Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category

Singer’s challenge

November 13, 2012

Peter Singer challenges the way we live in the relatively prosperous western world (“western” here is less a geographic designation than a state of mind and material comfort) on many fronts, including how we eat, how much we luxuriate, how much we earmark for our own offspring, and how much we give away to strangers. He sets the bar of selfless generosity much higher than our culture of consumption rewards. But the rewards of consumption don’t begin to match those of humane compassion.


  • “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”
  • “If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans?”
  • “The Hebrew word for “charity” tzedakah, simply means “justice” and as this suggests, for Jews, giving to the poor is no optional extra but an essential part of living a just life.”
  • “Just as we have progressed beyond the blatantly racist ethic of the era of slavery and colonialism, so we must now progress beyond the speciesist ethic of the era of factory farming, of the use of animals as mere research tools, of whaling, seal hunting, kangaroo slaughter, and the destruction of wilderness. We must take the final step in expanding the circle of ethics.”
  • “To give preference to the life of a being simply because that being is a member of our species would put us in the same position as racists who give preference to those who are members of their race.”
  • “Philosophy ought to question the basic assumptions of the age. Thinking through, critically and carefully, what most of us take for granted is, I believe, the chief task of philosophy, and the task that makes philosophy a worthwhile activity.”

Singer’s website… Practical EthicsThe Life You Can SaveAnimal LiberationThe Singer Solution“… “Unspeakable Conversations

Subway heroes

November 9, 2012

Talking about runaway trains in CoPhi  has reminded me again of that amazing subway hero who thought nothing of risking himself to save a stranger. My students had not heard of him. The Stoics were right, fame and notoriety are but fleeting wisps. “See how soon everything is forgotten,” meditated Marcus Aurelius. “The only lasting fame is oblivion.” Our largest deeds are destined to be forgotten, sooner than we think. Sic transit gloria indeed.

So, as a tribute to forgotten heroes and an inspiration to us all, especially those who told me yesterday they’d not be willing to pull the lever to divert the train and avoid killing five innocent (though oblivious) track loiterers– that would be “playing God” (though the job does seem available)– here again is what happened on January 2, 2007:

Wesley Autrey was waiting for the downtown local at 137th Street and Broadway in Manhattan around 12:45 p.m. He was taking his two daughters, Syshe, 4, and Shuqui, 6, home before work.

Nearby, a man collapsed, his body convulsing. Mr. Autrey and two women rushed to help, he said. The man, Cameron Hollopeter, 20, managed to get up, but then stumbled to the platform edge and fell to the tracks, between the two rails.

The headlights of the No. 1 train appeared. “I had to make a split decision,” Mr. Autrey said.

So he made one, and leapt.

Mr. Autrey lay on Mr. Hollopeter, his heart pounding, pressing him down in a space roughly a foot deep. The train’s brakes screeched, but it could not stop in time.

Five cars rolled overhead before the train stopped, the cars passing inches from his head, smudging his blue knit cap with grease. Mr. Autrey heard onlookers’ screams. “We’re O.K. down here,” he yelled, “but I’ve got two daughters up there. Let them know their father’s O.K.” He heard cries of wonder, and applause…

“I don’t feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help,” Mr. Autrey said. “I did what I felt was right.”

It was spectacular, of course. Unlike Philippa Foot’s hypothetical thought experiment, this moment from real life involved a serious risk of death to the Decider. His choice was not to “let nature take its course” (as someone said in class yesterday) but to be a positive force of nature himself.

He was asked recently if he’d do it again. “Yes!” But he wouldn’t mind an endorsement deal from the sandwich company. What he did bears no comparison to what’s-his-name’s Subway Diet.

Wesley has indeed been an inspiration, with a growing cadre of imitators. There have been subsequent subway heroes, including one Delroy Simmonds.  “Everybody is making me out to be some sort of superhero,” Simmonds said. “I’m just a normal person. Anybody in that situation should have done what I did.”

But should‘s not would.

“A greener future?”

September 28, 2012

It’s been awhile since I’ve checked in with TED. Thought I’d see what’s new, beginning with the “Greener Future” theme. 119 talks?! Where to begin?

Julianne mentioned food waste in Environmental Ethics class the other day…

Western countries throw out nearly half of their food, not because it’s inedible — but because it doesn’t look appealing. Tristram Stuart delves into the shocking data of wasted food, calling for a more responsible use of global resources. “We, the people, do have the power to stop [the] tragic waste of resources if we regard it as socially unacceptable to waste food.”

Same goes for fossil fuel waste, climate change, you name it. It begins down here in the grass, with the people.

“What to watch next” – We read Michael Pollan‘s Botany of Desire in an earlier version of our course, and he’s a terrific TEDster.  Mark Bittman, Pam Warhurst… And if you thought food and climate were unrelated issues, consider:

@GOOD: Eight foods you should stock up on before climate change takes them away ”-Bourbon, coffee, chocolate…No!

 This is getting serious.
When you’re full & sated with food, go back and see Al & Ed et al. Or one of the 99 bioethics talks, 125 on medicine & health, 35 on living long, 28 on God, 74 on collaboration, 87 on happiness, … TED beats anything on “reality” TV, including the NFL.

Environmental Ethics bibliography

August 11, 2012

I’ve just spent an hour reconstructing a bibliography of some of the texts I’ve used in the Environmental Ethics course in the past, appending it to the texts we’re about to use this semester, sticking it in a sidebar on our open-access course site. It’s a pretty good list. Seems like I’d be an expert by now.

Re-greening America

April 28, 2012

An errand pulled me away from grading and into the vicinity of the huge new McKay’s used book & music emporium yesterday. Of course I had to go in. “Free will”? Ha!

And look what I found for a nickel.

 This will be the place to begin Environmental Ethics in the Fall, with our focus on what ever happened to the activist passion of the first Earth Day. Yale law prof Reich’s bestseller was the hippy-trippy manifesto that launched a thousand protest demonstrations on behalf of Mother Earth over forty years ago, and raised the consciousness of a fraction of a generation for at least a short while. Reich, looking back recently, explained its improbable impact this way:

It gave people a great leap of hope, made people feel good. This was a world that could get better, a whole lot better. I might say to those who stuck with it in some way or other they will still swear by the values of the ’60s.

And what’s changed?

What is lacking today is that people are not in any way experimenting with a different way to live, a different way to feel, a different way to be.

I think he’s right. We need to experiment with alternative energy, alternative transportation, alternative jobs, and especially an alternative sensibility about how it might be possible to live sustainably for a long time on a crowded but healthily bio-diverse planet.

Will we ever get back to the giddy greenery of the ’60s? Not sure we want to. But books like Blessed Unrest and Rebuild the Dream point an experimental way forward, possibly even a “movement.” We’ll be reading and discussing (and acting on?) them both in our course. And other things too. Stay tuned.

ethics and the religion of humanity

November 1, 2011

November? How’d it get to be November already? October really flies when you’re in the World Series.

But it’s time to turn the page and think ahead. Not too far ahead, Spring Training doesn’t start for another three and a half months. Since weaning myself from football, on ethical grounds, I’m down to one spectator sport. (I like basketball well enough, I just don’t like being indoors.)  In theory that should mean more time and attention for reality.

Reality. What a concept.

Yesterday I turned my attention to next semester and the reprised Atheism & Philosophy course we begin in January. Two years ago it was Atheism & Spirituality. This time the focus is on ethics, and an attempt to think through William James’s claim in “Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life” that we can be good (or bad, or indifferent) without any external support.

Whether a God exist, or whether no God exist… we form at any rate an ethical republic here below. And the first reflection which this leads to is that ethics have as genuine and real a foothold in a universe where the highest consciousness is human, as in a universe where there is a God as well. “The religion of humanity” affords a basis for ethics as well as theism does.

That rings so true to me that I’ve never really challenged it. Dostoevsky was just wrong, I’ve insisted: if a God doesn’t exist there are still plenty of things not “permitted.” Sartre was wrong too: you don’t have to embody a God-given essence in order to exist as an ethically-bound individual, and community standards are not arbitrary for being sui generis. We are social animals, we possess a capacity for compassion and mutual concern, our goodness (and badness and indifference) are natural. This I believe.

But it’s not enough merely to believe, if you call yourself a philosopher. So we’ll see. Should be a good course.

Now, though, back to present reality. We’re taking a breather in SOL, if you can call an exam that, but will get back shortly to JMH and her “Bodies” chapters. “You are not in your body. You are your body.” That’s why my morning coffee can pack such an existential punch, and that about wraps it up for Cartesian dualism. Right?

Now that’s a “reality” question. But, did you catch Letterman and Leno last night?

One more thing: how about novel writing as sport? Or endurance test? It’s time for NaNoWriMo

Ethics is hard, crowdsourcing is too easy

June 7, 2011

“Damon Horowitz is that rare wonder, a philosopher geek.” Thanks, Chris Anderson!

Horowitz is right: Plato or Aristotle? Kant or Mill? There’s no formula or simple answer, and crowdsourcing is not the way to resolve philosophical and ethical problems (Joshua Knobe’s version of X-phi notwithstanding.) “Ethics is hard.” But fun.