Many of us have good reasons for doing this or that, making this decision rather than that, choosing this path over another. There is often a point to these choices that we can identify, and sometimes have thought hard about. But is there a point to life as a whole? That is the question about the meaning of life. Though the question is notoriously hard to make precise, one way or another it has animated much literature and art, and also much philosophy. Some philosophers have provided very disheartening answers to the questions of whether life has meaning: life is suffering, and then it ends; life is absurd, and never gains any meaning; life is all about creating hell for each other, and we cannot escape. But other philosophers have provided more uplifting answers. Both kinds of answers deserve serious scrutiny. Such scrutiny should be of interest to anybody who wishes to make reflection on her/his life as a whole part of her/his education. After reviewing a number of pessimistic and more optimistic approaches to the meaning of life we also turn to the subject of death. We all will die eventually. We normally encounter death among family and friends before we have to deal with our own. These themes too are the subject of philosophical reflection. The course finishes with a discussion of an important set of lectures on the topics of this course by a contemporary philosopher. This course is quite wide-ranging, and will integrate historical figures and references to art and literature as appropriate. But its main focus is on contributions by relatively recent thinkers in the Anglo-American analytical tradition of philosophy. The methodology of this course is philosophical. Some of the topics may touch you quite personally, and you should take this into account before enrolling. The recorded lectures are from the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences course Ethical Reasoning 38.

Prerequisite(s): None, but prior exposure to philosophy is a plus.

Meet The Author

Mathais Risse

Mathais Risse

Professor of Philosophy and Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School
Mathias Risse is Professor of Philosophy and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He works mostly in social and political philosophy and in ethics. His primary research areas are contemporary political philosophy (in particular questions of international justice, distributive justice, human rights, and property.) In 2012, he published two books on questions of global justice, On Global Justice (Princeton University Press), which sets out his own proposal for how to think about justice at the global level; and Global Political Philosophy (MacMillan), which is a text book introduction to the field of political philosophy that focuses on ethical questions about globalization. Both books combine foundational philosophical inquiry with relatively applied questions about immigration, climate change, obligations to future generations, institutional reform at the global level, and human rights. Risse studied philosophy, mathematics, and mathematical economics at the University of Bielefeld, the University of Pittsburgh, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Princeton University. He received his BA, BS, and MS in mathematics from Bielefeld, and his MA and PhD in philosophy from Princeton. Before coming to Harvard, he taught in the Department of Philosophy and the Program in Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale.
PhD, Princeton University

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