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Course Descriptions

How to Think in an Age of Political Polarization

Ethics 202, PubPol 208, PoliSci 205
John Rose

Americans today live in a time of deep political polarization, cultural tribalism, and self-segregation. Those with whom we have deep disagreements, assuming we interact with them at all, are often viewed as not just wrong but as irrational, immoral, even contemptible. What are the causes and costs of these trends? What remedies might exist? Are there habits of mind that we might cultivate to build better citizens and a healthier democracy? Topics include the politics of higher education, self-censorship, and cancel culture. Discussions of controversial political issues.


The Good Life: Religion, Philosophy, and Life's Ultimate Concerns

Classics 210, PubPol 229, Religion 210, Philosophy 214, Ethics 210

Jed Atkins

What does it look like for a human life to go well? What leads to human flourishing or “happiness” or “success?” How do our beliefs (or lack thereof) about God or the gods shape our answers to life's big questions? We examine how the following philosophical or religious traditions around the globe have answered these questions, beginning with their founders: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Stoicism. Taught by instructors from Classical Studies, Philosophy, Religious Studies, the Sanford School of Public Policy, and Duke Divinity.


Human Nature in American Literature

English 90S
Ejeurleigh Jones

In this course, we’ll explore as we investigate the extremes of human nature in American literature of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, include addiction, grief, compulsion, obsession, moral angst and moral apathy. Our guiding questions are: What does it mean to be human? Is there a universal understanding of human nature that transcends across time and place? We will read texts such as: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” which offers a controversial take on addiction, crime, and personal responsibility. Plagued by grief for most her life, Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters reveal a relatable frustration with the figure of a benevolent God. In Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northup provokes angst through an unexpected moral challenge. The role of confession in “The Minister’s Black Veil” (Nathaniel Hawthorne) illustrates the compulsion to reveal our inner ourselves to others. We will examine the tensions between social mobility and moral identity in novels like The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald). Alongside novels, poems, and short stories, we’ll read historical documents like letters and periodicals to get a sense of the real-life daily experiences of nineteenth and early-twentieth century Americans.


Human Flourishing in a Digital Age 

CompSci 247S, Ethics 247S
Aaron Ebert, Alex Hartemink

The digital age has enhanced human life in many ways: communication is faster, medicine is better, and our knowledge of the world is deeper. But it has also changed the nature of work, society, and our sense of well-being, and raised fundamental questions about the meaning and purpose of human life. This course asks what it means for humans to flourish in a digital age. It considers how new technologies through the centuries have impacted human flourishing, making certain aspects easier and others harder, and perhaps even altering our conception of what flourishing looks like. Our ultimate goal is to ponder together how we should practically live in today’s digital age.


Ecology and the Human Good

Ethics 212, PoliSci 209, Environ 213
Aaron Ebert, Gabe Whitbread, Norman Wirzba

This course examines the complex network of relationships that support flourishing human communities. How do our interactions with each other and the natural world enhance or undermine our ability to grow and live together? How does the structure of human communities shape our relationship with nature? What is the proper role of markets and technological innovation in our quest for a sustainable and flourishing future world? Through an interdisciplinary lens, we will examine topics including sustainable agriculture, community formation, friendship, climate migration, environmental ethics, food, conservation, the politics of belonging and citizenship. This course is part of the Transformative Ideas Sophomore Program.


The Seven Deadly Sins

Ethics 250

Kathryn Wagner

This course will trace the motif of the seven deadly sins in Western tradition, exploring two methods of understanding human psychology and behavior: the philosophical school of virtue ethics, which provides an account of how our actions and habits shape our characters and identities, and the artistic technique of allegory, which externalizes our inner life in vivid, sometimes shocking images, characters, and stories. Readings are drawn from philosophy (Aristotle, Aquinas), literature (Dante, Chaucer, Spenser), art (Giotto, Bosch), and present-day pop culture. Course assignments include both analytical essays and creative projects.


Christian Ethics

Ethics 220, Poli Sci 253, Rel 254

John Rose

What does it mean to be a Christian and how should Christians go about answering the question, “How ought I live?” What are the theological and philosophical underpinnings of Christian ethics? For those of the Christian faith, what is the purpose of life, what is human flourishing, and how does all this shape how they see human politics as a whole? How, more specifically, might those within the tradition of Christianity approach moral-political questions about law, rights, modernity, liberalism, economics, war, sexuality, marriage, bioethics, the environment, and the role of religion in public life?


Happiness and the Virtuous Life

Ethics 260S

John Rose

Most of us regard ourselves as “good people” but can become a bit tongue-tied if asked to elaborate on what, exactly, this means. We might offer up platitudes about being nice, not coercing others to do things they don’t like, and so on, or perhaps deflect the question by arguing that what’s morally “good” for us may not be so for the next person. We tend to feel strongly that there is such a thing as an ethically upright life (and its opposite) but often lack the moral and philosophical vocabulary needed to articulate this feeling and to make sense of our own ethical commitments. Similarly, we have general notions about what it means to be “happy” but have trouble explaining the specifics of “happiness” and what, if anything, happiness has to do with being a good person or being “virtuous.” In this class, we will try to overcome, if only a little, these challenges by reading and discussing a wide range of authors, from David Brooks and Martha Nussbaum to Thucydides, Aristotle, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Elizabeth Anscombe, among others.


Liberty and Equality: Ancient and Modern Perspectives

Classics 170FS

Jed Atkins

Examines the democratic values of liberty and equality in Greek, Roman, and American political thought. Are democracy and liberty allies or foes? What is the relationship between liberty and equality? Is freedom possible under non-democratic regimes? Is individual liberty protected by equal and inalienable human rights? What is the relationship between individual liberties and aspirations for a good and just society? Why have some democratic societies embraced imperialism or slavery? Readings drawn from Aristophanes, Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Epictetus, Tacitus, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Lincoln, Douglass, London, Du Bois, Hamer, King, and Vonnegut, among others. Focus only.


Democracy: Ancient and Modern

Classics 275D

Jed Atkins

Examines democracy in its ancient and modern forms, with special attention to Athenian and American democracy. Does modern democracy fulfill the promise of ancient democracy, or betray its fundamental tenets? Topics may include freedom, equality, and rights; democratic institutions; citizenship; rhetoric; democratic knowledge and decision-making; foreign policy; corruption; religion; and hope.