the conclusion that we should not be troubled by the thought of death. While Epicurus reassures us that death will free us from a life of endless evil, he overlooks the things of which death will deprive us. Death will not only put an end to the ills of life, it will also prevent us from experiencing its pleasures. He thus challenges the Epicurean doctrine: “But if then deliverance from the expectation of infinite evils is a matter of greatest satisfaction, why is it not troubling to be deprived of eternal good things and to miss of the highest and most perfect happiness?” (Pseudo Plutarch, That One Cannot Live Happily Following Epicurus).
Second, John Martin Fischer targets Epicurus’s view based on what he calls the “deprivation theory about death’s badness.” He argues that it is rational to fear death on the grounds that it deprives us of the goods of life. The Epicurean view of death is based on the notion that there is a connection between badness and experience. That is, an event is only bad for someone to the extent that he or she exists as a subject who can experience the negative consequences. Fischer opposes this idea, offering his own modification of examples proposed by others to support the thesis that experience is not necessary for badness. He describes one scenario, for example, in which a person has been betrayed by a close friend but is completely unaware of the betrayal. In fact, the friend has gone to great lengths to ensure that this person cannot learn of the betrayal, and so they will never suffer any negative effects. Nevertheless, Fischer contends that this person has been harmed by the betrayal in spite of the fact that they do not actually experience the consequences.
For example, regarding Lucretius’s attribution of our fear of death to mistakenly projecting ourselves into the future, Fischer argues that this tendency may actually be helpful. He suggests that there is a sense of comfort gained from imagining ourselves witnessing the aftermath of our deaths. Rather than picturing the potential atrocities that might befall us in death, he emphasizes the human need to seek consolation in the thought of our continued presence after death. He highlights examples of comforting fantasies of observing one’s own eulogies and enjoying the outpouring of love from mourners. On his view, this tendency is a sort of necessary coping mechanism. It imbues death with a feeling of familiarity which may actually subdue fears. He contends that discarding this source of comfort is likely to exacerbate feelings of anxiety associated with death.
Third, Fischer addresses the Epicurean assertion that immortality is undesirable. He disputes Lucretius’s idea that the temporal structure of life is necessary for meaning and value. Rather, he proposes that eternal life could conceivably offer the same sort of meaning and value. He offers a scenario in which immortality consists of the potential for grave illness and injury while allowing eventual regeneration arguing that an eternity in which we still faced such difficulties would open up the possibility for us to experience meaning and value in much the same way that we do in our mortal existences.
Defense of the Epicurean View of Death
I will next consider possible ways of defending the Epicurean view of death from the three criticisms above. Again, in the first criticism, when Pseudo-Plutarch challenges Epicurus on the grounds that death entails a deprivation of the greatest good, he seems to imply that life, on balance, is generally valuable and positive. Contrary to Pseudo-Plutarch, however, this is surely not always the case. Consider, for example, a life of slavery. Such a life would seem to be one of misery. The slave in question is treated harshly, suffering regular abuse and enduring days filled with grueling labor. He is separated from his loved ones and never permitted to pursue personal interests that might bring him joy. It seems unreasonable to argue that his death will deprive him of the greatest good, since he has not experience good things even in life. Rather, one might imagine that death would be a welcome release from his misery.
Consider, conversely, a life that is just the opposite of the slave. Imagine the life of a free man who enjoys deep and loving relationships and the pursuit of fulfilling interests. By all accounts he is a very happy man whose life is filled with good things. Yet, the nature of life is such that he could lose all of that at any moment. His circumstances could easily be altered in such a way as to render him just as miserable as the slave. Life does not guarantee happiness or meaning. While death has the potential to deprive us of good things, it is equally likely to spare us from an undesirable existence. Critics who employ this argument are essentially comparing the actual life to an alternative life which contains more goods than the life which is cut short by death. Yet, life itself is ultimately neutral, rather than a great good (Warren, The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism).
Second, if we wish to argue, as Fischer does, that death is bad for us based on the deprivation of goods, we must consider all of the implications of this principle. This principle is a counterfactual conditional which relies on possible world comparisons. Let us take for example a woman named Mary who dies at the age of twenty. When we say that Mary’s death has deprived her of goods, we are assuming the existence of a theoretical possible world, comparable to the actual world in all ways except that instead of dying at twenty, Mary goes on to live a full life and is able to experience the good things of which death has deprived her in our reality. In his paper Epicureanism and Death, Walter Glannon suggests two problematic implications with this sort of scenario. The first of these is that if Mary’s existence comes to an end in the actual world, then it becomes meaningless to refer to a possible world in which she still has the capacity to experience good things.
The second issue here is that if we wish to show that death is bad for us in virtue of depriving us of goods, we must show that this is true not only for Mary, but for everyone. That is, we must contend that every person who has died prematurely would essentially be better off in a possible world where all of these people instead went on to live full lives. In this case, it is unlikely that the world would have the resources to support all of these people. We may even push this case a step further and assume a possible world in which we are all immortal, a possibility that Fischer suggests is desirable. In this world, no one would ever die, and it is virtually unfathomable that the world would be able to support an infinite number of people for eternity. It seems certain that people would in fact be deprived of good things even in life. Thus, on the whole, death would actually be preferable for the greater good.
Finally, critics of the Epicurean view of death reject Epicurus’s claim that immortality would be undesirable. They erroneously assert that an eternal life could plausibly be just as meaningful and valuable as a mortal existence. For example, consider again Fischer’s conception of eternal life in which we would face the possibility of extended periods of illness and disability while still looking forward to eventual regeneration and restoration of a healthy existence. One flaw in this argument is that it seems to miss the point that Epicurus seeks to make when he dismisses immortality. For Epicureans, the goal is to eliminate anxiety and enhance mental pleasures. Thus, the Epicurean view of death offers practical advice for accepting and finding peace with the human predicament. The issue at hand is not whether we can conceive of a positive version of immortality, but whether there is any value in trying to do so. Epicurus likely had in mind a more traditional conception of immortality in which we are impervious to the sort of suffering described by Fischer, and his intention was to cultivate an appreciation of our current reality rather than to engage in fantastical thinking (Warren, The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism).
Furthermore, the sort of immortality described by Fischer does not necessarily seem appealing. It is difficult to fathom an eternity with our finite human minds, but few of us would consider an endless cycle of suffering and rejuvenation an ideal way to experience immortality. Epicurus’s point that we would grow weary of eternity still seems pertinent to this sort of scenario. In fact, many people find even the suffering of a finite lifetime so unbearable that they opt to end their own lives. To experience an eternity in which we are fully vulnerable to pain and injury would be to embrace the experience of every kind of suffering imaginable. It is difficult to imagine how such a fate might be desirable.
Ultimately, the Epicurean view of death seeks to help us make peace with an unavoidable reality. It is certain that we will all die. Any attempt to show that death is bad for us, even if successful, does not offer any clear benefit. Even if we could prove definitively that immortality should be preferred over death, we would stand to gain nothing from drawing this conclusion. Regardless of the goods of which death may deprive us, it will continue to be a reality which we cannot evade. To be convinced of the badness of death would be only to increase the fears associated with death. A life spent dwelling on the evils of death would entail a more certain deprivation of goods than death itself. Instead, it is best to devote one’s energy, as Epicurus urges, to cultivating a life that is most enjoyable.
Epicurus, Letter to Menoeceus, as appears in Essential Selections in Fieser
Epicurus, Principle Doctrines, as appears in Essential Selections in Fieser
Fieser, James, ed., Essential Selections in Ancient and Medieval Philosophy (www.utm.edu/staff/jfieser/class -- retrieved 11/01/2016)
Fischer, John M. “Epicureanism About Death and Immortality.” The Journal of Ethics 10.4 (Dec. 2006): 355-381
Glannon, Walter. “Epicureanism and Death.” The Monist 76.2 (Apr. 1993): 222-234
Lucretius, Lucretius on the Nature of Things, trans. Cyril Bailey (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1910)
Pseudo Plutarch, “That One Cannot Live Happily Following Epicurus”, Plutarch’s Morals, ed. William Goodwin (Boston: Little, 1878) Vol. 2
Warren, James, ed., “Removing Fear.” The Cambridge Companion to Epicureanism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) 234-248
SAMPLE TERM PAPER (2,661 words)
Against Bentham’s Utilitarian Calculus
One of Jeremy Bentham’s great contributions to moral philosophy is the Utilitarian Calculus, which is a mathematical formula for determining the rightness or wrongness of an action based on the amount of pleasure or pain the action brings about. Utilitarian Calculus has at least three shortcomings. First, the formula is based on a questionable and perhaps implausible principle, the principle of utility. Next, it is highly ineffective, especially in governmental circles and among legislating bodies. Finally, the seventh factor of the calculus, the “extent,” is unknowable or at least highly speculative; governing bodies have domain over too many people to possibly know for sure how much pleasure or pain will be brought about or who all will be affected.
Bentham’s Theory Explained
Jeremy Bentham’s moral theory rests on the idea that, “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure” (Bentham 1.1). That is, pleasure and pain defines all of the human condition and the human experience itself. As such, pleasure and pain alone “point to what we ought to do” (1.1). It determines our moral obligations, and it is because of them that morality even exists. His ethical axiom from A Fragment on Government, therefore, that follows is, “It is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.” He calls this axiom the “principle of utility.”
The principle of utility is the “foundation” of his moral theory and, hence, his political theory (1.2). Bentham means, “that principle [of utility] which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency… to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question” (1.2). The principle of utility measures the rightness or wrongness of any action based on how much “happiness” it revokes or gives. But happiness for Bentham should be understood as “advantage, pleasure, [and] good” (1.3). Hence, actions are judged by the extent of pleasure or the severity of pain.
Max Hocutt argues in “Was Bentham a Utilitarian?” that the principle of utility is not the standard for morality or law, but for “rational conduct” (700). Bentham does not mean by morality a set of “substantive rules of conduct supposedly known a priori by means of conscious, moral sense [or] divine revelation” (700). Hence, the principle of utility should not be understood as traditional morality, but simply as what it is to act rationally. Hocutt writes, “Although Bentham unquestionable regarded utility as a standard for morality and law, he never made… it either as a standard of morality or law” (701). Bentham, following David Hume, argues that moral law is actually a “theological myth” and should be thrown away (701). Hocutt argues that once the principle of utility is placed under Bentham’s understanding of morality, we find that he does not think it a moral law, but a law made from human reason.
Bentham makes it clear that he is writing about the happiness of communities, rather than the happiness of individuals in the first few lines of Principles of Morals and Legislation. Although the principle does apply to private individuals in their daily decision-making, Bentham is primarily concerned about applying the principle to “every measure of government” (1.2). Therefore, Bentham writes in terms of thinking of the happiness of entire communities rather than exclusively individual interests. He does argue however that the interest of the community is “the sum of the interests of the several members who compose it” (1.4). So in order to know the interests of the community, one must consider the interests of the individuals that make up the community first. Keeping the interest of the individuals in mind, the government passes legislation that hopefully increases the pleasure of the greatest number of individuals in the community. A governmental action “may be… conformable to the principle of utility” when “the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it” (1.6). So to be moral by the standard of the principle of utility, the legislation must bring about more pleasure than it does pain for the community as a whole.
Since “pleasures… and the avoidance of pains, are then ends the legislator has in view,” Bentham offers governing bodies Utilitarian Calculus as a standard of measurement (4.1). Utilitarian Calculus is the formula that measures the amount of pleasure and pain in a given action. In this formula we give a numerical value for each decision a government or an individual makes. There are seven factors to consider when using the Utilitarian Calculus for a governing body; the first four factors can be used specifically for “a person considered by himself” and for determining the act’s pleasure/pain value “by itself” (4.2). For clarity, these four factors are used to determine the pain or pleasure of one specific act and are not used to determine the effects of other acts that result from the act considered. They are as follows: (1) The act’s intensity, (2) The act’s duration, (3) The act’s certainty or uncertainty, (4) The act’s propinquity or remoteness. Wesley C. Mitchell clarifies the intensity and duration factors, “The unity of intensity is the faintest sensation that can be distinguished to be pleasure or pain; the unity of duration is a moment of time” (165). The four factors need to be considered and each assigned a numerical value before making a decision. If the sum of these four factors is high, then the action is worth carrying out. If the sum is low, then the action is not worth carrying out.
Bentham offers the next two factors for considering the repercussions of the action in question. The first of which is “fecundity,” or the “chance [the act in question] has of being followed by sensations [i.e., pleasure or pain] of the same kind” (4.3). If the act in question is climbing a tree, then we ask if climbing the tree will bring about other pleasures like the pleasure gained in climbing. If it brings about other sensations of the same kind, for example the pleasurable memories of climbing, then this needs to be noted in the formula. Bentham’s second of these factors is “purity,” or “the chance [the act in question] has of not being followed by sensations [i.e., pleasure or pain] of the opposite kind” (4.3). For example, if playing with a ball in the yard is pleasurable and the ball falls in the road, we decide we should retrieve the ball from the road. However, upon scrutinizing the situation, we deduce that if we walk in the road, there is a high probability of being hit by a car. Hence, the “purity” of the situation is low, because the possible pain of being hit by a car accompanies the pleasure of retrieving the ball and playing again.
Bentham offers “extent” as the last factor of Utilitarian Calculus. He defines “extent” as, “The number of persons to whom [the act in question] extends; or…who are affected by it” (4.4). Hence, the factor says a pleasure pain calculation must be made for all of the people an act affects. So the pleasure or pain for each person or social group within each county within each state must be considered. This factor is especially helpful for governmental bodies when they use the Utilitarian Calculus, for they make decisions that affect multitudes of people.
After going over a tremendously thorough account of applying these factors, Bentham claims that the calculus “is not… expected to… be strictly pursued previously to every moral judgment” (4.6). If the calculus were carried out prior to every judgment, there would be almost no time to actually make any decisions. I suppose that Bentham wants to use the calculus on situations that will have a large effect on a great number of people. So for small decisions, Utilitarian Calculus need not be used, but for large ones it should be carried out.
The underlying idea of Utilitarian Calculus is the principle of utility and the truth of the pain/pleasure dichotomy of the human condition. All acts lead towards either pain or pleasure, and we must know which one our decisions will bring about. In addition, he claims that the apprehension of pleasure and the avoidance of pain are the basis of “reform[ed]” morality. Hence, Bentham composes a formula to measure the pain or pleasure of potential actions. The formula includes the factors intensity, duration, certainty or uncertainty, propinquity, fecundity, purity, and extent. Between all of these factors, we derive a numerical value that determines the level of the pain or pleasure of the decision at hand.
Criticisms of Bentham
There are three fundamental problems with the Utilitarian Calculus, the first of which is that it is based upon a faulty principle. We established earlier that Bentham divides the human condition into pleasure and pain. The principle of utility is not a sound understanding of the world, because the concepts of the human condition go beyond that of pleasure and pain. Further, there can be goods that are worth possessing despite the accompanying pain. Bentham claims that pleasure and pain are the two “masters” that govern mankind, but it does not seem that everything can be boiled down to these two things.
The principle of utility states that morality is based on increasing, “the greatest happiness of the greatest number [of people]” (A Fragment). Happiness here is defined as pleasure, as established earlier. However, there seem to be goods that are not made valuable in virtue of their bestowing pleasure. Some goods are so beneficial that even if pain accompanies them, they are worth having. For example, if a husband remains faithful to his cantankerous or malicious wife when he is tempted to have an affair with another woman, we may think this is good. Let us even say there is a strong possibility of not being caught, so there would be little potential pain. In the face of sensual pleasure he chooses to be faithful to his wife, even though she gives him no delight. Marital faithfulness strongly seems to be good despite the fact that it could bring about tremendous pain.
The second problem with the Utilitarian Calculus, it seems incredibly difficult and ineffective to implement. If one were to apply the seven-step formula to each situation in everyday life, he or she could never get anything done, for one would be busy calculating one’s actions. Hence, the formula does not work in everyday life. But one may note that Bentham intends for the calculus to be used in the governmental sphere so one may think it should work there. However, like one trying to use the calculus in everyday life, the formula used in the government would be even more ineffective.
The interworking of a government, such as parliament, is extremely complex “per se” or by definition. If one were to implement Utilitarian Calculus in this kind of setting, one should expect the legislation process to take even longer. It would be burdensome and time consuming for some intern to come up with an accurate equation for passing legislation on, for example, fixing roadways. Moreover, once an issue was calculated using the formula, the numbers associated with the seven factors would be up for debate. So not only would the formula draw out the legislation process, it would also exacerbate the debate. Hence, the formula does not seem practical in a real world setting.
However, Bentham does argue that the calculus should not be “strictly pursued” for “every legislative or judicial operation” (4.6). It is key that we understand Bentham does not desire this to be used for every issue. Had Bentham argued that the calculus should be implemented in all situations, his argument would be weak, for we established earlier that it would be temporally improbable. Luckily, he foresaw this lurking objection. He does argue though, “[The calculus] may, however, be always kept in view: and as near as the process actually pursued on these occasions approaches to it, so near will such process approach to the character of an exact one” (4.6). So when a situation presents itself to legislators in which the calculus is applicable, they should keep it close in their mind. In many or most cases, they do not actually carrying the formula out step by step. But why keep it close at mind if legislators never actually go through it step by step? Mathematical formulas seem to work only when one carries out all of the required steps. I cannot merely keep algebra “in view” and correctly complete algebra equations; I must use the steps exactly as they appear. It does not seem wise to give a formula then argue to just keep it in mind when making decisions. Perhaps it would be best to present the principle of utility as that which must be kept in view.
The final problem with the Utilitarian Calculus is that Bentham’s seventh factor is not knowable. We can never know what Bentham calls the “extent” of decisions. Mitchell claims that this “step is more complicated” than the others, for “not all people are affected in the same way” (166). Because there is not uniformity of sensation for groups of people, this is especially true for governing bodies when they make decisions. The “extent” principle says that a decision maker should consider all the pains and pleasures those persons affected by the decision will experience. However, this simply does not seem within the realm of our understanding, especially when one assigns a numerical value to it. In the domain of government, their reach is too wide to accurately assume who all will be affected and how they will respond. The speculation on how much pleasure individuals will gain from legislation ends up being highly subjective and open to an extensive debate. Hence, governing bodies cannot know definitively the how their decisions will affect the public, at least accurately enough to assign numerical value to it.
While Utilitarian Calculus is neither time effective, nor correct in defining pleasure and pain as our moral standard, it does give us a something to consider when making decisions. The calculus may not be our primary reason for carrying out a decision, but it can and should be considered, especially the last factor, “extent.” If there is a decision at hand that will affect many people, it makes sense to at least attempt to see how the decision will help or hurt them, even if we cannot know entirely how it will affect each person. Furthermore, the pleasure and pain dichotomy ought to be considered as well. When carrying out tasks or making decisions, the amount of pain or pleasure the decision brings about should be a consideration. Even though there could possibly be a decision that brings about great pleasure at the expense of a little pain, we can still be open to not carrying out that decision. Because we do not devote ourselves entirely to this moral theory, we are open to more possibilities. Hence, Utilitarian Calculus, especially “extent,” is helpful when considered, but it should not be the primary reason we make a decision.
Bentham, Jeremy, A Fragment on Government (1776), as appears in Classics in Political Philosophy.
Bentham, Jeremy, Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), as appears in Classics in Political Philosophy.
Fieser, James, ed., Classics in Political Philosophy (www.utm.edu/staff/jfieser/class -- retrieved 4/18/2016).
Hocutt, Max. “Was Bentham a Utilitarian?” Canadian Journal of Political Science 38.3 (2005): 697-717. Web.
Mitchell, Wesley C. “Bentham's Felicific Calculus.” Political Science Quarterly 33.2 (1918): 161–183. Web.