Morality and the Human Condition: A Short Course for Philosophically-Minded People, #1–Introduction.

By Robert Hanna


I. Introduction

II. The Standard Conception of Morality

II.1 The Moral Question and The Meaning Question

II.2 How Ethics Relates to Morality

II.3 How Morality Relates to Rationality

II.4 Six Famously Hard Cases

III. Three Classical Challenges to the Standard Conception of Morality

III.1 Moral Relativism

III.2 Eight Logical Principles of Human Rationality

III.3 Moral Skepticism

III.4 Psychological and Moral Egoism

IV. Morality and Religion

IV.1 God and The Divine Command Theory

IV.2 Does an Essentially Rational God Exist?

IV.3 Religion and Morality

V. Three Classical Moral Theories

V.1 Aristotelian Virtue Ethics

V.1.1 Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, books 1–3: A Brief Exposition

V.1.2 Four Worries about Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics

V.1.3 Contemporary Virtue Ethics

V.2 Millian Utilitarianism

V.2.1 Not-So-Happy Little Campers: Ten Big Problems for Millian Utilitarianism

V.3 Kant’s Ethics of Persons and Principles

V.3.1 Ten Basic Ideas

V.3.2 Three Classical Worries about Kant’s Ethics

V.4 All-Things-Considered Conclusion of This Section

VI. Pascal’s Optimism and Schopenhauer’s Pessimism

VI.1 Pascal’s Optimism About the Meaning of Life

VI.2 Schopenhauer’s Pessimism About the Meaning of Life

VI.3 Pascal or Schopenhauer? Optimism or Pessimism?

VII. Existentialism, the Absurd, and Affirmation

VII.1 Two Kinds of Existentialism

VII.2 Nagel and the Absurd

VII.3 Camus and Affirmation

VIII. The Ethics of Authenticity

VIII.1 Existential Ethics and the Concept of Authenticity

VIII.1.1 What is Authenticity?

VIII.1.2 Authenticity and Radical Freedom

VIII.1.3 Inauthenticity, Freedom-Refusers, and Freedom Deniers

VIII.2 Two Important Problems for Existential Ethics

VIII.3 Sartre on Principled Authenticity

IX. The Nature of Death

IX.1 The Ambiguity of “Death”

IX.2 The Nature of Our Own Death

IX.2.1 Nagel On the Nature of Our Own Death

IX.2.2 Suits Against the “Deprivation” Account of the Badness of Death

IX.2.3 Some Critical Worries About What Nagel and Suits are Saying About the Nature of Our Own Death

X. The (Im)Possibility of Human Immortality

X.1 Williams on the Tedium of Immortality

X.2 Fischer on How Human Immortality Could Be a Good Thing

X.3 Some Worries About What Williams and Fischer are Saying About Human Immortality

X.4 Human Life Without Immortality



I. Introduction

I.1 The image featured above digitally reproduces a painting by the convicted murderer Thomas Whitaker: it’s aptly entitled “The Human Condition.”

Whitaker was on death row for 11 years; and his death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment less than an hour before his scheduled execution on 22 February 2018.

Leaving aside for the time being some hard questions about the morality of crime-&-punishment, then Whitaker’s painting and his existential predicament, alike, poignantly raise the following complex question:

Is human life worth living, and if so, then how ought we to live it?

I.2 What follows is what I’m calling a short course for philosophically-minded people.[i]

It’s an attempt to answer that complex question in a way that isn’t terribly longwinded (only 52,556 words) and above all is accessible to any philosophically-minded person.

My special “take” on the pair of questions is broadly Kantian, and also fundamentally concerned with the fact that, like Whitaker, we struggle with these questions, all-too-often unsuccessfully, and sometimes tragically.

In short, from a moral-existential point of view, our “human, all-too-human” failures are every bit as important as our successes.

Indeed I’m personally repulsed by humorlessness, moralism, sanctimoniousness, and virtue-signalling — yet these, I fear, are common failings of professional academic philosophers who specialize in ethics and/or social-&-political philosophy: so I’ve also designed this short course with an eye to avoiding those failings.

Here’s a brief description of it:

Morality is the attempt to guide human conduct by rationally formulating and following principles or rules that reflect our basic personal and social commitments and our leading ideals and values. But this presupposes that our “human, all-too-human” lives actually do have some meaning that, in turn, captures our basic personal and social commitments, and our leading ideals and values. In this short course, I’ll try to answer two fundamental questions about morality and meaning: (1) “Is morality possible, and if so, then how ought we to live?” (the moral question), and (2) “Does life have meaning, and if so, then how can we live meaningful lives?” (the meaning question). In pursuit of answers to these questions, after this Introduction (section I), I’ll investigate the nature of morality and the standard conception of it (section II), three classical challenges to the standard conception (section III), morality and religion (section IV), three classical moral theories: Aristotelian virtue ethics, Millian utilitarianism, and Kant’s ethics of persons and principles (section V), Pascal’s optimism and Schopenhauer’s pessimism (section VI), existentialism, the absurd, and affirmation (section VII), the ethics of authenticity (section VIII), the nature of death (section IX), and the (im)possibility of human immortality (section X).

The text for the course is based on my lecture notes for a large-ish introductory ethics course for undergraduate students (+/- graduate-student teaching assistants) that I taught regularly — usually once a year — at some universities in Canada and the USA, for close to 25 years, from the early 1990s through the end of 2014.

Those lecture notes, and that repeating course, in turn, served as a combination philosopher’s-notebook and dialogical-sounding-board for the ideas I eventually wrote up and published in my 2018 book, Kantian Ethics and Human Existence: A Study in Moral Philosophy.

I’m especially grateful to Andrew D. Chapman, who helped me teach the ultimate version of the repeating course.

I.3 Sadly, because the world is awash in introductory ethics courses at colleges and universities, it’s also awash in introductory ethics textbooks in many editions, each one trivially different from the earlier ones in content, yet also non-trivially different in pagination — so that textbook publishers can “justify” flogging yet another new edition.

So, in opposition to that dispiriting fact, I’m hereby self-publishing and universally free-sharing this text, in the hope that people who aren’t necessarily[ii] either undergraduates or graduate students at expensive, neoliberal, highly-ranked institutions of higher education, or professional academic philosophers at such institutions, yet still are philosophically-minded people, will find its contents worthwhile engaging with.

That hope, in turn, is very much in solidarity with, and indeed fully in the spirit of, Evan Mandery’s excellent article, “What Teaching Ethics in Appalachia Taught Me About Bridging America’s Partisan Divide.”[iii]

This short course has no required readings, and is therefore self-explanatory; but whenever there are other texts that are directly relevant to what I’m discussing, or whenever I’m discussing a particular text, then I’ve included corresponding quotations and/or references — either as hyperlinks or in the footnotes.


[i] I also briefly considered sub-titling it “A Philosophically-Minded Course For Short People.”

[ii] Notice the crucial difference in meaning between aren’t necessarily and necessarily aren’t. So I’m saying that I’d be especially pleased to have philosophically-minded people who aren’t at high-end institutions of higher education engaging with the contents of this short course. But if those who are at high-end institutions engaged with them too — well, I’d also be totally OK with that. See how open-minded I am?

[iii] In Politico Magazine (13 October 2019).


Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Thursday 5 December 2019

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Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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