How to Live: Ethical Perspectives from Buddhism, Islam, and Native Americans

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This course is no longer being offered.

Course Description

How should we live? How should we relate to others, our world, and ourselves? Of course we have all heard many answers to these questions. In fact, it sometimes seems as if we've heard it all before. This course offers some answers that may be new to us. It will introduce us to the ethical perspectives of Buddhism, Islam, and Native Americans. By going beyond the fragments of their teachings that may have reached us through popular media, we will learn to look at those questions differently. By looking at the history and culture that shaped each of these outlooks, we can overcome common misunderstandings, and gain new tools to tackle the challenges that confront us - personally and globally.

For centuries, our ethical and moral debates have been lead from an almost exclusively western outlook. This is not surprising, since these debates were conducted mainly by members of western cultures, who were steeped in western history and thought. But other cultures have their own histories and developed their own ideas on how to live, and how to relate to each other and to the world. Understanding their perspectives can broaden our horizon and provide new ways of looking at ethical problems. In today’s ever-more connected world, we face global problems which may require a global approach to make progress. Having the full repertoire of global ethical systems available can only benefit us in facing these complex issues. Finally, aside from helping us deal with difficult societal challenges, learning about and from cultures other than our own can shine a light on ourselves and illuminate where our thinking may have been shaped by our culture in ways we were not aware of.

This course will examine the ethical approaches of the cultures of three different cultural spheres from around the world, and throughout history. Each segment will begin with some background of the history and culture we are discussing. This will inform our examination of the ethical codes or frameworks as they developed in that culture. After familiarizing ourselves with the ethics of a culture, we will look at one specific contemporary issue relevant to our current lives, and ask what we could learn from the ethics of that culture in approaching that issue. What resources or perspectives does it offer that are particularly relevant to the issue in question? Would that approach yield different answers from those we are familiar with?
Readings will come from traditional sources, like the Dhammapada, classical writers, like Al Ghazali, recorded speeches, like those of King Philip (Metacom) and Sitting Bull, as well as secondary sources from philosophers working today.

Students will gain the ability to understand and engage with philosophical texts from different cultural and historical backgrounds, how to evaluate arguments, apply ideas to real situations and contemporary issues, and achieve a broader understanding of the surrounding world and their place in it. They will also learn about the history, culture, and ethics of Buddhism, Islam, and Native Americans, and how they compare with western (particularly European) ethical views.

Prerequisites: No background in philosophy or of the topics of this class is required or expected. What is needed is a high level of reading skills, since some of the material will be difficult philosophical texts. Students should ideally be 16 years of age or older.


Course Information

  • Course Code: CEPL0939
  • Length: 2 weeks

Program Information


Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences, offering over 200 non-credit courses, one- to four-weeks long, taught on Brown’s campus. For students completing grades 9-12 by June 2019.

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