Shelly Kagan

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Shelly Kagan
Shelly Kagan Yale (cropped).jpg
Shelly Kagan at Yale University
Shelly Kagan

NationalityUnited States
EducationB.A., Philosophy, and Religion, Wesleyan University 1976;
Ph.D., Princeton University, 1982
EraContemporary philosophy
RegionWestern philosophy
InstitutionsYale University, 1995-present;
University of Illinois at Chicago, 1986-1995;
University of Pittsburgh, 1981-1986
ThesisThe Limits of Morality
Doctoral advisorThomas Nagel
Main interests
Moral philosophy (animal ethics, moral desert, death), social philosophy, political philosophy

Shelly Kagan (/ˈkɡən/) (born 1956) is Clark Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, where he has taught since 1995. He is best known for his writings about moral philosophy and normative ethics.[1] In 2007, Kagan's course about death was offered for free online, and proved to be very popular.[2] This led to him publishing a book on the subject in 2012. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016.

Education and career[edit]

A native of Skokie, Illinois, Kagan received his B.A. from Wesleyan University in 1976[3] and his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1982. He taught at the University of Pittsburgh from 1981 until 1986, and at the University of Illinois at Chicago from 1986 until 1995, before taking a position at Yale.[4]

Philosophical work[edit]

With the publication of Reasons and Persons in 1984, Derek Parfit credited Kagan in the Acknowledgements as the "person from whom I have learnt the most", citing that Kagan's comments on his draft were half the length of the draft itself.[5]

In 1989, Kagan's first book The Limits of Morality was published. It is an extended critique of two key assumptions which underlie what Kagan calls "ordinary morality" - the "common‐sense moral view that most of us accept." Specifically, the book questions the assumption that morality rules out certain actions (such as harming innocent people) even in situations where doing so might create greater good, and the assumption that individuals are "not required to make our greatest possible contribution to the overall good." According to Kagan, these two assumptions are indefensible, despite their widespread appeal.[4][6]

In 1997, Kagan published a textbook titled Normative Ethics, designed to provide a thorough introduction to the subject for upper-level undergraduate or graduates students.[7] In the spring of 2007, his Yale course "Death" was recorded for Open Yale Courses,[8] and the book Death is based on these lectures.[1] In 2010, Yale University reported Kagan's "Death" course had made him one of the most popular foreign teachers in China.[9]

Kagan also explored the concept of desert, which is a philosophical concept of what individuals do or do not deserve, in his 2012 book The Geometry of Desert.[7] According to Kagan, people differ in terms of how morally deserving they are and it is a good thing when people get what they deserve. The book attempts to reveal the hidden complexity of moral desert.

Kagan has served as a member of the editorial board of the journal Ethics.[4] In 2016, he was made a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[10]

Debate versus William Lane Craig[edit]

Kagan debated analytic philosopher, theologian and Christian apologist William Lane Craig on the topic "Is God necessary for Morality" at Columbia University in New York.[11]

Randal Rauser, a Canadian Baptist theologian and professor of historical theology, rated this debate as Craig's arguably worst performance and stated that it wasn’t simply because Kagan was himself a surprisingly good debater with an undeniably charming folksy incredulity. It was that Craig’s arguments were shown to be mere emotive talking points based on highly dubious premises.[12]

Dr. Richard Carrier, an author and an activist whose works focus on the historicity of Jesus, atheism and empiricism, showed this debate as one of Craig's two biggest losses, the other one being to atheist physicist Sean M. Carroll.[13]

After the debate, William Lane Craig wrote that the view Kagan defended in the debate was not his [Kagan's] view at all. Instead, Craig wrote, Kagan is a radical consequentialist. Craig also wrote:[14]

I did respond briefly to Prof. Kagan's view, Alexander, but I didn't press the point because our hosts with the Veritas Forum had made it very clear to me that they were not interested in having a knock-down debate but a friendly dialogue that would foster a warm and inviting atmosphere for non-believing students at Columbia. The goal was simply to get the issues out on the table in a congenial, welcoming environment, which I think we did.


  • The Limits of Morality, Oxford University Press, 1989. ISBN 0-19-823916-5.
  • Normative Ethics, Westview Press, 1997. ISBN 0-8133-0846-1.
  • Death, Yale University Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-300-18084-8.
  • The Geometry of Desert, Oxford University Press, August 2012.ISBN 0199895597.
  • How to Count Animals, more or less, Oxford University Press, April 2019. ISBN 9780198829676.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Shelly Kagan".
  2. ^ "Live from Brooklyn: Shelly Kagan's "Death"".
  3. ^ "Wesconnect - Wesleyan University Alumni - Kagan '76 on 'Why is death bad for you?'". Wesconnect - Wesconnect - Wesleyan University Alumni.
  4. ^ a b c "Shelly Kagan named Clark Professor of Philosophy" Archived 2009-04-18 at the Wayback Machine, Yale Bulletin and Calendar, July 23, 2004, Volume 32, Number 33 retrieved November 19, 2008.
  5. ^ Parfit, Derek (1984). Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Clarendon Press. p. viii. ISBN 0-19-824615-3.
  6. ^ Kagan, Shelly (1991). "The Limits of Morality". doi:10.1093/0198239165.001.0001. ISBN 9780198239161. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  7. ^ a b "Books - Shelly Kagan".
  8. ^ "Open Yale Courses - Death". Archived from the original on 2017-05-01.
  9. ^ "Kagan's 'Death' class has made him a 'star' in China". Retrieved 22 November 2013.
  10. ^ Blog Post (Yale University Philosophy Department)
  11. ^ [Available on YouTube at, and for sale at Craig vs Kagan: Is God necessary for morality]. Biola University
  12. ^ "The Top Three Problems with William Lane Craig's Apologetic". Randal Rauser. 2020-02-25. Retrieved 2021-02-13.
  13. ^ "". Twitter. Retrieved 2020-11-30. External link in |title= (help)
  14. ^ #116 Contemporary Moral Arguments -

External links[edit]