Archive for August, 2010


Morals and Money

August 6, 2010

Gotta love Stephen J. Dubner. This week he enlightens us with another completely inane blogpost on morals and money. The upshot? Surprise! Governments are more willing to look past alleged vices when times are tough. How funny. Ha ha.

Seriously, why do they print this stuff?


Ethics and Science

August 6, 2010

Charles Foster has a very nice post over at Practical Ethics:

Yesterday Richard Ashcroft, Professor of Bioethics at Queen Mary College, London, wrote in a Facebook update:‘I am fed up with being asked to come into science/medicine projects, add a bit of ethics fairy dust, usually without getting any share of the pie, just to shut reviewers up. I am not doing it any more. If they think we are important, treat us with respect. Otherwise, get lost.’

I’ll confess to being somewhat partial to this point of view as well. Even piddly ole me has been called in once or twice –not for biomedical stuff, but just to put an ethicist on the committee — only to add a bit of ethics fairy dust. I suspect you could switch out Foster’s concerns over medical scientists with environmental scientists, and you’d have the same sort of logic.

Here, try this on for size.

Why is it that ethicists are seen as “factotums who don’t deserve to have their names on the papers any more than the temp who does the photocopying”? Part of Foster’s answer relates to the nature of biomedical scientists, but consider environmental scientists too:

Partly it is because they [scientists and technologists] are temperamental utilitarians, with a fundamentalist conviction that their research will save the world. Sometimes rats, patients or principles may have to be sacrificed to appropriate that salvation. They are prosaic people, but allow themselves a few self-glorifying metaphors, often culled from life-endangering expeditions. Just think where we’d be if Edmund Hillary had lost his nerve on the Khumbu icefall. Well, ethical objections are like that icefall.They’re not usually bad people; just good people who believe too passionately in one thing. And that can be a very bad thing indeed.


Geoengineering Article

August 5, 2010

My article with Lisa Dilling, “Geoengineering, Ocean Fertilization, and the Problem of Permissible Pollution” is now out in Science, Technology and Human Values. Check it out:

Many geoengineering projects have been proposed to address climate change, including both solar radiation management and carbon removal techniques. Some of these methods would introduce additional compounds into the atmosphere or the ocean. This poses a difficult conundrum: Is it permissible to remediate one pollutant by introducing a second pollutant into a system that has already been damaged, threatened, or altered? We frame this conundrum as the “Problem of Permissible Pollution.” In this paper, we explore this problem by taking up ocean fertilization and advancing an argument that rests on three moral claims. We first observe that pollution is, in many respects, a context-dependent matter. This observation leads us to argue for a “justifiability criterion.” Second, we suggest that remediating actions must take into account the antecedent conditions that have given rise to their consideration. We call this second observation the “antecedent conditions criterion.” Finally, we observe that ocean fertilization, and other related geoengineering technologies, propose not strictly to clean up carbon emissions, but actually to move the universe to some future, unknown state. Given the introduced criteria, we impose a “future-state constraint”.” We conclude that ocean fertilization is not an acceptable solution for mitigating climate change. In attempting to shift the universe to a future state (a) geoengineering sidelines consideration of the antecedent conditions that have given rise to it –conditions, we note, that in many cases involve unjustified carbon emissions –and (b) it must appeal to an impossibly large set of affected parties.


Morris Judd

August 5, 2010

This article was forwarded to me by a friend. It’s about McCarthyism at CU Boulder in the 1950s. Pretty fascinating stuff, particularly since it involves the philosophy department.

“In 1952, the university of Colorado fired Morris Judd, an instructor in the Department of Philosophy, for failing to answer President Robert Stearns’s question, “Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”  Seeking to pacify a public alarmed by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s charge that communist professors were subverting American universities, CU disregarded the lessons of the 1920s, when the KKK had attempted to rid the university of Catholics, Blacks, and Jews, and initiated a purge of students, staff, and faculty….”

Fair enough. Pretty interesting lede, actually. Now this:

“To this day at the University of Colorado, the curriculum, particularly in philosophy, can be read as the triumph of the Stearns gang.  Analytic philosophy holds center stage, no doubt because of its value-neutral stance, having displaced courses in social and political theory.  Faculty scholarship has changed as well.  In virtually every discipline, explicit argumentation has given way to “thick” description and “new” narrative, overt to covert (or unconscious) agendas.  The baneful effects of this change are especially apparent in my own specialties, English and composition:  students are now trained to feel rather than to think.  The obligation to defend a thesis is foreign to them.  It is my contention that their intellectual irresponsibility is both cause and effect of political irresponsibility, and that worse is to come unless our professors and pastors and politicos remember how to nail their own theses on authority’s door.”

Say what? Analytic philosophy does hold center stage, but it’s not clear that it’s because of its value-neutral stance. For instance, we play host to one of the largest annual conferences in ethics, broadly conceived, which is generally speaking not value-neutral. That’s happening today and through the rest of the weekend.

We also have a fair bit of social and political theory going on, though perhaps not of the sort that relies heavily on Marx.

Finally, explicit argumentation hasn’t actually given way to “thick” description and “new” narrative in philosophy. Check out our paper abstracts for RoME. Not a lot of description in those papers. Pretty bare-bones argumentation.


Smoky in Moscow

August 4, 2010

Just checked the weather forecast for Moscow. Yep. It’ll be hot. Hot and smoky. Who knew that the Weather Channel had “smoky” as a forecast option?



August 4, 2010

If you haven’t happened to read the Center for Environmental Journalism blog recently, you might head over there and check out my colleague Tom Yulsman’s interview with our other esteemed colleague Jim White. And also, this one here.

“Carbon dioxide levels, methane levels, are already very high relative to what we know existed for the last million years. I don’t think that we’re going to turn that around very quickly. We could get into some very serious geoengineering in terms of removing these greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Very expensive things to do.

My feeling is we just need to understand what the science is telling us and make intelligent decisions. I don’t really believe that it’s my role as a scientist to tell policy makers what to do. My role is to tell them this is the information you’re going to get, and we need as a society to make decisions. My pitch as an educator, as a professor, is that those be educated decisions. And whether it’s we’re going to adapt or we’re going to deal with this from a geoengineering sense, it doesn’t really matter to me . . . What matters to me is that we do this with intelligence and that we don’t just deny the obvious.”

But here’s the quote I really like:

“We’re the only creature on the planet that can actually think through these things, and we ought to start thinking”


Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress

August 3, 2010

The third annual Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress (RoME), which I co-organize, starts on Thursday. It’s mostly a philosophy conference, but there are a few papers that may be of interest to readers of this blog. For more information, check it out here:

Papers that may interest folks are:

  1. Chrisoula Andreou (Utah): “Self-Defeating Self-Governance”; Comments: Hannah Love (Pacific Lutheran)
  2. Paul Baer (Georgia Tech): “Balancing Responsibility and Capacity in the Allocation of Climate Obligations”; Comments: Kelly Heuer (Georgetown)
  3. Mylan Engel (Northern Illinois): “The Immorality of Biomedical Animal Experimentation”; Comments: Sacha Sullivan (South Florida)
  4. Lisa Fuller (Albany): “Burdened Societies and Transitional Theory”; Comments: Steve Vanderheiden (Colorado)
  5. Lori Gruen (Wesleyan): “The Ethics of Captivity”; Comments: Molly Gardner (Wisconsin)
  6. Justin Weinberg (South Carolina): “When is Moral Hazard Hazardous?”; Comments: Ben Hale (Colorado)
  7. Shay Welch (Williams): “Democratic Equality, the Freedom Threshold, and Strong Sufficientarianism”; Comments: Adam Hosein (Colorado)


Speech and Assembly

August 2, 2010

Here’s an interesting take on freedom of speech and assembly that I bet you haven’t thought about before: Mexico City.

“In our country, it is a constitutional right to demonstrate,” said Juan José García Ochoa, the leftist city government’s point man for protests. “What we can do is to mediate, so that we guarantee the right to demonstrate along with the right of free movement.”

Not exactly the freedom vacation destination that generally springs to mind. In the US, we regulate the hell out of our protests. Which raises important questions, I think, about the extent to which these freedoms are really protected in the United States.