Take a Free Class in Death at Yale

DeathNo matter how long you work in the field, you may never get used to the thought of death. Or, if you feel comfortable with this inevitable fact of life, perhaps you cannot handle how other people feel about death. While grief work often is supplied in many courses geared toward the death care industry, Yale offers a class that specifically approaches death.

This course on death is free for anyone who has an Internet connection. It is part of the Open Courseware initiative spearheaded by MIT and taken up by many other colleges. The death course is the only one offered on this topic, however, so it might be worth perusing to see if information in this class can help you in your work as a caregiver, a deathcare worker or a funeral home director.

Professor Shelly Kagan leads this course as a Professor of Philosophy at Yale. After receiving his B.A. from Wesleyan University in 1976, and his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1982, Kagan taught at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Illinois at Chicago before coming to Yale in 1995. He is the author of the textbook Normative Ethics, which systematically reviews alternative positions concerning the basic rules of morality and their possible foundations, and The Limits of Morality, which challenges two of the most widely shared beliefs about the requirements of morality. He is currently at work on The Geometry of Desert.

Professor Kagan introduces the course and the material, and he aims to clarify what the class will focus on in particular and which subjects it will steer away from. The emphasis is placed on philosophical questions that arise when one contemplates the nature of death. The first half of the course addresses metaphysical questions while the second half focuses on value theory.

For instance, the first few links lead to audio, video and course materials focus on topics such as “Arguments for the existence of the soul,” “Arguments for the immortality of the soul (Plato)” and “Identity across space and time and the soul theory.” But, halfway into the course, you may discover the real meat behind death — fear, dying alone, the “badness of death,” and “How to live given the certainty of death.”

Kagan also provides cover on suicide, which concerns the last three documents in this course. To get a grasp on what this course has to offer, you might click on the first “suicide” document. In the overview, you learn that this is the first of a series of lectures on the topic of suicide, and two very distinct contexts are presented:

The first is rationality and the question of under what circumstances it makes sense to end one’s own life. The second is morality and the question of whether we can ever ethically justify resorting to suicide. The lecture’s focus is on the rational requirements of suicide, and Professor Kagan introduces a number of cases which demonstrate that ending one’s life, in certain instances, may be rationally sound.

Required reading for the suicide topic includes David Hume’s On Suicide and Richard Brandt’s “The Morality and Rationality of Suicide.” The course contains a transcript for the lecture, an audio and Flash and Quicktime options to view the lecture.

To balance the “badness of death,” Kagan also provides several lectures on the “value of life.” The latter topic asks whether it is desirable to live forever under the right circumstances, and then turns to consideration of some alternative theories of the nature of well-being. What makes a life worth living? One popular theory is hedonism, but the thought experiment of being on an “experience machine” suggests that this view may be inadequate. How do you feel about the value of life?

You may know more about the answers to that question…which usually are subjective answers…once you complete this course. If nothing else, this course might alter the way you see death, or it can open your eyes to how others view death and provide you with a means to become even more sympathetic to others in their time of need and grief.

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