Philosopy 1200: the meaning of life






DUE DATE: Wednesday, December 2, 2015




·    No title page needed, just put your name or student number on page 1

·    About 5-7 pages (1,250-1750 words), 12 point font, double-spaced

·    You may use either MLA or APA citation format, but, in any case, make sure you provide enough information about any sources you use to enable the grader, if necessary, to locate the source.

·    Any references to the lecture slides can just be put in brackets in the body of your essay

·    You don’t need any Internet sources, but any you use must be cited with a complete address, as follows: <….





1)      The philosopher Daniel Hill in Reading 12 attempts to defend the religious view of the meaning and purpose of life. At one point Hill claims that “Belief in a creator and designer is essential, then, for anyone that thinks that life has a meaning.” And a little later he writes that, “Atheists must necessarily deny that life has a meaning, since no overall complete explanation of the existence of living things could be given in terms of the purposes of any set of non-divine agents.” How convincing is Hill’s defense of the religious view in this paper?


2)      Hedonism is the doctrine that pleasure is the only thing that is intrinsically good and valuable. In Reading 29 Robert Nozick presents a thought experiment involving what he refers to as the experience machine which he thinks refutes hedonism. Explain Nozick’s thought experiment clearly, but concisely, and then discuss in detail whether it does refute hedonism. In addition to Reading 29, Readings 27 and 30 are directly relevant to this topic. 


3)      An objection often raised against Sartre’s existentialist account of the meaning of life is that it is too subjectivist; it implies that anything and everything can count as a meaningful life, which means that the very idea of life having meaning has now been trivialized. Discuss in detail how convincing this objection is. (Start with Reading 14 and 15, and then use any other readings you find helpful.)


4)      The recent documentary 15 Reasons to Live, by filmmaker Allan Zwieig, presents 15 short vignettes about the joy and pain a variety of people experience in confronting some of life’s challenges.  Write a review of the film in which you try to capture as accurately as you can its central insights into the meaning, purpose, or value of life. (Although this is by no means an easy topic, you might find it worthwhile, as the film definitely has understated charm.  You should only choose this topic, however, if you feel you something interesting to say about or in response to the film. You should have no trouble watching it online.)


5)      Is death a good thing or a bad thing? More precisely, are we better off the way things are, where we die after a life of normal length (say, in the range of a century or so) or would it be better, preferable, to live forever? Assume for the sake of argument that there is no afterlife in the sense envisioned by many religions. Also, the issue is not whether you would live forever in a condition of being old and feeble, but that scientific medicine would have the ability to keep people in, or restore them to, a relatively youthful, healthy state. Finally, the issue is also not whether eternal life would be good for society, or humanity as a whole, but whether it would be good for the individual who would be living forever. (Reading 21 summarizes the position of Bernard Williams on this issue and presents some objections against him. You can also find many other sources if you look for them.


6)      Does A.J. Ayer, in Reading 23, succeed in showing that there is no real problem about the meaning of life on the grounds that life isn’t the sort of thing with respect to which it makes sense, or is meaningful, to say that it has or lacks meaning?  


7)      How plausible is Susan Wolf’s account of a meaningful life as the pursuit of projects of worth and value? (There is a selection from Wolf in Klemke, p. 232, which is followed by a brief critique of Wolf’s view in the selection by Steven Cahn, p. 236.) 



You may write your essay on some other topic of your own choosing, including other readings from the Klemke and Cahn text, but you should clear it with me first to ensure that the topic is manageable and also sufficiently relevant to the course.







Your paper will be evaluated on the basis of the following criteria:


·    Presentation of your ideas (for example, writing style, organization, clarity of exposition)

·    Strength of your arguments and analyses

·    Creativity in dealing with the problems or issues being addressed

·    Plausibility of the views or positions you defend

·    Overall understanding of the issues you are discussing





Before Writing


One of the keys to writing a good paper is to be clear about what you want to say. You should, therefore, try to get as clear as you can about your topic before you start writing. Your views might evolve as you go along – that is to be expected – but, if you don’t have some objectives in mind before starting to write, you will have nothing to give you direction.


You should definitely make an outline of your essay, and you should plan on writing several drafts. You cannot expect to write a good paper in one draft. I also encourage you to discuss your topic with other students in the class, as this is often a very helpful and enjoyable way to develop ideas. In the end, of course, you must write your paper yourself.


Points of Style


Remember that you are writing an essay and so, obviously, you must write in complete sentences with appropriate paragraph breaks, and so forth. Other than this, there is no special format that you need to use. It sometimes helps the reader to follow what’s being said if an essay is divided into different sections with appropriate headings and sub-headings. This is up to you, though there shouldn’t be too many headings, otherwise your paper will appear too fragmented.


You may use a somewhat informal writing style if you wish. For example, use of the first person is acceptable, as in “My own view is ..” or “I am inclined to think that …” However, be careful not to overwork such phrases, and avoid being too colloquial. It is best to write in a clear, straightforward style. Don’t try to sound too intellectual or academic, especially if you don’t feel comfortable or natural writing in such a style.




It is probably best to start your essay by stating as clearly as you can what issue you are going to be discussing. You may have to provide some background before you begin to develop your own ideas, and you may also need to clarify the question you are addressing, but you should do this as concisely as you can so that the bulk of the essay consists of your critical discussion of the issue.


Comments about Content


Remember that this is primarily a discussion paper, not a research paper. You may consult library or Internet sources for additional information about your topic, but this is not mainly what I am looking for. In writing your essay your main goal should be to say something interesting about the topic you have selected. To say something interesting about it, you must say something that is original and creative. This is another reason why you must think carefully about your topic before you begin writing, as you must determine whether you have any interesting things to say about it. If you can’t seem to come up with anything, switch t another topic.


Give Arguments


Remember also that this is a philosophical paper, not an exercise in rhetoric. It is not enough merely to express your opinion, regardless of how elegantly you do so. I want you to be as forceful and persuasive as you can be, of course, but you must not engage in overstatement or exaggeration. To be persuasive in writing a philosophical paper means supporting your views by carefully reasoned and detailed arguments.


Some Common Mistakes to Avoid


·         Elaborate, artificial introductions – try to get to the point fairly quickly

·         Repetition, except very selectively for emphasis, and stating (or worse, defending) the obvious

·         Being too colloquial, although an informal writing style, including use of the 1st person, is okay

·         Sentences that are too long or complicated to be clear

·         Vagueness, ambiguity, and clichés

·         Overstatement, exaggeration, hyperbole, appealing to emotion or popular belief

·         Grammatical mistakes (incomplete sentences and run-on sentences are very common mistakes to watch out for)

·         Using too many quotations (only quote when necessary)

·         Padding to get the required length – this is easy for graders to spot 


Do not plagiarize: It is the responsibility of each student to understand the meaning of ‘plagiarism’ as defined in the Carleton University Calendar, and to avoid both committing plagiarism and aiding/abetting plagiarism by other students.


For further advice on how to write a philosophy essay, you might find it helpful to look at the advice provided byPeter Horban, “Writing a Philosophy Paper”, Simon Fraser University, 1993. Just Google the name and title to get the web page, or go to:


Good luck!









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