Should Philosophers Teach the Meaning of Life (and other Possibly Depressing Subjects)?


If there’s a question that comes to mind when people see the word “philosophy” it’s this: “what’s the meaning of life?”

Many philosophers roll their eyes at this question. Some think it is poorly formed, in that it asks for a single answer. Others think “meaning,” if it’s even the kind of thing lives have, is too ambiguous. Some think it’s the kind of question philosophy doesn’t answer, and are annoyed that it’s taken to be the archetypal philosophical question.

Still, the subject shows up in introductory anthologies and there are no shortage of philosophy classes with “meaning of life” in the title.

Recently, Guy Crain, a professor of philosophy at Rose State College, wrote with new concerns about teaching about the meaning of life:

Might the topic be psychologically damaging to some students? I’ve heard an anecdote or two about depressive or suicidal students being triggered by the topic. I also have some experience with loved ones struggling with suicidal thoughts, and I can at least see how discussing that topic would definitely not have helped them. The reason I bring it up is that it seems like a standard topic in so many of the Intro textbooks I have on my shelf, which I take as some mark in favor of covering the topic.  Is this a topic philosophy professors should be teaching? Do you know if anyone has any information about this?

Similar thoughts have crossed my mind when teaching Schopenhauer, or Benatar’s anti-natalism. Some of the stuff we teach in philosophy can be pretty depressing. Of course, that is true of psychology, history, literature, political science, sociology, law, and other disciplines. So let’s be clear that the topic here applies to a broad swathe of academia.

Let’s put the question this way:

If we have reason to think that some subject we teach will cause some of our students to question whether life is worth living, and perhaps even, as a result of that questioning, kill themselves, should we teach it? 

It might help to have some guidelines for the discussion:

  • Let’s take on this question realistically. That is, leave aside thought experiments such as “suppose that if, in the course of a lesson, you said a particular true and relevant philosophical proposition, T, where T is known to cause suicide in 50% of the students who hear it; should you say T?” Hell no, you shouldn’t say T. But that isn’t the situation we’re in.
  • Let’s also leave aside the idea that our sole aim in teaching is the unfettered pursuit of all the relevant truths. As university employees we have various responsibilities towards our students of which teaching them some true things is just one.
  • Let’s not assume the depressing take on any subject is the mistaken one. There might be good reasons to think that, for some reasonable specification of “What’s the meaning of life?” the answer is, “there ain’t.”

For what it’s worth, I think the answer to the question in general is “it depends,” but for now is “yes.”

We have, at the moment, the following speculation: an activity may to some uncertain extent contribute to the set of causes of an unknown increase in the chance of an unknown but small (if not zero) number of students engaging in behavior that may be harmful to themselves.

If the activity in question had no benefit whatsoever, then the foregoing speculation may be sufficient to give us pause. But the activity in question is teaching what we’re presuming are subjects we otherwise consider quite valuable or important. Again, we’re not just talking about the meaning of life here, but subjects in any discipline that can plausibly be taken to be seriously depressing. To justify stopping teaching those things we’d need much more than the speculations of small increases of risks to small numbers of people.

Some may not like this type of cost-benefit analysis answer. It’s certainly not the only way to address the question. I’d be curious to hear alternative approaches.

To say that the answer is yes, keep on teaching, is not to say there’s nothing we should do about the possible risks, for there’s the question of how we teach these subjects. Since there is practically zero cost to giving students notice that some of them might find an upcoming subject hard to deal with, or even pointing them to resources that might help them cope with possible psychological challenges posed by the subject, it seems we should do those things.

Your thoughts welcome.

UPDATE: See this helpful and thoughtful comment from Dan Weiskopf.

Kay Rosen, “Slice of Life”

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Ben
Ben
4 years ago

Should English teachers teach Hamlet (and other possibly depressing texts)?Report

Jean
Jean
4 years ago

Great topic. I’ve been teaching a course on the meaning of life for many years and have felt obligated to make adjustments because of how common it is for students in the class to have serious issues. In one semester, for example, a student in the class was depressed and suicidal, so much so that they had to check themselves into the hospital the night before my “death” midterm. Then they dropped the class. Another student, the same semester, had also made suicide attempts. Another thing I take into account is that undergraduates are trying to plan their futures–their careers, etc. So it makes the class more suitable to them to select material relevant to that sort of issue. In other words–death is a topic, but so is “what should I do with my life?”

In light of all that I do all of the following: (1) Limit the weeks spent on death. (2) Don’t teach views that are cheerful about suicide. (3) Recognize the possible impact of views that philosophers play around with as if they were purely fun. “Death is nothing to us” is fun for academic philosophers, but could be hazardous to people first encountering it. (4) Stress the uplifting aspects of the meaning of life literature–e.g. the uplift in Richard Taylor’s article “The Meaning of Life.” (5) Teach stuff on how to live, the good life, etc, as well as the meaning of life. (6) Give content warnings at the beginning of class and later on, as necessary. Take it seriously that the class can have real world impact. (7) Use comedy to lighten the mood. I show Woody Allen clips, etc. Etc. I’ve struggled with this a lot!

I feel slightly uncomfortable adjusting course content this way, but there’s a ton of stuff you could cover in a course on the meaning of life. It seems fine to make your selection partly with a view to what’s good for/bad for the students in the class.Report

Greg Gauthier
4 years ago

To take a slightly less dramatic example, and one that is probably far more likely to happen in one of your classrooms:

Bernard Williams’ famous essay on equality argues for a view of “rights” that (more or less) declares them meaningless, unless they’re “operative” — in other words, that if some desire or need I have for something to which I consider myself entitled by right is something I cannot attain, then it’s “effectively” not a right at all. This may persuade some readers to certain political conclusions as a consequence (whether those conclusions are warranted or not is irrelevant). Those conclusions, then, may motivate them to certain forms of political activism that are – in the long run – destructive to themselves, and the society around them. Should you continue to teach Williams’ essay?

I’m honestly not sure. Lately, I’ve been thinking about my own study, purely as a hobbyist, and I’m actually kind of glad that there are certain things I didn’t discover until I was well into my adulthood. I think Aristotle and Plato both had something to say about this as well (to the extent that young men are too “passionate” to take the lessons of philosophy in the proper spirit, or something like that). On the other hand, “the young” (say, ages 14 to 21?) seem more hungry for “purpose” and “meaning” than they have in a long time, and if philosophers refuse to provide at least some guidance, they’ll just go looking for it in any one of another thousand places they can easily go, these days.

I would suggest a tentative yes, but “proceed with caution”.Report

michaelrdjames
4 years ago

One remark above reminds me of the Socratic exchange with Thrasymachus in the first book of the Republic over the issue of justice. Thrasymachus demands a definition from Socrates but demands also that he does not answer that it is for the common good. Socrates points out that such a demand is analogous to being asked what the sum of 7 plus 5 is, but with the qualification that one is not permitted to give the answer of 12. The meaning of life for both Plato and Aristotle had to do with the good and of course since suicide is an action everything turns upon whether there is a “good” (in this technical sense) reason for the action. If someone does engage in this action for reasons of self love in Kant’s terms, because one is deeply unhappy, then Kant is quite clear that this kind of suicide would be an immoral act (perhaps because one has not fully realised ones duty to develop oneself) but Kant’s argument here would not apply to Cato’s suicide. Now whilst I can see someone deeply unhappy being influenced in a negative way by someone they have personal respect for I am having difficulty imagining someone in a deep depression firstly having the energy to participate actively and intellectually in an abstract ethics lecture and secondly that if they are participating out of the duty to develop themselves that such abstract universal theoretical reasoning would influence ones personal reasons for action. Religious ethics tries to capture the spirit of Kant’s and Aristotle’s humanism by forbidding the act of suicide for any reason whatsoever. I am trying to imagine someone committing suicide because the topic was taken up in a lecture on ethics where it was argued that life is meaningless therefore death has not greater value than life and then I am trying to imagine how I would react to the situation. I think I would complain about the lack of ethical content in the lecture but still insist that there could not be a direct and single causal connection between what was said and the act of suicide. Anyone who believes that there is a direct causal connection is probably a determinist and therefore probably also a consequentialist. Surely if we have learned anything from practical reasoning and the values implied by it it is that doing theoretical calculations about consequences is missing the whole point of ethics.Report

Tim O'Keefe
4 years ago

Recognize the possible impact of views that philosophers play around with as if they were purely fun. “Death is nothing to us” is fun for academic philosophers, but could be hazardous to people first encountering it.

Why think it could be hazardous? (Serious, not rhetorical question.) I teach the Epicurean arguments about death being “nothing to us” plus responses to it–Nagel, but sometimes other things also–in many of my classes. Far from being merely academic ‘fun’ that we’re playing around with, most of my students find the topic and the arguments about it among the more engaging and obviously relevant ones we study. And for the significant minority** of my students who find the Epicurean arguments convincing, the thought that death isn’t bad for them isn’t disturbing.

**This is a guesstimate from class discussions, essays on exams, and papers on the topic. I haven’t actually surveyed my students, but I’m confident that (at a minimum) a good-sized chunk agree with Epicurus.Report

Jean
Jean
Reply to  Tim O'Keefe
4 years ago

What I’m imagining is that a suicidal student might initially think of death as bad and scary, but be reassured by the thought that no, “death is nothing to us.” That reassurance could be hazardous to them. I do teach that argument, and also do teach Nagel’s reply, but I find myself not being as much of a neutral referee as I usually try to be.Report

Tim O'Keefe
Reply to  Jean
4 years ago

Hmm. Others can correct me if I’m off-base here, but I think that if a student is at risk of committing suicide because of clinical depression or some other mental disorder, then a consideration of the Epicurean arguments in a philosophy class isn’t going to have much of an impact one way or the other. Where I can more easily see it having an impact is in thinking about issues of palliative care or euthanasia, vs. continuing medical care to extend your life, if you have terminal cancer, advancing dementia, or the like.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Jean
4 years ago

This is question-begging. If, in fact, death is nothing to us, then there is no hazard to the student. If we want to say that death IS something dangerous, then we have to offer refutations of the argument.Report

Dirk Baltzly
Reply to  Tim O'Keefe
4 years ago

Epicurus on ‘death is nothing to us’ is surely fine. However, spending three weeks on Hegesias of Cyrene (aka Hegesias the Death Persuader) might raise concerns among university administrators about likely impact on course completion stats.Report

Carnap
Carnap
4 years ago

This seems to me just an instance of the general issue regarding the teaching of views which, if taken seriously, *might* have significant consequences. On a cost-benefit picture, it seems very difficult, if not impossible, to arrive at clear answers about how and when such topics should be addressed.

Unfortunately or fortunately, lots of philosophy addresses topics of this sort. Should we teach the arguments against the existence of God, given that some may find their loss of faith depressing? (I did.) Should we teach Tooley on infanticide given, that some may then think infanticide unobjectionable? Should we cover a paper (noted on Daily Nous before) according to which the pro-life position entails that abortion doctors should be assassinated? Should we teach libertarian or anti-paternalist positions on drug use as they might lead to an increase in drug addiction? This list could be greatly extended.

Moreover, as Justin suggests, in many cases, whether accepting or acting upon a certain view is likely to have good or bad consequences *depends on whether the view is correct.* If anti-natalism is correct, then it really is better if we do not procreate and eventually humanity ceases to exist. If Scheffler or Parfit is correct, the end of human life would be among the worst possible outcomes.

Finally, the probability of the envisaged outcomes is often extremely difficult to discern. Accepting a broadly Epicurean position on death might lead some to be more cavalier about it, but it might also (as some Epicureans hope) lead some to live life with less fear of death.Report

Paul Whitfield
Paul Whitfield
4 years ago

Is there concern over our psych courses? Chemistry? Virology? Criminology?Report

Dan Werner
Dan Werner
4 years ago

If philosophers stop teaching the meaning of life, death, and other emotionally difficult topics (racism, sexual violence, etc.), then our profession has failed. The exclusion of these topics does not by itself make the classroom into a “safe” space; and the inclusion of them does not by itself preclude the classroom from being “safe”. One can approach these topics with sensititivity, nuance, and honesty. At least, that’s what I try to do; and my experience has shown that student GREATLY appreciate having a forum to discuss them. Besides, if when exactly would be a better time for students to reflect on these matters than in a college classroom? (If not now, when?)Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
4 years ago

The whole question assumes that people become more or less suicidal because of their beliefs. Is there evidence for that? I would have thought people become more or less suicidal because of their feelings, or the subset of their beliefs that comprise their own attitudes about themselves. The types of teaching practices that encourage suicide, on my view, would be things like excluding or mocking students. Exposing them to viewpoints, however bleak, does not qualify.

But supposing your assumption is correct, Justin, I’m not sure what I would say. I don’t see reason to come up with an answer until I see something empirical that tends to show there is an actual problem.Report

Dan Weiskopf
4 years ago

There has been an enormous amount written about whether exposure to the idea of suicide can promote suicidal behavior in vulnerable populations. For a particularly sharp example, see the recent controversy over the series “13 Reasons Why,” which centers on a vivid depiction of teen suicide. There are purportedly evidence-based guidelines developed by a consortium of media organizations for how death by suicide should be covered in order to minimize the risk of “suicide contagion”:

http://reportingonsuicide.org/recommendations/

These may be worth bearing in mind if instructors are worried that raising the issue of the possible meaninglessness of life, and therefore the potential appeal of death, will encourage thoughts of self-harm in vulnerable students.

For what it’s worth, while I haven’t researched this extensively, I think anyone who wants to understand the psychological factors that predispose people to suicide should start with Thomas Joiner’s “Why People Die By Suicide”. He proposes a three-factor model of attempting suicide: (1) a feeling of being a burden on others, especially loved ones; (2) a feeling of loneliness and isolation; and (3) the learned ability to self-harm (and therefore to overcome the fear of dying painfully).

Personally, I’ve included a week or so on the meaning of life and a week or so on death in my Intro class for years. It’s been a resoundingly well-received section of the course. It routinely brings out some of the most thoughtful, passionate, and engaged comments from students. I do not spend much time on suicide as such, but it inevitably comes up in one of these sections. My only suggestion for dealing with all of these topics is to try to limit the use of flippant, overly jokey “thought experiments” or examples that make casual reference to suffering and death. (For similar reasons I think it’s best to avoid wheeling out cheap appeals to Nazism.) I think that these little offhand vignettes often have the effect of trivializing important matters, which is not only ethically distorting, but also (I suspect) reads as cold and abrasive to some students.

In other words, try to discuss these matters as if you were a compassionate person who recognizes their significance. If you aren’t this kind of person, or can’t perform as if you were, perhaps choose another topic.Report

ann_errorr
ann_errorr
4 years ago

Let’s distinguish between “teaching depressing topics generally” vs. “teaching the meaning/lessness of life, incl. the rationality of suicide.” I think the latter raises a special problem. For often, the discussion is *explicitly* focused on whether you should commit suicide, or at least, whether there is any good reason to live. (OK, granted, Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” speech does this too…but it’s fairly brief, and does not take seriously that death would end your existence.) When I’ve taught the meaning/lessness of life, I’ve felt *absolutely* compelled to inform students about advances in the treatment of depression (even apart from advances psychopharmacology), and to encourage exploring such things if they start spiraling downward. Anyway, my main point is that teaching the meaning/lessness of life seems to warrant special consideration; I do not think it is best to lump it under “teaching of depressing topics.”Report

guy
guy
4 years ago

I’m thankful to Justin for giving attention to my question and for some enlightening thoughts from some of the commentators. I’m sure my original question isn’t very well-formed. But I’d like to try a different spin on it.

Suppose you were an undergraduate student in a philosophy class and suppose you were struggling with depression (and perhaps you are not even aware how much you are struggling with it). Your philosophy professor spends a week covering the meaning of life. By whatever mechanism, completing the readings and hearing the class lectures either induce in you or partly constitute deeper patterns of depressive thinking. From there you begin to engage in destructive behaviors (whatever those may be: extreme social withdrawal, very poor self-care habits, suicidal thoughts, or others). But by whatever good fortune, you’re eventually able to turn things around and get healthy. Now in a healthy place, you look back and reflect that while you certainly weren’t in a good place to start, that one week in philosophy class was a noticeably steep decline on your way “down.” You think hard about any way in which that week might have gone differently such that your experience would’ve gotten better sooner. You decide to visit your old philosophy professor and relate your experience in hopes that he or she might consider the possibility of other students like you being adversely impacted by the meaning of life material.

Now return to the perspective of the philosophy professor. You have just heard the student recount the horrors of his or her struggles with depression, and the linkage to the meaning of life material doesn’t strike you as mere scape-goat-ism, but there does seem some sort of reasonable link (though the strength of that connection is unclear) between the material and the student’s experiences. Does either of the following strike you as more plausible than it did before that conversation?: (1) You should consider changing the way you present the material with just such a student in mind, or (2) you should consider whether there might be other philosophical topics with equal or higher pedagogical payoffs that don’t have this particular risk attached to them.

Not sure whether that different presentation would change any of the basic answers already given. Maybe not. Either way, I’d like to say the feedback has been helpful. Thanks.Report

Someone
Someone
4 years ago

I’m a practicing psychotherapist and I teach intro to philosophy classes where I often have a section on the meaning of life.

Before I say more, I think the important, relevant ethical duty for teachers of this (or any) intense material is to strongly encourage (perhaps repeatedly) to students that they talk to a therapist (or recommend to a friend that they should see a therapist) if they feel down, depressed, suicidal, either as we discuss this material or at any point in life. (I also recommend hotlines as a very cool resource that people should think about volunteering to do at some point.) I even add a bit about how the societally enforced shame we can feel about seeing a therapist is obviously irrational and absurd from a philosophical point of view.

Once you’ve made that recommendation, I actually think it is a good thing for depressed students to know that others have also seen that there is no objective reason, ultimately, to prefer living over not. Being alone with your depressed thoughts and feelings is the worst aspect of depression. It creates more hopelessness that no one will ever understand, that maybe “I’m crazy” and just intrinsically broken, and therefore undeserving of care and help. Knowing that others have thought like you can slightly ameliorate this sense of aloneness and help a person seek care and help.

If someone can be in those depressed feelings with you -to be curious about them, to value you as you have those feelings, while helping you think about what you do value and how you will live- then the depression can lift. Obviously, a teacher/prof cannot be in those feelings with depressed/suicidal students in that way, (this is the role of the therapist, for ethical and clinical reasons). But teaching the philosophical ideas of existentialists and others about thoughts ofmeaninglessness can help everyone be more comfortable talking about these thoughts, with each other, which is good for all.

I also suspect (with no way of knowing, obviously) that the idea that you can still fill your life with subjective meaning and sense of purpose, regardless of the lack of objective meaning, to be very helpful and part of a curative mindset to the depressed.

Now, it is true that there can be ways in which suicidal thoughts can be contagious when suicide is discussed in the media or between people, like students at a high school. However, the generally accepted (and supported with some research) rule in media is not to always avoid mentioning suicides, but rather to make sure suicide is not discussed as glamorous (especially non-fiction suicides), not discussed as a way of solving life’s problems (and Camus is clear that it doesn’t help solve anything), avoid discussing means in detail, and to remind people that help is there in the form of hotlines and therapists. See here: https://mobile.nytimes.com/2014/08/14/upshot/the-science-behind-suicide-contagion.html. Discussing suicide in this way may even reduce attempts.

Clearly, just like when you teach any subject that could be intense, you need to remind students to seek help if they are disturbed or upset. And you need to try to be sensitive and human and let them know you might say something upsetting to them.

But there are so many disturbing subjects in philosophy. Actually, the most I’ve ever disturbed a student was when I was discussing trolley problems in a lighthearted way, with everyone laughing, and one student had been in a car accident where the person they hit was very injured, and the student felt very guilty.

Ultimately, from a clinical and a philosophical point of view it is rarely, if ever, true that “We shouldn’t talk about this or think about it.” The subject of objective meaninglessness is no different if one is sensitive and follows some basic ethical teaching principles.Report

Untenured Ethics Professor
Untenured Ethics Professor
4 years ago

Avoiding the topic of suicide isn’t always an option. It’s necessary to have a strategy for discussing it when students bring it up.

Every time I teach Bentham and Mill, students bring up the ethics of suicide. They want to know whether utilitarianism implies that it’s OK to end one’s life if it will contain more pain than pleasure if continued.

My approach: (1) I tell students the the truth about the utilitarian view, but I try to frame the point by talking about terminally ill patients rather than about physically healthy people who are depressed or in despair. (2) I talk about Mill’s belief that for a large majority of people, life contains more pleasure than pain. (3) I make sure that my syllabus includes non-hedonist views about the value of human life.Report

Grad Student4
Grad Student4
Reply to  Untenured Ethics Professor
4 years ago

Untenured, I am somewhat disturbed by your approach.

To take the suicide outcome as the paradigm of the presumably undesirable outcome, the distinction to be made here is (1) teachingethical theory which would (putatively rationally) encourage suicide in certain circumstance and (2) teaching subjects which might be difficult to deal with for a person with mental illness, which may lead to a non-consensual/rational act of suicide.

(1)
What is philosophy meant to do? Well, first, it is supposed to be convincing. And ethics, in particular, is supposed to help us cognize what to do in certain situations.
Commentators here seem to be straddling this boundary of “Well, I cannot be so unbiased as to not teach this fundamental theory/notion” and “Well, I can’t teach it so well that students will actually believe it!” The latter hesitation seems to be a violation of one’s duty as a philosophy professor not to be biased in the presentation of arguments.

First, Untenured seems to think that we should teach utilitarianism, but only talk about the terminally ill as illustrations. Surely, you would want to illustrate its breadth of application (i.e. that at least conceptually it is not only the almost-dead to whom such an ethical imperative might apply). To cherry-pick example based on your tastes would be to give an incomplete illustration of the position (indeed, one of the keys to understanding these thoeries is understanding their most radical/unintuitive implications).

You also say that you stress Mill’s speculation that life contains more pleasure than pain. But this may lead to fallacious reasoning on the part of the students of making particular inferences about students’ own situation from a generality (i.e. well if most people have more pleasure than pain, I too must as well). You can stress Mill’s distinction by entering into a discussion about the epistemic (and other) issues of cognizing, quantifying, and predicting future pleasure/pain, and by saying a universal acceptance of the utlitarian position, at least according to Mill’s speculation, would not entail that most people should kill themselves. But other than this, you would be seem to be trading on an common fallacious inference to encourage your students to come to a particular conclusion (exactly what a Philosophy professor should not do).

The strict utilitarian might leave suicide open as an option. And, if a student is so inclined to adopt such a philosophy, realizing its pitfalls and controversies, then suicide should be open to that student as an option as well. So should the utilitarian option of becoming an earn-to-give assassin or high-end art thief. If suicide is indeed a choice based on your teaching, your duty in this case was only to present both sides fairly. (This is, of course, not to say that you have to make both sides seem equally plausible, but rather as plausible as the available arguments might suggest).

(2)
Now we come to the question of dealing with mental illness in the classroom. It seems to me one way of accommodating any mentally ill students is to avoid these topics. But once you are committed to engaging in these potentially depressing or suicide-encouraging philosophies, you cannot sugarcoat them, or present them in a way to make them seem less desirable than they really are. Because at that point, you would not be teaching philosophy, but advancing an agenda. It may be that mentally ill students should not take philosophy courses, which require thinking about such topics.Report

Untenured Ethics Professor
Untenured Ethics Professor
Reply to  Grad Student4
4 years ago

I disagree with you about what intellectual honesty requires in this situation, in part because I do not think anyone should be persuaded by classical utilitarianism. It’s a non-starter. I teach it because knowing about it is necessary to understand contemporary ethical debates. It’s important for astronomy students to know something about the theories of Ptolemy and Copernicus to know how our science got to where it is, but it would be foolish to navigate the seas or the solar system using these theories. It would be even more foolish to try to navigate life using the ethical theory of Jeremy Bentham.

You are right that it is important to bring out some of the counter-intuitive implications of theories we teach. I think it’s okay to make choices about which counter-intuitive implications to emphasize. My preference when discussing utilitarianism is to talk about the theory’s implications for murder and theft. I don’t see a need to explore the utilitarian view of suicide by the physically healthy unless students ask about this specifically. Their questions about utilitarian views of suicide and self-preservation are usually more open-ended.

The point about epistemic uncertainty about one’s future pleasures and pains is a good one to bring up.Report

Grad Student4
Grad Student4
Reply to  Untenured Ethics Professor
4 years ago

It’s not about what *you* think about classical utilitarianism. Peter Singer does not think infanticide is a non-starter (or at least at one point didn’t think that). But I suppose (of course, I’m guessing) that you think that is a non-starter as well.
I’m not trying to make the point that if a smart person believes it, it’s not, in fact, prima facie false. But you should help students reach the right conclusion not by selectively sharing facts, but by sharing all the facts.
You should present the arguments as they are, and of course bring up good objections to them. But I wouldn’t pretend like you have the final say (or any say) on what is a non-starter. Lots of Phil Profs think lots of beliefs are non-starters.Report

Untenured Ethics Professor
Untenured Ethics Professor
Reply to  Grad Student4
4 years ago

I don’t understand why you think I am morally required to have a detailed discussion of the merits of suicide by the young and healthy when that is not the topic of the class session and when it is not the explicit topic of a student’s question. The questions about self-preservation I get from students are less specific than that.

If a student asked about the implications of utilitarianism for distributive justice, do you think I would be morally required to discuss *all* the implications? (If so, you think that students are entitled to derail a lesson plan.) Do you think I would be morally required to answer by talking about the inflammatory current issue I suspect is on their minds, when answering in another, equally accurate way would be just as effective at enabling students to understand the theory?Report

Grad Student4
Grad Student4
Reply to  Untenured Ethics Professor
4 years ago

I think you’re overstating the breadth of my claim and implications of my view (one might even say straw-manning).

My initial response was to your suggestion that you frame your answer in a way such that it is so clear you are setting an agenda—emphasizing Mill’s speculation about pleasure (thereby encouraging fallacious inference), only talking about the nearly dead (thereby vastly understating the implication).

Then you said you were justified because utilitarianism is a non-starter.

My response was merely re-emphasizing that that is exactly the wrong thinking, in my view, when presenting a view as a professor. No, I *obviously* don’t think a student’s question should be taken to turn a lecture on ethics write large to the specific issue of suicide (and I have no idea where you would make the inference from my statements…). This is my position: if the suicide subject comes up in the context of utilitarianism, it isn’t appropriate to then say “well, utilitarianism is a non-starter, so I don’t really have to expand upon it that much. Ergo, I will just talk about the nearly dead and how happy everyone is according to Mill’s speculation!”Report

Untenured Ethics Professor
Untenured Ethics Professor
Reply to  Untenured Ethics Professor
4 years ago

Grad Student4, I think perhaps we’ve had a miscommunication about what went on in my classroom. It is salient that the questions students are asking tend to be open-ended.

Of course I agree with you that if I got a very direct question about the ethics about the utilitarian view about suicide by the young and depressed, I would have to answer that question accurately. But students in my classes aren’t asking that question.Report

PhD Student
PhD Student
4 years ago

While I would acknowledge the need for tactfulness and consideration for one’s students, I think the general principle is that if a student is for whatever reason not psychologically equipped to deal with the course material, then this is not an issue to be primarily addressed in the classroom (eg by changes to the curriculum), but by professional mental health services. This applies to all kinds of emotionally triggering course material.

Moreover, I think one is wrong to expect that studying philosophy is a good idea for everyone, no matter what their psychological state is. The subject requires a certain amount of psychological stability for you to deal with it well, and if you do not have that, then maybe it would be better for you to focus on healing first or to decide on a different course of study. This is widely recognized when it comes to people’s physical states. You don’t got working out at the gym when you have pneumonia, and if you do people would think you’re awfully imprudent. And I think it is an equally imprudent idea to deliberately expose yourself to intellectual material when you are currently not psychologically or emotionally equipped to handle it.

This implies, on the other hand, that philosophy professors cannot and should not design their courses to be a good fit for students who are currently not in the right psychological state to study the subject, in the same way that no-one thinks a gym should offer an exercise programm that you can still do when you have pneumonia. That being said, it’s a responsibility of faculty to keep an eye open for signs of psychological problems in their students and recommend they seek help when they really need it.Report

Thinker
Thinker
4 years ago

Even if we don’t discuss questions of this sort, they’re likely to catch up with students down the road anyway–if they haven’t already, that is.

Meaning in/of life might be widely taken as the archetypal philosophical question because that’s the sort question that plagues a lot of people, philosophers and non-philosophers (if there is such a thing) alike. If such is the case, philosophy might be viewed as more valuable if questions surrounding meaning were still an emphasis in the profession. Nihilism is very much an issue in the contemporary world, and one of the disciplines most suited to speak to it is (for the most part) seemingly running away from the question in every other direction.

Maybe we shouldn’t be so annoyed by people thinking that philosophy’s most important task is to grapple with the question of living a meaningful life. They might be onto something.Report

Kent
Kent
4 years ago

I’m a beginning graduate student in philosophy who has in the past struggled with depression and anxiety.

During the periods in the past when I most struggled with depression and anxiety, I often turned to literature and philosophy as a palliative. I found a sense in the writings of Camus, Kierkegaard, and others that I was not alone in my questions about life’s meaning or my place in it. Rather than increased despair, philosophy, I think, can provide: 1) a sense of belonging to an intellectual community that may make the sufferer of depression feel less alone 2) pleasure in the act of doing philosophy for those who find it enjoyable, in which the sufferer may find some relief in the pleasure and meaning-making of the act of philosophy.

Note that 1) and 2) could also apply to other intellectual or artistic pursuits. In my personal experience, other activities did also prove therapeutic during my depressive episodes, including exercise, painting, playing music, reading fiction, watching films, writing in a journal, and spending time with friends. Ultimately, though, these activities helped me *manage* my depressive symptoms to some degree; they helped me fight it when I could bring myself to engage in activity at all. They did not offer a real cure. I did not experience a way out of depression until I underwent intensive therapy. In the same sense that the content of intellectual or artistic activities cannot truly guide a person out of depression, I also doubt that there can be a strong causal link between the content of the philosophy itself and worsening a person’s depressive symptoms.

That being said, some common sense must be exercised, and questions that come up in the classroom about the ethics of suicide (for example) should, I think, be discussed carefully, and not with a flippant or careless attitude.

Furthermore, if one finds oneself in a position to counsel or advise a troubled student (or anyone else for that matter) who has sought one’s advice, I believe that one has an obligation to recommend therapy or other treatment options that may be available. In a situation like this, it is useful to be familiar with available resources such as campus mental/behavioral health services, and crisis hotlines.Report

Michael Cholbi
4 years ago

I’ve written extensively on philosophical and ethical issues related to suicide and taught philosophy of death and dying for well over a decade. I can even say I wrote ‘the book’ on it: http://amzn.to/29yuxyz

First, a second for Dan Weiskopf’s recommendation of Joiner’s work. It’s both convincing and accessible.

Second, I certainly appreciate the perspective according to which we should not teach in ways that are harmful to our students or that encourage moral wrongdoing. But I also think we should also teach with candor and integrity: If you believe (as evidently many ethicists do) that there is not a blanket argument for the moral impermissibility of suicide, that it can sometimes be rational or morally permissible, etc., then there’s something amiss about not teaching such topics because we fear that students will act imprudently or immorally if we teach about them. I don’t see how, if we want our teaching to positively impact our students’ ethical thinking, and we think that suicide can in principle rationally or morally defensible, that we can then justify not teaching the subject on the grounds that students might thereby be motivated to engage in suicidal behavior. There is of course the risk that students will misunderstand arguments sympathetic to suicide and thereby be led to suicidal behavior. But this is also true of arguments sympathetic to any controversial ethical issue (lying, abortion, etc.). (That said, I too remind students that the philosophy classroom is not a clinic and that those preoccupied with suicide should consult other campus resources.)

That said, research and my own experience do not suggest that discussions of suicide, particularly in academic settings, are likely to encourage suicidal thought or action. The worry expressed elsewhere in this thread appears to be that such discussions will be taken by students as validation by authority figures of suicide. At least in my experience, the lesson most students instead take from discussing the morality of suicide is that it’s complicated: some prominent religious arguments against, some secular arguments against, a central test case for defenders of personal liberty and paternalism, a lot of questionable premises on all sides, a tendency to downplay how suicide might violate duties to particular others (loved ones, etc.). On the whole, students seem to adopt less dogmatic philosophical positions, which is unlikely (I’d venture) to encourage suicidal conduct on their part. Another point I underscore is uncertainty: Even if we can say what the conditions for suicide’s being rational or morally permissible are, it’s a lot harder to say in one’s own case that those conditions are in fact satisfied. (Kagan is good on this point in his ‘Death’ book.)

My own experience is thus not that classroom discussions of suicide, meaning of life, etc. encourage these behaviors. (I have had about a dozen students tell me over the years that my course was helpful in placing their own suicidal thinking in perspective, and a few indicate that it ‘saved their lives’ – an exaggeration no doubt.) Rather, they are likely to discourage them inasmuch as they signal to students that these are serious questions addressed by serious thinkers, and hence not to be entered into in haste. It’s worth keeping in mind that there’s still a fair amount of shame and stigma surrounding suicide (and mental health generally). But philosophical engagement with suicide, etc. conveys the message that merely contemplating suicide doesn’t make you ‘crazy,’ but nor is a choice to be made lightly or thoughtlessly. As I often say, talking about death, including suicide, won’t kill you. (And the effectiveness of suicide hotlines suggests that any empathetic engagement with suicidal persons helps.)Report

notaprof
notaprof
4 years ago

It isn’t entirely clear whether the objection to people potentially killing themselves based on philosophy is based in (a) a belief that suicide is philosophically wrong or unjustified; or (b) a desire for self-preservation from the emotional and professional fallout of having a student commit suicide.

I am one of those folks who doesn’t necessarily see suicide as a bad thing; nor do I necessarily see it as my role to prevent adults from committing suicide should they choose to do so. We are not running low on humans and students are, by and large, adults. But I would still be affected by (b).

I get a feeling, though, that a lot of folks are really talking about (a). If so, is it philosophically derived?Report

nicholesuomi
4 years ago

Students already have access to plenty of information. If someone is feeling depressed or suicidal, Google is happy to present them with plenty of resources, many on the pro-suicide side. So if the goal is to keep these materials away, that’s clearly not going to work. What is the goal, then? To not give someone the idea of suicide or questioning the meaning of life if they hadn’t already? I’d be surprised if someone hadn’t already come across the concept. I’d be more surprised if someone could be convinced to kill themselves without preexisting thoughts.

On the other hand, what with the likelihood of some students to have already seen the pro side, if the value or meaning of life is to come up, it can be defended. With most questions this is obvious enough. Not addressing an argument against your position just lets it sit there unaddressed.

I find the comments calling for philosophy to be inert a little ironic. If, as suggested above, infanticide or shooting abortion doctors is the right thing to do, then people doing the right thing would be a desirable outcome. If it’s not the right thing, then there’s some sort of argument against it, no? Just shutting down discussion when the real life application might be contrary to one’s own desires seems antithetical.Report

Katja
Katja
4 years ago

I think my modest depression started to vanish as I found the texts from Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre and more. So things are not so simple and straightfirward. Hopefully people will still read these existentialists and find the deep understanding of humanity that they create.Report

sandra
4 years ago

I feel slightly uncomfortable adjusting course content this way, but there’s a ton of stuff you could cover in a course on the meaning of life. It seems fine to make your selection partly with a view to what’s good for/bad for the students in the class.Report

Steve Campbell
Steve Campbell
4 years ago

This is a fascinating post/thread. As it happens, the philosopher Iddo Landau has a new book coming out this August that seems to speak directly to these concerns about meaning-of-life being a depressing subject. I’ve only had a chance to read over a few parts, but I’ve been impressed with what I’ve read thus far. The book is titled _Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World_. Below are a few lines from the Introduction:

“This book aims to present and critique some presuppositions about the meaning of life that lead many people to believe, unnecessarily in my view, that their lives are meaningless; to reply to recurring arguments made by people who take their lives to be meaningless; and to offer strategies that may help people identify what is meaningful, and increase meaningfulness, in their lives. The assumptions and arguments I criticize here are ones I have found in the literature or have heard from people who have told me, sometimes with considerable pain, that they do not take their lives to be sufficiently meaningful. I have been surprised to find that most people I have spoken to on the subject take a much bleaker view of the meaning of their lives than, I believe, needs be, and that many refrain from asking questions or taking action that could make their lives more meaningful.”Report