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PHIL335 Why Be Moral?

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 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 meta-ethics 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 PHIL335
Subject Philosophy
EFTS 0.15
Points 18 points
Teaching period Semester 1 (On campus)
Domestic Tuition Fees (NZD) $913.95
International Tuition Fees (NZD) $4,073.40

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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).
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 (1,500 - 2,500 words) 30%.
    • Second essay (1,500 - 2,500 words) 30%.
    • Third essay (2,000 - 3,000 words) 35%.


  • 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)
Teaching Arrangements
Two 2-hour lecture/seminars per week, with a short coffee break halfway through.

Required: Charles Pigden, PHIL 335/406 Course book, "Why Be Moral?" in Philosophy, Literature and History (available from UniPrint or as a pdf on Blackboard).

Highly recommended texts, available from UBS:

  • Shakespeare, W. (eds Mowat, B. & Werstine, P.), Richard III: Folger Edition, Washington Square/Folger.
  • Machiavelli, Niccolo, The Prince, Oxford University Press.
  • Schofield, M. (ed) & Griffith, T. (trans), Plato: Gorgias, Menexenus, Protagoras, Cambridge University Press.
  • De Laclos, P.A.F.C. (trans Parmee, D.), Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Oxford University Press.
  • Dostoyevsky, F. M. (trans Katz, M.), Devils: Oxford World's Classics, Oxford University Press, or Dostoyevsky, F. (trans. Pevear & Volokhonsky), Demons, Vintage.
  • Dostoevsky, F. (trans Pevear & Volokhonsky), Crime & Punishment, Vintage.
  • Shakespeare, W. (eds Wells, S.W. & Davison, P.), Four Histories: Richard II / Henry IV Parts I and 2 / Henry V, Penguin Books.
  • Austen, J. (ed Kinsley, J.), Persuasion: Oxford World's Classics, Oxford University Press.
  • Wilde, Oscar, Oscar Wilde: The Major Works: Oxford World's Classics, Oxford University Press.
  • Plato (trans Waterfield, R.), Republic: Oxford World's Classics, Oxford University Press, or Plato (trans Waterfield, R.) Republic: Oxford World Classics, Oxford University Press.

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

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Semester 1

Teaching method
This paper is taught On Campus
Learning management system


Stream Days Times Weeks
A1 Monday 16:00-17:50 9-13, 15-16, 18-22
Friday 14:00-15:50 9-13, 15-22