Courses

I am currently Associate Professor of the Practice in the philosophy department at Boston College, where I teach the following courses:

Perspectives on Western Culture

We begin this year-long course from the premise that we cannot understand the moral, political, cultural, and spiritual dimensions of the present age apart from the Western philosophical tradition, and that we cannot understand that tradition apart from the history and theology of Judeo-Christianity.  We confront the greatest thinkers and texts of these traditions from historical (“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”), theoretical (“What is the relationship between faith and reason?” and practical (“What is the best way to live?”) angles.  The first semester traces the flowering of philosophy in ancient Greece, the history of the Jewish people and birth of Christianity, and how they came to serve as the pillars of Western civilization. Thinkers covered include Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and the Bible.

The second semester charts the birth of modernity up to the present, returning to the animating questions of the first half through the lenses of the Protestant Reformation, classical liberal political thought, the Scientific Revolution, the ubiquity of technology, the rise of secularity and the threat of nihilism.  Thinkers covered include Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Bacon, Descartes, Luther, Calvin, Pascal, Rousseau, Kant, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. Our aim is to identify, compare, and evaluate the forms of life on offer in the present age.

How to Save the World: Ethics of Climate Change

Climate change is arguably the defining issue of our time, and it raises many moral questions: How should we act in the face of scientific uncertainty?  What values should guide global and national climate policies?  What responsibilities do individuals, organizations, and nations have toward future generations, nonhuman species, and our planet?  To help you explore and try to answer these questions, this course provides an introduction to environmental ethics and the moral challenges posed by climate change.  The goal is to help you grasp and grapple with the moral gravity and complexity of the problem.  To do so, we will approach the climate problem not only through the lens of moral philosophy, but from the perspective of several disciplines, including science, economics, and psychology.  You will learn about: the scientific basis for the notion that the climate is changing and that this is mostly due to human activity; the political controversy over climate change; the history of national and international climate policy; the energy sources and systems that have created the problem; economic policy tools devised to respond to the problem; and, finally, how psychology is showing how people’s worldviews and values shape their beliefs and actions about climate. Climate change is the interdisciplinary issue par excellence, but ethical questions underlie all of these disciplines.

Philosophy as a Way of Life: Eastern and Western Traditions

The word philosophy means “love of wisdom,” and one way to define wisdom is the knowledge of how to live well. According to French scholar Pierre Hadot, for the ancient Greeks philosophy was not merely an academic exercise.  It was offered as a “way of life,” an inherently practical discipline designed to help people flourish, an “invitation to transform oneself.” The ancients laid down different pathways to the good life, and devised “spiritual exercises,” reflective practices to foster our spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and moral development.

In this course, you will not just study philosophy, you will do it. In addition to examining and evaluating philosophical texts, you will experiment with various reflective practices to get a sense for what it might be like to live like a philosopher.

We will examine six paths: three Western traditions—Aristotelianism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism–and three Eastern traditions—Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. We will also study how contemporary psychology and psychotherapy are influenced by and in some cases overlap with these traditions. Put simply, our approach will be to explore the terrain at the intersection of psychology, philosophy, and spirituality.

Playing God: Technology and the Human Condition

“Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God ~ Sigmund Freud

“‘Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.’” ~ Robert Oppenheimer, quoting the Bhagavad Gita after the detonation of the atomic bomb

“Is there a god?” ~ President Eisenhower, to the first supercomputer. “There is now.”

“We are as gods, we might as well get good at it.” ~ Stewart Brand

When asked whether God exists, Google futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil, widely regarded as the prophet-philosopher of Silicon Valley, replied, “Not yet.” Conventional wisdom has it that we are in the midst of a “techlash”–a backlash against the powerful and pervasive digital technologies developed in the first two decades of the twenty-first century that is sowing unintended psychological, political, and economic consequences. In short, we are becoming increasingly aware that technologies raise ethical questions.

“Whether or not it draws on new scientific research, technology is a branch of moral philosophy, not of science.” ~ Paul Goodman

Technology has long been a minority report in the history of philosophy, but over the last half century it has become a central topic of concern. The unintended and often unwelcome byproducts of the digital age raise philosophical and ethical questions old and new: What is technology? What is its purpose? Are technologies merely tools, or are certain values coded into them? What stories do we tell ourselves about technology? How have technologies shaped the course of human history, and perhaps the evolution of our species? What is the difference between traditional and modern technologies? Between industrial and informational technologies? How do our technologies shape and mediate our sense of self, our society, our relationship to nature, and even the way we think about the divine?

In this course, you will explore the philosophy of technology, including canonical figures such as Aristotle, Francis Bacon, and Martin Heidegger, as well as contemporary technology critics such as Nicholas Carr, Sherry Turkle and Jaron Lanier. In particular, we will explore the moral dimensions and the psychological, political, and economic consequences of digital and emerging technologies, including the internet, social media, Big Data, transhumanism, and artificial intelligence.

Environmental Ethics

Environmentalism is in many ways a byproduct of the industrial revolution.  Over the second half of the 20thcentury, the pollution, damaging and destruction of natural habitats, including plant, animal, and human communities, has led many philosophers, politicians, scientists, and activists to call for and formulate an ethics of the environment.  In this course, we approach environmental ethics along three axes:  meta-ethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics.  We study the major areas of environmental ethics, including biocentrism, ecocentrism, and animal welfare, in light of traditional normative frameworks such as utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics.  We address questions such as the following:  Do animals have rights?  Do living things have intrinsic value?  What are the different species of value?  What is humanity’s proper place in nature?  Is the clash between economic growth and ecological health a zero-sum game? In addition to these questions, we explore the social, political, and economic dimensions of environmental problems such as climate change, sustainable business, and energy production and use.  Our animating question for the course will be:  how can we reconcile our humanist and environmentalist intuitions?

Philosophical Ethics

How should I live? How should we live together? What is happiness? What is virtue? Who should I vote for?  We all face these questions. In this course, we approach them with the help of some of the greatest philosophers of the Western tradition. You will be engaged on four levels:  existential (what do these ideas mean for my life?), political(what do these ideas mean for our society today?), theoretical(do these theories make sense?), and practical(how do these theories apply to real-world cases?). We will examine the major streams of ethical thought in the tradition, especially Virtue Ethics (Aristotle), Utilitarianism (John Stuart Mill), and Deontology (Immanuel Kant). Moreover, we analyze several case studies through the prism of these theories, including abortion, euthanasia, famine relief, economic inequality, same-sex marriage, just war theory, counter-terrorism, climate change, and animal rights.

Self-Knowledge and Discernment: The Experience of Pilgrimage

A study of the philosophical and spiritual dimensions of walking and pilgrimage that culminates in taking the class to Spain to walk 200 miles of the Camino de Santiago. Authors include St. Ignatius, Campbell, Rousseau, Thoreau, Nietzsche, and Solnit, and traditions such as contemplative Christianity and Zen Buddhism.

Basic Problems of Philosophy

This course introduces students to the problems and procedures of the Western and Eastern philosophical traditions. Examines selected works of such key thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, the Stoics, St. Augustine, Confucius, and Buddha.