Questions of Value

Course No. 4433
Professor Patrick Grim, Ph.D.
State University of New York, Stony Brook
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Course No. 4433
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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
 |  Average 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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Questions of Value is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 88.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from This course is provocative and enlightening. Professor Grim presented a great deal of illuminating discussion on various aspects of axiology, which is the study of what we value in life. On the one hand, it does not seem that there can be any more important question than what is a good life. But, it seems that with every philosophy course I study, I end up feeling like I am just 5 or 10 IQ points short of being able to really grasp what is being said. I think he is very logical, erudite and personable. I found the discussions on capital punishment, and the financial value attached to a human life to have been compelling and very profitable to me, personally. There were times, particularly in the later lectures, when the topics were a bit less specific, that i found it hard to follow his rather convoluted arguments. But I suspect that this is really a reflection of my own shortcomings or lack of aptitude for the field. I certainly am glad to have studied this course and am richer for it.
Date published: 2020-08-09
Rated 2 out of 5 by from no video streaming why there is no video streaming available on DVD purchase?
Date published: 2020-02-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from the courses are good as are the presentations. However the download speed and the lack of clear direction on how to get a download leave something to be desired
Date published: 2020-01-02
Rated 4 out of 5 by from all in all a fine course This course ranks amongst the better courses...the professor has a pleasant and easy to follow style of presentation...his lectures are by far less dense than for example those of prof.robinson or cahoone and can also be listen to during a commute for example..over all the Professor offers his opinion while fairly admitting that he does not have the answers, which is the Areas of Religion he lacks understanding,which is a bit sad..nobodys Expertise can cover everything but them he sould admitt it..the whole Course lacks,at least for me,some coherence,lectures can readily be listen to on their own,all in all not an outstandig Course but one You should invest time and Money into,you will get some Things of value in return
Date published: 2019-08-04
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Uninspiring, lethargic, repetitive I regret to report that I found this a terribly dull series of lectures, full of repetition, presented by, let's say, a "non-charismatic" professor. Not much I can add except that I learned next-to-nothing, almost fell asleep a couple of times, and simply cannot recommend Dr. Grim's lectures, though I'm sure he tried. Perhaps his material and presentation are much better in the school setting. If you DO buy this set, you might as well buy audio only, for there's no valuable visual material, and Dr. Grim's droll expression may put you off. #
Date published: 2018-11-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Careful distinctions I have read and taught about ethics for many years. This course was a welcome review of much of the history and progress of ethical reflection in the Western world. I especially appreciated the careful distinctions that the lecturer presented. The lecturer said he welcomed disagreement and I did disagree with him at times, but those disagreements did not preclude enjoying and profiting from the course.
Date published: 2018-10-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from .Pertinent values for living Dr. Grim has a down-to-earth lecture style that I find immensely appealing. His lectures on value are presented in such a way that you can apply, if so desired, any of the life values outlined to your own life. That's what I consider the true relevance of this course. I listen, I learn, and I apply. I might add that I've only listened to 7 lectures, the last one being, LIFE'S PRIORITIES. A great lesson, indeed!
Date published: 2018-09-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from American Dream Ain’t Real Practical sermon on “What is it that is really worth striving for?” And more importantly, “What kind of life is worth living?” This clever course is a take no prisoners challenge to everyones’ perceptions On ideal of American Dream. Teenagers, drug addicts, teachers, politicians, soccer moms, corporate executives, retirees, policeman, fireman, doctors, nurses, clergy, Walmart employees, world leaders, drug dealers, movie stars and directors MUST all engage in this course to keep the USA from drifting into the abyss. I found professor’s voice and method of delivery extremely entertaining and thought provoking. Perhaps one of my favorite chapters was “are you better off dead?”. Spoiler alert—-the answer is no. So to all those people killing themselves with drugs, alcohol, and suicide—-wake up ! Get this course and you will not be disappointed.
Date published: 2018-07-29
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