Philosophical topics at the intermediate level. Content varies each quarter, depending on instructor.
Sympathy for the Devil: The Rhetoric of Compassion
(German 390a, Philosophy 301a, CHID 498c, Comp Lit 357a, Classics 496a)
Is compassion the foundation of human morality or a dangerously unreliable emotion? This course examines the strategies and motivations in different media of fostering empathy for commonly held enemies or discriminated groups. The syllabus runs from Ancient Greece to depictions of Nazis and terrorists in modern film, and considers philosophical assessments of sympathy (positive and negative) alongside examples of its aesthetic manufacture. Half of our readings are in moral philosophy (Aristotle, Spinoza, Rousseau, Hume, Adam Smith, Kant, Nietzsche, Arendt), and in each case we use the literary text or film (e.g., Sophocles, Shakespeare, Lessing, George Eliot, Brecht) as a kind of experimental field to test the concepts laid out by the philosophical texts, and to evaluate the philosophers’ claims about the moral efficacy of compassion. Students will also work creatively to engender sympathy in four genres (rhetoric, drama, narrative, film). Hence there are three related skills we’ll develop in the course: critical thinking; literary analysis; creative practice.
We will look into the ethical implications of using dramatic compassion to further laudable social agendas of toleration. This line of questioning reveals the discomforting unity of pity as a device in portrayals, for instance, of both Nazis and their victims: Is it possible for art works to persuade bigots to accept minorities and outcasts? Is it right for a film to invite sympathy for a monster like Hitler or a public menace like suicide bombers? It is vital to understand the action of sympathy before we assign it such momentous tasks as guiding our moral vision and encouraging a more tolerant society.
Student learning goals
Critical thinking about moral philosophy
Creative practice in rhetorical arts
General method of instruction
Class assignments and grading