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Quest for Meaning: Values, Ethics, and the Modern Experience

Take a probing look at the problems surrounding ethics in the modern world.
Quest for Meaning: Values, Ethics, and the Modern Experience is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 49.
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Rated 3 out of 5 by from great but terrible Great course, got access to it through Audible; terrible that only half of the lectures are accessible via Audible! The intellectual discussion was going well however it seems that is to be left "to those with privileged income". Disappointed!
Date published: 2024-01-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Deeply helpful and thought-provoking These lectures offer a valuable framework for thinking about moral and ethical issues in our times, and I would recommend them to anyone interested in these issues. Also to anyone interested in the history of ideas in general. The student will find a thorough and balanced presentation, with a clear exposition of arguments both for and against all of the major ethical theories in a global philosophical tradition. My one criticism would be that Professor Kane fails to provide any serious depth on the nature of the postmodern response to the problems of pluralism and uncertainty. In my view, the postmodern condition doesn't represent an end to the aspirational quest for meaning. Rather, it asks a different question: how one can find meaning in a "ethical ecology" that rejects grand narratives and any commitment to objective (and by implication, absolute) values. In any event, I think you will leave these lectures far better equipped to grapple with your own response to the fundamental problems of the 21st century, I recommend them as a good investment of time and attention, and I thank Professor Kane and TLC for making them available.
Date published: 2022-06-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Thorough Review of the Modern Ethics The professor is knowledgeable and the course addresses an important issue, that of finding a basis for ethical judgment in contemporary thought. The lectures are presented in an engaging way. But I'm not sure the professor is successful in his argument that the ancient codes of ethics can be reconstructed for the modern era. If anything, the events that have occurred in the world since this series was recorded suggest that a firm and absolute basis for morality is probably hopeless given what we've recently seen of human nature. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable to hear a more optimistic voice from a more optimistic time in our history. And his analysis of Hume, Kant and Mill was pretty spot on in my opinion.
Date published: 2022-05-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from accurate title This is a great read and appropriate in these challenging times a pity that it does not have a video
Date published: 2020-04-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Missing Basic Motives Prof. Kane does a good job in his presentation and has helped me in my philosophical quest for greater awareness of Self, but fails to acknowledge ‘the elephant in the room,’ the motivational FIVES (Fear, Ignorance, and Vanity of Ego Self), the ‘Wheel of Life’s’ hub and Nature's innate driver for survival amplified by imagination, which underlay Humanity’s basic actions. The Awakening or original Axial Period is referenced often, but its ‘why’ is missing. I think the rise in thinkers/educators addressing ignorance, governors/administrators (State) using fear and vanity to promote unity, and religions/priest (Faith) subsisting on the FIVES by claiming moral and ethical authority via divinity are the basic reasons. These were supposed to give purpose and meaning to one’s life. The Enlightenment or modernity is well and thoroughly presented, which created the greatest turmoil for Western Faith, the primary supporter and chief beneficiary of the FIVES during the previous 1000 years. It’s very interesting to witness his telling of this period's giving rise to the ‘philosophers/thinkers’ who challenged religious authority as they struggle against it to acknowledge reality and their increased intellectual awareness. Prof. Kane covers completely, today’s post-modernity thinkers and their aspirations of bridging the gap between emotional ‘purpose’ (values) and ‘meaning’ (worth). And ends his lectures by falling back upon religion, specifying two trends, one that emphasizes an emotional attitude of a deity as “… the supreme reality” and the other a “sense of sacredness” of traditions, both intellectual stumbling points which highlights a ‘stuck on the FIVES’ and a willful blurring between metaphysics and reality. I believe there is a third trend which reflects an intellectual awareness of the reality of imaginative figuration. But, he correctly says “We may not yet be ready for this,” reflecting Humanity’s unwillingness to aspire to awareness beyond the emotionality of the FIVES. Hopefully, a new period of ‘Awareness,’ will not take another 1000 years. I think, when Humanity finally acknowledges the true width and breath of the FIVES, only then will intelligence be allowed its unfettered quest for one to define its own purpose and meaning in life. Ending his lectures with the mantra “I do not know,” is a first step which I believe is what allows my quest for knowing and meaningfulness in my life.
Date published: 2019-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Man's Quest for Meaning / Avoidance of Insanity A previous Great Course lecture titled "Interpretating the 20th Century" discussed the potential realization of the ENLIGHTENMENT project for the 21st century -- mainly in terms of the intellectual and institutional developments unleashed over "the struggle for democracy". The "Quest for Meaning: Values, Ethics, and the Modern Experience" discusses the project of MODERNITY for the 21st century mainly in terms of the AXIAL PERIOD's spiritual decline concerning the ancient philosophical and medieval religious traditions it once inspired -- China, India, Iran, Israel, Greece -- and the rise of modern pluralism and cognitive uncertainty concerning OBJECTIVE TRUTH and the VALUE of wisdom. Since the Renaissance and Reformation, the rise of Scientific methods, New World discoveries, the dynamics of globalized Capitalism, etc. -- resulted in the almost complete separation of fact from value, determinism and freedom -- the SCIENCES / HUMANITIES. The accompanying loss of moral innocence concerning the rationality of values, ethics, and human meaning has given rise to a POSTMODERNISM CONDITION where macro-meta-narratives no longer seem relevant and are met with SKEPTICISM, subjectivism, and relativism. Modern scholars, philosophers, and social scientists are critically discussed and their contributions over the issues raised are fully explored. Meet Smith, Kant, Mill, Locke, Rousseau, and others along the way. The professor also joins the scholarly discussion concerning values, ethics, and meaning in the modern world and raises a profound challenge for modern consciousness in my opinion. Can there be an AXIAL II PERIOD of spiritual awakening where objective truth, value, and human meaning meets and dialogues with modern pluralism, consciousness, democracy, and individuation? Or will there be a perpetual dichotomy like today's politics with only two views or paths: FUNDAMENTALISM / RELATIVISM ...
Date published: 2018-09-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding prof and info I am half way through the lectures and wish there were thousands more! A very complicated subject is made crystal clear with compassion and humor.
Date published: 2018-01-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Quest for meaning:value ethics and the modern expe The presentation is well structured ,arguments are valid logic and well structured from which you can draw good conclusions, the content is attractive and meaningful I am happy to hear this teacher from my home quietly
Date published: 2017-11-26
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Professor Robert H. Kane takes a probing look at the problems surrounding ethics in the modern world: conflicts between public and private morality, teaching values in public schools, the role of religion in public life, liberty and privacy, individualism versus community, and the loss of shared values and the resulting discontents.


Robert H. Kane


The University of Texas at Austin

Dr. Robert H. Kane is University Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at The University of Texas at Austin. He earned his B.A. from Holy Cross College and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from Yale University. In his three decades on the UT faculty, Professor Kane won no fewer than 15 major teaching awards. These include the Friar Society Centennial Teaching Fellowship, the President's Excellence Award, the Liberal Arts Council Teaching Award, and the Delta Epsilon Sigma Award for teaching introductory classes. In 1995, he was named an inaugural member of the university's Academy of Distinguished Teachers. Dr. Kane is one of the world's leading defenders of an anti-determinist conception of free will. He is internationally known for his efforts to reconcile such a notion with modern science. His writings comprised more than 60 articles and reviews and four books, including Free Will and Values (1985) and Through the Moral Maze: Searching for Absolute Values in a Pluralistic World (1994). Professor Kane's work, The Significance of Free Will (1996) won the Robert W. Hamilton Faculty Book Award and was the subject of symposia in major journals in Europe and the United States and a conference in the United States.

Values and Modernity

01: Values and Modernity

The Axial Period is discussed: It was a time of spiritual awakening from 800 to 300 BCE that still is felt in the modern age and seems to be recurring. Pluralism and uncertainty are two challenges to modernity. They and others lie behind many of our current moral confusions and disagreements.

33 min
An Ancient Quest, A Modern Challenge

02: An Ancient Quest, A Modern Challenge

This lecture explains the nature of the ancient quest for wisdom and meaning in life that is threatened by the modern era. It uses as an example one of the greatest thinkers of the ancient Axial Period, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who said that by expelling final causes or purposes from nature, modern science has sundered fact from value and scientific inquiry from practical inquiry about the good.

30 min
Pluralism, Religion, and Alien Cultures

03: Pluralism, Religion, and Alien Cultures

Turn to aspects of the Western world's confrontation with pluralism and uncertainty. Developments at the end of the Middle Ages conspired to undermine many beliefs and certainties of the medieval world and shattered its religious unity. Explore confrontations with cultural and religious pluralism, the religious disputes and wars that consumed Europe after the Reformation, and the reaction to the discovery of alien peoples and cultures in the new world. It also considers the growing interest in Eastern civilizations, such as China and India.

28 min
Are Values Subjective?

04: Are Values Subjective?

Are there objective values, or are all judgments about good and evil, right and wrong, merely subjective expressions of personal feelings or attitudes? This lecture considers two opposing ideas that have led many to subjectivist views about values: positivism and Existentialism. One emphasized science as the source of all knowledge, the other emphasized personal experience. We focus on two influential philosophers of the 20th century, Bertrand Russell, the British logician and philosopher, and Jean-Paul Sartre, the French Existentialist.

30 min
From Experience to Worth

05: From Experience to Worth

In this lecture we consider the case for objectivity. Reference will be made to modern thinkers not yet discussed and to some ancient figures to suggest a distinction between four dimensions of human value: the experiential dimension, the dimension of purposive activity, the dimension of meaning and excellence in forms of life, and the dimension of nonrelative worth transcending particular points of view.

30 min
Hume and the Challenge of Relativism

06: Hume and the Challenge of Relativism

In this lecture we consider the "project of modernity," the ethical project undertaken by modern philosophers from the 17th century on who address the problem of relativism within the conditions of modernity. We consider how this project was carried out by modern philosophers. We start with the sentimentalist option, beginning with 18th-century Scottish philosopher, David Hume. His views are compared to those of Adam Smith, one of the founding figures of modern economic theory, and to two Chinese thinkers of the original Axial Period, Confucius and Mencius.

30 min
Cultural Diversity, Human Nature, and the Social Sciences

07: Cultural Diversity, Human Nature, and the Social Sciences

Follow debates about sentiments in ethics and value theory from Hume's time into the 20th century. These debates lead to a discussion of social sciences to current debates about cultural and ethical relativism. Early on, anthropology alerted people to the amazing diversity of human cultures. A concern in 20th century social sciences raises the topics of human uniformities and cultural universals. We discuss relativism and modern appeals to human nature and common moral sentiments, like those of Hume, Adam Smith, and Mencius.

31 min
Kant’s Appeal to Reason

08: Kant’s Appeal to Reason

In this lecture we turn to the appeal to reason. Another major figure of modern philosophy and the 18th-century Enlightenment is Immanuel Kant. In his "Critique of Pure Reason" (1781), Kant demonstrated the limitations of theoretical reason in science. Science is successful within its own domain, he argued, but only because it stays within the limits of possible experience.

31 min
Bentham, Mill, and the Appeal to Utility

09: Bentham, Mill, and the Appeal to Utility

This lecture is devoted to utilitarianism, the third option of the project of modernity. We discuss the central principles of utilitarianism, the principle of utility, or of "the greatest happiness of the greatest number." Through a discussion of Jeremy Bentham, founder of utilitarianism, and John Stuart Mill, its greatest 19th-century representative, we deal with its central issues: defining and measuring happiness, pleasure and pain, alleged conflicts between utility and justice, theories of punishment, and issues of social reform.

31 min
Social-Contract Theories (Part I)

10: Social-Contract Theories (Part I)

In this lecture and the next we turn to the fourth alternative of the project of modernity, the appeal to a social contract. Two ideas of contemporary social contract theories are considered. The first were posited by Thomas Hobbes and are often called Hobbesian theories; the second, "ideal theories," stem from John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Emmanuel Kant. We also begin discussing ideal social contract theories—to be continued into the next lecture—using John Rawls's theory of justice.

31 min
Social-Contract Theories (Part II)

11: Social-Contract Theories (Part II)

This lecture considers the criticisms of Rawls's contractarian theory of justice as a barometer of the ideological and value debates of our times. Rawls's controversial second principle of justice is discussed. The lecture considers communitarian and social-conservative critics of Rawls, including Michael Sandel and Alasdair MacIntyre, who object to the individualism of Rawls's theory and its failure to address virtue, personal identity, and the needs for community.

31 min
Some Critiques of the Modern Project

12: Some Critiques of the Modern Project

In this lecture we consider contemporary thinkers who believe the project of modernity has failed. Some argue for a return to ancient and medieval ways of thinking about values and ethics that emphasize traditional virtues and notions of the good life. Postmodern critics are inclined to embrace relativism and agree with traditionalists, but do not think we can go back to premodern ideas. We must go forward to a new postmodern age.

30 min
Retrieving the Quest for Wisdom

13: Retrieving the Quest for Wisdom

In this lecture we focus on the "quest" for wisdom and meaning by beginning to explore how the ancient quest for wisdom and meaning in life can be revived, given the intellectual challenges of the modern era. The goal is to find convergences between ancient and modern wisdom and apply them to a host of contemporary moral problems.

33 min
Wisdom, Ancient and Modern

14: Wisdom, Ancient and Modern

This lecture considers traditional moral commandments of the religious and wisdom traditions of East and West, modern notions of human rights, ethical theories discussed in previous lectures, as well as their exceptions. Two versions of the Golden Rule, forms of which go back to the Axial Period, are distinguished and their merits considered. We take another look at Kant's "Categorical Imperative" in light of earlier discussions of exceptions.

31 min
Dilemmas of Might and Right

15: Dilemmas of Might and Right

This lecture considers ethical dilemmas of force and nonviolence, guilt and innocence, war and peace. We begin with examples of two extreme positions: pacifism and its opposite. The utilitarian principle of the greatest happiness for the greatest number is considered. General ethical questions of guilt and innocence, and conflicts of interest lead to a discussion of heroism, lifeboat situations, and other dilemmas.

31 min
Public and Private Morality (Part I)

16: Public and Private Morality (Part I)

In this lecture and the next, we discuss contentious moral and social issues that result from life in pluralist societies, where people have different values and views about how to live. We consider the merits of John Stuart Mill's "Harm Principle" in light of contemporary examples of public harm, offensive behavior, censorship and pornography, free speech, and other topics of law and morals frequently debated in modern free societies.

31 min
Public and Private Morality (Part II)

17: Public and Private Morality (Part II)

In this lecture we discuss principles needed to define public morality in modern free and pluralist societies. We consider an alternative "public morality principle" that might provide shared beliefs. We discuss teaching values and moral education in schools, paternalism, liberty, and privacy in public morality, and the limits of government interference in the private lives of individuals.

31 min
Plato on the State, the Soul, and Democracy

18: Plato on the State, the Soul, and Democracy

In this lecture, we look at modern political problems through Plato's criticisms of democracy. For Plato, the condition of the state ("polis") and the condition of the soul ("psyche") are related. Flawed states rot the souls of those who live in them, and he feared democracy was flawed in this regard. His alternative, authoritarian rule by philosopher-kings, rulers who love wisdom, may seem worse to us moderns, but if we love democracy and wish it were better, we do well to heed his criticisms.

30 min
Democracy and Its Discontents

19: Democracy and Its Discontents

Can the search for wisdom and the common good, the goal of Plato's philosopher-rulers, be carried on amid the discordant voices of today's pluralist culture? In this lecture, we consider various responses to this question, and we consider reforms that try to combine the ancient quest for political wisdom of Plato's philosopher-rulers with the necessities of modern democratic politics.

31 min
The Parable of the Retreat

20: The Parable of the Retreat

This lecture explores deep philosophical motivations behind the quest by introducing a modern "parable of the retreat"—a story about a gathering at a remote Himalayan monastery that brings together people who represent different cultures, religions, and ways of life. The quest for meaning and attempts to retrieve it under conditions of modernity are discussed in terms of "aspiration"—the idea of the spirit expanding beyond its limited perspective to find truth.

29 min
Searches in the Realm of Aspiration

21: Searches in the Realm of Aspiration

The lecture begins by talking about searches, with examples to introduce a special notion of "searches in the realm of aspiration." Mythical images are used, like the search for the Holy Grail. Such searches are called quests in the myths and legends of humankind. But searches in the realm of aspiration are exemplified in other than mythical ways, for example, in the scientists' search for the final truth about nature.

31 min
Love and Glory, the Same Old Story

22: Love and Glory, the Same Old Story

This lecture turns to the notion of objective worth. We consider two dimensions of it: worthiness for glory and worthiness for love, which are related to two aspects of the self. Glory is related to the outer or public self, of roles, projects, achievements, and accomplishments. Love relates to the inner self of conscious experience—what poet Gerard Manley Hopkins calls our "inscape." These two dimensions are also explored in an example using Johann Sebastian Bach and some mysterious crystals capable of producing beautiful polyphonic music like Bach's.

30 min
The Mosaic of Value

23: The Mosaic of Value

How could anyone know what has objective worth—what is truly worthy of glory and love? How should we aspire to know whether anything is truly worthy of glory or love? We consider the relations between the two—glory and love—by exploring the Faust legend and other examples that can be traced to deep questions about the meaning and worth of life.

30 min
Meaning and Belief in a Pluralist Age

24: Meaning and Belief in a Pluralist Age

Two trends—a plurality of religions and the pervasive secularization of everyday life—tend to undermine the sense of sacredness, which historians of religion tell us is essential to religious ways of viewing the world. There is a tendency in religions for the highest value and highest reality to converge, providing clues for finding objective truth in religion and how it relates to objective worth, to ethics, to the sacred, and to searches in the realm of aspiration, or quests. The lecture concludes with reflections on religious belief in a potential new Axial Period.

31 min