I have vivid memories as a student of when, shortly after midterms and often coinciding with varying degrees of burnout, the next semester’s schedule would come out. Like many students, I often engaged in a refreshing form of escapism, scrolling through the catalogue perusing course descriptions and daydreaming about the classes I might take. This experience has left its mark on how I now write my own course descriptions, which are usually the first glimpse my students catch of both me and the course we may find ourselves in together. For those who register, it’s my opening statement in our semester long dialogue. Consequently, in addition to infusing these descriptions with something of my own personality and passion for the topic, I make the format of the description a dialogue, speaking directly to the student. I try to be both interesting and insightful, but more importantly I aim to afflict the reader with an itch, to create questions for them that they can’t help but ponder. I craft my descriptions with the hope that readers will pay for them with a small part of their piece of mind, unable to pass by without beginning to reflect on the substantive questions that the course seeks to address—which is of course a primary goal of my courses overall.

Introduction to Philosophy

  • Summer 2015

  • Summer 2016 (x2)

Browsing through the course catalogue right now you might be like many others and think to yourself, “What exactly IS philosophy anyway?” While all western academic disciplines descend from philosophy, it’s perfectly possible to graduate from college today without knowing that philosophy means something more than one’s personal take on life. What is not possible for a college graduate or for any other rationally functional human being, however, is to avoid doing philosophy. Philosophy pervades your life, your relationships, desires, beliefs, and actions; it’s in the food you eat, the books you read, the movies you watch, the sports you play; it lingers about in that new housing development your parents just moved into, wanders with the tourists who have begun pouring into remote parts of Nepal; it accompanied the police officer who either did or didn’t let you off the hook the last time you blew through a pink light; and it almost certainly manifests itself in your choice of whether to take this class.

 

Or at least, that’s my claim. The content of this course will draw on classical and contemporary philosophical texts, books, movies, music, art, and other media in an extended argument intended to accomplish two goals. The first is to convince you that my claim is correct – you already are and always have been doing philosophy. The second is to help you be more skillful at it.

Introduction to Ethics

  • Fall 2015

  • Spring 2016

We’re all familiar with giving reasons to others in order to justify our actions - why did you pick this major? why didn’t show up at our dinner last night? why are you working on X instead of Y right now? We also tend to have a fine nose for detecting when something wrong has been done to us personally - they had no business treating me that way; my professor’s grading is way too strict; how dare that officer give me a parking ticket when I’ve been here less than two hours! Many of us, however, are far less comfortable bringing these two things together and giving reasons to justify moral action in general. What are the criteria for deciding what is right and what is wrong? How does one decide what is right for themselves, for others, or for an entire community? What are our moral obligations with regard to one another? What makes a good life and what are the limits we ought to recognize in our individual pursuit of the good life? Why should one be moral?

 

This class will be a substantive introduction to the philosophical study of ethics. In thinking about morality, perhaps you’re one of those who’s satisfied simply going with your gut. If so, this class will demand that you explain why you think it’s ok to just go with your gut—and what should we do when your gut disagrees with other people’s gut—especially when the stakes are existential? That is, rather than each of us simply going with our gut feelings, we’re going to think about the role that reason and reflection play in figuring out what morality is and why we ought to care about morality.

 

We will focus on the classic works that set the normative ethical agenda in philosophy, including works by Aristotle, Kant, and Mill, together with a brief examination of contemporary extensions of their theories. Intertwined will be a look at some of the applications or concrete implications of these various approaches, in particular with regard to authenticity, social justice, and the environment.

Philosophy of Perception (Upper-Division)

  • Fall 2013

Right now you’re staring at a computer, though probably not paying attention to it. In fact, until just now, it’s not likely that you attentively noticed the computer at all, let alone the blurry, indeterminate visual field surrounding the computer screen. You’re not even likely to have paid attention to the fact that you’re eyes are scanning over black squiggly lines. Physically, what is happening is that light is reflecting off of the objects in in your immediate vicinity, striking your cornea, and reflecting two small, fuzzy, upside-down images on your retina. Your experience, however, is radically different. You’re perceiving a rich and vivid world, familiar and meaningful, detailed and complex. Immediately—at least, before I got you to start reflecting on it, but probably even now—you’re experience is not even one of seeing words, but rather one of reading or taking in meanings.

Perception is transparent to us, normally we don’t see it; but it somehow opens us up onto the meaningful world that we do see. How does that happen? And what is it that ishappening? Are you actively doing something or are you a passive bystander, perceptually assaulted by the world? How does perception relate to beliefs and knowledge, thought and language? How do we distinguish and how do our different senses relate? In what ways is our perceptual experience similar to or different from that of non-human animals? And how do we theoretically account for what takes place when we perceive (or when wemisperceive by hallucinating or being “tricked” by an illusion)?

By quickly scanning your eyes over this paragraph, not only have we somehow entered into a conversation, but this conversation has led you to both reflect on and experience perception in a different way than you otherwise would (at least normally). The continuation of this conversation will make up the content of our semester together.

Environmental Ethics (Survey)

  • Spring 2014

  • Spring 2015 (x2)

  • Fall 2015

When Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, the environmental movement was itself relatively silent. Today, however, environmentalism is among the most pressing and prominent issues in public discourse—both local and global. Greenland’s lightning fast melt, air pollution in Beijing going literally off the chart, and the consumption practices of ordinary folks like you and me receive sustained public attention. Businesses scramble to cash in on the new appeal of being green. Mainstream religions compete with the new eco-centric religions to captivate our spiritual sensitivities and re-enchant our religious experience. The global community is caught up in the debates that inevitably precede significant social change as we wrestle with complex moral, scientific, economic, and political issues revolving around humanity’s relationship with the environment.

This course will focus on the moral dimension. We will read authors foundational to the environmental movement including John Muir and Aldo Leopold, as well as provocative contemporary moral philosophers such as Peter Singer and John Rolston Holmes. In each of these, we will explore the questions, whose interests are at stake? Is “value”something that belongs only within the human sphere? What responsibilities—on both the individual and collective level—do humans have to one another and to plants, animals, and ecosystems? What is ‘nature’? Who is most wronged by environmental degradation, and how are we to address such issues in the face of limited cooperation and other problems of collective action?

Environmental Ethics (Upper-Division)

  • Spring 2016

Holmes Rolston III said, “In the next millennium, it will not be enough to be a good ‘citizen,’ or a ‘humanist,’ because neither of those terms have enough ‘nature,’ enough ‘earthiness’ in them. . . . From here onward, there is no such thing as civic competence without ecological competence.” This course is will focus on developing the ethical side of your ecological competence. We will begin with the major questions that moral philosophers have asked concerning the nature of moral status and value and how these concepts apply to human and non-human nature. Additionally, students will investigate, articulate, and take up the contemporary debates in areas of environmental ethics that are of particular interest to them. This student interest and research will then dictate the direction we go in the second half of the semester. Throughout, we will pay special attention to the practical stakes involved, particular with regard to conflict and justice.

Decentralized Learning:

As noted in the description, this course will utilize decentralized pedagogical elements. Students will work in partnership with me to design significant portions of the course—researching, selecting readings, leading class sessions, and designing a final project. I will work closely with you to facilitate your being able to do this.

Environmental Politics, Policy, and Ethics (Interdisciplinary)

  • Fall 2012

  • Summer 2013

Environmentalism is among the most pressing and prominent issues in public discourse—both local and global. Conservation, recycling, and stewardship feature prominently in daily life; issues like global climate change, pollution, and consumption receive sustained public attention; businesses scramble to cash in on the new appeal of being green. Despite the focus and changes underway, the global community is caught up in the debates that inevitably precede significant social change as we wrestle with complex moral, scientific, economic, and political issues revolving around humanity’s relationship with the environment.

This course will focus on three integrated dimensions of the global debate: the politics and institutions involved; the policies – both implemented and planned – meant to address environmental issues; and the various moral and religious outlooks that give meaning and justification to our actions. Along the way we will explore questions such as, whose interests are at stake? Who are the major actors in the global debate and what are they saying? How can we best combine economic, political, and scientific concepts with ethical analysis to yield solid proposals regarding such things as social justice, global warming, pollution, animal rights, endangered species, food and agricultural policy, ecotourism, and geoengineering? Who is most wronged by environmental degradation, and how are we to address such issues in the face of limited cooperation and other problems of collective action? Is “value” something that belongs only within the human sphere? What responsibilities—on both the individual and collective level—do humans have to one another and to plants, animals, and ecosystems? How do we negotiate the terrain between these responsibilities and feasible policy?

Social and Political Philosophy (Upper-Division)

  • Fall 2013

This course will examine the nature and challenge of social justice as it bears on political life, understood in the rich and broad sense articulated by Iris Marion Young – namely, as “includ[ing] all aspects of institutional organization, public action, social practices and habits, and cultural means insofar as they are potentially subject to collective evaluation and decision-making.” 

 

We tend to think that socially just practices and institutions are committed to certain forms of equality – that when a person or group is treated as less than an “equal among equals,” subject to domination, degradation, exclusion, or even indifference, this is often a matter of social injustice.  Yet if we are, as persons, to be regarded as equals, in what ways are we to be so regarded, and with respect to what opportunities, resources, and liberties? As actual people in real times and places, we are marked by a vast array of differences (e.g., of power, vulnerability, need, gender, culture, ethnicity).  Which differences, if any, should make a difference, and what difference should they make in the design of just practices and arrangements?  When does recognizing and responding to “facts” of difference jeopardize the commitment to equal regard and hence to justice; when is it – to the contrary – a requirement of justice, properly understood?  What is the status of these “facts,” and are our categories of “difference” themselves sometimes normatively loaded in ways that are problematic – that subvert rather than support social and political justice?  We will study these and other questions through the study of alternative theories of ‘equality’ and ‘justice’; the “dilemma of difference”; the perils of privilege and prejudice; the nature of structural (or systemic) oppression;  the symptoms and costs of psychological oppression, and the toll of violence.  We will bring theoretical insight to bear on real-life challenges of gender and sexuality, education, safe and meaningful work, and the media.

Global Justice (Survey)

  • Summer 2012

  • Spring 2014

  • Fall 2014

One doesn’t get far in discussing world affairs—whether climate change, conflict in the
Middle East, the Euro crisis, or technological innovation—without discussing issues of
poverty, inequality, and humanitarian aid. Hand in hand with the questions of policy are the ethical questions concerning global justice: What is justice in a globally
interconnected world? How ought we as individuals, societies, and governments to
respond to 1.5 billion people living in absolute poverty? Do we have different moral
duties toward our neighbors or fellow citizens than we do toward foreigners? Is global
inequality—whether defined in terms of income, capability, or health—a matter of
justice? What is the role of human rights in securing global justice? Are our current
institutions sufficient to address global challenges such as environmental degradation,
health care, and immigration?

In this course we will examine these and other questions as we read, discuss, and write on contemporary moral philosophers focused on global justice.

History of Modern Philosophy (Survey)

  • Fall 2009

  • Spring 2010

Renee Descartes is one of the most prominent contributors to the scientific method. Turning his methodology on human existence he dropped a philosophical bombshell on history with his declaration of “Cogito ergo sum” – I think, therefor I am. By the 20th century this famous phrase was endlessly parodied and repurposed as a slogan for authentic identity formation – everything from Jeff Funk’s composition “I swing the eighth note, therefore I am” to Barbara Kruger’s political art piece “I shop, therefore I am.” Descartes casts a philosophical, scientific, and cultural shadow that stretches to our day.

This course is designed to acquaint you with the birth and development of the metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical ideas that began with Descartes – many of which (you will find) are firmly lodged in your common sense understanding. We will do this by exploring key philosophical texts that have shaped Western culture and understanding since the 16th century. This will include the debate that raged between rationalists and empiricists, Kant’s famous synthesis and resolution to this debate, and also subsequent attempts to reject the very framework within which the debate took place. Not ignoring the more contemporary debates, we will weave into each unit examples of how the classic texts have been taken up in or influenced the philosophical dialogue of the 20th century. Along the way, students will become basically familiar with major ideas and positions in modern philosophy.

Courses Taught

Introduction to Philosophy

Introduction to Ethics

Philosophy of Perception (Upper-Division)

Environmental Ethics (Survey)

Environmental Ethics (Upper-Division)

Environmental Ethics, Politics, and Policy

Social and Political Philosophy

Global Justice

History of Modern Philosophy

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Critical Thinking

All of us to one degree or another feel partial toward ourselves. We’re often prone to maximize our strengths and minimize our weaknesses. This is especially true when we find ourselves in a disagreement with others. What’s more, we often hold our beliefs and opinions (whether weighty or trivial) as internal to our identity, an important part of who we are. Two significant things result from this collusion: first, we struggle to honestly evaluate our own beliefs and opinions; and second, we struggle to make constructive use of others’ challenges to our beliefs and opinions.

No single class is going to change this. But in this class we’re going to work hard to help you along the path. We will take as our guide Socrates’ motto that the unexamined life is not worth living and focus in on what rational examination is and how to do it well. Specifically, we’ll look at arguments in a wide variety of formats from philosophical essays to op-ed pieces to film. Your own arguments will be of particular concern to us. This of course means that you’ll be making lots of arguments – negative, positive, collaborative, and original. It also means you’ll be defending, revising, and undoubtedly, abandoning some of them as well.

Philosophical Writing

Doing philosophy today is not a separate task from writing philosophy. Writing philosophy is not a separate task from analytically reading philosophy. In that sense, philosophy remains what it began as in ancient Greece: essentially dialogic. What makes it dynamic and interesting is the way our interests, passions, and lives become the content for that dialogue. Consequently, we’ll take the ancient Athenian agora as ambient inspiration and spend fourteen weeks reading and arguing about philosophical themes that you find interesting. Our list of readings (past the first unit) is a construction zone to which you will contribute your labor. Again like the philosophical arguments made in the agora, your writing will be subjected to the review and criticism of your peers. Weekly writing assignments will function as the practical backdrop against which you will incrementally write a highly revised term paper on a philosophical subject of your choice.

Phenomenology

Renee Descartes is one of the most prominent contributors to the scientific method. Turning his methodology on human existence he dropped a philosophical bombshell on history with his declaration of “Cogito ergo sum” – I think, therefor I am. By the 20th century this famous phrase was endlessly parodied and repurposed as a slogan for authentic identity formation – everything from Jeff Funk’s composition “I swing the eighth note, therefore I am” to Barbara Kruger’s political art piece “I shop, therefore I am.” Descartes casts a philosophical, scientific, and cultural shadow that stretches to our day.

This course is designed to acquaint you with the birth and development of the metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical ideas that began with Descartes – many of which (you will find) are firmly lodged in your common sense understanding. We will do this by exploring key philosophical texts that have shaped Western culture and understanding since the 16th century. This will include the debate that raged between rationalists and empiricists, Kant’s famous synthesis and resolution to this debate, and also subsequent attempts to reject the very framework within which the debate took place. Not ignoring the more contemporary debates, we will weave into each unit examples of how the classic texts have been taken up in or influenced the philosophical dialogue of the 20th century. Along the way, students will become basically familiar with major ideas and positions in modern philosophy.

Existentialism

Existentialism perhaps more than any other movement in philosophy has captured and continues to hold sway over the public imagination. Rooted in philosophy, it became something of an aesthetic movement in the mid- to late twentieth century (stereotypically associated with black berets, smoky cafes, unnerving plays, works of art, literature, film and music). In some ways it resurrected aspects of ancient philosophy, placing a premium on working out a meaningful and consistent way to live, coherently uniting one’s intellectual and passionate lives. While there is no consistent set of doctrines or unified methodology to existentialist philosophy, there are a number of common themes and problems, particularly revolving around the issues of freedom and the contemporary threat of nihilism. In this class we’ll not only examine key existentialist texts addressing these themes, but also leaven our content with some of the corresponding artistic productions.