Quest for Meaning: Values, Ethics, and the Modern Experience

Course No. 455
Professor Robert H. Kane, Ph.D.
The University of Texas at Austin
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Course No. 455
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Course Overview

What are true human values? What is worthy of our highest honor and love? What purposes should order our existence? Is there any objective way to tell right from wrong? If life indeed has a meaning, can it be known and stated? What form would that knowledge and statement take?

These are fundamental questions. And most of us have surely asked them of ourselves in one way or another.

Such introspection has been going on for millennia, as Professor Robert H. Kane explains. And the devoted search for answers to these questions—for wisdom about the human condition—has shaped cultures around the globe.

Yet today, the very possibility of such wisdom is being challenged.

A Challenge from Postmodern Thinkers

"Postmodern" thinkers assert that we can no longer seriously pursue questions of purpose and objective meaning.

Others may not go quite as far, but few would deny that a sense of profound uncertainty about basic human values haunts the modern age:

  • Our world appears to be a place of waning moral innocence.
  • Discord and confusion over both beliefs and behavior seem to be on the rise.
  • Fewer and fewer convictions are held in common.
  • Our public discourse suffers increasing fragmentation as subjectivism and relativism gain ground.

How and why have we come to this?

Is the postmodernist challenge correct? Do questions about objective values mark the limits of a dream that is now all dreamed out? Are we hopelessly trapped within our own partial and relative perspectives, doomed never to discover what is authentically true and good?

Or is it still possible to aspire toward objective standards of meaning in a way that takes into account the realities of pluralism?

And even if the need for a common ground is granted, must we not ask whose morality will be represented? Is there an ethics that we can all agree on without stifling pluralism and freedom? What would such an ethics look like?

What Should Guide Your Own Thinking?

Most important, how should you, as a thoughtful person, find your way among the moral puzzles of the modern world and its cacophony of voices and opinions? What criteria should guide your thinking about ethics and your stands on issues of the day?

These are some of the questions you'll tackle as you join Professor Kane in this thought-provoking examination of the problems surrounding ethics in the modern world.

The contemporary issues you'll consider include:

  • conflicts between public and private morality
  • the degree to which the law should enforce morality
  • the teaching of values in the schools
  • the role of religion in public life
  • the limits of liberty and privacy
  • individualism versus community
  • the loss of shared values and the resulting discontent about politics and public discourse.

Professor Kane's approach is as searching and comprehensive as any you could ask for.

His lectures range over a rich array of literary, religious, and philosophical sources representing thousands of years of civilization.

Discover the Riches of the Axial Period

You begin with the Axial Period (c. 800-300 B.C.) which the philosopher Karl Jaspers identified as the seedtime of many of the world's great religious and wisdom traditions.

Its many bequests to us include:

  • the Hindu Upanishads
  • the teachings of Buddha, Zoroaster, and the biblical prophets
  • the thought of Confucius and Mencius
  • the founding of philosophic rationalism in the Athens of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

Professor Kane explains that modern thought has completely separated fact from value, and examines the consequences of this divorce. Modern science has especially contributed to this dissolution because it seeks explanations in causes, not intentions.

This threatened the older wisdom traditions and left modern thinkers with the challenge of finding a ground for ethics that could not be reduced to individual preference or social convention.

These thinkers included such influential modern philosophers as Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Kant, and John Stuart Mill, as well as more recent figures like John Rawls.

They rose to the challenge in a variety of complex and sophisticated ways, seeking a basis for ethics in common human feeling, reason, utility, or the notion of a social contract.

An Indispensable Companion to Contemporary Ethical Debate

These ideas all remain influential today, and are the subject of current debates that Professor Kane explores with great subtlety and insight.

For that reason alone, this course is indispensable to anyone who is serious about understanding the shape and origins of our current ethical situation.

Reflecting on Plato's prescient criticisms of democracy in the Republic, Professor Kane also asks how our society will fare amid this growing moral debate.

Viewed against the larger backdrop of human history and current world events, freedom and democracy appear as exceptional achievements, forged in an era of much greater moral consensus than we know today.

Can democracy's continued health be taken for granted if procedures alone hold it together while citizens increasingly disagree about basic questions of what is right and wrong, permissible and impermissible?

Rediscovering the Quest for Meaning

Most intriguingly, Professor Kane spurs you to ponder the possibility of recovering the ancient quest for wisdom and virtue in a way that respects the insights of modern thought and the achievements of modern pluralism.

This discussion is structured around a fascinating contemporary parable about a gathering of representatives from many different cultures and belief systems at a remote monastery high in the Himalayas.

  • Could these delegates agree on any common approaches to the search for meaning without compromising their distinct beliefs and truth claims?
  • What might their dialogue be like?
  • Could it bear fruit?
  • If so, what might those fruits be?

Does the vision sketched in this parable suggest a viable way of proceeding? Can thoroughgoing pluralism coexist with deeply held convictions about the best way of life? Do our current contentions over ethics mean that we are living through a transition to some new Axial Period?

Whatever your thinking on such questions, you can rest assured that it will be immeasurably enriched by the harvest of reflection you glean from Professor Kane's compelling lectures.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Values and Modernity
    The Axial Period is discussed: It was a time of spiritual awakening from 800 to 300 B.C. that still is felt in the modern age and seems to be recurring. Pluralism and uncertainty are two challenges to modernity. They and others lie behind many of our current moral confusions and disagreements. x
  • 2
    An Ancient Quest, A Modern Challenge
    This lecture explains the nature of the ancient quest for wisdom and meaning in life that is threatened by the modern era. It uses as an example one of the greatest thinkers of the ancient Axial Period, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who said that by expelling final causes or purposes from nature, modern science has sundered fact from value and scientific inquiry from practical inquiry about the good. x
  • 3
    Pluralism, Religion, and Alien Cultures
    In this lecture, we turn to aspects of the Western world's confrontation with pluralism and uncertainty. Developments at the end of the Middle Ages conspired to undermine many beliefs and certainties of the medieval world and shattered its religious unity. The lecture explores confrontations with cultural and religious pluralism, the religious disputes and wars that consumed Europe after the Reformation, and the reaction to the discovery of alien peoples and cultures in the new world. It also considers the growing interest in Eastern civilizations, such as China and India.


  • 4
    Are Values Subjective?
    Are there objective values, or are all judgments about good and evil, right and wrong, merely subjective expressions of personal feelings or attitudes? This lecture considers two opposing ideas that have led many to subjectivist views about values: positivism and Existentialism. One emphasized science as the source of all knowledge, the other emphasized personal experience. We focus on two influential philosophers of the 20th century, Bertrand Russell, the British logician and philosopher, and Jean-Paul Sartre, the French Existentialist. x
  • 5
    From Experience to Worth
    In this lecture we consider the case for objectivity. Reference will be made to modern thinkers not yet discussed and to some ancient figures to suggest a distinction between four dimensions of human value: the experiential dimension, the dimension of purposive activity, the dimension of meaning and excellence in forms of life, and the dimension of nonrelative worth transcending particular points of view. x
  • 6
    Hume and the Challenge of Relativism
    In this lecture we consider the "project of modernity," the ethical project undertaken by modern philosophers from the 17th century on who address the problem of relativism within the conditions of modernity. We consider how this project was carried out by modern philosophers. We start with the sentimentalist option, beginning with 18th-century Scottish philosopher, David Hume. His views are compared to those of Adam Smith, one of the founding figures of modern economic theory, and to two Chinese thinkers of the original Axial Period, Confucius and Mencius. x
  • 7
    Cultural Diversity, Human Nature, and the Social Sciences
    In this lecture we follow debates about sentiments in ethics and value theory from Hume's time into the 20th century. These debates lead to a discussion of social sciences to current debates about cultural and ethical relativism. Early on, anthropology alerted people to the amazing diversity of human cultures. A concern in 20th century social sciences raises the topics of human uniformities and cultural universals. We discuss relativism and modern appeals to human nature and common moral sentiments, like those of Hume, Adam Smith, and Mencius. x
  • 8
    Kant’s Appeal to Reason
    In this lecture we turn to the appeal to reason. Another major figure of modern philosophy and the 18th-century Enlightenment is Immanuel Kant. In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant demonstrated the limitations of theoretical reason in science. Science is successful within its own domain, he argued, but only because it stays within the limits of possible experience. x
  • 9
    Bentham, Mill, and the Appeal to Utility
    This lecture is devoted to utilitarianism, the third option of the project of modernity. We discuss the central principles of utilitarianism, the principle of utility, or of "the greatest happiness of the greatest number." Through a discussion of Jeremy Bentham, founder of utilitarianism, and John Stuart Mill, its greatest 19th-century representative, we deal with its central issues: defining and measuring happiness, pleasure and pain, alleged conflicts between utility and justice, theories of punishment, and issues of social reform. x
  • 10
    Social-Contract Theories (Part I)
    In this lecture and the next we turn to the fourth alternative of the project of modernity, the appeal to a social contract. Two ideas of contemporary social contract theories are considered. The first were posited by Thomas Hobbes and are often called Hobbesian theories; the second, "ideal theories," stem from John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Emmanuel Kant. We also begin discussing ideal social contract theories—to be continued into the next lecture—using John Rawls's theory of justice. x
  • 11
    Social-Contract Theories (Part II)
    This lecture considers the criticisms of Rawls's contractarian theory of justice as a barometer of the ideological and value debates of our times. Rawls's controversial second principle of justice is discussed. The lecture considers communitarian and social-conservative critics of Rawls, including Michael Sandel and Alasdair MacIntyre, who object to the individualism of Rawls's theory and its failure to address virtue, personal identity, and the needs for community. x
  • 12
    Some Critiques of the Modern Project
    In this lecture we consider contemporary thinkers who believe the project of modernity has failed. Some argue for a return to ancient and medieval ways of thinking about values and ethics that emphasize traditional virtues and notions of the good life. Postmodern critics are inclined to embrace relativism and agree with traditionalists, but do not think we can go back to premodern ideas. We must go forward to a new postmodern age. x
  • 13
    Retrieving the Quest for Wisdom
    In this lecture we focus on the "quest" for wisdom and meaning by beginning to explore how the ancient quest for wisdom and meaning in life can be revived, given the intellectual challenges of the modern era. The goal is to find convergences between ancient and modern wisdom and apply them to a host of contemporary moral problems. x
  • 14
    Wisdom, Ancient and Modern
    This lecture considers traditional moral commandments of the religious and wisdom traditions of East and West, modern notions of human rights, ethical theories discussed in previous lectures, as well as their exceptions. Two versions of the Golden Rule, forms of which go back to the Axial Period, are distinguished and their merits considered. We take another look at Kant's "Categorical Imperative" in light of earlier discussions of exceptions. x
  • 15
    Dilemmas of Might and Right
    This lecture considers ethical dilemmas of force and nonviolence, guilt and innocence, war and peace. We begin with examples of two extreme positions: pacifism and its opposite. The utilitarian principle of the greatest happiness for the greatest number is considered. General ethical questions of guilt and innocence, and conflicts of interest lead to a discussion of heroism, lifeboat situations, and other dilemmas. x
  • 16
    Public and Private Morality (Part I)
    In this lecture and the next, we discuss contentious moral and social issues that result from life in pluralist societies, where people have different values and views about how to live. We consider the merits of John Stuart Mill's "Harm Principle" in light of contemporary examples of public harm, offensive behavior, censorship and pornography, free speech, and other topics of law and morals frequently debated in modern free societies. x
  • 17
    Public and Private Morality (Part II)
    In this lecture we discuss principles needed to define public morality in modern free and pluralist societies. We consider an alternative "public morality principle" that might provide shared beliefs. We discuss teaching values and moral education in schools, paternalism, liberty, and privacy in public morality, and the limits of government interference in the private lives of individuals. x
  • 18
    Plato on the State, the Soul, and Democracy
    In this lecture, we look at modern political problems through Plato's criticisms of democracy. For Plato, the condition of the state (polis) and the condition of the soul (psyche) are related. Flawed states rot the souls of those who live in them, and he feared democracy was flawed in this regard. His alternative, authoritarian rule by philosopher-kings, rulers who love wisdom, may seem worse to us moderns, but if we love democracy and wish it were better, we do well to heed his criticisms. x
  • 19
    Democracy and Its Discontents
    Can the search for wisdom and the common good, the goal of Plato's philosopher-rulers, be carried on amid the discordant voices of today's pluralist culture? In this lecture, we consider various responses to this question, and we consider reforms that try to combine the ancient quest for political wisdom of Plato's philosopher-rulers with the necessities of modern democratic politics. x
  • 20
    The Parable of the Retreat
    This lecture explores deep philosophical motivations behind the quest by introducing a modern "parable of the retreat"—a story about a gathering at a remote Himalayan monastery that brings together people who represent different cultures, religions, and ways of life. The quest for meaning and attempts to retrieve it under conditions of modernity are discussed in terms of "aspiration"—the idea of the spirit expanding beyond its limited perspective to find truth. x
  • 21
    Searches in the Realm of Aspiration
    The lecture begins by talking about searches, with examples to introduce a special notion of "searches in the realm of aspiration." Mythical images are used, like the search for the Holy Grail. Such searches are called quests in the myths and legends of humankind. But searches in the realm of aspiration are exemplified in other than mythical ways, for example, in the scientists' search for the final truth about nature. x
  • 22
    Love and Glory, the Same Old Story
    This lecture turns to the notion of objective worth. We consider two dimensions of it: worthiness for glory and worthiness for love, which are related to two aspects of the self. Glory is related to the outer or public self, of roles, projects, achievements, and accomplishments. Love relates to the inner self of conscious experience—what poet Gerard Manley Hopkins calls our "inscape." These two dimensions are also explored in an example using Johann Sebastian Bach and some mysterious crystals capable of producing beautiful polyphonic music like Bach's. x
  • 23
    The Mosaic of Value
    How could anyone know what has objective worth—what is truly worthy of glory and love? How should we aspire to know whether anything is truly worthy of glory or love? We consider the relations between the two—glory and love—by exploring the Faust legend and other examples that can be traced to deep questions about the meaning and worth of life. x
  • 24
    Meaning and Belief in a Pluralist Age
    Two trends—a plurality of religions and the pervasive secularization of everyday life—tend to undermine the sense of sacredness, which historians of religion tell us is essential to religious ways of viewing the world. There is a tendency in religions for the highest value and highest reality to converge, providing clues for finding objective truth in religion and how it relates to objective worth, to ethics, to the sacred, and to searches in the realm of aspiration, or quests. The lecture concludes with reflections on religious belief in a potential new Axial Period. x

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Your professor

Robert H. Kane

About Your Professor

Robert H. Kane, Ph.D.
The University of Texas at Austin
Dr. Robert H. Kane is University Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at The University of Texas at Austin. He earned his B.A. from Holy Cross College and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from Yale University. In his three decades on the UT faculty, Professor Kane won no fewer than 15 major teaching awards. These include the Friar Society Centennial Teaching Fellowship, the President's Excellence Award, the...
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Quest for Meaning: Values, Ethics, and the Modern Experience is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 46.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from accurate title This is a great read and appropriate in these challenging times a pity that it does not have a video
Date published: 2020-04-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Missing Basic Motives Prof. Kane does a good job in his presentation and has helped me in my philosophical quest for greater awareness of Self, but fails to acknowledge ‘the elephant in the room,’ the motivational FIVES (Fear, Ignorance, and Vanity of Ego Self), the ‘Wheel of Life’s’ hub and Nature's innate driver for survival amplified by imagination, which underlay Humanity’s basic actions. The Awakening or original Axial Period is referenced often, but its ‘why’ is missing. I think the rise in thinkers/educators addressing ignorance, governors/administrators (State) using fear and vanity to promote unity, and religions/priest (Faith) subsisting on the FIVES by claiming moral and ethical authority via divinity are the basic reasons. These were supposed to give purpose and meaning to one’s life. The Enlightenment or modernity is well and thoroughly presented, which created the greatest turmoil for Western Faith, the primary supporter and chief beneficiary of the FIVES during the previous 1000 years. It’s very interesting to witness his telling of this period's giving rise to the ‘philosophers/thinkers’ who challenged religious authority as they struggle against it to acknowledge reality and their increased intellectual awareness. Prof. Kane covers completely, today’s post-modernity thinkers and their aspirations of bridging the gap between emotional ‘purpose’ (values) and ‘meaning’ (worth). And ends his lectures by falling back upon religion, specifying two trends, one that emphasizes an emotional attitude of a deity as “… the supreme reality” and the other a “sense of sacredness” of traditions, both intellectual stumbling points which highlights a ‘stuck on the FIVES’ and a willful blurring between metaphysics and reality. I believe there is a third trend which reflects an intellectual awareness of the reality of imaginative figuration. But, he correctly says “We may not yet be ready for this,” reflecting Humanity’s unwillingness to aspire to awareness beyond the emotionality of the FIVES. Hopefully, a new period of ‘Awareness,’ will not take another 1000 years. I think, when Humanity finally acknowledges the true width and breath of the FIVES, only then will intelligence be allowed its unfettered quest for one to define its own purpose and meaning in life. Ending his lectures with the mantra “I do not know,” is a first step which I believe is what allows my quest for knowing and meaningfulness in my life.
Date published: 2019-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Man's Quest for Meaning / Avoidance of Insanity A previous Great Course lecture titled "Interpretating the 20th Century" discussed the potential realization of the ENLIGHTENMENT project for the 21st century -- mainly in terms of the intellectual and institutional developments unleashed over "the struggle for democracy". The "Quest for Meaning: Values, Ethics, and the Modern Experience" discusses the project of MODERNITY for the 21st century mainly in terms of the AXIAL PERIOD's spiritual decline concerning the ancient philosophical and medieval religious traditions it once inspired -- China, India, Iran, Israel, Greece -- and the rise of modern pluralism and cognitive uncertainty concerning OBJECTIVE TRUTH and the VALUE of wisdom. Since the Renaissance and Reformation, the rise of Scientific methods, New World discoveries, the dynamics of globalized Capitalism, etc. -- resulted in the almost complete separation of fact from value, determinism and freedom -- the SCIENCES / HUMANITIES. The accompanying loss of moral innocence concerning the rationality of values, ethics, and human meaning has given rise to a POSTMODERNISM CONDITION where macro-meta-narratives no longer seem relevant and are met with SKEPTICISM, subjectivism, and relativism. Modern scholars, philosophers, and social scientists are critically discussed and their contributions over the issues raised are fully explored. Meet Smith, Kant, Mill, Locke, Rousseau, and others along the way. The professor also joins the scholarly discussion concerning values, ethics, and meaning in the modern world and raises a profound challenge for modern consciousness in my opinion. Can there be an AXIAL II PERIOD of spiritual awakening where objective truth, value, and human meaning meets and dialogues with modern pluralism, consciousness, democracy, and individuation? Or will there be a perpetual dichotomy like today's politics with only two views or paths: FUNDAMENTALISM / RELATIVISM ...
Date published: 2018-09-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding prof and info I am half way through the lectures and wish there were thousands more! A very complicated subject is made crystal clear with compassion and humor.
Date published: 2018-01-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Quest for meaning:value ethics and the modern expe The presentation is well structured ,arguments are valid logic and well structured from which you can draw good conclusions, the content is attractive and meaningful I am happy to hear this teacher from my home quietly
Date published: 2017-11-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Extremely thought-provoking & profound Excellent lecture series. Extremely thought-provoking and profound, yet clearly articulated by an interesting and engaging professor. Highly recommend.
Date published: 2017-10-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good But Flawed I have mixed, though generally favorable, feelings about this course. First, the positives. The professor is a very thoughtful and experienced teacher. I looked forward to each matter he tackled and typically found value in most phases in his teaching. There is good coverage of the philosophers and areas of thought that are necessary to engage in this quest for meaning. But there are real weaknesses. The structure of the course is jumbled. Instead of beginning with ancient wisdom and tracing thought about values and ethics from ancient to modern and postmodern and beyond, the professor jumps back and forth with a scheme that must have seemed logical to him but is quite confusing and unhelpful. The problem is compounded by the professor's too-quick treatment of major thinkers. He raises problems with each approach but then leaves them unsatisfactorily addressed as he goes on to the next. A good example is his discussion of philosophers in the "ethical project" and their critics. All are left wounded on the floor with little sense from the professor of what thinking is strongest and most enduring when he's done. He raises big matters and hopes to get to deeper truths at the beginning of each lecture, but I often felt under-fed at the end of each. We journeyed. There were nice sights to see. But I didn't come away with the depth and enduring value i get from the best courses. The professor does have his favorite ideas. We should value openness, he teaches. We should value the aspiration to wisdom, love, and religious truth. And he has favorite approaches and solutions. He commends plurality. He has hope in certain approaches he discusses in the parable of the retreat. And he has some practical suggestions to respond to the critics of democracy. While I like many of these ideas, he should have advocated for them more effectively. As it is, many of them are as vulnerable to attack, if not more so, than the views of philosophers he teaches. This is especially so with the rather simplistic and actually naive ideas he offers up to make democracy work better. Though these weaknesses keep me from giving a fifth star, I'm glad I took the course.
Date published: 2015-09-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A meaty Course If you, like me, are interested in the history of ideas, especially values and ethics, then I think you will like this course. Professor Kane, despite his corny jokes, gives one a great deal to chew on. I was surprised that he was able to do so much in 24 lectures. I've been through the course three times now and I was waiting a bit more before writing a review, then decided that I had to add my voice to the others on this site. What I appreciate most about this course, is the clear way Professor Kane presents the problem plaguing modern philosophy, i.e., our moral confusions--in other words, what the pundits call the culture wars. He points out that this problem is caused by pluralism (so many conflicting points of view) and uncertainty (no way to easily know who is right). This problem of modernity has lead to relativism--that there is no truth that applies to everyone, and subjectivism--that there is no objective right and wrong. From there Professor Kane taps his way to a way of thinking that may just put us back on the path to finding what is (or may be) objective truth. I think he is right to call this intellectual search of his a "quest." Thanks for presenting such a clear perspective on wisdom, professor.
Date published: 2013-12-03
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