PHIL 510 A: Seminar in Social and Political Philosophy

Winter 2024
Th 3:30pm - 5:20pm / SAV 408
Section Type:
Syllabus Description (from Canvas):

Birth, Death, and Meaningful Lives


Course head:                           Michael Blake



Very little philosophical writing looks like what ordinary people think philosophy is.  This course is an effort to look at those bits of philosophy which are most – well, philosophical, in the sense used by the world as a whole.  We’re going to be reading works by philosophers – mostly contemporary ones, with a few older texts thrown in – about what the point of having a life is; and how we might understand the significance of the fact that that life will, eventually, stop.

What follows in this syllabus explains the ways in which the course is organized.

Course organization, part one: topics

The course is organized around certain significant questions about the nature of life and its end.  Each week will have one central question, for which the readings might provide us with some particular answer. 

The topics we address are significant enough that it seems only fair to address the contributions made to these topics from outside the discipline of Philosophy.  Accordingly, each week will have some additional reading or film, which bears in some way on the question for that week.

Course organization, part two: assignments

 You are responsible for doing two things, over the course of the quarter.

The first is to answer – each week, posted to the website before 10:00 AM on Thursday – your answer to that week’s question.

Your answer here must include two things, to count as an answer.

First, it must start with a single word that answers the questionyes or no, in most cases, but you can (if you must) sometimes resort to sometimes, or maybe.  These big questions are ones on which it’s hardest, sometimes, to take a stand; but I do want you to take a stand, and to tell me what you think the best version of an answer here would look like.

Second, you must provide me with a few sentences – as many or as few as you like – grounding that answer.

Thus, one possible answer for the first week might be: No.  It isn’t bad to be born, because being alive has a value for the one who lives that is poorly understood in the hedonic terms provided by Benatar. 

You are on the hook for doing this for nine out of the ten question we consider; you get one free pass.. 

You get full credit, finally, every time you do this (so long as it’s up by 10 AM.). You aren’t trying to impress anyone here, and you don’t have to worry about being graded on your answer.  The only rule is it has to count as an answer to the question, and has to start with the one-word answer.  The goal of all this is to simply get a discussion started, and if you answer the question at all I’m happy.

The second thing you’re obligated to provide – and this is where you will be graded – is a single paper, due at the end of exam period following the end of the quarter.  The default here is an argumentative paper, of the standard sort; I can work with you, as we go forward, on topics or ideas (and I expect that one or more of your answers to our questions might form the basis of a good paper.).  I'm also hoping that you can find some links between our topics here and what it is that brought you to grad school in the first place - what other parts of philosophy, that is, excite or interest you.  

I’m also open to having your paper take the form of some alternative form of presentation – including podcasts, films, and other forms of non-traditional philosophical work.  As always, though, talk with me before deciding to commit to a particular project.

The weekly questions, finally, are half the grade – and if you finish them all, you get full credit for each; and the paper’s grade is the other half of your final.

Course organization, part three: readings and questions

Week One: January 4

 Question: Is it a bad thing to be born?

David Benatar, “Why It Is Better Never to Come into Existence,” in Benatar, ed., Life, Death, and Meaning

Dialogue between Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, True Detective.  Available at

Week Two: January 11

Question: Are we right to fear death?

Thomas Nagel, “Death,” in Mortal Questions

Stephen E. Rosenbaum, “How to Be Dead and Not Care: A Defense of Epicurus,” in Benatar, ed.

Galen Strawson, “I Have No Future,” in Things That Bother Me: Death, Freedom, the Self, etc.

Philip Larkin, Aubade, at

“One Man’s Quest to Change the Way We Die,” New York Times, January 3, 2017.

Week Three: January 18

Question: Is Old Age Dreadful?

Jean Améry, “Not to Understand the World Any More,” in On Aging

Kieran Setiya, “Is That All There Is?” and “Missing Out,” in Midlife: A Philosophical Guide

David Carr, “The Stories of Our Lives: Aging and Narrative,” in Geoffrey Scarre, ed., The Palgrave Handbook of the Philosophy of Aging

Alice Munro, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” in The New Yorker, October 21, 2013

T. S. Eliot, The Journey of the Magi, at

Week Four: January 25

Question: Is Your Life Story About Something?

Marya Schechtman, “The Moments of a Life: On Some Similarities Between Life and Literature,” in John Lippitt and Patrick Stokes, eds., Narrative, Identity, and the Kierkegaardian Self

Galen Strawson, “A Fallacy of Our Age,” in Things That Bother Me

Jay Wallace, “Looking Backward,” in The View From Here 

Week Five: February 1 

Question: Can the Dead be Harmed?

Steven Luper, “Retroactive Harms and Wrongs,” in Ben Bradley et al., eds., The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Death  

Don Herzog, “Embezzled, Diddled, and Popped,” and “Corpse Desecration,” in Defaming the Dead

Timothy W. Ryback, “Evidence of Evil,” The New Yorker, November 8, 1993

Week Six: February 8

Question: Is your life absurd? 

Richard Hare, “Nothing Matters,” in Benatar, ed.

Thomas Nagel, “The Absurd,” in Mortal Questions

Iddo Landau, “Introduction” and “Implications” from Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World

Akira Kurosawa, Ikiru

Week Seven: February 15

Question: Must your life be about something important?

Susan Wolf, Lectures 1 and 2 from Meaning in Life and Why it Matters

Replies by Nomy Arpay and Jonathan Haidt to Wolf, in Meaning in Life and Why it Matters

Hirokazu Kore-eda, After Life:


Week Eight: February 22

Question: Does the meaningful life entail meaningful work? 

Anthony Appiah, "The Philosophy of Work," at

Bob Black, "The Abolition of Work," at

David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs, chapters one and two, at

Week Nine: February 29

Question: Would immortality be bad for us?

Todd May, “Death and Immortality,” in Death

Bernard Williams, “The Makropulos Case: reflections on the tedium of immortality,” available at

John Martin Fischer, “Why Immortality is Not So Bad,” in Our Stories

Week Ten: March 7

Question: Should we care about those who come after us?

Samuel Scheffler, Lectures 1 and 2, from Death and the Afterlife

James Lenman, “On Becoming Extinct,” in Benatar, ed., Life, Death, and Meaning


 Kevin Kelly, “The 10,000 year clock,” available at

John Updike, “Deaths of Distant Friends,” in Trust Me












Last updated:
May 25, 2024 - 1:52 am