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Philosophy Essay Topics: Nihilism, Buddhism, Afterlife, and more

David Benatar’s ‘asymmetry argument’ for the view that non-existence is preferable to existence

1) Explain as clearly as you can David Benatar’s so-called “asymmetry argument” (discussed in the slides “Nihilism Benatar”) for the view that non-existence is actually preferable to existence, and then critically evaluate the argument in detail. (There is a growing body of literature on this argument, and you are free to consult any of it if you like, though this is not required.)

2) The philosopher Daniel Hill in Reading 11 attempts to defend the religious view of the meaning and purpose of life. At one point Hill claims that “Belief in a creator and designer is essential, then, for anyone that thinks that life has a meaning.” And a little later he writes that, “Atheists must necessarily deny that life has a meaning, since no overall complete explanation of the existence of living things could be given in terms of the purposes of any set of non-divine agents.” How convincing is Hill’s defense of the religious view in this paper?

3) An objection often raised against Sartre’s existentialist account of the meaning of life is that it is too subjectivist; it implies that anything and everything can count as a meaningful life, which means that the very idea of life having meaning has now been trivialized. Discuss in detail how convincing this objection is. (Start with Reading 16, and then use any other readings you find helpful.) I would suggest that you write on this topic only if you are sympathetic toward an existentialist approach to the meaning of life.

4) The recent documentary 15 Reasons to Live, by filmmaker Allan Zwieig, presents 15 short vignettes about the joy and pain a variety of people experience in confronting some of life’s challenges.  Write a review of the film in which you try to capture as accurately as you can its central insights into the meaning, purpose, or value of life. Although this is by no means an easy topic, you might find it worthwhile, as the film definitely has understated charm.  (You should only choose this topic, however, if you feel you have something interesting to say about, or in response to, the film. Also, unfortunately, you may need to pay a small fee to obtain the film online.) 

5) The 20th Century English philosopher A.J. Ayer attempted to show that the issue of the meaning of life is really a pseudo problem or puzzle, that there is simply no serious philosophical issue about the meaning of life that needs to be addressed. Explain briefly what Ayer’s reasons for promoting this view are and then critically discuss how plausible and convincing it is. Do you think Ayer succeeds in showing that there is no real problem about the meaning of life? 

Defending the religious view of the meaning and purpose of life

6) Is death a good thing or a bad thing? More precisely, are we better off the way things are, where we die after a life of normal length (say, in the range of a century or so) or would it be better, preferable, to live forever? Would immortality undermine the meaning of life, as Bernard Williams and some others have argued? In addressing this issue, assume for the sake of argument that there is no afterlife in the sense envisioned by many religions. Also, the issue is not whether you would live forever in a condition of being old and feeble, but that scientific medicine would have the ability to keep people in, or restore them to, a relatively youthful, healthy state. Finally, the issue is also not whether eternal life would be good for society, or humanity as a whole, but whether it would be good for the individual who would be living forever. (Reading 22, by Bernard Williams, (p. 223 in our text) is directly relevant to this issue. You can also find many other sources if you look for them.)

7) Hedonism is the doctrine that pleasure is the only thing that is intrinsically good and valuable. In Reading 30: “The Experience Machine”, Robert Nozick presents a thought experiment involving what he refers to as the experience machine which he thinks refutes hedonism. Explain Nozick’s thought experiment clearly, but concisely, and then discuss in detail how serious and convincing it is as an objection to hedonism. In addition to Reading 30, Readings 27 and 31 are directly relevant to this topic. There is now a large body of literature online that discusses Nozick’s experience machine and its relevance to hedonism. You are free to look at any of this literature, but you must acknowledge any ideas you use, and you must come to your own conclusions.

8) It has been argued by some critics that Buddhism is really a form of passive nihilism, or perhaps “closet nihilism”. Explain, first, why this charge would be directed against Buddhism (and perhaps to some extent also against stoicism). What is it about these belief systems that could make them appear to be nihilistic? Discuss in detail whether the charge is justified: Is Buddhism really a form of nihilism?. Here are two readings relevant to this topic:

“The Dark Side of Buddhism”, by Dale DeBakcsy, available online at:

Sartre’s existentialist account of the meaning of life and objections to it and 2.

Benjamin Studebaker, “A Critique of Buddhism”, at:

9) In Chapter 23 of our text, the contemporary philosopher Samuel Scheffler argues that the existence of an Afterlife (with a capital A), in other words, the continued existence of the human race for a considerable time after we die as individuals, has even greater importance for most people than our own individual afterlife, i.e. our continued existence after our death in this world.

Discuss in detail why the Afterlife in Scheffler’s sense is so important to us. (If you think Scheffler is wrong about this and the Afterlife is not actually very important to people, then defend your view by argument.) In addition to the reading by Scheffler in our text, you should take a look at the two readings that follow it in the text, which contain critical discussions of Scheffler’s view.)

You may write your essay on some other topic of your own choosing, including other readings in the Klemke and Cahn text. However, you must clear your topic first with the Instructor to ensure that the topic is manageable, and also that it is sufficiently relevant to the course.

Your paper will be evaluated on the basis of the following criteria:

Presentation of your ideas (e.g., writing style, organization, clarity of exposition)

Strength of your arguments and analyses

Creativity in dealing with the problems or issues being addressed

Plausibility of the views or positions you defend

Overall understanding of the issues you are discussing

Additional Comments, Instructions And Advice

One of the keys to writing a good paper is to be clear about what you want to say. You should, therefore, try to get as clear as you can about your topic before you start writing. Your views might evolve as you go along – that is to be expected – but, if you don’t have some objectives in mind before starting to write, you will have nothing to give you direction. 

You should definitely make an outline of your essay, and you should plan on writing several drafts. You cannot expect to write a good paper in one draft. You may discuss your topic with other students in the class, as this is often a very helpful and enjoyable way to develop ideas. In the end, of course, you must write your paper yourself.

Reviewing the documentary ’15 Reasons to Live’ and its insights into the meaning, purpose, or value of life

Remember that you are writing an essay and so, obviously, you must write in complete sentences with appropriate paragraph breaks, and so forth. Other than this, there is no special format that you need to use. It sometimes helps the reader to follow what’s being said if an essay is divided into different sections with appropriate headings and sub-headings. This is up to you, though there shouldn’t be too many headings, otherwise your paper will appear too fragmented.

You may use a somewhat informal writing style if you wish. For example, use of the first person is acceptable, as in “My own view is ..” or “I am inclined to think that …” However, be careful not to overwork such phrases, and avoid being too colloquial. It is best to write in a clear, straightforward style. Don’t try to sound too intellectual or academic, especially if you don’t feel comfortable or natural writing in such a style. 

It is probably best to start your essay by stating as clearly as you can what issue you are going to be discussing. You may have to provide some background before you begin to develop your own ideas, and you may also need to clarify the question you are addressing, but you should do this as concisely as you can so that the bulk of the essay consists of your critical discussion of the issue.

Remember that this is primarily a discussion paper, not a research paper. You may consult library or Internet sources for additional information about your topic, but this is not mainly what we are looking for. In writing your essay your main goal should be to say something interesting about the topic you have selected. To say something interesting about it, you must say something that is original and creative. This is another reason why you must think carefully about your topic before you begin writing, as you must determine whether you have any interesting things to say about it. If you can’t seem to come up with anything, switch to another topic. 

Keep in mind that the purpose of writing a term paper, or writing anything for that matter, is to say something original. Your main goal in your paper must therefore be to say something new, or something that, as far as you are aware, is new and interesting about the issue of the meaning of life. You don’t want to merely repeat what others have written about this issue. Saying some new about an issue that is also plausible, whether in philosophy or any other subject is difficult, but do the best you can.

Remember also that this is a philosophical paper, not an exercise in rhetoric. It is not enough merely to express your opinion, regardless of how elegantly you do so. I want you to be as forceful and persuasive as you can be, of course, but you must not engage in overstatement or exaggeration. To be persuasive in writing a philosophical paper means supporting your views by carefully reasoned and detailed arguments. 

Elaborate, artificial introductions – try to get to the point fairly quickly

Repetition, except very selectively for emphasis, and stating (or worse, defending) the obvious

Being too colloquial, although an informal writing style, including use of the 1st person, is okay

Sentences that are too long or complicated to be clear

Vagueness, ambiguity, and clichés

Overstatement, exaggeration, hyperbole, appealing to emotion or popular belief

Grammatical mistakes (incomplete sentences and run-on sentences are very common mistakes to watch out for)

Using too many quotations (only quote when necessary)

Padding to get the required length – this is easy for graders to spot  

You must never copy something from any source and present it as if it were your own writing. This is plagiarism. It is intellectually dishonest and is never permissible. You must also not take ideas from any source without a citation that clearly acknowledges and indicates the source. It is the responsibility of each student to understand the meaning of 'plagiarism' as defined in the Carleton University Calendar, and to avoid both committing plagiarism and aiding/abetting plagiarism by other students.

For further advice on how to write a philosophy essay, you might find it helpful to look at the advice provided by Peter Horban, “Writing a Philosophy Paper”, Simon Fraser University, 1993. Just Google the name and title to get the web page, or go to: 

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