Great Ideas Program

Our required four-year Great Ideas curriculum combines history, philosophy, and the social sciences to address the perennial questions of human existence. This cross-disciplinary program introduces students to the important issues in Western and non-Western thought, encouraging the use of historical and contemporary examples to support students’ own emergent philosophical positions.  Arete offers a new set of Great Ideas courses each year.  Here are some of the past options.

The Philosopher's Toolkit

This course serves as preparation for other courses in the Great Ideas Program.    It provides a foundation in critical thinking and intellectual history, with an emphasis on the vocabulary and tools for doing (rather than just learning about) philosophy.    Students learn to identify different types of arguments, evaluate evidence and credibility,recognize faulty reasoning, and understand the psychological and social factors that impede clear reasoning.    In addition, the course will provide methods for thinking more deeply about complex problems.   Examples will include perennial philosophical issues as well as contemporary problems such as medical ethics, gender inequality, abortion, animal rights, poverty and terrorism.

The Living, The Undead, and the Afterlife

Otherness is defined as the quality, fact or state of being different. Vampires, werewolves and shape-shifters are, in fictional narratives, the epitome of The Other. They are archetypes of otherness. This Great Ideas course will tackle philosophical questions of identity, being and existence, and grapple with notions of immortality and the afterlife, the binary of good and evil, experiences of isolation or abandonment, and longing to belong while being unique to one’s nature.

Cell Phones, Cyborgs, and Killer Robots: The Philosophy of Technology and Human Nature

Every aspect of our lives is affected by technology. The way we eat, the places where we live, the ways in which we work and play are all reliant on technology. And, while our contemporary technology is, in certain ways, more complex and sophisticated than that of earlier ages, humans have always relied on technology to give them a survival advantage over other forms of life that are superior to humans in various ways. For this purpose, we will discuss and evaluate the norms of rational discourse and develop our understanding of what makes a good philosophical argument, how philosophical positions are expressed and defended and what good engagement with fellow interlocutors (both present and in text) looks like.

Love and the Paradox of Justice

The role of love in life is not simply an optional accessory that is merely nice to have. Love is fundamental to our common humanity, or so it seems. Indeed, without love it seems we would be somehow less than human.  What does it mean to love in a deep and personal way and how do we identify with those we naturally love and also with those that are hard to love? The class will also pay particular attention to exploring the type of love that is distinctly political love. Along with Gandhi and MLK we will examine the writings on love and the relevance of emotions within the political community and society by Martha Nussbaum. Her “common humanity” approach is supplied by a model of human psychology that people of different views might plausibly accept.

For King and Country

In this course, we study the history of government as a concept and in practice. Starting with the earliest human societies, we will study and discuss the major forms of government that have been developed and implemented throughout history. Throughout the course, we will discuss fundamental questions on the purpose and functions of government, the best form of government, and whether government is even necessary at all. This class will be largely discussion based, and will require students to think both critically and creatively about government and its role in the human existence.”

From Demigods to Well Dressed Worms: A Social History of Human Ontology

In this course, we will take a look at the social history of a few time periods in order to get an idea about what these people thought about human beings based on how they acted and how they treated each other. What people think about people is their personal human ontology. After constructing the past theories, we will examine some current theories of human ontology and what the consequences of these might be. Finally, we will each create a personal ontology either defending a view discussed in class or creating and defending a unique one. The final ontology project will also call for gathering cultural examples that support the view culminating in a cross medium example of an ontological view.


In our humanities and Great Ideas courses, students grapple with high-level questions drawn from a range of academic disciplines.   In lieu of simply “learning about” philosophical problems, they are challenged to articulate, defend, and develop their own provocative intellectual positions.   Here are the questions we explore:


-Is there an essential world?

-Do we have free will?

-Is the mind distinct from the body?

-Do human beings have souls, a nonphysical part of them that is not subject to death and decay as our bodies are?

-If we have a soul, how does the physical interact with the non-physical?

-Is the self an illusion?

-What is the underlying nature of the world?

-Is there a reality beyond the physical universe?

-Are there universals?

-Are there irreducible things or is everything reducible?

-What is a particular thing (e.g. what are atoms made of?

-What is real?


-How do we know the difference between a dream world (e.g. the matrix) and the real world?

-If we do have knowledge, how much knowledge do we have?

-Is certainty possible? Do we need certainty?

-How are our beliefs justified?

-What is a true belief?

-What do we know and how do we know it?

-Is scientific knowledge privileged?

-Is reason the source of our knowledge?

-How does the Rationalist account for knowledge?

-How does the Empiricist account for knowledge?

-When we look at a tree is our visual sensation of the tree caused by the tree?

-Do truths of reason get us out of our minds to the “real” world?

-Is there a necessary causal connection between events in the past and events in the future?

-What is the skeptical challenge and can it be ruled out?


-How should we live?

-How are moral virtues developed?

-Are morals relative?

-Are there any moral absolutes?

-Do consequences make an action right?

-Is the utilitarian demand, to weigh the pleasures and pains of all people equally, possible?

-Are people morally to blame for their actions?

-What are the true motives for acting morally?

-Do we act morally merely for our own benefit/self-interest?

-How willing should we be to do the right thing, even if it will be unpleasant?

-What is the relationship between what we “feel” is right and what is actually right?

-Are there actual moral truths/standards which we can appeal to and know?

-Does morality derive from human nature, culture, God, or some other source? Or is it a combination of these?

-Are universally true moral values compatible with the relativity of other values?

-How do we determine what it means to treat a person as an “end”?

-Who deserves to die?

-Is the moral ideal partiality or impartiality?

-Is Aristotle right the moral virtue is a mean “between two vices, the one involving excess, the other deficiency”?

-Why does becoming a good person take hard work?

Social and Political Philosophy

-How can people get along?

-What is a just society?

-Can people be trusted to govern themselves? How, if at all, should we be governed?

-What is the best state or civil society?

-Is inequality justified?

-What are “rights” and what is their source?

-Are laws discovered or are they just made up?

-What influence, if any, should government have regarding how goods and services in society are distributed among the citizens?

-Does the government have the right to put any of its citizens to death?

-What is punishment and why do we punish as we do?

-How do we deploy political and legal power in defining the limits of freedom?

-What justifies legal restrictions on our conduct?

-What are the responsibilities of those who punish in relation to those subject to punishment?

-What are the arguments that today shape our thinking about punishment?

-Should goods be divided in a ratio that matches the merit of the individuals?

-What is a negative right and a positive right?

-What is an appropriate criteria when it comes to formation of a social contract?

-When is a revolution just?

-What is a balanced perspective of the value of personal autonomy as a criterion for justice?

-Are there other social values that are arguably at least as important as freedom? If so, what are they?

-Should the government mandate some wealth distribution at least to meet the most basic needs of the poor?

-How should equality be prioritized over other political values?

-Should there be no private property and should all resources in society be held in common?

-If you were ignorant about all of the facts about your own socio-economic status, what principles would you want to guide the society in which you were placed?

-What principles are most fair for everyone?

-Can we guarantee the fairness of the principles chosen?

Philosophy of Science

-What are the presuppositions of science?

-Are all nonempirical truth-claims are scientifically unknowable?

-Can one demonstrate scientifically that all nonempirical truth-claims are unknowable?

-What is the explanation for the laws of nature?

-Is there evidence that the laws of nature will continue to hold in the future?

-What is the relationship between science and truth?

-Can scientists avoid interpreting data in light of presuppositions (i.e. the problem of induction)?

-How much confirming experimental data is necessary to demonstrate the truth of a particular theory?

-What does it mean to prove a theory?

-Is our belief in the uniformity of nature justified?

-How do we draw the line between science and pseudoscience (i.e. the demarcation problem)?

-What is the debate between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism?

Philosophy of Religion

-Is there a conflict between science and religion? If so, is it a necessary conflict?

-What is God like? Are there many Gods?

-Is there purpose and meaning in life? Is God necessary for purpose and meaning in life?

-What counts as a religious proof and can religious proofs be conceived as rational or not?

-What evidence or arguments might there be for the existence of a supreme being/beings?

-Is the existence of God purely a matter of faith?

-Is there a relationship between faith and reason?

-Can faith be rational even without arguments?

-What is the ontological argument for God’s existence and the response to it?

-What is the teleological argument for God’s existence and the response to it?

-Was there a beginning to the universe? If so, is God a plausible cause of the universe?

-What does it mean to say that God is omnipotent?

-Are there things that God cannot do?

-Is there a dilemma between divine foreknowledge and human freedom?

-Does God feel? Is there such a thing as divine relationality?

-How can God allow evil, especially so much evil?

-Are there pointless evils in the world? Can we know this? If so, is this a knockdown argument against the existence of a morally perfect and omnibenevolent God?

-Do all, or many, religions lead to the same ultimate reality?

-How can the existence of God be accounted for given the problem of religious disagreement among religions?

-What is a miracle?


-What is art?

-What is beauty?

-Is beauty merely subjective, or are there objective standards?

-What is the distinctive qualitative feature to the experience one has listening to Beethoven as opposed to listening to a dentist’s drill?

-Just what is aesthetic pleasure?

-For whom must an object be enjoyable in order to qualify as art? The person who made it? Any person on the street? The art critic?

-Is artwork essentially imitative?

-In what sense can abstract art be said to be imitative?

-What are the social and political conditions that give rise to art?

-How do social values and practices influence art and thereby persuade audiences to embrace the “system”?

-Does aesthetic evaluation have value by itself?

-How do we know when art celebrate evil and when art merely depicts evil?