Nicomachean Ethics Essay Ideas

Essay Topic 1

Compose an analytical essay which insightfully compares and contrasts the states of moral character of those whose souls are in conditions of self-restraint and a lack of restraint. How are they related to the other states of character? How are they related to one another? With what sort of things do they struggle? How do they improve or worsen their conditions? What do they demonstrate about the nature of virtuous action and human desires?

Essay Topic 2

Of the five intellectual virtues, wisdom receives almost as much attention as practical judgment, but is simultaneously put somewhat out of the reach of human beings. In an analytical essay, examine the nature of wisdom as a virtue: its ends and objects, its purpose, and its position as an excellence or perfection as an intellectual virtue. How is it distinct from the other intellectual virtues? Why is it difficult, or...

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Paper Topics

A style sheet must be attached to all written work for this class.  Papers without it will be returned.

Paper #1:

a.  What is your opinion about which came first: virtues or moral laws?   Critique the position presented in class or offer additional arguments for the priority of virtue.  If you are theologically inclined, assess the the question from a divine standpoint.

b.  Assess the strengths and liabilities of the different approaches to virtue discussed by MacIntyre in Chapter 14.  (You may have to go back to earlier chapters for more details.)  Critics claim that these cultural differences undermines the validity of virtue ethics, because to the question "Which virtues?" one can derive many different answers.  What is your opinion about this critique?

c.  Assess the philosophical points of the story that Richard Taylor tells about the Suekil culture and their encounter with the Rehtos people.   Specifically, what does it tells us about the relationship of the virtues to moral laws?

d. Is it possible to define virtue ethics in such a way that it preserves its own autonomy as a moral theory and does not have to relie on duty or rule based ethics or utilitarianism?  In other words, can virtue ethics be defined such that there is no reference to moral laws or to utility?  Is it possible to avoid the consequentialist critique that virtues are utlimately valuable because of their consequences and not due to something intrinsic in them?

e.  What is the relationship betwen virtue and character? For this topic see Kupperman and McKinnon (chap 3).

Paper #2 (Plato)

a. Assess Socrates' argument in theMeno about the nature of the virtues and the thesis that virtue cannot be taught.

b.  Respond to John Kekes' argument in his chapter "The Socratic Ideal and its Problems." (dept. reserve=DR).  His objections to Socrates are many, so you should pick and choose in your discussion.

c.  Some commentators believe that Protagoras actually wins his debate with Socrates.  Do you agree? What does this dialogue tell us about the nature of virtue?  Check out Richard Taylor's admiration for Protagoras (DR, chap. 9).

d.  Assess Socrates' arguments about justice in the Gorgias and take into consideration Taylor's chapter on the subject (DR, chap. 6).

e.  Assess the options in the three theses on virtue presented in class.   Can Kekes defend his view that Socrates actually supports the Sufficiency Thesis?

f. What virtue(s) would Socrates have comprised if he had fled Athens rather than staying as he did? (You will have to review the Crito and the Apology for this question.) Do you think he could have left in good conscience without a violation of virtue? Include in your answer Kekes' concept of moral wisdom and the unity of the virtues.

Paper #3 (Aristotle)

1. For Aristotle why is happiness (eudaimonia) the highest good? Why do other goods, such as honor, pleasure, reason, and virtue, fail to achieve this status? What are the criteria Aristotle uses to make this determination? Do you think he is correct in his conclusions? Some have argued that there are at least two implicit criteria for the highest good: (a) it must be achieved by individuals themselves (the humanistic criterion); and (b) it must be unique to human beings. Do you think these are consistent with Aristotle’s other assumptions?

2. Choose one of the following authors. McKinnon (chap. 1), Nussbaum (Midwest Studies), and Mortimer Adler (DR Reading) all defend a form of ethical naturalism based on Aristotle. Do you think they succeed? Specifically, do they overcome of the objections of the naturalistic fallacy?  You should integrate MacIntyre's discussion of this issue, particularly pp. 56-61.

3. The movie Braveheart presents the virtue of honor in a way very different from Aristotle does. Rather than seeing it as something bestowed from the outside, here it is seen as something like one’s basic integrity. It might be defined as being true to one’s self regardless of the obstacles. Could this be the highest good instead of eudaimonia? Does it meet all of Aristotle’s criteria?

4.  Aristotle considers piety to be a moral virtue, but its object appears to be unchanging and eternal. Think of another way to look at piety that would resolve this problem.  Specifically, think of the question of whether one could have too much or too little piety.

Paper #4 (Aristotle)

1. Choose one of the virtues discussed in 1115a7-1128b36 that you believe Aristotle has analyzed incorrectly. You may have discovered that he has named it wrong, that he has got its "sphere" wrong, or that he has opposed it to its deficiency rather than to its excess. There may be other points that you have found to criticize.   Nussbaum's article in Midwest Studies might be helpful on this one.

2. What solution do you choose for the tension between eudaimonia and markarios in Book 10 of the Nicomachean Ethics? See the web reading on this topic.

3.  What are the differences between a Socratic and an Aristotelian eudaimonism?  You must include Irwin's discussion (DR, Plato's Ethics, 85-92) of Socratic hedonism in your analysis.  You should also review Kekes' discussion of Socratic eudaimonism in his chap. 2.

4. Aristotle implies that it is impossible for a stupid person to be virtuous, because "right reason" (orthos logos) or phronesis is necessary for true virtue.  As MacIntyre reminds us on p. 154, Kant believe that as long as one had a good will intelligence did not matter.  (Even though, paradoxically, reason is required for the ordering of a good will.) What about instances of mentally disadvantaged people (Down Syndrome people are good examples) appearing to be paragons of virtue while very intelligent people being complete scroundels?

5. Both Plato and Aristotle believed in the unity of the virtues: if you have one of them, you then must have all of them.  A strong version of this thesis appears absurd.  Is there anyway to reformulate the thesis so that it can be defended?  MacIntyre will be your best help on this one.

Paper #5 (presented Feb. 20, due Feb. 22)

1. Read the accounts of the following Chinese women and then a) interpret the women's experiences according to the theories Ivanhoe sets out in his article; and (b) offer your own comments about these women.  Read each of the stories and then use the ones you think make your points best.

Meng Mu--Mencius' Mother, O'Hara, pp. 41-42; Raphals, pp. 23, 33-35, 88, 120, 123-26, 217-18, 226, 255; Chi of Wei, O'Hara, pp. 51-52; Ming Fu, Wife of the Charioteer, O'Hara, pp. 68-69; Queen Man of Teng, O'Hara, pp. 76-78; Raphals, pp. 23 , 40, 57, 88, 100-4, 227, 233; Wife of Chie Yu, O'Hara, pp. 70-71; Ji of Lu, Raphals, pp. 31-33, 92-98; Wife of Bow-Maker Jin, Raphals, pp. 46-47, 126-129.

Sources: Ivanhoe, "Women and Virtue"; O'Hara, Position of Women in Ancient China; and Raphals, Sharing the Light are on DR.  Those taking Feminism and Philosophy should use other sources.   These notes may be helpful.

2.  Assess the debate about character consequentialism between Ivanhoe and Keown.

3.  Discuss the origins of human evil in Confucianism and Aristotle.  You should read Ivanhoe (Intro, chaps. 1-3) and (Kekes, 64-70).  In the Analects Confucius says that rotten wood cannot be carved and the dried dung cannot be trowelled.  You should also look at the passages from the Mencius about virtue sprouts and the parable of Ox Mt.

Paper #6 (due March 15)

1. Take one of the critiques of MacIntyre (photocopies clipped together in folder, seminar room reserve) and assess the critique and MacIntrye's response.

2.  Write your own critique of MacIntyre's approach to virtue ethics and his critique of modern ethical theories.

Paper #7 (due March 29)

1.  Write a paper on one of the virtues (excluding pride) or vices discussed in your readings.  Be sure to look at the updated syllabus for reading assignments.

Paper #8 (due April 5) "Synthetic Reason and Aesthetic Order"; "Premodernism, Modernism, and Postmodernism""Whitehead, Confucius, and the Aesthetics of Virtue." (optional)

1. Write an essay placing Bellantoni's critique of MacIntyre within the frame of the debate about postmodernism.  You may have to review the first chapters of Bellantoni for this one.

2.  Most of the arguments in Nussbaum's article are directed towards the relativizing tendencies of deconstructive postmodernism.  Do you think she succeeds in any or all of them?  How might her position be characterized as constructive postmodernism?

3.  How could one argue that virtue ethics is the most appropriate moral theory for a constructive postmodernist?

4.  God is an integral part of Whiteheadian metaphysics and this raises the issue of divine agency and virtue ethics.  Drawing from the unit on Christian virtue ethics, Bellantoni, and Gier's "Process Theology" and "Whitehead, Confucius, and the Aesthetics of Virtue," write an essay on theological virtue ethics.

5.  Both Aristotle and Whitehead have what can be called "whole-hog" teleologies (viz., literally everything in the universe has a purpose), but Bellantoni believes that Whitehead's position is superior and that it answers the criticisms of Aristotle's.  Do you think she is correct?

Paper #9 (due April 12) Political Philosophy Primer; Glendon & Blankenhorn, Seedbeds of Virtue, 17-34 (Wilson), 35-60 (Galston); Hauerwas, 201-220 (DR); Davis' article in Midwest Studies, 352-366; Macedo, "Liberal Virtues" (DR); Gert on tolerance, 263-266; Hollenbach in Hooke, 690-98.

1.  Assess the arguments that Michael Davis makes in his article in Midwest Studies.

2.  One of the most controversial liberal virtues is tolerance.   Conservative critics claim that no person or government should make someone tolerate actions or life styles that s/he finds immoral.  How can tolerance be a virtue if it involves embracing vices?  What is your opinion on this debate? The reading from Gert, Macedo (278-9), and Galston (44) on DR should be helpful.

3.  It appears that the liberal political philosopher can succeed in including some of the enabling/ personal virtues as civic virtues but may have much more difficulty arguing for the substantive, moral virtues.  (Please note that all of Macedo's liberal virtues are personal or enabling virtues [269, 275, 276].) Is it possible to include some of the moral virtues and still preserve the moral pluralism and the neutrality the liberal state embraces?  Alternatively, if all liberal virtues are only enabling ones, how can Galston claim that some are ends in themselves rather than simply means to the ends of the liberal state (48-57)?

4.  How can Macedo's vision of the liberal virtues be called a form of constructive postmodernism? (Hollenbach's and Wilson's articles are relevant to this question as well.) The ideal of autonomy--a fully self-legislating social atom--is one of the great achievements of modernism.  How could personal autonomy be reconceived within the constructive postmodern framework?

5.  Stanley Hauerwas argues that there is so much difference among cultural expressions of the virtues that the liberal state cannot possibly reconcile the tensions between.  Taking courage as his test case, he contrasts Aristotle's military model of courage celebrated by most Americans and true Christian courage with its non-violence and theological framework.  It is only natural that many minority virtues will lose out, and Hauerwas is obviously correct in stating that the pacifist position has always been marginalized by American militarism.  What do you think of his argument and what do you think of the future of the virtue of nonviolence in America?

Note:  Make sure you consult the updated syllabus for reading assignments.

Paper #10 (Free Topic Week)

Paper#11 (Critique of Virtue Ethics)

1. You should read some of the articles in Crisp & Slote, Hooke, and Sommers & Sommers that are critical of virtue theory. Choose what you think is the most promising line of criticism and writing your paper on that.

 

 

 

 

 

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