Self-Mastery, Sexuality, and Neuroscience

Perspectives from Philosophy and Cognitive Science for Human Flourishing

Thursdays, September 12th - October 24th, 4:30-5:30pm

To apply, please send a CV and 500 word statement of interest to by September 6th, 2019.

Course Description

Sexuality is central to human satisfaction, flourishing, and happiness, and is one of life’s great goods. Much of human motivation, for good and for ill, stems from sexual impulses. Throughout the ages, a variety of approaches to ordering sexual activity have been on offer, including those for moral conscience and political structures. This course explores the topic of sexuality and self-mastery from classic philosophical perspectives as informed by contemporary neuroscience. We will discuss how pleasure, reason, emotions, habit, will-power, love, and freedom coincide and often conflict in this controverted area of human life.

Readings will be selected from the works of Aristotle, Karol Wojtyła, Alasdair MacIntyre, Christopher Martin, Dan McAdams, Michael Inzlicht, Mark Regnerus, Kelly McGonagle, drafts from Robert Gahl’s Purity, Mindfulness and Contemplation, and select cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists.

What kind of course is this?

This short non-credit course provides Harvard students the opportunity to explore questions of human sexuality and neuroscience through a series of directed short-readings, discussions and mini-lectures. The readings and work-load are designed with a full-time student's schedule in mind, recognizing that this is supplementary to other academic pursuits. The Human Flourishing Program will offer a course certificate of completion for students who regularly attend. 

The course is designed that students from any disciplinary background may apply, and no prior background is required.

About the Instructor

Robert Gahl Robert Gahl, Ph.D., is a visiting faculty fellow at the Human Flourishing Program, housed at Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science. He is on sabbatical from his post as Associate Professor of Ethics in the School of Philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross (Santa Croce) in Rome. There he is also the Vice Director of the Markets, Culture, and Ethics (MCE) Research Centre and of the Program of Church Management. Dr. Gahl completed his bachelor's degree in chemical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, worked in Silicon Valley, completed his doctorate in philosophy at Santa Croce, and did postdoctoral research at the University of Notre Dame. Much of his recent research has focused on classical virtue theory, the narrative unity of life, and their complementarity with cognitive psychology. His current research focuses on moderation, self-mastery, and sexuality within human flourishing.


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