Through my teaching, I develop my students’ competence for tackling fundamentally normative or conceptual questions, which for pedagogical purposes I treat as the core, distinctive role of philosophy in the university and public life. To do this, we work together to develop their skills in careful reading, clear writing, and productive but critical conversation.
If you are yourself a teacher, feel free to borrow ideas, reading suggestions, and so forth from these syllabi as you wish. And if you have suggestions for me for how to refine this material further, I am eager to hear from you!
Sample Course Designs with Syllabi
Machine learning and robotics are advancing at a sometimes stunning pace, and bring with them urgent ethical questions. Should we build robots that have rights? What should we do about income if human labor becomes unnecessary? What is the human cost of artificial intelligence driven by ‘big data’? This course introduces students to some of the major ethical questions about technology today, and to the methods whereby philosophers investigate those questions. By the end of the course, students will understand the basic theoretical landscape of philosophical ethics, have developed more articulated views on some of the core issues in philosophical ethics, and be versed in using these theories and methods to assess cutting-edge and near-future technologies. No prior experience in philosophy is expected.
How do we judge the economic well-being of a nation, a corporation, or our world? When we make decisions between various economic policies, which criteria should we employ? In this seminar we critically examine an influential approach to navigating these questions, known as the Capability Approach, as well as a number of pertinent responses to it. This will encompass topics including inequality (economic, gendered, and racial), welfare (what it is, how or if we can measure it), and reparations. By semester’s end students should have acquired a solid understanding of the arguments that constitute the Capability Approach, its strengths and weaknesses, and some of the salient alternatives within the literature, and how this understanding can inform our responses to important socio-economic policy questions and developing challenges. They should also have acquired critical thinking skills and the capability to express their thoughts and arguments cogently and effectively.
The Luddites were a group of textile workers in England in the 19th century who took radical measures to disrupt the industrialization of their work and the obsolescence of their craft. Nowadays, ‘Luddite’ is a generic, pejorative term for a person who unreflectively rejects some technological innovation, though it still carries connotations of economic precarity and anxiety. Ours is a time of dizzying technological, and so economic, transformation, and there is no shortage of predictions about what it all means for the future – perhaps even the end – of work.
Because this is an ethics seminar, we will not focus on what the future of work is likely to be, given current trends. Rather, we will ask what the future of work should be. Which kinds of work should we abolish or automate away? Which, if any, should we preserve? One natural approach to these questions is to say that work is often a source of meaning, and so meaningful work should be protected, preserved, and expanded, while meaningless work should be automated away or abolished. We will try to unpack this idea together, and we will entertain second thoughts.
This course examines two fundamental questions at the heart of issues about expertise: what is expertise, and how should non-experts rely on experts? We will explore natural answers to both questions – roughly, that expertise is a matter of knowing things that others do not; and that non-experts should simply accept the pronouncements of experts. We will also entertain second thoughts. Along the way, we will keep an eye on one of the most fundamental values of the Enlightenment – autonomy – and see how feasible autonomy is in a world, like ours, marked by deep and complex reliance on expertise.
This book-club-style seminar is a sustained, active reading of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (Philosophische Untersuchungen), a book of immense philosophical significance, unusual form, and intensely original argumentation. The principal goal is for us – students, instructor, and guests – to come to grips with this difficult text. Unlike as in more conventional seminars, your instructor is not an expert on this particular text, but will use his background philosophical training and experience to guide our activity.
The formal requirements of this course reflect how experienced philosophers approach unfamiliar texts. In meeting those requirements, students will practice careful and close reading, and philosophical comprehension at multiple levels of granularity.
This course addresses two philosophical questions. The identity question is: what is the nature of manipulation? The ethical question is: if it’s wrong to manipulate people, why? A popular way to answer both is to say that manipulation is wrong because it undermines autonomy, and it does that because its nature is to interfere with our ability to think rationally about what we will do. In the first part of the course, we spell out this idea with rigor and entertain serious second thoughts. In the second part, we creatively apply the lessons learned to novel topics.