Why do people seek out art that makes them cry? Can a war be fought justly? Can organisations be held responsible for what they do? What might it mean to say that life is sacred? Is science rational? The Open University Course A333- Key Questions in Philosophy examines these questions in depth and aims to develop the skills and confidence needed for independent study in philosophy in a gradual and supported way. The course consists of these five themes:
Truth in fiction
When people read novels or watch films, they often become emotionally involved with the story. Yet this phenomenon can seem quite puzzling. How can it be rational for people to feel happy or sad about events that never actually happened or to care about the fate of people who do not exist? Why do people seem to seek out stories that make them feel frightened or sad? These questions lead on to some broader issues about the purpose and value of narrative art.
Can there be justice in war? Is there a clear moral distinction between killing combatants and killing non-combatants? Are there circumstances – situations of supreme emergency – in which it is justifiable to suspend the accepted conventions of war? Should all soldiers be treated in the same way, regardless of whether their cause is just?
Reason in action
We tend to assume that people are, by and large, rational agents, their actions guided by reason. This shows up in our readiness to reason with one another over how best to proceed, and to hold people responsible for what they do. But what does rational agency really amount to? Are some goals more rational than others, and if so, which ones? How is it that we sometimes seem to act contrary to our better judgement (‘weakness of will’)? When we act collectively, who is responsible: is it the individuals involved or a ‘group agent’ – an organisation, a country, a family?
Life and Death
People sometimes say that life is sacred – but how should we understand this claim? Is death bad for the person who dies, or only for the people who are left behind? Is it good to be born? Can we make any sense of the idea that a life might (or might not) be meaningful?
Knowledge and reason
Just as we might assume that people are, by and large, rational agents, so we might assume that people are, by and large, capable of thinking rationally and forming rational beliefs. Could scientific research into the ways in which people actually reason undermine this assumption? Do we have good reasons to believe what we are told? Is science itself a fully rational enterprise?
Watch this specially commissioned video by The Open University on 'Testimony':