Resources for Students

Here is an introductory handout on arguments.

Every philosopher with a webpage links to Jim Pryor’s guide to writing a philosophy paper, because it is an outstanding resource.

Wait! Don’t go to wikipedia! Try the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy instead. It has clear, comprehensive, rigorous overviews of nearly all major philosophical topics and figures.

Everyone who teaches you writing will point you to Strunk and White. Read Chapter II. But also beware.

In an attempt to make an original contribution to your success as a writer (of philosophy or anything else), let me point you to Garner’s Modern American Usage. It is an exhaustive resource. Many philosophers haven’t discovered it yet, and for that they are worse off. If you’re jaded by the Oxford Comma wars, take a look at Garner’s four-page entry on phrasal adjectives.

I used to think that it was wrong, wrong, wrong to put two spaces after a period in a word processor. But I was wrong.

My Teaching

Here are some student evaluations of my teaching from my time at OSU.

Honors Introduction to Philosophy (OSU)
here’s a flyer
Philosophy tackles some of the most exciting and foundational of human questions. In this course we will explore several of those questions, including: what is the nature of the mind? What are the limits of our knowledge of the world? Does God exist? Is morality objective, or is it in some sense subjective or relative? We will also select a few more specific moral topics to examine in depth; possibilities here might include the justifiability of criminal punishment, or the ethics of biomedical research. This broad range of topics will provide an introduction to the subject matter of philosophy, while also introducing you to the way that philosophers discuss, think, and write about these topics.

Political Philosophy (OSU)
here’s a flyer
This course explores foundational philosophical questions about politics. We will make a special effort to combine abstract philosophical theorizing with attention to the way these issues surface in contemporary American society. Some of the questions we will explore: How is the state’s authority justified? Is authority ever legitimate? When and why is civil disobedience permissible? Can criminal punishment be justified? How does massive racial inequality in criminal punishment in our society affect our view of the practice? Is the state obligated to promote equality? Is there a tension between the pursuit of equality and individual freedom?

Introduction to Ethics (OSU, UCLA Extension)
What is the right thing to do? What makes an action right or wrong? And why think there really is any right or wrong, anyway? This course examines some of the most important and exciting philosophical answers to these questions. You might notice that there’s substantial variation among these three questions. The first is a question about what moral principles we should follow; the other two are questions about the status or grounding of those moral principles. The first can seem more immediately, practically relevant: you might walk out the door and apply one of the moral principles that we study in class. I hope to convince you that the second question is of equal practical importance: it matters whether morality has a good foundation or not, and it matters what that foundation is.

Advanced Moral Philosophy (OSU)
This course surveys the major currents in moral philosophy through the 20th and early 21st century, with a focus on metaethical issues. Metaethics focuses on the nature and status of morality, addressing questions like: What makes our moral claims—which seem to be claims about what is good, right, wrong, and so on—true or false? Are qualities like goodness, rightness, wrongness, and so on real features of the world? If so, what do those qualities amount to? If not, how do we make sense of the moral claims and arguments that we make in ordinary life? Later in the course, we will consider some closely related questions about the nature of practical reasoning: the way that we deliberate about what to do. Authors we read will include, among others, G. E. Moore, A. J. Ayer, Philippa Foot, Elizabeth Anscombe, and Bernard Williams.

Theories of Punishment (Yale, California Institution for Women/UCLA)
Here are a few questions you could ask about the costly, complex social practice of punishment:
  • Is punishment ever justified?
  • If so, under what conditions is it justified?
  • What ends can punishment accomplish?
  • Who ought to be punished?
  • What sorts of punishments should be imposed?
  • How severe should those punishments be?
A theory of punishment aims to answer these questions in a systematic way (for the final three questions, a theory aims to provide a systematic account of the relevant considerations). In this course we will examine a range of (more or less successful) attempts to construct such a theory. We’ll begin with a survey of modern liberal and utilitarian thinkers on punishment, before diving into the deeply skeptical accounts found in Nietzsche and Foucault. Finally we’ll turn to 20th (and 21st) century analytic philosophy’s attempts to construct some systematic justification of punishment.
These camps don’t engage with each other very directly. (The analytic philosophers are worse on that score.) The hope is that by putting these thinkers into direct contact, we’ll be able to make some progress understanding a complex, troubling social phenomenon. Thus, while reading Nietzsche and Foucault, we’ll be asking ourselves whether and how their wide-ranging discussions bear on whether a society could ever be justified in punishing wrongdoers. And while reading the analytic philosophers we’ll be asking whether and how they can meet the challenges posed by Nietzsche and Foucault.

Directed Studies: Philosophy, Plato–Aquinas (Yale)
Course Soundtrack

Introduction to Philosophy of Religion (UCLA Extension)
In this course we will investigate religious questions from a philosophical perspective. These questions are at the core of a wide range of religious traditions: what is the nature of religious belief? What is the nature of God? Does God exist? If God does exist, why is evil allowed to exist in the world?
These questions fall into two broad categories. First there are positive arguments aimed at establishing religious conclusions. The arguments we will focus on aim to establish that God exists, although we will also look at issues surrounding God’s nature and the nature of religious faith. Second, there are negative, skeptical arguments: arguments aimed at showing that there is or could be no God. Here we will devote extensive attention to the ‘problem of evil’: the existence of this evil appears to be in conflict with there existence of an omnipotent, benevolent God.
We will approach these questions from a Western and—importantly—philosophical— tradition. Philosophers within that tradition (including many prominent religious figures) aim to establish conclusions through careful rational argument rather than through appeal to revelation. All of the arguments we will discuss have long histories in Western philosophical thought. Precisely because they have been the subject of so much discussion and scrutiny, these arguments serve as an excellent introduction to philosophy’s methods of careful, rational argument.

Contemporary Moral Issues (UCLA Extension)
This course will investigate a range of moral questions that arise in contemporary society, focusing in particular on medical and environmental concerns. In addition to discussing perennial issues like abortion, euthanasia, and cloning, we will discuss questions like: Is genetic enhancement of human beings justifiable? As advances in neuroscience reveal more and more about the brain’s functioning, can we really maintain the view that we have free will? Is genetic modification of crops morally acceptable? Do we have a duty to conserve the natural world, even at the expense of human advancement? In this class we will critically investigate the arguments and principles invoked in these debates. Our goal will not be to settle the questions we examine, but to expand our understanding of them and to elevate the level of debate about them.