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Questions of Value

Questions of Value

Professor Patrick Grim, Ph.D.
State University of New York, Stony Brook

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Questions of Value

Course No. 4433
Professor Patrick Grim, Ph.D.
State University of New York, Stony Brook
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4.2 out of 5
75 Reviews
69% of reviewers would recommend this series
Course No. 4433
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is not heavily illustrated, featuring nearly 100 visuals. Among these are portraits of key writers, politicians, scientists, and philosophers like Mark Twain, Aristotle, and Rousseau.
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Course Overview

Our lives are filled with everyday questions of fact and finance. Which investment brings the highest return? What school district is the house in? What will this candidate do if elected? But the really fundamental questions of our lives, says Professor Patrick Grim, are questions of neither fact nor finance. They are questions of value. They are the deep questions that apply to every aspect of our lives.

What is it that gives something genuine value? What things are really worth striving for? What is it that makes life worth living? Are there values that transcend cultural differences? Can we have ethical values without religion? If the universe operates in terms of deterministic laws, how can there be real choice? Is all value subjective? We can even ask if life is always worth living, or whether in some situations we would be better off dead.

Questions of Value is a course for anyone who has ever felt the tug of such questions or who wants to fine-tune their ability to see how deeper questions of ethics and values apply to the choices that make up their lives.

In presenting this philosophical examination of the range of decisions we all encounter as we live our lives, Professor Grim has placed the accent on individual choice—and has not shied away from controversy. The issues he presents for your examination cover evolution and ethics, about whether punishment is justified by retribution or by deterrence, and about the differing lessons drawn from life's worst horrors by both religious and antireligious traditions.

What values, for instance, are involved in thinking about life and death? What values are evident in a yearning for immortality? The lines of discussion raised throughout the course are regularly as provocative as these, and Professor Grim means them to be exactly that.

"The purpose of the lectures," he notes, "is, first and foremost, to open issues for thoughtful consideration ... [to] give an appreciation for the complex concepts that lie just beneath our everyday patterns of evaluation, and for some of the bold and insightful reflections that can illuminate them.

"The student can expect to finish the course with some new and interesting answers, and a command of important philosophical arguments and approaches, but also with some new and interesting questions about values."

A Challenge to Look Inward

"The course is designed not to close debate but to open it, not to end controversy but to facilitate reflective thought. It was Socrates who said, 'The unexamined life is not worth living.' This course offers the tools necessary for examining the values that guide our lives."

Best known for his logical arguments in the philosophy of religion and his groundbreaking work in philosophical computer modeling, Professor Grim has published across an extraordinary range of disciplines, from theoretical biology to artificial intelligence and computer science.

With these lectures he returns to his abiding interest in values. He uses his award-winning teaching skills to draw on almost every expression of human endeavor, bringing to life not only the fundamental questions of the course but the insights gleaned by the thinkers and artists who have grappled with those same questions for thousands of years.

The net he casts encompasses history, beginning with Herodotus and running through usury in feudalism's seignorial system right up through more contemporary subjects such as the cases of Patty Hearst and John W. Hinckley. Theoretical economics makes an appearance as well, as does game theory from John von Neumann to Robert Axelrod's work on cooperation. He delves into both theoretical biology and sociobiology through the work of E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins on altruism and evolution. There is even a foray into physics, as quantum mechanics is used to discuss determinism. His discussion of relativism brings in aspects of anthropology, and an exploration of the role of rules in our lives draws on psychology, examining the work of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg.

But it isn't only scientists whose work inevitably forces us to consider our values. The questions we ask and the answers we seek also figure prominently in the work of writers as varied as Charles Dickens, Peter S. Beagle, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ursula Le Guin, Mark Twain, Anne Rice, and Jorge Luis Borges. Even John Ford's classic western film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, is brought into the mix.

In exploring the course's varied sources, Professor Grim takes great care in ensuring that every concept addressed in a later lecture has been clearly introduced earlier. His presentation—even of the most nuanced material—is consistently clear, even to those with no background in philosophy.

A Range of Tools to Make even Complex Concepts Clear

Professor Grim has put together a course in which concepts are animated through both vivid examples drawn from real life and equally vivid "thought experiments"—hypothetical situations devised by philosophers to isolate and illustrate key concepts in readily accessible terms.

One of those thought experiments has its roots in the "evil demon" of Descartes' Meditations and is further developed in the work of both Robert Nozick and Hilary Putnam—and you may even recognize it in the theme of The Matrix films. In this example of a so-called "magic button" case, Professor Grim poses the question of whether one would accept a choice of pushing a button that would give everyone a very nice, but merely virtual, life—a life lived simply as a brain in a vat, experiencing as "real" the imaginary existence fed it by a master computer.

This particular thought experiment, along with G. E. Moore's famous one of imagining a universe containing nothing but the single thing you wish to evaluate, are two of the examples Professor Grim uses to discuss the question of whether values are objective or subjective. Both are remarkable for the clarity they bring to a complex subject.

In still another example of the tool kit offered as an aid to "doing philosophy," Professor Grim recalls the story of the Ford Pinto, built with a rear-mounted gas tank likely to explode in a collision. At least 500 burn deaths resulted, and many lawsuits were brought against the Ford Motor Company—bringing to light what some might consider the cold-blooded cost-benefit analysis of human worth that the Ford company had used to make its design decisions.

That analysis is one of the centerpieces of Professor Grim's discussion of the "cash value" of a human life and the ways people have tried to put an actual value on something most people are tempted to say has "infinite value."

The result is a fascinating discussion not only of the choices made by Ford but of the very different kinds of value that are evident in our decisions as individuals and as a society.

"Values for beings like us," Professor Grim notes, "are inescapable, but because we want our values to be right, reflection on values—given the particular values we have and for rationally placed beings like us—is also inescapable. ...

"The philosopher John Dewey somewhere characterizes philosophy as such an inquiry, and he gives an important warning: that an inquiry of ideas, like every other real exploration, is intellectually dangerous.

"Once you start to think critically about ideas, once you are no longer satisfied with familiar beliefs just because they are familiar, you can no longer be certain what conclusions you will come to."

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24 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
  • 1
    Questions of Value
    This lecture explains the basic structure of the course and its approaches to ethical, aesthetic, pragmatic, religious, and cultural values. x
  • 2
    Facts and Values
    This lecture focuses on the fundamental contrast between questions of value and questions of fact, drawing from sources both literary and philosophical, including Kierkegaard, Hume, Searle, and Jose Luis Borges. x
  • 3
    Lives to Envy, Lives to Admire
    "What makes a life a good life?" is a question too rarely asked. This lecture emphasizes that question against the background of Plato's Republic, Plato's Philebus, and Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, examining the basic tension that separates two very different approaches to the answer. x
  • 4
    Foundations of Ethics—Theories of the Good
    Ethical evaluation is more complicated than simple judgments of "right" and "wrong." This lecture explores ethical theories based on the concept of the good as opposed to the right, emphasizing the approach set forth by Utilitarian philosophers like Bentham, Mill, and Moore. x
  • 5
    Foundations of Ethics—Theories of the Right
    Continuing the examination of ethical evaluation begun in Lecture 4, this lecture introduces the idea of a pure right-based theory, exemplified by the work of Immanuel Kant. x
  • 6
    Thoughts on Religion and Values
    This lecture explains why most contemporary philosophers think that values not only can be talked about independently of religion, but should be, examining an argument from Plato's Euthyphro that remains forceful against any Divine Command theory of ethics. x
  • 7
    Life’s Priorities
    This lecture introduces a simple method for examining one's own priorities in life, as well as drawing upon both Plato's Philebus and Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics to enrich that examination. x
  • 8
    The Cash Value of a Life
    How much is a human life really worth? This lecture explores some of the abstract questions raised by the Ford Pinto case and then moves on to examine whether there are things worth dying for. x
  • 9
    How Do We Know Right from Wrong?
    This lecture examines a range of positions in the attempt to construct a better theory of ethical knowledge, including the Skeptic's gambit, A. J. Ayer's theory of Emotivism, and Plato's view of ethical perception. x
  • 10
    Cultures and Values—Questions of Relativism
    This lecture begins a two-lecture examination of cultures and values by asking whether values are culturally relative and introducing three theories of relativism: descriptive, ethical, and prescriptive. x
  • 11
    Cultures and Values—Hopi, Navajo, and Ik
    Do different cultures have fundamentally different ethical values? This lecture examines three famous anthropological studies in trying to arrive at an answer. x
  • 12
    Evolution, Ethics, and Game Theory
    This lecture examines two areas of research that promise us a better understanding of social ethics: sociobiology, introduced by E. O. Wilson and further developed by Richard Dawkins, and game theory, as it is applied to questions of social dynamics. x
  • 13
    The Objective Side of Value
    Are values purely a matter of subjectivity, or is there an objective side to value? Do subjective states give the whole story about value, or is there something important beyond them? A provocative "thought experiment" is but one of the ways this lecture looks for answers. x
  • 14
    Better Off Dead
    Can someone really be "better off dead"? Ideas drawn from Epicurus and Lucretius began our examination, which concludes with a provocative consideration of the rationality of suicide. x
  • 15
    A Picture of Justice
    What, exactly, is "justice"? This lecture draws on philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Rawls, and Nozick in the attempt to paint a picture of what justice really demands; what a truly just society would have to be like. x
  • 16
    Life’s Horrors
    Life is filled with many arbitrary and freakish horrors, including natural evils like earthquakes, floods, and disease and man-made evils like rape, slaughter, torture, and war. This lecture examines the different lessons drawn from them by two different traditions—the religious and the anti-religious. x
  • 17
    A Genealogy of My Morals
    Why do we hold the ethical positions that we do? Knowledge of the history of our ethical conceptions can make us rethink and reevaluate our own moral views and may thereby lead us to change them. x
  • 18
    Theories of Punishment
    What justification is there for the death penalty? What justification is there for punishment in general? This lecture focuses on the ethical issues that lie beneath the legal controversies, examining two competing ideas regarding the justification of punishment: retributive theory and deterrence theory. x
  • 19
    Choice and Chance
    Two people may have precisely the same motives and intentions: to kill someone. One succeeds and is found guilty of murder. The other misses the targeted victim or has a gun that misfires and is found guilty only of attempted murder. Their sentences end up being very different. Can that be just? We examine the contemporary debate over the role of "moral luck." x
  • 20
    Free Will and Determinism
    Everything we do seems to be determined by two factors: (1) our biological makeup, for which we are not responsible, and (2) our environment, for which we are not responsible. How then can we be held responsible for the things we do? x
  • 21
    Images of Immortality
    Would you like to be immortal? If so, under what conditions? In examining the question, this lecture draws on sources as diverse as novelists Charles Dickens, Peter S. Beagle, and Anne Rice, and philosophers Derek Parfit and Bernard Williams. x
  • 22
    Ethical Knowledge, Rationality, and Rules
    Is ethics essentially a matter of rules, or is it something else? If there are reasons why one consideration outweighs another, can those be made explicit? Our search for answers involves Piaget, Kohlberg, Ross, Aristotle, and Nagel, as well as analogies from linguistics and computer science. x
  • 23
    Moralities in Conflict and in Change
    If two moral worldviews are in conflict, how is any resolution between them possible? This lecture examines the question using John Ford's classic western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and also looks at comparisons between changes in scientific and moral worldviews. x
  • 24
    Summing Up
    This lecture summarizes the course in terms of overarching themes, sources, philosophical methodologies and techniques, and conclusions about values and their roles in our lives. x

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Your professor

Patrick Grim

About Your Professor

Patrick Grim, Ph.D.
State University of New York, Stony Brook
Dr. Patrick Grim is Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He graduated with highest honors in anthropology and philosophy from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He was named a Fulbright Fellow to the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, from which he earned his B.Phil. He earned his Ph.D. from Boston University. Professor Grim is the recipient of several...
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Reviews

Questions of Value is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 75.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the Very Best of the Great Courses My wife and I bought this course to catch up on modern thinking about ethics. It did not disappoint us! This course reminded me of a general philosophy course that I attended at the University of Arizona, taught by one Dr. Knipe. I had to take a humanities course and this was the only one not filled under our registration system. I expected a dry as dust series of lectures, but was very pleasantly surprised. Knipe did a fantastic job of lecturing and was the only professor that I had during nine years at three institutions who received a standing ovation from his class (which was composed of 400 students!) Professor Grim is very much like Knipe in his presentations and in our opinion the very best of a great series of lecturers in your courses that we have bought to date. His clear and fair lectures are a model for teaching complex ideas in philosophy, and indeed in any subject. As a former professor myself I was early on impressed by the need to explain the history of any subject in order to introduce the concepts. Grim does this masterfully. Would I recommend this course? Absolutely and without reservation!
Date published: 2017-04-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I have enjoyed and have learned more about Questions and the importance of Value in a difference prospective. A review we all need to give thought too.
Date published: 2017-03-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from An interesting course Good lectures on topics to think about. Would recommend it for anyone who simply wanted to understand his or her own values, and self, better.
Date published: 2017-03-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Kind of like your friend's cooking? I've read over some of the negative reviews of this course, and after consulting my deep, ruling center, I've decided that I do not agree with them. I first read them and I thought, "man, did I miss something here? I actually liked this course." Three weeks later, I came to the conclusion that I simply had a different reaction. I found these episodes clear and informative. There is a nice balance of moral theory (e.g. Kant, Mill), contemporary evidence (e.g. Ford Pinto), anthropology, and if my memory is reliable, Lucretius. I think Lucretius was mentioned. One example that stands out, months after listening to this course, is the argument that claiming that a human life has infinite value might entail serious problems. I had the audio option, so I don't know what the video was like. I did like Patrick Grim's voice. I usually dislike similes, but his voice was like crushed velvet sprinkled with gold sparkles. I think the audio option is probably sufficient, but you'll have to make up your own mind on his one. I can't make your decisions for you. Not that you're asking. But if you were, I would say, "Look, Mike, I've told you my judgment, but this has to be your own, personal decision." One reviewer objected to Grim's hatchet job on Nietzsche. It's clear that Grim doesn't think much of Nietzsche as a philosopher, but even so, I thought he was charitable about what he did appreciate. If you like Nietzsche, that's cool. Now you've got another perspective to consider when evaluating his ideas. It's kind of like when your friend doesn't like your cooking and says, maybe use less salt. Well, it's not exactly like that, but maybe you see my point. If you do, then you're ahead of me. I don't know what I'm talking about, but if I listen to more philosophy episodes from The Great Courses, maybe I'll gain greater clarity. Maybe even enlightenment, but I don't want to be too optimistic.
Date published: 2016-12-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Broad-ranging, clear and well-reasoned As philosophy courses go, this was excellent. The professor knows his subject well and organized it so that each lecture was self-contained, for the most part. He was very clear-spoken, with an authoritative tone and arguments that were easy to follow. I was surprised at how many interesting topics came up that you wouldn't find in a typical ethics course: What makes a life worth living? Can we put a monetary value on life? Do we have free will and if so, how? Are our values objective or relative to our culture? Is immortality desirable? My only substantive criticism involves Lecture 23, where his discussion of Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" goes off the rails because he overlooks the role of "normal science" and anomalies in Kuhn's theory of how thinking systems change. Some negative reviews of this course faulted the professor for being secular and academic in his approach, but that's exactly what I expected - and what I got.
Date published: 2016-11-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb course This course is a very interesting, broad review of a fascinating subject, discussed by a person with impressive academic credentials and extensive knowledge of a subject he clearly has spent much time thinking about and studying. He points out at the start that one will not always agree with him, and part of the value of the course is the challenge that comes with thinking through why one does or doesn't agree. Actually, after having listened to it twice, I would say that for me the worth of this course was less about the useful facts and concepts taught (although there are many) and more about the thinking stimulated as a result of learning about them.The usefulness of 'thought experiments' was particularly instructive.
Date published: 2016-07-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Questions of Value: Is this course of any value? I bought this one on a bit of a whim. I had another course from Grim that was very good, and thought on that basis mostly I would give this one a try. Was NOT disappointed. Grim is phenomenal for explaining ideas clearly and just being so interesting. He comes across as pretty dry and like an old book come to life in audio form - but he will grow on you and has so much substance behind what he is saying, you can't turn it off. Very thought provoking course, I've listened to it three times already.
Date published: 2016-05-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Best of the Great Courses Audio CD Review This is the best of the dozens of Great Courses I have watched or listened to. I routinely lend it to friends as the exemplar course in my quest to spread the good news of the Teaching Company. Biggest selling points: 1) Dr. Grim distills abstruse concepts down to their essences. Moreover, he does so in such a manner as to make them practically useful in daily life. 2) As a corollary of the first point, there were times when it was as if Dr. Grim were talking to ME. I frequently listen to the Great Courses while walking. There were a handful of moments when I stopped in my tracks as I found myself on the verge of entering into a discussion with the lecture. I have had this phenomena reported back to me from several people to whom I had leant the course. 3) Dr. Grim delivers the materiel in an extremely humorous, deadpan style. I acknowledge that all may not appreciate his style, but it works for me. There were moments when he had me laughing out loud – and this within the context of classes on some inherently non-humorous materiel!
Date published: 2015-11-18
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