The Good Life (Spring 2011) - Syllabus

Great Ethical Traditions: The Good Life

PHIL 264-01 | ID 21308 | TR 2:00-3:50 | Room: Craig-Lee 231 | Spring 2011

Course Syllabus

Instructor: Dr. Aaron Smuts | | office hours: 219 Alger Hall, 12:00-1:50 T


This class will focus on one of the most fundamental questions in moral philosophy: What makes a life good for the one who lives it? To answer this question is to provide a theory of well-being. We will study four different types of answers: Hedonism (pleasure), Preferentism (desire-satisfaction), Perfectionism (perfecting human nature), and Objective List theories.

The readings will come from a mix of classical and contemporary sources. In addition to philosophy, we will read some work from psychology and economics. We'll be thinking about experience machines, deceived business men, porky pig, sadistic killers of children, ascetic hermits, evil universes, grass counters, strangers on trains, drug addicts, and the life of James Dean.

Along the way we explore several related issues. Is there anything common to the experiences that we call "pleasures"? Is death bad for the one who dies? Can you can be harmed after your death? Can one have a good but meaningless life? What is the meaning of life? Is it better to die in the prime of life than after a period of moderate decline?


There are three required texts for this course:

  1. E. D. Klemke (Editor), Steven M. Cahn (Editor). The Meaning of Life: A Reader. Oxford UP, 2007. ISBN 0195327306. [ML]
  2. Steven M. Cahn (Editor), Christine Vitrano (Editor). Happiness: Classic and Contemporary Readings in Philosophy. Oxford UP, 2007. ISBN 0195321405. [HCC]
  3. Fred Feldman. Pleasure and the Good Life: Concerning the Nature, Varieties, and Plausibility of Hedonism. Oxford UP, 2006. ISBN 0199297606. [PGL]

There is one optional book:

  1. Andrew Lawrence Roberts. The Thinking Student's Guide to College: 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education. University Of Chicago Press, 2010. ISBN-10: 0226721159.

I will post numerous additional readings on Blackboard. [BB]


There will be two different forms of coursework: (best 20 out of 26) daily quizzes and three take-home examinations. I will give a short quiz at the beginning of each class that will require one or two sentence answers. The quizzes are closed-book, but open-note. The bulk of your grade comes from the take-home exams. All assignments must be completed to pass the course.

Quizzes (10%) + first exam (25%) + late-term exam (30%) + final exam (35%).

Attendance Policy

If you miss 6 or more classes, you will receive a 0 for your quiz grade. If you miss 12 or more classes, you will receive an F for the course. (There are no excused or unexcused absences. But please talk to me if something major comes up that dramatically effect your attendance.)

Academic Honesty

Plagiarism—claiming someone else’s ideas or written work as your own—will not be tolerated. The tests are not collaborative. All sources must be cited. Outside research is not forbidden, but none of the assignments ask for sources outside the assigned readings. Anyone caught cheating will be given a failing grade in the course. I will also request that you be expelled from the college.

Class Schedule

(There will be a quiz every class on the required reading for that day.)

Topic I: The Concept of Well-being

  • Week 1
    • C1 (T: 1/25) Introduction
      • Epictetus, "The Handbook" [BB]
      • Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil #200 [BB]
    • CX (R: 1/27) SNOW DAY #1
  • Week 2
    • CX (T: 2/1) SNOW DAY #2
    • C2 (R: 2/3) The Good Life
      • Feldman, "The Quest for the Good Life" [PGL, ch. 1, pp. 1-21]
      • Diener, Wirtz, and Oishi, "The James Dean Effect" [BB]
      • {Optional: Sumner, "The Concept of Welfare" (WHE ch. 1, pp. 1-26) [BB]}
      • {Optional: Haybron, "What Do We Want from a Theory of Happiness?" [BB]}

Topic II: Hedonism

  • Week 3
    • C3 (T: 2/8) Default Hedonism
      • Feldman, "Hedonism: A Preliminary Formulation" [PGL, ch. 2, pp. 21-38]
    • C4 (R: 2/10) Qualitative Hedonism
      • Mill, "What Utilitarianism Is" [HCC, pp. 121-133]
      • Homer, "Circe's Pigs" (from bk. 10 of the Odyssey) [BB]
  • Week 4
    • C5 (T: 2/15) The Experience Machine and Other Objections
      • Nozick, "Happiness" [BB]
      • {Optional: Feldman, "Classic Objections to Hedonism" [PGL, ch. 3, pp. 38-52]}
    • C6 (R: 2/17) Attitudinal Hedonism
      • Feldman, "Attitudinal Hedonism" [PGL, ch. 4, pp. 55-79]
  • Week 5
    • C7 (T: 2/22) Replies
      • Feldman, "Replies to Some Objections" [PGL, ch. 5, pp. 108-123]
      • {Optional: Sumner, "Hedonism" (WHE ch. 4, pp.81-113) [BB]}
    • C8 (R: 2/24) Implications for Death
      • Epicurus, "Letter to Menoeceus" [BB]
      • Feldman, "Epicurus and the Evil of Death" [BB]
  • Week 6
    • C9 (T: 3/1) Practical Advice
      • Kupperman, "Myth One" (Six Myths, pp. 1-22) [BB]
      • {Optional: Haybron, "Why Hedonism is False" [HCC, pp. 173-179]}
      • {Optional: Kahneman, "Objective Happiness" [BB]}

Topic III: Preferentism

    • C10 (R: 3/3) The Desire Theory
      • Sumner, "The Desire Theory" (WHE, ch. 5, pp. 113-138) [BB]
      • {Optional: Carson, "The Desire/Preference-Satisfaction Theory of Value" [BB]}
  • Week 7
    • C11 (T: 3/8) Two Theories or One
      • Heathwood, "Desire Satisfaction and Hedonism" [BB]
      • {Optional: Heathwood, "The Reduction of Sensory Pleasure to Desire" [BB]}
      • {Optional: Smuts, "The Feels Good Theory of Pleasure" [BB]}
    • C12 (R: 3/10) Implications for Death
      • Luper, “Posthumous Harm” [BB]
      • {Optional: Pitcher, “The Misfortunes of the Dead” [BB]}

  • Week 8 SPRING BREAK (3/14-3/18)

Topic IV: Life Satisfaction Theories

  • Week 9
    • C13 (T: 3/22) Life Satisfaction Theories
      • Sumner, "Welfare and Happiness" (BB, WHE, ch. 6, pp. 138-184) [BB]
    • C14 (R: 3/24) Objections
      • Feldman, "Whole Life Satisfaction Concepts of Happiness" [BB]
  • Week 10
    • C15 (T: 3/9) Practical Implications
      • Kupperman, "Myth Two" (Six Myths, pp. 22-45) [BB]

Topic V: Objective List Theories

    • C16 (R: 3/31) Objective List Theories
      • Parfit, "What Makes Someone's Life Go Best" [BB]
      • Brave New World (excerpt) [BB]
  • Week 11
    • C17 (T: 4/5) Perfectionism
      • Aristotle, The Nicomachaen Ethics [HCC, pp. 19-34]
      • {Optional: Sumner, "Objective Theories" (WHE, ch. 3, pp. 45-81) [BB]}
    • CXX (R: 4/7) NO CLASS
  • Week 12
    • C18 (T: 4/12) Eudaimonia
      • Kraut, "Two Conceptions of Happiness" [HCC, pp. 201-222]

Topic VI: Well-being and the Meaning of Life

    • C19 (R: 4/14) The Limits of Well-being
      • Kagan, "Me and My Life" [BB]
      • {Optional: Kagan, "The Limits of Well-being" [BB]}
  • Week 13
    • C20 (T: 4/19) Subjective Meaning
      • Taylor, "The Meaning of Life" [Klemke and Cahn, pp. 134-143]
    • C21 (R: 4/21) Hybrid Theories
      • Wolf, "Happiness and Meaning: Two Aspects of the Good Life" [BB]
      • {Optional: Cahn, "Meaningless Lives" [ML, pp. 236-238]}
  • Week 14
    • C22 (T: 4/26) Meaning and God
      • Wielenberg, "God and the Meaning of Life" [BB]
    • C23 (R: 4/28) The Absurd
      • Nagel, "The Absurd" [ML, pp. 143-153]
  • Week 15
    • C24 (T: 5/3) Meaning and Suffering
      • Frankl, "Logotherapy in a Nutshell" (Man's Search for Meaning) [BB]
    • C25 (R: 5/5) Meaning and Death
      • Kaufman, "Death" [BB]
      • {Optional: Kaufman, "Death Without Dread" [BB]}