Possible Term Paper Topics


Take a look at the syllabus and see if anything we’re going to be doing catches your eye.  (You should also review what I say about the term paper in the Syllabus.)   You’re welcome to write on a topic of your choosing, so long as it is relevant to the course, and I approve it. 


 If you're having trouble coming up with a topic, here are a few possibilities:


—Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson have recently published a book called Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior.  If Sober's paper caught your interest, you might want to consider basing a paper on an issue in this book.  There's a lot to choose from, and there are already some interesting replies from critics of the book.  Speak with me about how to narrow down this topic.


Sociobiologists have not just made controversial claims about human nature—they have also claimed that we ought to "biologicize" ethics.  Examine the debate between Sociobiologists and their critics and draw your own conclusions.  I can point you in the direction of the most helpful literature on this subject.


—Read selections from Hobbes, and one or two of his critics (I'll help you with this).  Use Hobbes to frame a discussion of rational egoism and the justification of political obligation.


—If Axelrod's work caught your eye, then you might want to follow up some more recent work in the subject of applied game theory.  Again, I can help you with this.  (Warning: This can get a bit technical.)


—We will read Brink and Whiting on the subject of friendship later in the course.  This debate is long and complicated.  Pick one aspect of it (e.g., look at one of them in detail, or one element in the debate), explain it, and then argue for your own position. (Note: Although this is a hard topic you will be able to recycle some of your short assignments in your longer paper.)

      Here is one promising way of carving out a manageable topic (though there are others): Two of Aristotle's most important claims about friendship are that a) a friend is "another self"; and b) that we value a friend for his own sake.  Brink and Whiting disagree both about what Aristotle meant by these claims, and also about what he should have meant.  What's at stake in their disagreement here?  You can set aside difficult questions of Aristotle interpretation to address the philosophical issues head on. 


Butler has some provocative things to say about conscience.  But is his view plausible?  Examine Butler's position in detail and assess it.  What is your own view?


—Plato's Gorgias is his most polished dialogue, and one of his most exciting.  It is also not too long.  There are a number of points at which issues raised in the dialogue are relevant to our class.  One possibility is to focus on the figure of Callicles in the dialogue.  (For those of you with an interest in Nietzsche, this is essential background.)  Try to work out his position, and consider it in the light of both Socrates' criticisms and perhaps some of what we will read in the rest of the course. 


—This course mainly looks at self-interest and rationality as it pertains to individuals.  But roughly similar assumptions about self-interest and rationality sometimes seem to influence our understanding of national interest.  As we explore difficulties with individual self-interest, one natural question to ask is whether these difficulties also come up at the level of states when we think about the national interest.  I can help you focus on a few representative views. 


—The British Philosopher Phillipa Foot has published a short book (121 pages) very recently called Natural Goodness.  The book covers many of the topics that we will be discussing: self-interest, well-being, rationality and morality.  You might read Foot and respond to her on an issue of your choosing.  (Note: You might want to skip some sections of the book.  If you're interested, come to me for advice on this.)  (Another note: Nietzsche enthusiasts will find an interesting discussion of Nietzsche here.)