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PHIL406 Why Be Moral?

2021 information for papers will be published in early September. 

What is morality good for? And why should I do right if doing wrong would pay better? Plato, Laclos, Dostoevsky and Shakespeare help answer these questions.

'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 the Nazis). 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 metaethics of Bolshevism.

The paper 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?
Paper code PHIL406
Subject Philosophy
EFTS 0.1667
Points 20 points
Teaching period Second Semester
Domestic Tuition Fees (NZD) $1,142.40
International Tuition Fees (NZD) $4,661.93

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36 PHIL points at 200-level or above or 72 300-level CLAS, GREK or LATN points
PHIL 335
May not be credited together with PHIL 451 passed before 2002.
This is a 400-level paper aimed primarily at honours students in Philosophy, Politics and Classics and at students doing honours Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE).
Teaching staff
Associate Professor Charles Pigden
Paper Structure

Two 2-hour lectures/seminars per week, plus three essays.Assessment:

  • In-Class Presentations: Two in-class presentations, each worth 10% of the final grade. Presentations should take about 10 minutes' reading time
  • Internal Assessment: Students will write three essays during the course, chosen from a list of topics prepared by the lecturer.
    • First essay (2,000 - 3,000 words) 25% of the final grade
    • Second essay (2,000 - 3,000 words) 25% of the final grade
    • Third essay (2,500 - 3,500 words) 30% of the final grade
Teaching Arrangements
Two 2-hour lecture/seminars per week, with a short coffee break halfway through.

Charles Pigden, PHIL406 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, 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

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Second Semester

Teaching method
This paper is taught On Campus
Learning management system


Stream Days Times Weeks
A1 Monday 16:00-17:50 28-34, 36-41
Wednesday 17:00-18:50 28-34, 36-41