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Unit information: Ethics and Literature in 2015/16

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Unit name Ethics and Literature
Unit code PHIL30094
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Dr. Burch-Brown
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of Philosophy
Faculty Faculty of Arts

Description including Unit Aims

This unit brings together philosophy and literature to explore some of the things that matter most for how well human lives go. Each week we will focus on a philosophical theme, such as moral responsibility; responding to wrongdoing; agency and self-authorship; tragedy and luck; love; and virtue. We will explore these themes first and foremost through philosophical essays (and your assignments will be in the form of philosophical questions) but we will pair our philosophical readings with literary texts and films. These literary sources will give us a rich body of material through which to develop our philosophical ideas. Amongst our main topics will be love, moral responsibility and the self. What is love, and what does love demand of us? What circumstances must hold for agents to be morally responsible for what they do? What values or principles should guide us in responding to wrongdoing? To what extent are we the authors of ourselves? In what ways do external circumstances like poverty and poor relationships constrain human prospects? How can I discern what matters most to me in life? We will also spend three weeks on second-order themes. How can literature impart moral knowledge? Why do we enjoy and value tragic art? What is the connection between literary value and moral value?

Intended Learning Outcomes

At the end of the unit, students will be able to:

1. articulate, compare and critique alternative theoretical accounts of moral responsibility, retribution, and forgiveness

2. understand competing approaches to thinking about happiness and its relationship to the good life

3. think critically about some of the ways that social circumstances either promote or discourage human flourishing.

Students will have:

4. engaged thoughtfully with several classic works of literature and philosophy, and will be able to:

5. articulate their central themes.

Finally, they will be able to:

6. analyse both literary and philosophical pieces through close attention to text, compositional structure and rhetoric.

Teaching Information

12 x 1-hour lectures + 12 x 1-hour seminars.

Assessment Information

Summative assessment in three forms:

  • Essay (2,000 words) 40%.
  • Exam (2 questions in 2 hours) 50%.
  • Weekly journal 10%. Students will be asked to submit 10 entries in total over the course of the term, generally on a weekly basis prior to seminars. Entries should be 300-500 words. The student should use the journal entries to give a brief summary of one of the week’s readings, and then to reflect freely on the reading. For instance, in what ways is the author’s argument persuasive, and in what ways is it unpersuasive? What further questions does it raise, and how does it fit in with other material from the course?

No formative essays – instead, the instructor will use the weekly journal as a chance to give feedback on progress.

The journal, essay and exam will assess ILOs 1-4: (1) knowledge of the philosophical literature; (2) critical understanding of central concepts and approaches; (3) ability to philosophically analyse the main arguments in the literature; (4) skills in philosophical writing and argumentation.

Reading and References

  • Aristotle, Poetics.
  • David Hume, Enquiry Concerning Principles of Morals.
  • Harry Frankfurt, 'Taking Ourselves Seriously and Getting it Right'
  • Daniel Haybron. (2010). The Pursuit of Unhappiness. Oxford: OUP.
  • Shakespeare, William. (2008 [1940]). Merchant of Venice. London: Vintage Classics.
  • Shakespeare Behind Bars (documentary).
  • Austen, Jane. (2004 [1811]). Sense and Sensibility. London: Penguin.
  • McEwan, Ian. (2010). Solar. London: Vintage.
  • Watson, Gary (2004). Agency and Answerability. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Fischer, John Martin and Mark Ravizza. (1993) Perspectives on Moral Responsibility. London: Cornell University Press.

In addition to lectures and seminars, we will have a series of movie nights, with possible screenings including Shakespeare’s The Tempest and The Merchant of Venice, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Kushner’s Angels in America, and Hank Rogerson’s documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars.