This course explores the ’Why be Moral?’ question in Philosophy and Literature through the work of Plato, Wilde, Dostoevsky, Laclos and Shakespeare.
'Why be Moral?' is a question that dates back to Plato. Some suppose that morality
is socially necessary, a culturally evolved device that counteracts our nasty natures
and allows us to 'get along'. Others believe that morality is pernicious since it
serves as an excuse for cruelty and a prop to predatory elites. I reply that society
would be better off believing in a sane and humane morality than none at all (though
we would be better off believing in no morality rather than - say - the morality of
But even if a sensible and humane morality is socially necessary, why should I, the individual, subscribe to the myth? Or if morality is not a myth, why should I do the right thing, if the wrong thing would pay better? I reply, using examples drawn from literature, that the life of an amoralist would tend to be emotionally empty. Another anti-moral claim is the idea - preached by Hegel, Nietzsche and (perhaps) by Machiavelli - that some people, 'Napoleons' or 'great men', have the right to transcend the ordinary bounds of right and wrong. We discuss these issues in the light of Plato's dialogues (Apology, Gorgias, Protagoras and Republic) with side-glances at Karl Marx, Max Stirner, Bertrand Russell and the meta-ethics of Bolshevism.
The course concludes with some fictional amoralists and putative 'great men' - Dorian Gray from Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, Valmont and Merteuil from Laclos' Dangerous Liaisons, Raskolnikov from Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Stavrogin from Dostoevsky's Demons, Richard III, Falstaff and Prince Hal from Shakespeare's history plays and Mr William Elliot from Jane Austen's Persuasion. In case you are concerned, you don't have to read all the relevant texts - movies are sometimes an option to bring you up to speed.
|Paper title||Why Be Moral?|
|Teaching period||First Semester|
|Domestic Tuition Fees (NZD)||$868.95|
|International Tuition Fees (NZD)||$3,656.70|
- One 200-level PHIL, CLAS, GREK or LATN paper
- PHIL 406
- Schedule C
- Arts and Music
- This is a third-year paper targeted especially at students of Philosophy, Politics and Classics and at students majoring in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE).
- More information link
- View more information on the Department of Philosophy's website
- Teaching staff
- Associate Professor Charles Pigden
- Paper Structure
- Two 2-hour lecture/seminars per week, plus three essays.
- In-class contributions: Attendance, class discussion and sometimes an optional presentation 5%.
- Internal assessment: Students will write three essays during the course,
chosen from a list of topics prepared by the lecturer.
- First essay (2,500 words maximum) 30%.
- Second essay (2,500 words maximum) 30%.
- Third essay (3,000 words maximum) 35%.
- Teaching Arrangements
- Two 2-hour lecture/seminars per week, with a short coffee break halfway through.
- Charles Pigden PHIL 335 Course book, "Why Be Moral?" in Philosophy, Literature and History (available from uniprint or as a pdf on Blackboard).
- Course outline
- Why Be Moral? (Bradley and Prichard)
- Socrates on virtue and happiness. (Plato: Apology, Crito)
- The function of morality in Protagoras' 'Great Speech' (Plato: Protagoras)
- Thrasymachus 'Justice is the Advantage of the Stronger' (Plato: Republic)
- Polus on rhetoric and tyranny (Plato: Gorgias)
- Callicles and why 'the strong' ought to rule (Plato: Gorgias)
- Glaucon's challenge - does it pay to be just? (Plato: Republic)
- Bertrand Russell and humanistic amoralism.
- Bertrand Russell and the meta-ethics of Bolshevism (Russell on Ethics)
- Truth in literature
- McGinn, Oscar Wilde and Dorian Gray. 'For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?' (Wilde: The Picture of Dorian Gray)
- Two amoralists: Merteuil and Valmont. (Laclos: Dangerous Liaisons).
- Raskolnikov and the Napoleon Idea (Dostoevsky: Crime and Punishment)
- Stavrogin: amoralist superman (Dostoevsky: Demons)
- Machiavels versus Machavellians (Shakespeare: Richard III, Henry IV parts 1 & 2, Henry V)
- Falstaff and Prince Hal: the amoralist and the Machiavellian prince (Shakespeare: Richard III, Henry IV parts 1 & 2, Henry V)
- Hume, Jane Austen and a sensible knave (Jane Austen: Persuasion).
- Graduate Attributes Emphasised
- Global perspective, Interdisciplinary perspective, Scholarship, Communication, Critical
thinking, Cultural understanding, Ethics, Self-motivation.
View more information about Otago's graduate attributes.
- Learning Outcomes
- Students who successfully complete the paper will acquire
- A critical understanding of the ideas, theses and themes discussed in this paper
- Some knowledge of ancient philosophy, specifically Plato, plus an acquaintance with some great works of world literature, specifically those of Wilde, Laclos, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare and Austen, and the relevance of these works to moral and political questions
- An enhanced knowledge of world culture and world history
- Enhanced literary sensitivity and enhanced logical, analytical, communicative and writing skills